The Spencer Davis Group Play “I’m A Man”

Spencer_Davis_Group_I'm_a_Man_single_coverListen 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.

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Traffic Performs ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’

mrfantasyListen to this song by the Stevie Winwood and Jim Capaldi-abetted blues-psyche outfit Traffic.  It’s ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’ as taken from the band’s 1967 debut record, titled Mr. Fantasy, appropriately enough.

Stevie Winwood, later to become the more sensible (read: adult contemporary) ‘Steve Winwood‘, was something of a musical wunderkind even as early as 1963 when he fronted the Spencer Davis Group at age 15. He had become a proficient guitarist and superlative keyboard player too. His skills on the Hammond B-3 organ alone on the immortal ‘Gimme Some Lovin”, a song he co-wrote while with the Spencer Davis Group (he was 18!), would have been enough to make him a rock god with the throat of a soul man.

The Spencer Davis Group thoroughly aligned itself with the sounds of Atlantic and Stax soul music, even in the middle of the British Invasion period, when very few British bands were able to pull off that sound with any real authenticity.  But, thanks to Winwood’s pipes, and his ear for texture, the band had a number of hits. But, Winwood wanted to stretch out beyond the limits of soul, and stray into blues, jazz, and folk-rock.  The formation of Traffic with drummer Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood, and Dave Mason, frames the shift quite nicely. Because these flavours are what you’re getting in tune.

There’s a certain languid optimism to this tune, while at the same time subtly acknowledging that the optimism is a bit forced in a world that requires something of a distraction; ‘something to make us all happy’.  In 1967, the hippy ideal was at it’s peak. Indeed, Traffic were not only in cooperation with each other as a band, they also lived together too in a house in Berkshire, while writing songs.  In this, Traffic was the quintessential 60s band.

But, creative struggles with fellow Traffic-ite Dave Mason caused a rift early on, and Mason left before the band’s debut was released.  Who knows?  Maybe the thing that was required to ‘make us happy’ was this break-down in the democratic ideals of the band.  Certainly in this song, it is music itself which is the balm for what ails. Mason would rejoin, and quit a few times before the end of the decade.

Despite the line-up issues, the band would find great success in their debut and in this song.  They would record at least one bona fide classic album in 1970’s John Barleycorn Must Die after going on hiatus, and with Winwood forming a short-lived new band, Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, Rich Grech, and Ginger Baker.  There was even talk of collaborations between Winwood and Jimi Hendrix, with Hendrix feeling shy about working with Winwood, even if Dave Mason played acoustic guitar on Hendrix’s era-defining take on “All Along The Watchtower”.  Maybe that helps to frame Winwood’s stature among his peers at the time.

Traffic would have something of a fluid line-up from the end of the 1960s and into the mid-70s, including Rich Grech, Dave Mason, Derek &the Dominos drummer Jim Gordon, and others.  The band would dissolve and reform a number of times with Winwood and Capaldi at its center from the late 60s to the mid-90s.  Mason’s song “Feelin’ Alright” as taken from the band’s second album would become something of a signature hit for another British soul-inspired vocalist – Joe Cocker. And of course, Stevie Winwood was buoyed up by the momentum enough to maintain a career that spiked in the 80s, when his feel for R&B-oriented pop translated to adult contemporary radio in such a way as if the 60s and 70s had never happened.

Chris Wood died in the early 80s of liver failure.  Winwood would reunite with Capaldi from the mid-90s, releasing one new album, Far From Home, and going on tour.  But, Capaldi followed Chris Wood in early 2005.  Winwood is an active musician today, with his latest studio album Nine Lives having been released in 2008.

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