Various sources are reporting that classic rocker Spencer Davis has died at age 81, following complications from pneumonia. That’s a shame. I was fortunate enough to interview him about 20 years ago when he came to town for a casino show. Here’s some of what he had to say:
You can call him Spencer. You can call him Mr. Davis. You can call him The Professor if you like. You can even call him The Guy Who Wrote That Hanson Song. Just don’t call ’60s rock veteran Spencer Davis an oldies performer.
“I actually prefer the word timeless,” laughs the Welsh singer and guitarist from his home in Los Angeles. “I have managed to stay sort of contemporary — I’m working on a new album and I still play about 200 dates a year in all sorts of venues. So I’m not just one of those guys on the oldies circuit. Of course, it’s all relative, you know. I had a fellow call me up for some kind of oldies show. I told him I didn’t do oldies, but then he said, ‘Well, it’s $10,000 for three nights.’ I said, ‘Which oldies would you like to hear?’ ”
It goes without saying that Davis knows — and wrote — his share. A former teacher and modern languages major, he got “sucked into the music thing” in the early ’60s, playing after work with fellow up-and-comers like Bill Perks (later Bill Wyman) and then-girlfriend Christine Perfect (who went on to become Christine McVie). “Alexis Korner, John Mayall, Long John Baldry; I’ve played with them all at one time or another. I first saw Baldry at the tender age of 16; he was playing that sort of folk blues stuff that is so timeless. Alexis was the guy who told me what records to get.”
Of course, his most famous outfit remains the Spencer Davis Group, which he formed in 1963 with teenage singer and organist Steve Winwood (“He didn’t even have a driver’s licence”), Winwood’s older-brother bassist Muff and drummer Pete York. The band scored hits with self-penned R&B-flavoured singles like Gimme Some Lovin’ and I’m a Man, but by 1967 Winwood had left to form Traffic, effectively halting the band in its tracks — though not before future Elton John sidemen Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson did a stint in the lineup.
“Steve was like the ephemeral moth — he was always looking for the flame,” Davis recalls. “It would have been a mutual advantage if we had been able to exploit it more, but he split just when the band was on the verge of making a big worldwide splash. He had to go back to the beginning and so did I. Thankfully for me, the writing helped sustained it. And the fact that I was able to do it without Winwood in the camp kind of consolidated my position, and allowed me to be on a constant burn as opposed to a shooting star. Of course, I never had such a high profile that I would fall such a great distance.”
Since then, Davis has dabbled in everything from record production to A&R and promotion, but can’t seem to get the performing bug out of his system. The perennial popularity of Gimme Some Lovin’ — it’s been covered by dozens of artists, from The Blues Brothers and The Grateful Dead to Hanson — hasn’t hurt his career, either. And even after nearly three decades, Davis says he never tires of playing that familiar “da-da-da-da-dum” riff.
“Why would I?” he asks. “As soon as the bass and drums start playing that lick, I look out and I see everyone’s reaction — they smile and they start to applaud and cheer. How could anyone get tired of that?”