Chris Blackwell founded Island Records in Jamaica in 1958 with a start-up stash provided by his wealthy family. He made records for the local scene, mostly singles, some of them hits. Blackwell was a bit of a toff, educated at Harrow, connected, with a shrewd eye for spotting talent. On returning to England in 1962 he was selling his records, licensed from Jamaica for UK release, from the back of his car to specialist shops serving the immigrant community. This niche market was his own, he expanded with other subsidiaries. Jump Up for Trinidad’s calypso, Sue cherry-picked American R&B, Black Swan, another reggae label. In 1964 he produced “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie, the most infectiously catchy song ever recorded & the first Bluebeat (the then current term for Jamaican music) international hit. Island’s finances couldn’t cover the ante for pressing half a million records, the record was released through a more established label. “…Lollipop” was Blackwell’s entry into the British music mainstream. In later years his label would be associated with some of the world’s biggest acts. Back in the Beat Boom he needed to find the right group because groups were where it was at in 1964.
Up in Birmingham, at a jazz club in Great Barr, small audiences were being knocked out of their duffle coats by a piano-playing schoolboy prodigy. Stevie Winwood went along with his older brother Muff. At 14 he was already playing in the pick-up backing bands for US Blues artists. He & Muff hooked up with Spencer Davis in the Rhythm & Blues Quartette. Spencer was a face on the Brummie Blues scene as an artist, as someone who had things organised. For audiences & for Blackwell, on a visit to a local club, it was the precocious singer-organist with a passion & range beyond his years who caught the eye & the ear. The Spencer Davis Group signed with Blackwell & he got them a record deal. There were 4 singles, covers of US R&B songs, three of them stalled just outside of the Top 40. “Their First LP” included more cover versions, good enough but in 1965 you needed a little more. Blackwell found the solution with another of his Jamaican roster. Jackie Edwards had travelled to England with the boss &, with a little imagination, one of his fine pop-soul songs did the trick. “Keep On Running” was released at the end of the year, nudged “Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out” from the #1 spot & ensured that 1966 would be a crazy year for 17 year old Steve Winwood & his older bandmates.
“Keep On Running” is a great shot of blue-eyed soul. Propelled & underpinned by Pete York’s drums & Muff’s terrific bass line, Steve is no longer imitating his African-American influences but sounding fresh, urgent & youthful. It appealed then & it still does now.There was another LP at the beginning of 1966, a little more Rhythm, a little less Blues, The group followed “Keep on…” with “Somebody Help Me”, another Jackie Edwards composition which enjoyed 2 weeks at the #1 spot. That first wave of R&B inspired bands were getting too cool for the teen scene. While they were off invading the New World there was room for new pop idols &, with 2 super smash hits, the Spencer Davis Group were kept busy by the star maker machinery.
They gigged all over Britain & Europe (2 different places now apparently). There were the cool ones, 9 appearances at the Marquee Club in London, a Spring package tour with the Who & Jimmy Cliff sounds a good night out. 5 weekend shows at the North Pier Blackpool, y’know, for the kids, were the gravy you got for having hit records (on the 11th of September the other new sensations, Small Faces, were also on the South Pier). That month they starred in the film “The Ghost Goes Gear”, a forgettable piece of Beatsploitation, The year ended with a 2 week tour of Germany supporting Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich who were not as good as Tarantino thinks they were. With TV & radio commitments, interviewers asking him if he was Spencer Davis & what was his favourite colour, I’m sure that Steve found that being a pop star required more than just being a very talented musician.
While the band were filming the crappy movie there was yet another LP to be recorded. “Autumn 66” was their 3rd in a year & the pickings from their early repertoire were getting slim. The next 45 was another Jackie Edwards song. “When I Come Home” was co-written by Steve & it failed to reach the Top 10. In 1966 a Pop group was only as good as their last single , formulas quickly wore thin & there were new imaginative, inventive shiny things to attract attention. The Spencer Davis Group needed a boost, a new angle & Blackwell encouraged Steve to come up with his own material. The subsequent release went like this….
With one giant leap “Gimme Some Lovin'” moved Steve Winwood from Pop to Rock. He had a little help from a young American producer. Jimmy Miller came to Blackwell’s attention when he licensed a wailing New York soul belter, “Incense” by the Anglos. With Muff’s insistent driving bass, a riff borrowed from Homer Banks’ “Ain’t That a Lot of Love”, & Steve’s bluesy Hammond organ Miller brought the same depth & urgency to “Gimme…”. It’s an instant classic, built to last even before the Blues Brothers brought it back to our attention in 1980. The Spencer Davis Group ended 1966 hotter than ever before, in the UK Top 10 & with the record about to break out in the US.
“I’m A Man, the following 45, another that everyone knows, had similar deserved success on both sides of the Atlantic.In 1967, for mostly better but sometimes worse, music got more serious & the audience went along with it. Steve, still only 18, wanted a taste of something new & felt that it wasn’t going to happen in the Spencer Davis Group. In April, after a UK tour with the Hollies, he & his brother left the band. Muff got a desk in Island’s office with Blackwell, Steve went off with friends from the Birmingham music scene to get it together in a cottage in Berkshire while a re-jigged S.D.G. played a week at the Fiesta nightclub in Stockton-on-Tees. The new band, Traffic, were studio-ready in weeks & before the year was out enjoyed 3 UK Top 10 hits all produced by Jimmy Miller & released on the Island label.
While Traffic were, at first, looking for hit singles they were open to experiment & rapidly progressing. “Smiling Phases” was the B-side of the psych-novelty “Hole in My Shoe” & didn’t make it on to “Mr Fantasy” the debut LP. Steve Winwood, still a teenager, now had the artistic freedom to merge his Blues, Jazz & Folk influences with new sounds. He recorded with Jimi Hendrix, shared a stage with Eric Clapton & made his contribution to British Rock. I should get on to Traffic next because they were pretty good too.