‘ I think a lot of people came into rock ‘n’ roll to try to change the world. I came into rock ‘n’ roll to make music’ (Steve Winwood)
‘ Spencer Davis Group: Of all the bands I saw in those days, they impressed me the most. They had this small public address system and were very unassuming on stage, and then this spotty kid on the organ (Steve Winwood) suddenly opens his mouth and screamed, ‘I LOVE THE WAY SHE WALKS …’ and launched into a John Lee Hooker number. My mouth fell open and I felt a chill down my spine!’ (Noddy Holder lead singer of Slade)Embed from Getty Images
Sometimes the Muses are very generous, even profligate, with their gifts. Sometimes they decide not to bestow slow maturing potential but instead choose to invest the golden one with overflowing talent in the rosy days of youth.
Think of Boris Becker fearlessly winning the greatest title in Tennis, Wimbledon, at 17. Read Mary Shelley’s, ‘Frankenstein’ and marvel that it was written by a teenager or wonder how Rimbaud could, comet-like, appear as a fully fledged poetic genius with, ‘Le Bateau Ivre’ aged only 16!
Today’s The Immortal Jukebox features one of the great figures in popular music, Steve Winwood, a musician, songwriter and singer of prodigious accomplishment who, when yet a boy in Birmingham, as a member of The Spencer Davis Group announced to the world in a series of thrilling recordings that a teenaged white youth, only recently an angelic Church of England chorister, could, astonishingly; play, sing, shout and scream Blues, Rhythm & Blues and Soul music with the power and authority of a veteran from Memphis or Chicago.
Listen to Steve Winwood here, at 17, raising the roof and the hairs on the back of the neck with his vocal and driving keyboards as along with brother Muff on bass, Spencer Davis on guitar and Pete York on drums, he takes Jamaican Jackie Edwards lovely summer splashed, sashaying, ‘Keep On Running’ and turbo charges it to suit the throbbing clubs and the mean industrial streets of his native Birmingham.
No surprise that this fantastically vibrant rave up, released in November 1965 became a Number 1 record on the British charts.
If I was directing a documentary about the club scene in mid 60s Britain I would insist on having Steve Winwood’s exuberantly brilliant vocals blasting out at maximum volume as the camera lovingly took in the boiling energy and the wonderful, ‘you’re not going out dressed like that!’ fashions sported by the young men and women having the time of their lives grooving on the dance floor.
Very few records shout, ‘Its the 1960s and a brave, beautiful new world!’ as clearly as those made by The Spencer Davis Group in their 65/67 heyday.
Steve Winwood was fortunate that his brother, christened Mervyn but nicknamed Muff, was five years his senior. It meant that as a musically omnivorous youngster he got to hear Fats Domino, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Charles Mingus courtesy of tape recordings made from Radio Luxembourg and Voice of America ( the same ones Van Morrison was listening to over the Irish Sea in Belfast!).
Muff, no mean musician himself, realising that his baby brother had really extraordinary talent, particularly as a piano player, called up the 11 year old Steve (wearing long trousers too big for him) when he joined a trad jazz band.
At first sight of the skinny kid fellow musos laughed but their laughter turned to wonder as soon as they realised the younger Winwood’s prowess as a player and his astonishing facility to hear a number once and be instantly able to play it with complete confidence and conviction.
As he became a teenager Steve’s pure choir boy soprano voice inevitably broke and miraculously metamorphosed into a glorious husky tenor ideally suited to emulation of the singer he had just discovered and whom he would idolise – the High Priest himself, Ray Charles.
Steve and Muff formed The Muff Woody Jazz band which with with the addition of Spencer Davis became The Rhythm and Blues Quartette with a residency at the Golden Eagle pub in Birmingham by 1963.
They played with fiery intensity a mélange of blues, and jazzy R&B that soon won a fanatical following around their Midlands stomping grounds.
A key development in late ‘ 63 was Steve’s enraptured discovery of the endless musical landscapes that could be opened up by the Hammond B3 organ. It was the sight and sound of the impossibly youthful Steve imperiously playing the B3 before launching into, ‘Ray Charles on helium’ vocals that persuaded Chris Blackwell, the musically and commercially alert founder of Island Records that this was a band who could take his fledgling music mogul career beyond its beginnings in the Jamaican community into the cash rich world of the mainstream record buying public.
And so, the Spencer Davis Group launched what would turn out to be a highly successful career.
The success of, ‘Keep On Running’ proved the point! And, a March 1966 second number 1 again written by Jackie Edwards – the slow burning, rolling on a river, ‘Somebody Help Me’ showed it was no fluke.
But Steve was more than a superb interpreter of other writers material he was also a natural composer with a marked ability to invest a song with rhythmic drive and attractive melodies.
In mid 1966 Steve, collaborating with Muff and Spencer Davis as they jammed, at one of their Marquee club rehearsals, around a riff from Homer Banks’ ‘Whole Lott Lovin’, came up with a delirious vocal and organ part to drive one of the most exciting records ever made, ‘Gimme Some Lovin’. You want to start a party? Play this loud and watch the sparks fly!
This was the record that first properly let America know that there was a new kid on the block with talent to burn – a top 10 hit as was the follow up, the relentless whippin’ up a storm, ‘I’m a Man’
Steve Winwood by the time, ‘I’m a Man’ came out in January 1967 was already restless and keen to explore the more expansive musical territory he had glimpsed through his encounters with the musicians he would go onto found Traffic with. With Traffic and in his later, still happily current, solo career he would show over and over again that he had taken proper care of his plentiful natural talent to produce songs and records that positively glow with musical grace. But, that’s a story for another day.
Today, I’m celebrating the dazzling achievements of the teenage Steve with The Spencer Davis Group. This was the time when Steve astonished all who heard him with a soul filled voice that had power, tenderness and flexibility to spare. A voice which commanded and held your attention as he took songs and lit them up – projecting them deep into your heart.
At the same time his piano and organ playing showcased a deep instinctive musicality that could by turns be stately, impassioned, riotously rowdy or even drowsily melancholic according to the demands of the song being played.
I’ll leave you with Steve, at 18, 18! channeling Ray Charles with a breathtaking cover of, ‘Georgia On My Mind’.
It shouldn’t have been possible for one so young to hold himself up against one of the very greatest figures in modern music but incredibly Steve succeeds and puts himself in the company of the musical elect.
Somehow, through some mysterious alchemy and inner fire he was able to have an incarnate grasp of the essence of music so that no challenge was seemingly beyond him.
My recommended Spencer Davis Group compilation is ‘the 2 disc ‘Eight Gigs A Week – the Steve Winwood Years’ on Universal/Island which will provide endless delights for anyone taken with Steve’s awesome talents.
Jackie who died in 1992 was a very fine singer and songwriter whose work was both languorously sexy, humorous and effortlessly charming. One listen to a classic from the early 1960s like, ‘Tell Me Darling’ should have you seeking out one of one of his hits collections.
Enjoyed returning to this, fifty years on, and more. Keep on rockin’, Thom!
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That opening Noddy Holder quote is wonderful.
Winwood is a favourite around Vinyl Connection too. Did a massive four part series a while back. The first part borrowed the song title ‘Smiling Phases’ to suggest the many streams and tributaries in Steve’s career. But always, that voice.
Thanks for the reminder!
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Thanks very much. I greatly enjoyed your series. Thom.
Have admired Mr. Winwood’s work for a very long time. His combination of great vocals, soulful organ/guitar playing and songwriting are awesome… One of those rare musical prodigies with the ability to write, sing and play, who continued to develop musically, over a half-century career. Really a unique and stellar UK artist.
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You’ve said it all Jo!