Spencer Davis: Driving force behind the band who topped the charts with ‘Keep on Running’

Anthony Hayward
·5 min read
The guitarist worked as a teacher before his music career kicked off (Dezo Hoffman/Rex)
The guitarist worked as a teacher before his music career kicked off (Dezo Hoffman/Rex)

Spencer Davis, who has died of pneumonia aged 81, was the blues-playing rhythm guitarist giving his name to the chart-topping band whose single “Keep on Running” took its rightful place in the soundtrack of the Swinging Sixties.

It was the Spencer Davis Group’s first No 1 and began as a ska song – a style that predated reggae – written by Jamaican musician Jackie Edwards, who was brought to Britain by Chris Blackwell when he was expanding his record label, Island, beyond the Caribbean country.

“We transformed it into a fiery mixture of rock and R&B,” said Davis, who was the driving force behind the band. “We never thought it would become so huge that there’d be girls screaming and trying to tear our hair out.”

For “Keep on Running”, Davis played what he described as “a choppy guitar style influenced by Motown” complementing the Winwood brothers’ riffs – charismatic singer Stevie’s lead guitar aided by a fuzz pedal and Muff’s “rumbling” bass – while drummer Pete York provided a driving beat.

“Keep on Running” knocked The Beatles’ double-A-side single “Day Tripper”/“We Can Work It Out” off the top of the charts in January 1966 – leading the Fab Four to send the Spencer Davis Group a message of congratulations.

The mutual respect between the two bands continued when, in September 1967, John, Paul, George and Ringo visited Newquay, Cornwall, in a coach while making their Magical Mystery Tour TV special.

Davis, holidaying in nearby Perranporth with his family, was invited to The Beatles’ hotel and made a cameo appearance as a passenger on the coach.

When he suggested The Beatles join him that evening at the Perranporth pub owned by the parents of his group’s roadie, Paul and Ringo went along.

“Paul said, ‘I’m the pub piano player,’” recalled Davis. “He got a pint of beer, stuck it on the piano and proceeded to play pub songs. He had the whole pub singing along.”

By then, the Spencer Davis Group had followed “Keep on Running” with another No 1 written by Edwards, “Somebody Help Me”.

Although a further single, “Gimme Some Lovin’”, which Davis co-wrote with the Winwoods, was kept off the top spot in the autumn of 1966 by The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, it became another classic, also reaching No 7 in the United States.

The Spencer Davis Group starred in their own film, The Ghost Goes Gear, a 1966 musical comedy with them staying at a haunted manor house.

But the original band had a short life. In 1967, following the release of “I’m a Man”, a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the Winwood brothers left. Stevie went on to form Traffic, while Muff to become a producer and worked in Island’s A&R department seeking new talent.

After the first of two changes of lineup, York also left and Davis kept the group going until 1969, then moved to California the following year.

His solo career failed to take off after two albums, so he formed a new Spencer Davis Group (1973-74) with York but minus the Winwoods. From 1985 until 2018, the band continued to tour sporadically, with different lineups for American and European concerts.

During the 1970s, Davis also influenced the careers of other musicians, including Bob Marley and Robert Palmer, as an A&R executive at Island Records.

He was born Spencer David Nelson Davies (later dropping the “E” to prevent people from pronouncing it “Day-vees”) in Swansea in 1939 to Mary (née Nelson) and David Davies, a paratrooper, and learnt to play the harmonica and accordion as a child.

On leaving Dynevor Grammar School, Swansea, at 16, he spent 18 months in civil service jobs in London with the Post Office and HM Customs and Excise, then returned to school to study A-levels before heading for the University of Birmingham (1960-63), where he gained a degree in modern languages.

The Spencer Davis Group performing in 1966Getty
The Spencer Davis Group performing in 1966Getty

By then, inspired by American blues music and skiffle performer Lonnie Donegan, Davis had learnt to play the 12-string guitar and was performing in The Saints with future Rolling Stone Bill Wyman and Christine Perfect – later Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac – while teaching German at Whittington Oval Primary School, in the Birmingham suburb of Yardley.

On seeing the Winwood brothers performing traditional jazz at a pub in the city in 1963, he suggested teaming up and, on adding York, began performing as the Rhythm and Blues Quartet.

The following year, Blackwell signed them to Island Records and changed their name to the Spencer Davis Group, recognising Davis as the band’s leader and the one most comfortable with giving interviews.

Their first single, “Dimples” (1964), failed to chart, but “I Can’t Stand It”, “Every Little Bit Hurts” and “Strong Love” crept into the Top 50 in 1965.

The appropriately titled Their First LP entered the UK charts just as “Keep on Running” became a No 1 single and two further albums were also hits during 1966.

From the mid-1970s, Davis lived on the small Pacific island of Catalina. In 2012, its museum staged an exhibition titled “Gimme Some Lovin’: The Spencer Davis Group”, which celebrated his career.

Davis’s 1963 marriage to Pauline Oliver ended in divorce. He is survived by his partner, June Dante, and Sarah, Lisa and Gareth, the children of his marriage.

Spencer Davis, musician, born 17 July 1939, died 19 October 2020

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