Guitarist who helped popularise blues and R&B in the UK died while being treated for pneumonia in hospital
Ben Beaumont-Thomas – The Guardian
R&B pioneer … Spencer Davis in 2008. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
Spencer Davis, who as bandleader with the Spencer Davis Group topped the UK charts twice in the mid-60s, has died aged 81 while being treated for pneumonia in hospital.
The group, who formed in Birmingham in 1963 and also featured Steve Winwood, had hits including Gimme Some Lovin’, Keep On Running, Somebody Help Me and I’m a Man. Along with a number of other early British pop groups, they helped popularise the sound of US blues and R&B in the UK.
Winwood left the band in 1967 to form Traffic, with Davis and others disbanding the group in 1969. They partially re-formed for two years in the mid-70s, and again in 2006, when Davis returned to international touring with the group.
Born in Swansea in 1939, Davis began learning accordion and harmonica at the age of six. Drawn to the allure of US R&B records, he took up the guitar and formed his first band the Saints with Bill Wyman, who later joined the Rolling Stones.
Davis moved to Birmingham to study German at university, and played in bands on the side, first performing American folk and traditional blues. In 1963, he and drummer Pete York recruited the 15-year-old Winwood and his brother Muff to their band, first called Rhythm and Blues Quartet, then the Spencer Davis Group.
Like the Stones, the Dave Clark Five, the Kinks and others, the Spencer Davis Group were part of the flourishing “beat” scene in the mid-60s, playing music influenced by American rhythm and blues. They, along with another Birmingham band the Moody Blues, were dubbed “Brum beat” to differentiate them from the vibrant scenes in London and Liverpool, though their popularity grew with a residency at London’s Marquee club.
Building their sound around uptempo rhythms and Winwood’s powerfully soulful vocals, their first single, I Can’t Stand It, was released in 1964. They topped the charts the following year with Keep On Running, and in 1966 with Somebody Help Me, both written by Jamaican artist Jackie Edwards. Further hits included the anthemic, Winwood-penned Gimme Some Lovin’, which was also a hit in the US, reaching No 7.
I’m a Man (1967) would be the group’s last major hit, also reaching the Top 10 in both the US and UK and later covered by the band Chicago.
Following their first breakup, Davis moved to the US and struggled financially, later complaining of punitive record contracts. “I didn’t realise what had been going on. I’d sold millions of records and hadn’t seen a penny from them,” he said in 2005.
He switched to an industry role in the 70s, working with his label Island Records to help develop artists including Bob Marley and Robert Palmer. He also helped Winwood’s solo career.
Artists paying tribute to Davis include Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet who tweeted: “He lead a magnificent band, one of the greats of the 60s, along with Muff and Steve Winwood. Keep in [sic] Running and Gimme Some Lovin’ were R&B classics. He drove soul into the white rock sound of the time.”