212. The Spencer Davis Group – Somebody Help Me (1966)

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By 1966, London was established as the coolest capital in the world, and it was on 15 April that Time magazine ran a pop-art cover featuring the city, with the phrase ‘LONDON: The Swinging City’. Inside it stated ‘In a decade dominated by youth, London has burst into bloom. It swings; it is the scene’. With the World Cup soon to take place, this was a great time to be in England. The Moors Murders still cast a great shadow over all this positivity though. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley’s trial for three deaths began on 19 April at Chester Crown Court.

The Spencer Davis Group were at number 1 again for the last time. Sticking firmly to the formula that saw them shoot to the top with the classic Keep on Running, they borrowed another song from reggae singer-songwriter Jackie Edwards, who was signed to their producer Chris Blackwell’s Island Records.

Edwards’ original was more like Northern Soul than reggae, and a decent stab at it. However, the Spencer Davis Group made it sound as similar to their previous number 1 as is possible. Winwood’s voice was as great as ever (hearing him singing ‘When I was just/A little boy of seventeen’ is pretty amusing as he must have been that age roughly at the time), and there’s some occasional interesting guitar sounds from Davis, but there’s no way this would have been top of the pops if it had been released before Keep on Running. In 2003 it found new life when it became the theme tune to the long-running ITV drama The Royal, a medical drama set in the 60s.

Better songs were to follow. Both Gimme Some Lovin’ and I’m a Man were much more deserving of number 1 status, and they started to make progress in the US. In 1966 the group had also starred in their own film. The Ghost Goes Gear, also starring Nicholas Parsons, saw the Spencer Davis Group staying in the haunted childhood home of their manager. This sounds awfully amazing but seems to have been lost in the mist of time sadly.

In 1967 Steve and Muff Winwood decided to leave the band. Steve formed Traffic, adopting a more psychedelic sound and co-writing the excellent Paper Sun and Hole in My Shoe (later recorded by Neil from The Young Ones). He also played the organ on Voodoo Chile on the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland (1968), before forming the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith with his pal Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech. His singing on the haunting Can’t Find My Way Home is particularly beautiful. After briefly reforming Traffic, he resurfaced as a solo artist in the late 70s, and found pop fame once more with the hit single Higher Love in 1986. He still occasionally releases new material, and his daughter Lily is now a singer.

His brother, Muff, went to work as an A&R man for Island Records, before becoming an executive for CBS Records. He produced Sparks’ hit This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us and was also responsible for signing several big names, including Prefab Sprout, Shakin’ Stevens and Sade.

The Spencer Davis Group soldiered on without the Winwoods, and actually briefly worked alongside Traffic on the soundtrack to Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. After several line-up changes, with Davis the only original member left, they split in 1969. They reformed several times over, and confusingly still exist in two different formations, one in Europe and one in the US. Will he form a third after Brexit?

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Producer: Chris Blackwell

Weeks at number 1: 2 (14-27 April)

Births:

Model Samantha Fox – 15 April

Deaths:

Cricketer Tich Freeman – 28 January 

208. The Spencer Davis Group – Keep On Running (1966)

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1965… what a year for pop music, reflected so well in the number 1s in the singles chart. And 1966 was perhaps the peak year for innovation in pop and rock. It got off to a blistering start too, with Keep On Running by the Spencer Davis Group usurping the Beatles’ Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out on 20 January.

Spencer Davis, originally Spencer Davies, was born in Swansea, South Wales in July 1939. A prodigious child, he learnt to play the accordion and harmonica at the age of six. He moved to London when he was 16, and was learning the guitar, having become enthralled by skiffle, blues and jazz. In 1960 he ditched his first band, the Saints, and became a student at Birmingham University. While there he dated Christine Perfect, who later married Fleetwood Mac’s John McVie. They performed together in the Ian Campbell Trio, performing blues and folk. In 1963, Davis met Steve Winwood for the first time at the Golden Lion pub.

Mervyn Winwood had been born in Birmingham in June 1943, and his brother Stephen in May 1948. Their father was a semi-professional musician, playing saxophone and clarinet, and must have influenced his sons. Mervyn, who was given the nickname ‘Muff’ after the children’s television character Muffin the Mule, learnt the guitar and bass. Steve, then known as Stevie, began performing with his father and brother at the tender age of eight, in the Ron Atkinson Band. I’m assuming this wasn’t the football manager running a group… By this time, the younger sibling was already able to play piano, drums and guitar. By the time Davis saw the Winwood brothers performing, Stevie was 14 and they were in the Muffy Wood Jazz Band. He had already performed with many blues singers over from the US, and was somehow in possession of an earthy, bluesy vocal range, which he had modelled on Ray Charles. Davis was keen to form a group with the Winwoods, and together with Pete York on drums they became the Rhythm and Blues Quartette. Come on lads, it’ll take more than a misspelling of ‘quartet’ to make you stand out… Performing regularly in Birmingham, they were noticed during a live show by Chris Blackwell of Island Records.

Born into a wealthy family, Blackwell’s father was related to the co-founder of food company Crosse & Blackwell. He spent much of his childhood in Jamaica and at the age of 21 he was rescued by Rasta fishermen after a boating accident. It was here that he fell in love with reggae music, and he founded Island Records that same year, 1958. He returned to England in 1962, and two years later he produced one of the first recorded ska songs, My Boy Lollipop by Millie Small. After signing with Blackwell, Davis, the Winwoods and York thankfully changed their name to the Spencer Davis Group. Muff came up with the name, surmising that, since the guitarist was the only one willing to do interviews for publicity, he may as well be the star of the show.

The Spencer Davis Group’s first single was a cover of John Lee Hooker’s Dimples. Looking for a follow-up, they decided on Keep On Running by their Jamaican labelmate Jackie Edwards. It had featured on his 1965 album Come on Home, and his version was a charming and chilled skank compared to what the band transformed it into. Their version was released in November 1965.

The Spencer Davis Group version has stood the test of time, and then some. Blackwell’s production gives every band member a chance to shine. Coming from a reggae background, the bass and drums are louder than the average 1960s pop song. But the twin stars are Davis’s ferocious, fuzzy guitar licks, replacing the horns of Edwards’ original, and of course, Steve’s astounding vocal. It’s still impossible to believe such a voice could belong to a teenager. And more importantly, it sounds totally natural and unforced. I could hear Keep On Running a million times, (and I will have done, on countless adverts and films) and never tire of it. The beauty lies in the energy and simplicity of the performance. Keep On Running was lightning in a bottle.

Written by: Jackie Edwards

Producer: Chris Blackwell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (20-26 January)

Deaths:

Politician Gordon Macdonald – 20 January