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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Blind Faith Play ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’

Listen to this track by bona fide, albeit short-lived, supergroup Blind Faith, featuring Steve Winwood (vocals, keyboards, guitar), Eric Clapton (guitar), Ginger Baker (drums), and Ric Grech (bass guitar).  It’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” as taken from the band’s 1969 self-titled and sole LP Blind Faith, a folky and atmospheric gem that sits as a centerpiece to the record, and remains to be a celebrated track, covered as it was by acts as disparate as  blues-rock maven Bonnie Raitt to No Wave band Swans.

For many, the era out of which this song and this group came presented new vistas in rock music, particularly those holding the purse strings at the major labels. In this case, it was three – Polydor, Island, and Atantic Records, distributed through the Atco label.

All the while, the name of the band was something of an ironic nod to the fact that for all of the hype and expectations surrounding it, the band members themselves knew that it was a union assembled informally and without much of a plan for world domination.  Despite this, label support would roll out formal preparations for a tour and an album, counting their money as they did so in an act of, you guessed it, blind faith.  I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

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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.

For more information about Traffic, check out


Steve Winwood Performs “While You See A Chance”

Here’s a clip of former Spencer Davis-Traffic-Blind Faith über-muso Steve (formerly Stevie) Winwood with his 1980 solo hit, “While You See A Chance” from his equally high-profile Arc of a Diver album.  This record, his second,  was breakthrough for him as a solo artist, and the catalyst to a very successful run of singles and albums during the rest of the 80s.

Even if the 80s are maligned as the decade when production took precedence over content (a generally unfair, yet still understandable position), at least the creation of a true solo album was fully enabled in the mainstream. On this record, Winwood plays all of the instruments, while also serving as producer and engineer. by the early 80s, everyone had the potential to make a polished record entirely by themselves thanks to technology. In this setting, Prince was able to fully emerge, and Todd Rundgren and Paul McCartneywho’d been doing it this way for years, were no longer in the minority when it came to musicians producing and playing an album in its entirety without a band.

The song peaked at #7 on the hot 100 Billboard charts that year while the album hit #3 on the top 200 This was a true solo record, with Winwood playing all of the instruments as well as producing engineering, and mixing. What a show off, huh?  Still, this was the guy who fronted the Spencer Davis group when he was too young to get into some of the clubs they played.  Styles may change, but the drive remains.

The 1980s were not kind to many of the artists of the 60s and 70s.  It seems that many of them caught a dose of artistic mid-life crisis, trying to be relevant rather than trying to make great records.  It was a common problem all around for that decade, but it was magnified by ten when it came to Bowie, the Stones, Neil Young, Dylan, and many others.  Where he doesn’t win the crown from Paul Simon, who certainly is the boldest exception to the rule when it comes to a 60s artist putting out a career-defining record in the 1980s, Winwood managed to write a great album that stands as an equal to his previous body of work.

It’s arguable whether or not he was able to sustain that level of quality through the decade (although not arguable that he did well in shifting units), but I think despite appearances in beer commercials and a general softening around the edges by the end of the 80s,  ‘While You See a Chance” and Arc of a Diver are great examples of a 60s and 70s artist who made the transition to the world of 80s radio without sounding like he was trying too hard.

Some of the other artists I mentioned earlier would also get back their respective  mojos by the end  of the 80s.  The Stones’ would put out a respectable showing with the Steel Wheels album.  Bob Dylan would work with Daniel Lanois on his lush and poignant Oh Mercy album.  But, Winwood was on it out of the box.

Winwood continues to write and to perform, with his latest record Nine Lives harkening back more than ever to his Traffic days rather than his late 80s and 90s adult contemporary style.

For more music and news, I refer you to the Steve Winwood MySpace page.