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Remembering Spencer Davis: The great 'Professor'

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Spencer Davis earned the nickname "Professor" because of his academic background (Screenshot via YouTube)

Welsh music sensation Spencer Davis, one of rock music’s elder statesmen, has passed away from pneumonia, aged 81.

The founder of 1960s beat band the Spencer Davis Group was born on 17 July 1939 in Swansea and learned to play the accordion and harmonica at the age of six. By 16, he had switched to guitar and was hooked on the American rhythm and blues music that was sweeping the Atlantic.

In later years, Davis became proficient in foreign languages and left the UK Civil Service to read German at the University of Birmingham in 1960. During the teaching career that followed, Davis would perform at night with local Birmingham groups and formed a personal and professional relationship with Christine Perfect (better known in later years as Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac). In music circles, he obtained the nickname “Professor” due to his academic background and fluency in German, French and Spanish.

Davis glommed onto skiffle, jazz and blues music and attended as many gigs as he could. In 1963, Davis went to see a trad jazz band featuring bassist Muff and Steve Winwood, a virtuoso on vocals, guitar and organ.

Davis persuaded Muff and Steve to join him and Peter York, an accomplished drummer, to form the Spencer Davis Group — a name contrived by the fact that only Davis liked giving media interviews. Other members of the band joked that they could slope off to the pub while Davis handled the media. In the band, Davis performed on guitar, vocals and harmonica.

Like The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five and The Kinks, the Spencer Davis Group were part of the burgeoning “beat” movement of the 1960s where sartorially splendid British musicians appropriated American rhythm and blues music and put their own personal stamp on it.

The full, muscular sound of the Spencer Davis Group bore fruit in 1966 with two consecutive number one UK hits — ‘Somebody Help Me’ and ‘Keep on Running’, which was a cover of a song by West Indian musician Jackie Edwards. Interestingly, ‘Keep on Running’ knocked a double-sided Beatles single, ‘We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper’, from the top of the charts. Davis received a telegram from the Beatles, congratulating the Spencer Davis Group on their achievement.

The band also cracked the U.S. charts with the Winwood-penned song ‘Gimme Some Loving’, which peaked at number seven.

The group scored another hit in 1967 with ‘I’m A Man’ with Winwood singing lead vocals. The song reached the top ten in the U.S. and the UK.

When Winwood left the group the same year to form the hippy-trippy band Traffic, it was with no hard feelings. That said, the later '60s weren’t kind to Davis. He moved to the U.S. and struggled financially due to poor record contracts.

Davis said:

“I didn’t realise what had been going on. I’d sold millions of records and hadn’t seen a penny from them.”

After an attempt at a solo career that pretty much tanked, Davis became an executive at Island Records and actively promoted the career of his friend Winwood, in addition to Bob Marley, Robert Palmer and Eddie and the Hot Rods.

Davis retained close ties to Germany due to his language studies and earlier teaching career. He watched the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 with his son, Gareth. He also dabbled in politics and became an honorary member and supporter of the Wales nationalist party Plaid Cymru.

In 2006, Davis partially reformed the Spencer Davis Group and toured on the nostalgia circuit in addition to appearing on television panels in full Professor mode to discuss the impact of the 1960s British Invasion.

His death prompted a flood of tributes.

Bob Birk, who worked with Davis for more than 30 years, said:

“He was a very good friend. He was a highly ethical, very talented, good-hearted, extremely intelligent, generous man. He will be missed.”

Birmingham International Jazz Festival Founder Jim Simpson said:

“Spencer was a lovely man — always very courteous and a purist about music. The Spencer Davis Group stuck more to blues and never became a fully-fledged rock band. Spencer was scholarly and well-educated, very gentle and kind and his tastes in music were spot on.”

Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet tweeted:

‘He lead a magnificent band, one of the greats of the 60s, along with Muff and Steve Winwood. Keep in [sic] Running and Gimme Some Lovin’ we’re [sic] r&b classics. He drove soul into the white rock sound of the time.’

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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