November 11, 1997
by Gary James
Where do you even begin when you're trying to describe the career of Spencer Davis?
This man is Rock 'n Roll.
His band, The Spencer Davis Group, formed in 1963. He charted close to a dozen Top Ten songs with the group, including "Gimme Some Lovin'," "I'm A Man," and "Keep On Runnin'."
The band toured with The Rolling Stones and The Who when they were still working clubs and enjoying a drink or two offstage with John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Spencer Davis worked as an executive at Island Records where he helped develop the career of Robert Palmer and Bob Marley. In the 80's he made guest appearances with The Grateful Dead, Gary U.S. Bond, Levon Helms, Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, Peter Noone, and Alvin Lee.
By the early 1990's Spencer Davis was touring the U.S., Canada and Europe, opening for Hall and Oates and The Marshall Tucker Band. His music was featured on the movie soundtrack CD's of "Iron Eagle," "The Big Chill," and "Days of Thunder." And then there were the guest appearances on such T.V. shows as "Married With Children." Just recently Spencer signed a new record deal with CMC Records out of Raleigh, North Carolina.
Spencer took some time off from a very busy schedule to speak with us.
Q: As I understand it, you're doing what I'm doing, only on T.V. You co- host a T.V. show called Desert Rock T.V. where you interview rock groups.
Q: That's still going on as we talk?
A: Yeah. I've already done the pilot. Essentially, I will be a host and not only talk to rock 'n rollers but talk to people that are interesting. It's called Desert Rock Television. Desert Rock is the name of a town in Nevada for those who don't know Ground Zero, the United States Defense Department's test site.
Q: Maybe you could do a show from Groom Lake. Now, that would be interesting.
A: Or Area 51 or whatever it is.
Q: Same thing.
A: But, that's ongoing. Nobody's sent me a half a million dollar contract and said "Rosie, move over!" So, it's like hurry up and wait. The usual.
Q: Is this show like "The Tonight Show" or "American Bandstand"?
A: We'll have clips of people performing. But, it will be stuff like rehearsal rather than straight performing. I got straight shots of The Stones in Switzerland when I went there to see them. I also talked to Bill Wyman at his restaurant Sticky Fingers. So, it's not solely music. I mean a lot of these people are very capable of going into other areas. It's hard to find out other things that people do other than get up on-stage and play.
Q: Who else is featured in this pilot show?
A: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Bill Curishley who used to manage The Who -- he's their manager. I got along very well with them. I talked not only to Robert Plant because he's a contemporary but to some of the band members. One of the guys was Paul Thompson of The Cure. Really a sort of unique individual wearing flowing robs, and being one with everything. Not only is he a good guitar player, but the guy is very talented. He's also a graphic artist. I didn't know this, you see. Then, the total band that was playing behind Page and Plant was fascinating. They were old enough to be their sons.
Q: You're also a teacher and you lecture about the music business. Where do you do that?
A: Essentially, I did go down to UCLA. Some friends of mine invited me to come down and do a guest spot, "You're a natural to be a teacher." That is an area that is up as well. I'm not looking to do these things. I do them from time to time. Essentially, my main job is still getting up on-stage and playing stuff I've recorded over the years on various albums.
Q: You've never stopped touring?
A: I've never stopped touring.
Q: Where do you tour?
Q: What type of venues?
A: Everything from State Fairs to Festival, clubs, theaters. Some of the nice things are the Art Centers in Britain. The city council will be the funding behind something. It would be nice if they did something like that here.
Q: You actually toured with The Rolling Stones while they were still performing in clubs?
A: The Stones had actually gotten out of the clubs. They were doing the cinemas. It was a package and it was wonderful. We opened for them and we gave them a good run for their money as well. The Spencer Davis Group had drawn from the same material, but, was a much more sophisticated sort of band when you think about it.
Q: You used to hang-out with The Beatles and The Stones in various clubs?
A: Yeah. I sure did.
Q: Which clubs?
A: The Ad Lib, Bag of Nails, The Scotch of St. James. That's when Jimi Hendrix showed up and frightened everybody to death by going up on-stage and jamming with Brian Auger and Eric Burdon.
Q: So, at these clubs you'd see the Rock 'n Roll elite as well as the managers like Brian Epstein?
A: Oh, yeah. Epstein was there at The Ad Lib. But, the thing was the guys would go to a lot of these places and hang out to get away from the managers. (Laughs)
Q: If I had been a tourist in England at the time...
A: It would've been hard to get in there.
A: They knew the bands. They knew the acts as they came through the door. Now, if you had latched onto me or John Entwhistle or Keith Moon...
Q: I would've gotten in. Would they have wanted someone who's a writer in those clubs?
A: You would've been in your element, if you would've been pals with them. Linda Eastman came over to photograph people.
Q: What do you remember about Brian Jones?
A: Brian was very soft-spoken. He was into dope a lot. I wasn't. So, what linked us, what our glue was, was the music. When The Stones came back from one of their American tours, the first thing that Steve (Winwood) and myself would do is waylay Brian and say, "OK, what records have you brought?" I remember he brought Otis Redding's "Otis Blues" and he'd play it for me. I'll never forget that. But, Brian and I hung out together and Bill Wyman and I hung out together. Bill would always say Brian is not going to come to any good. He's into too much stuff and he was right.
Q: You're from Wales. What was the Rock 'n Roll scene like in Wales during the 50's and 60's when you were there?
A: What was going on there was very much a reflection of what was happening here, and that was Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens. The Crickets, Eddie Cochran. I left Wales when I was 16 to work for Her Majesty's Civil Service. That only lasted 18 months in one department, 18 months in another department. 1957 to 1959 were very formative years in Rock 'n Roll. What tended to happen was our idols were modeling themselves after Elvis. We had Marty Wilde. We had Terry Dean. We had Tommy Steele. They were really copying Elvis. They really didn't have their own identify. We had one guy that never really did well but should have. His name is Vince Eager. What impressed me is he could sing Jailhouse Rock in the same key as Elvis. I was convinced that because he could do that he was God. That was it. He was marvelous.
Q: You left Wales then to go to England and get a group going?
A: Well, I left to work in the Civil Service and the music was on the side. I was totally into the music. I formed a skiffle group which everybody did. It was a group comprised of a washboard, the chest bass, and a ten dollar guitar. We were gonna conquer the world. There was no doubt about it. We had all the right equipment. You could probably buy that for about thirty, forty dollars today. You know what I'm saying?
Q: Sure. Where then in England did you go?
A: London. A lot of people in America think that England is in London. Forgive me, I wasn't being facetious. But you know what I'm saying. People go, "Oh England. I've been to London." Well no, London is in England.
Q: Was it hard to get a gig in London in '64 or '65?
A: No. I was working all the time.
Q: How difficult was it to get a record deal?
A: I didn't try to get a record deal. We were copying our American heroes. We turned it into our own style. I did make a record, but I paid for it myself. You couldn't get a bloody record deal. When you saw Tommy Steele on Decca, this was like holding The Tablets. This was like the beginning of all time for me. There's a guy that had done it. Tommy Steele wasn't particularly talented, but, he was in the right place at the right time. He had a very bubbling sort of personality.
Q: When did you get your first record deal?
A: '63. I found a band in the northern suburb of Birmingham, called Erdington. There was a kid paying keyboards and his name was Steve Winwood. His brother Muffin was also in the band. So, I recruited Steve into the band. I didn't care whether Muff came along or not. But, there was one problem. Steve was underage, driving-wise. So, I said, "That's o.k. I'll come and get you." But his brother jumped to the fore ever sharp and said, "I will switch from guitar to bass and I have a driving license and I will bring him." So, there was the bass player and the two brothers. I already had Peter York with me from 1960. It was a rhythm ' blues quartet. I presented that group to the Golden Eagle Club. Within 2 weeks we had lines around the block. It wasn't that I was the most incredible talent spotter. It's just that as soon as I heard this kid sing and play a note, [I knew that] he's perfect for what I was doing. I said, "You're in the band." He was thrilled. He was delighted.
Q: And with the crowds came the record company c.e.o.'s?
A: Then Giorgio Gomelsky came. He had briefly managed The Rolling Stones. Then he managed The Yardbirds. I would go and see these bands to see what the competition was. I went down to The Crawdaddy Club in London. The Yardbirds were playing. I think Clapton was in the band. I thought he was wonderful and still do. I said to Giorgio our band is much better than these guys. He looked at me like who the hell is this guy? He said I'm going to Manchester to do a television show called "Top of The Pops" with Sonny Boy Williams and The Yardbirds. I shall drive through Birmingham and I shall check out your band to see if your claim is true. He came by and saw the band. He was phoning night and day to sign the band. He reminded me somewhat of Rasputin. He had this sort of dark look, the beard and all the rest of it. Another man came along with a woman named Millie Small ("My Boy Lollipop") and he brought her to do a show in Birmingham -- "Thank Your Lucky Stars." They were looking for group to sign like crazy. He was told there are 2 bands -- The Move and Spencer Davis Rhythm and Blues Quartet with this fantastic kid singer in the band, Steve Winwood of course. So, Chris Blackwell came on the scene. Here's the beginning of my first blunder. Never never judge someone by how they're dressed or how they speak because that could be covering up the crook. And, that's exactly what happened with Christ Blackwell. He roped the band, lock, stock, and barrel. He was a crook.
Q: You never had a lawyer look at the contract you were offered?
A: No we didn't. Absolutely not. That's one of the reasons why later on we sued him for breach of fiduciary contract. But, the only reason Peter York and I couldn't pursue it was because we're not residents of the U.K. I'm a resident of the United States of America. I live here. I own a home here. I pay taxes. I pay to go on the freeway like all other good red-blooded Americans. Peter York is a resident of Germany. So, we sued Chris Blackwell in England. The best move would have been just to go to the I.R.S. and say, "I think you should investigate Mr. Chris Blackwell. If you've been asking me and the Winwoods and York for money, I think you'll find you'll get it and more from him. He's got it. It never occurred to me to do that.
Q: He got all the money then?
A: He controlled it all. He was the manager, record company, producer and publisher. You see, the manager controlled all the cash flow. He grew with the band, but, he saw what money was coming in. We trusted him. He did a deal with Fontana Records which I believe is still Polygram. Polygram paid $450 million for Island Records (Chris Blackwell's label). I knew exactly what was going on. I knew there would be a honeymoon for a while and then Black would turn around and say, "You guys don't know how to look after Island." He got the money, but he owed a lot of people. He had a lot of creditors. Maybe if we'd signed with Giorgio Gomelsky we'd have gone to Decca Records. Mike Vernon wanted to sign us to Decca. Maybe we'd have had a better deal. As we look at it, it was a better deal, 'cause we would have got that money. We'd have been on Decca Records. Blackwell formed his own production group around us.
Q: How much money did he swindle you out of?
A: Millions. The first specific amount is when he sold the 42 titles of the original Spencer Davis Group to United Artists in 1968 for $180,000 and didn't tell anybody. Kept the money. It had my name on it. I didn't find the paper until 1975. He never told anybody. I couldn't figure out why I wasn't getting any royalties from America. I found this out on my own. It was heartbreaking. You have no idea what it's like to find out that somebody swindled you and the band. I'm not to be blamed 'cause I trusted Chris Blackwell. I trusted the man. I gave the man the same credibility I would give to any other human being. We're all in this together. We didn't give him the right to exploit us. We gave him the right to exploit our recording.
Q: But, you signed a piece of paper and you didn't know what you were signing.
A: No. We signed a management agreement with him. He had a deal on our backs. In other words, he took ten percent of ninety per cent of the retail selling price. He presented a production company to Fontana.
Q: What was he taking as his management fee?
A: Thirty percent. He was taking thirty percent of the deal he was giving us. He was getting ten percent of ninety percent of the retail selling price from Fontana. He was keeping sixty percent of it. The other forty percent he presented to us and then took a commission on that as well. When we signed the management deal with him, we never had representation. We trusted the guy. The man is a cobra. He was known by Ahmet Ertegun as the Baby Faced Killer.
Q: Where did you perform when you toured America in the 60's?
A: First place was the Cheetah Club in Chicago. I came to do a p.r. bit, some interviews and all the rest of it. I had a look at New York in 1967.
Q: You moved to America in 1970. Why?
A: I was offered a contract through a company called Media Arts which was a spin-off of Capitol Records. I did more of an acoustic mellow album. There wasn't a lot going on in Britain for me. But, by then I was running around Germany and Holland and doing quite well as an acoustic act. So, I came over here and did an acoustic band.
Q: How'd you get the position as an A and R man at Island Records?
A: I confronted him (Chris Blackwell) with the sale of the records. I said to him I've finally figured out why I wasn't getting what I was entitled to. He said, "I will put it right." Well, giving me a job was nowhere near what kind of money had been earned. But you can see what happened there. I think he was afraid I wasn't blackmailing him. Essentially, I became Artist Development. Hey, I supplied him with a bunch of stuff before. So, why couldn't I do it again?
Q: Were you personally responsible for the promotion of Robert Palmer and Bob Marley?
A: I worked with Robert, and Steve Winwood. I also worked with acts like Eddie and the Hot Rods and Third World. Some of Third World wouldn't go out on the road unless I was there. I had a great relationship with the artists because I suppose I was still one myself. But, I could get into radio stations and newspapers. I would call them and say this is what I'm doing. I wasn't really playing a lot. I kept my hand in. I never stopped playing somewhere. I'd jam with people. In fact, Eddie and the Hot Rods said to me they wouldn't do an interview with one of the record papers like Cashbox or Billboard unless I got up on-stage with them in the Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles and jammed with them, and I did. "Get out of Denver," I said, "You're on," and I went up and played with them.
Editor's note: Gary James files his interviews from Syracuse, NY.