Spencer Davis, guitarist and founder of the Spencer Davis Group, has died aged 81

Spencer Davis of the Spencer Davis Group on October 24, 1970
(Image credit: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Spencer Davis, bandleader and guitarist for 1960s British outfit the Spencer Davis Group, died on October 19 while being treated for pneumonia in the hospital. He was 81.

The group, which was formed in Birmingham in 1963, also featured a teenaged Steve Winwood on lead vocals and scored hits with Gimme Some Lovin’, I’m a Man, Somebody Help Me and Keep On Running, combining pop, rock, R&B and blues sounds.

Davis was born in Swansea, South Wales on July 17, 1939. Influenced early on by jazz, blues and skiffle, he began learning to play the harmonica and accordion at the age of six. As a teenager he became drawn to the guitar, inspired by American R&B, as well as American rock and blues artists like Buddy Holly, Big Bill Broonzy and Lead Belly.

He formed his first band, the Saints, with Bill Wyman, who would later go on to be the bassist in the Rolling Stones. 

In 1963, Davis went to the Golden Eagle, a club in Birmingham, to see the Muff Wood Jazz band, which featured bassist Muff Winwood and his brother, the teenaged Steve Winwood. Davis was blown away by the brothers, recalling Steve as a “young guy that played piano like Oscar Peterson and sang like Ray Charles,” and convinced them to form a band with him and drummer Pete York.

"Spencer was an early pioneer of the British folk scene, which, in his case embraced folk blues, and eventually what was then called ‘Rhythm and Blues,’ ” Steve Winwood said in a statement following his death.

“He influenced my tastes in music, and he owned the first 12-string guitar I ever saw, he was taken with the music of Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter, and Big Bill Broonzy. I’d already got a big brother who influenced me greatly, and Spencer became like a big brother to me at the time.”

First called the Rhythm and Blues Quartet, the new band featured Davis on guitar and harmonica, Steve Winwood on vocals, keyboard and guitar, Muff Winwood on bass and York on drums. The following year they changed their name to the Spencer Davis Group, reportedly because Davis was the only one who liked to do press.

In 1966 the group scored consecutive Number One hits in the UK with Keep on Running and Somebody Help Me, both of which were written by Jamaican singer-songwriter Jackie Edwards. Later singles Gimme Some Lovin' and I’m a Man also cracked the Top 10 in the US.

In 1967 Winwood left to form Traffic, and the Spencer Davis Group continued on, scoring UK hits with tracks like Time Seller and Mr. Second Class before breaking up in 1969.

Davis later moved to the US and cut an acoustic album, 1971’s It's Been So Long, with Peter Jameson, and a solo album, Mousetrap. Neither album sold well, and he returned to the UK where he formed a new version of the Spencer Davis Group. They released two albums before disbanding again.

In the mid ‘70s Davis took a job as an executive at Island Records, working with the likes of Bob Marley and Robert Palmer.

In 1984 he recorded another album, Crossfire, which featured Booker T. Jones and others, and in 1993 he formed the supergroup the Classic Rock All-Stars alongside Iron Butterfly’s Mike Pinera, Sugarloaf’s Jeff Corbetta and Rare Earth’s Pete Rivera. He left the group in 1995 to start the World Classic Rockers with former Eagles bassist Randy Meisner, Toto singer Bobby Kimball and Paul McCartney and Wings guitarist Denny Laine. Davis also reformed the Spencer Davis Group yet again and toured with the band in the 2000s.

In 1980, Gimme Some Lovin’ was covered by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd for The Blues Brothers. Their version reached Number 18 on the Billboard charts. The song has since appeared in a variety of movies, TV shows and commercials.

"He was definitely a man with a vision, and one of the pioneers of the British invasion of America in the ‘60s,” Winwood said. “I never went to the U.S. with Spencer, but he later embraced America and America embraced him.”

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.