In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
Before this past Monday, we could have categorized this as a Five Good Covers post, or a That’s a Cover post. Alas, circumstances beyond our control have seen to it that it could only be an In Memoriam.
Spencer Davis, of the eponymous band, has died.
To commemorate this most shadowy of front men, whose band is now famous more for who else was in it besides him, let’s revisit Davis’s life and see why he is worthy of recognition in his own right. We’ll also be drilling down into “Keep on Running,” the first Spencer Davis Group number one.
Davis had an extraordinary early career. As a teenage blues buff in South Wales, one of his first bands saw him in conjunction with one William George Perks, Jr., the future Bill Wyman. Later, moving to Birmingham University to study, he hooked up with local girl Christine Perfect, another blues enthusiast, performing together locally. She, of course, later joined her husband’s band, he being John McVie, they being Fleetwood Mac.
You’d think that was enough coincidence for anyone, or how much smaller the world must have been, as he next met up with brothers Muff and Stevie Winwood, then playing trad jazz in a Birmingham pub. Once he’d convinced them that blues, not jazz, was the way forward, they formed the Rhythm & Blues Quartet in 1963, changing the name to Spencer Davis Group at the insistence of his bandmates. Astonishingly, this was on account of him being the only one with the patience or desire to be interviewed by the music press. The fact that he was several years older than the rest of the band perhaps also making a difference: in 1963 he was 24, Pete York, the drummer, 21, and the Winwood brothers being 20 and 15 respectively, Stevie, the younger, being still at school. However, under the steady custodianship of Davis, known as the Professor in the business, Winwood’s prodigious and precocious talents both vocally and instrumentally, on keyboards and guitar, were soon recognized.
And so to “Keep On Running,” the band’s second-ever release, which hit the top of the UK charts towards the end of 1965. Jackie Edwards, a Jamaican working as a songwriter for Island Records, wrote the song and released his own version earlier in the year.
Spencer Davis Group – Keep on Running (Jackie Edwards cover)
With the proto-motorik drums kicking it off, the insistent bass and the chopped guitars, and Stevie Winwood’s vocal soaring triumphantly over the whole, “Keep on Running” was a perfect mix of rock and soul, but in an altogether more vibrant dynamic than Edwards’ bluebeat-inspired original. Nowadays it seems strange that it barely dented the US at time of release; this was due in part down to distribution issues. The song has kept its potency over the decades; sure, the “hey, hey, hey”s may have an irredeemable whiff of the ’60s, but by the time they come in, you’re long hooked.
John Holt – Keep On Running (Jackie Edwards cover)
I mentioned the hint of bluebeat in Edwards’ original. How, I wonder, would the song have fared by going the full reggae? Like this, I guess. One of the most revered figures in Jamaican music, John Holt began as a member of the Paragons before breaking out on his own in the ’70s, his distinctive way with a song ushering in the lover’s rock movement. He was awarded the Order of Distinction (Commander Class) by Jamaica in 2004, dying twelve years later. With his “Keep on Running” cover, Holt proves yet again quite what an expert transposer of all styles into his intelligent skank. More of a lope than many versions, it features horns that add a sense of being followed to Holt’s controlled vocals. Interested? Try the 1976 album Before the Next Teardrop, from where this cover comes, to get a taste of his commander class.
Ruby Turner – Keep On Running (Jackie Edwards cover)
A veritable Godmother of British based R&B, Ruby Turner’s name should be much better known. She has been a powerhouse vocal force of reckoning on the (again) Birmingham, UK scene since I can remember, even if she has been more gainfully used as the main voice for the Jools Holland Rhythm & Blues Orchestra these last twenty-odd years. However, ahead of that she had a bevy of successful entries in the UK charts, as well as a US R&B number one with “It’s Gonna Be Alright.” This cover of “Keep on Running” stems from even before that, the b-side from a 1981 single, and demonstrates well the power in Turner’s pipes. Again there is a hint of Jamaica, particularly in the guitar, but her impassioned singing owes more to Tina Turner, or even to Bettye LaVette.
Yola – Keep On Running (Jackie Edwards cover)
Despite the southern soul sassiness and stylizations in her vocal, Yola is another Brit, this time from Bristol. Astonishingly, her background was as a backing singer in techno and trip-hop, the Chemical Brothers and Massive Attack being two of her credits. That was before she caught the ear of Black Keys-man Dan Auerbach, who produced both an EP and last year’s debut, all very much in the style of this song. This is a much more recent “Keep on Running” cover than the others, made for a Dutch TV show last year. Here she shows an intense grip on her musical heritage, with an ability to merge and meld influences cross-genre, never losing sight of the source, yet giving something new. This picks up on the Spencer Davis original, slows it a little, and imparts just that hint of jazz and even a taste of country into the mix.
Robben Ford – Keep On Running (Jackie Edwards cover)
Robben Ford is nominally a bluesman, but he found his feet backing Joni Mitchell with the L.A. Express, so he may be more associated with the jazzier fusion parts of that scene. Indeed, it is only when the singing starts that his “Keep on Running” cover becomes in any way recognizable. Whilst the guitar rhythms stay pretty faithful, the horns are all over the place, ahead of a typically economical burst of guitar soloing, which then dips in and around the whole second part of the song.
It’s certainly a different mood, and I, for one, feel it would be difficult to run to this; all those necessary arm movements might make for a slower getaway than the lyric is demanding. But it’s a good little taste of Ford’s work, should you be unfamiliar with him. This comes from the 2003 record of the same name, which also has covers of “Badge” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” that are well worth a listen.
OK, so what did Spencer do next? Hot on the heels of “Running” came another UK chart-topper, “Somebody Help Me,” again from the pen of Jackie Edwards. Then the younger wunderkind Winwood started writing. “Gimme Some Lovin'” was originally credited to Stevie, but his brother later suggested the band collectively knocked it together in the studio, taking perhaps half an hour. This was the band’s US breakthrough, attaining number seven on the Billboard; they swiftly followed it with “I’m a Man,” another smash.
Sadly that was the end of the tenure of the Winwood brothers — Mr. S off to the formation of Traffic, Mr. M to record company roles — and the hits dried up. Davis kept the brand going, however, alternating different versions of the band with solo work, often in Germany, that language having being his university degree.
In 2006, Pete York, who had left the SDG in the ’70s, teamed up with Davis again, touring sporadically on both sides of the Atlantic, at one time with different line-ups dependent upon which side of the Atlantic they were playing. But, rather than any old hired hands, there were always class players working and willing to work alongside him. So other alumni included Dee Murray, Colin Hodgkinson and Miller Anderson. The US version, up until Davis’s death of pneumonia, was Taras Prodaniuk, bassist with everyone from Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello to Lucinda Williams, to name but a few.
So, though Spencer Davis may be famous more for those in his band than in his own right, let us still celebrate the man. Like Long John Baldry and Alexis Korner, Davis served as a catalyst for others, and that is no small legacy. Had it not been for his patronage, would we be now without the fifty-plus-year career of the now Steve Winwood? More to the point, does Winwood still play those songs? Sure he does, if you forgive the poor quality of the footage. And I am deliberately changing the attribute of the cover, yessir!