Keep on running

Dave Woodhall pays tribute to Spencer Davis, who died earlier this week.

Many of the people who made Birmingham great came from elsewhere. They made their home here, found it a place where their talents could flourish, and added to the city’s greatness. Some came from around the globe, others from a bit nearer to home.

Spencer Davies (he later dropped the ‘e’ from his surname), whose death has been announced at the age of 81, was unusual amongst our notable immigrants in that he hailed from Swansea, becoming a student at the University of Birmingham and later a teacher in Yardley. Already a musician, he met up with the Winwood brothers Muff and the barely into his teens Steve, to form what eventually became known as the Spencer Davis Group.

In doing so, Spencer originally incurred the anger of future Brummie impresario Jim Simpson, whose band the Kansas City Seven found themselves drummerless when sticksman Peter York jumped ship to join the new outfit. Jim recalls, “I went to one of their first gigs determined to have it out with the man who’d stolen my drummer. Then I heard them play and they were just so good…”

Jim wasn’t the only one to be bowled over by these newcomers to what was a burgeoning local music scene. Legend has it that many a local musician came along to see what the fuss was about as the band began to gain a reputation during their early residency at the Golden Eagle on Hill Street. They’d turn up, watch spellbound as the fourteen year old Winwood junior sang the blues like it had never been sung this side of the Atlantic, and resolved to give up on the spot.

Luckily, few of them did, and it was a case of today Hill Street, tomorrow the world as the Spencer Davis Group were in the vanguard of a host of Birmingham bands performing the hard-driving blues that characterised the city’s sound during a period when it rivalled Liverpool for quality if not fame – then again, we never did like to boast.

They released a string of never to be forgotten classics but the Spencers were only a chart act for a couple of years. Steve was far too versatile to stay in one place too long and went on to become one of the greatest names in music. He and brother Muff left in 1967, after which the hits dried up, and Spencer eventually disbanded the band. He continued to perform and also became an executive with Island records, working with such names as Bob Marley and Robert Palmer as well as his old bandmate Steve Winwood.

The name and the music endured and Spencer put together versions of the band to tour throughout Europe and the USA until illness prevented him from playing live during his later years. He may not have been born in Birmingham nor spent a great deal of his life living her, but when the city finally gets the proper tribute to our musical heritage that it has long deserved, a large space will be devoted to Spencer Davis.