Spencer Davis, the veteran British rock musician renowned for hits that bore his name but he did not sing, died in a hospital Monday while being treated for pneumonia, his agent told the BBC. He was 81.
While the Spencer Davis Group performed for decades, its biggest hits — including such frequently covered mid-1960s classics as “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man” — were sung not by Davis but a teenaged Steve Winwood, making the group, like the Dave Clark 5 and the J. Geils Band, one of several from the era named after a bandmember who was not the singer or frontman. The reason, bandmember Muff Winwood told Mojo in 1997, was because “Spencer was the only one who enjoyed doing interviews, so I pointed out that if we called it the Spencer Davis Group, the rest of us could stay in bed and let him do them.”
Born in Swansea, South Wales, in 1939, Davis began playing harmonica and accordion as a child. He moved over to guitar and began playing in bands as a teen before settling in Birmingham in his early 20s. Along the way he played in a band called the Saints with bassist Bill Perks — who changed his name to Bill Wyman when he joined the Rolling Stones — and dated and performed with singer-keyboardist Christine Perfect, who later took her husband John McVie’s name and joined Fleetwood Mac.
In 1963, he saw brothers Steve and Muff Winwood performing in a Birmingham pub and convinced them to form a band with him, with Steve’s soaring voice and rousing keyboard playing at the center. Performing a steady repertoire of R&B covers, the Spencer Davis Group quickly developed a following, performed frequently in London and signed with Fontana Records.
There, they released a string of Top 10 British hits — beginning with “Keep on Running” in 1966 and continuing with “Somebody Help Me,” “I’m A Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin’” in 1967; the latter two were significant hits in the U.S. as well and were later covered by Chicago and the Blues Brothers, respectively. The hits were all sung by Steve Winwood, whom many people naturally thought was Davis.
The Winwood brothers left the group in 1967 — Steve to form Traffic with guitarist Dave Mason and drummer Jim Capaldi; Muff to become a successful record executive — as did producer and cowriter Jimmy Miller, who worked with Traffic and later the Rolling Stones. Davis continued the group until 1969, reforming it in 1973 after he’d moved to California. Davis also worked as an A&R executive for Island Records in the 1970s.
He led various incarnations of the Spencer Davis Group, recording intermittently over the ensuing decades and touring regularly as recently as 2017.