Influential British rock band leader Spencer Davis, founder of the Spencer Davis Group, has died at age 81. His agent, Bob Birk, told the BBC that the Welsh guitarist died in a hospital on Monday while being treated for pneumonia.
“He was a highly ethical, very talented, good-hearted, extremely intelligent, generous man,” Birk told BBC. “He will be missed.”
Davis was a leading figure in the British rock scene in the 1960s, forming the group whose hits include such AM radio staples as “Keep on Running,” the organ-fueled blue eyed soul explosion “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man.”
Born on July 17, 1939, in Swansea, Wales, Davis became enamored with jazz and American blues as a teenager and formed his first band, The Saints, with future Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, as well as a second, more folk-focused group with Christine Perfect (later McVie), who would go on to become a key member of Fleetwood Mac.
His life changed in 1963 when he attended a performance by a jazz band featuring a 15-year-old Steve Winwood on vocals. Davis convinced singer/keyboardist Steve and his older brother, bassist Muff Winwood, to join him and drummer Pete York in 1964 in their new R&B cover band, first known as The Rhythm & Blues Quartette, later dubbed The Spencer Davis Group.
Within two years they had their first No. 1 hits in the UK, with 1966’s cover of Jamaican artist Jackie Edwards’ “Keep on Running” and a second Edwards cover, “Somebody Help Me,” with the preternaturally talented, soulful Steve Winwood singing lead vocals through the band’s propulsive blues rock 1967 hit “I’m a Man.” After Winwood left to join Traffic in 1967, the Spencer Davis Group continued on through 1969, reuniting periodically over the years for tours, despite never touring the U.S. during their hit-making heyday.
Davis went solo, moving to California and releasing an album of acoustic songs, It’s Been So Long, in 1971, and Mousetrap the following year before taking an executive position as Island Records in the 1970s and working with acts including Bob Marley and Robert Palmer, as well as helping to launch Winwood’s successful solo career. Davis continued to tour internationally with the Group, without the Winwoods, including an outing in 2006.
Winwood paid homage to his former band leader in a loving statement in which he recalled meeting Davis when he was 13 and the Spencer was 22, remembering his future band mate coming to a show Winwood was playing at Birmingham University that sowed the seeds of the Spencer Davis Group.
“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,'” Winwood wrote. “He influenced my tastes in music, he owned the first 12-string guitar I ever saw, and 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. He was definitely a man with a vision, and one of the pioneers of the British invasion of America in the sixties. I never went to the U.S. with Spencer, but he later embraced America, and America embraced him. I feel that he was influential in setting me on the road to becoming a professional musician, and I thank him for that.”
Check out some of Davis’ most beloved hits below.