Listen to this track by Brummie blue-eyed soul and rock quartet The Spencer Davis Group. It’s “I’m A Man”, their 1967 hit single as taken from the self-same album I’m A Man. This would be the group’s last hit single in their original incarnation that featured Stevie Winwood on vocals and organ before he left to join Traffic later in the year.
Like many soul singers, Winwood started his musical journey in part while involved with the Church, although this time it was the C of E and decidedly not a sultry Baptist chapel somewhere in the American South. Nevertheless, access to a bona fide church organ had to be important to his trajectory. He had something that a lot of British musicians didn’t have at the time besides. Winwood didn’t just pick up his trade simply by listening to blues and soul records. The time he spent playing in pick-up bands to back up American bluesman like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker as they toured Britain was also an important part of his musical apprenticeship. This gained him first-hand exposure and training to achieve the real sound of the blues and get straight to the heart of soul music. It also introduced him to how all-consuming it can become to pursue a musician’s life.
That’s what this song is all about; a love song to the music itself and to the state of being in a band, despite the dangers of losing oneself while being entangled in it all. It’s a snapshot of a mind that is both juvenile and ambitious all at once, which is part of why it became a rock standard. But, it goes beyond that, too.
The Spencer Davis Group formed in 1963 when lead singer Stevie was a tender fourteen-turning-fifteen years old, and too young to get into many of the clubs as a patron that he was playing as a hired musician. Yet, despite his youthful exterior, apparently he had the spirit of a true soulman living inside of him. What other white man sounded like that on either side of the Atlantic? No one, that’s who.
At this point in their history when this particular song came out, they were on the rise when it came to record sales and chart placements with the help of American record producer, songwriter, and future Rolling Stones collaborator Jimmy Miller behind the board. Luckily too, they were able to fade into a heavier blues-rock vibe by the end of 1966, developing from the beat group sound they’d started with. This allowed them to make the transition from the tidier and poppier first half of the decade into the more complex and musically knottier second half.
All the while though, Winwood was still a teenager by the time this single was released. And this song, written by him with Jimmy Miller, reflects a good deal of the teenage mindset, even if its sung with a voice that sounds well beyond those years. The chorus is pretty undeniable, sounding like a paean to a lover. But in fact, it’s kind of the opposite. It’s about not having time for lovers at all, being too consumed in the act of making music as a part of a gang who’s “all hung up on music”. As such, the “I’m a man” part of the lyric (perhaps referencing Bo Diddley’s song of the same name …), and the “I can’t help but love you so” is something of a disconnect if you’re thinking of this as a traditional love song. That love is not of the gooey, romantic kind. It’s really all about work — man’s work, y’understand. It’s about the obsession with finding the sound, man. Groovy chicks are just a distraction, you dig? This is practically a boy’s club rock band manifesto set to music, which perhaps stands to reason when you consider the times in which this song was written.
It’s something else beyond that, though. It’s about what it feels like to be a man from the point of view of someone who hasn’t had much experience with what being a man really entails. As such, it’s an interesting snapshot in the life of a person who has come to success very early on in his life, with very few reference points outside of that experience. It’s otherwise full of teenage swagger from someone, on the surface, who thinks he’s got it all figured out. Who else but a teenager, or at least someone who’s emotionally equivalent to one thanks to his profession, could write a song like this? There’s even an excuse for an untidy room in the first line! And yet, at the same time, it shows another side of that narrow channel of experience as a successful musician winning fame and recognition at a young age; loneliness and disconnection, with an image to maintain while “suspended on a throne” and the feeling that those on the outside don’t recognize the humanity behind that image. That makes the cry of “I’m a man” into one of desperation, a reassertion of identity to be heard over the din of public adulation.
“I’m A Man” would go on to be something of a rock standard, for all of the thematic reasons pointed out here, as well as being a song designed for players of nearly any ability to throw down a groove and get the crowds going. Touching on blues rock drive, and soul music spirit with (to my ears) a quote from Booker T. & The MGs take on “Comin’ Home Baby” in its distinctive descending organ riff, it is a tune that is aerodynamically designed to play live. Cover versions from Chicago, to The Grateful Dead, to any bar band on any Saturday night will prove that point. It even showed up in the soundtrack to the 2015 animated film Minions, a story set in 1960s London. Talk about a gang of cats “all engrossed in mental chatter”!
The Spencer Davis Group is active today, led of course by Davis himself. You can learn more about them at spencer-davis-group.com.
Steve Winwood would enjoy a vibrant and varied career as a member of Traffic, and Blind Faith, as well as his work as a session musician and as a very successful solo artist. He’s an active musician today, who’s activities can be followed at stevewinwood.com.