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