Mannish Boy (Steve Winwood/Spencer Davis Group)

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.

 

 

Image result for spencer davis group 1964Up 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.

 

 

Image result for spencer davis somebody help me“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.

 

Image result for spencer davis the who package tour 1966They 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.

 

 

 

Image result for traffic bandWhile 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.

 

 

 

 

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Down At The Sombrero Club (Jamaican Soul)

The James Bond theme tunes are still a big deal. It is only a couple of weeks ago that Adele picked up an Oscar for “Skyfall”, the latest in a series which ,I must admit, I kind of gave up on when Sean Connery quit. The very first Bond movie “Dr No” (1962) is the only one of the films to have 2 opening themes. The well known John Barry composition is there & alongside it is “Kingston Calypso”, a tune by the premier big band in Jamaica, Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. As a better British actor than those who have played 007 would say, “Not many people know that” !

Byron Lee & the Dragonaires were a very adaptable & professional unit. They gigged in Kingston’s tourist hotels & backed the US stars who visited the island. Jazzers who turned their hands to calypso, rock & roll, R&B,whatever style was required. When Ska became popular they were on that too. In 1964 the island’s head of Social Welfare & Economic Development Edward Seaga organised a showcase of Jamaican music to perform at the New York World’s Fair. Seaga, a future Prime Minister who had sold his record label to Lee, chose the Dragonaires as the backing band. Incredibly, this is how that show looked & sounded.

Oh Yes ! The Blues Busters, “the Jamaican Sam & Dave”, who hit big 2 years earlier with the Lee produced “Behold”, a startling slab of ska-soul. I only discovered these boys a couple of years ago & I love their stuff. The sound of a penny dropping as the influence of US vocal styles would obviously be around. I just had not heard such a raw sound in ska before. Out of my way, I need to be near the front for this ! The ‘Busters, Philip James & Lloyd Campbell, will lift you at any time. “I Don’t Know” is just one of a set of great singles which switched easily between ska & soul. The 26 track Trojan anthology includes the 1967 sessions in Muscle Shoals when they tried to make it in the US.

And what about this clip? The Sombrero Club in Kingston, 1964 is buzzing, the clothes are sharp & the dancing is just the ticket. The nearest I ever got to this was nights down Gaz’s Rocking Blues in Wardour St. Off to the time machine. Set the controls for the heart of the ska !

The emerging Jamaican recording scene intrigued a young man who had spent his childhood on the island & in the UK. Chris Blackwell was involved in the production of “Dr No” but turned down an opportunity in the film business to concentrate on music. In 1962 he transferred his label to the UK intending to sell to the niche market of West Indian immigrants. He took with him his discovery, a young talented singer/songwriter, Jackie Edwards who helped out around the fledgling Island label. In 1964 Blackwell produced an international hit with the teenage singer Millie Small. “My Boy Lollipop”. This financed an expansion of Island & he signed Birmingham R&B band the Spencer Davis Group. 4 singles were released with minor success before the breakthrough with 2 successive #1 records in the UK in 1966. These hits were not  soul-blues re-makes but new, upbeat pop songs written by Jackie Edwards.

“Come On Home” is from a 1965 LP  & is as sweet as. Maybe the strings are too sweet but Jackie was writing such good tunes at this time & this is Jamaican soul at its best. Jackie was always sweet anyway. His militant 1976 tune “Get Up”, the inspiration for the Clash’s “Revolution Rock”, is cool & honeyed despite the angry lyrics. His own version of “Keep On Running”, that first hit for Spencer Davis, is a stomping floor filler. Jackie continued to record, leaving Island in the late 60s, Chris Blackwell made his label into the world’s leading independent record company. He did more to popularize reggae music than any other individual. Jackie Edwards played his part in establishing Island as more than just a vehicle for the obscure records of the Caribbean & American R&B.

Back to the Sombrero Club for more of that 1964 showcase. The best of Jamaican music had gone to the World’s Fair. Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster & Millie “lollipop” Small among them. Apparently there was a little friction between the “uptown” Dragonaires & the new, less sophisticated singers. The cabaret calypso confections were now a colonial curio. This newly independent country was confident & was finding its own voice. Here, out of Coxone’s Studio One are Raleigh, Jerry & Toots, the Maytals. Jamaica’s star vocal trio. I love the trio tradition in Jamaican music, the Wailers, Culture, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru (& Wailing Souls, Heptones, Mighty Diamonds, it’s a fine list).

After winning the first ever Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Contest the Maytals carried the swing through the decade. They did not add the “Toots &” until 1971. To see as well as hear the teenage Toots perform is such a treat. With the boys gathered around one microphone there is less of the showmanship of his later shows. There does not have to be because his husky, gospel-tinged voice is just beautiful. I have written about Toots before here. It was 1976 before Toots sang “Reggae Got Soul”, those of us who had heard his records knew that thing already. Here is “Sweet & Dandy” again just because it will make you happy.

Well, there is no time machine so I’m grateful that I am able to see these great performances, this music that went from ska to rock steady to reggae &  always had true emotion, honesty & soul. One Love !