They say cream always rises to the top – but it was a flying milk bottle that turned Spencer Davies into a No 1 pop star.
Spencer had moved to Birmingham to study German at university.
But it was only after he’d started teaching in a Yardley junior school where he dodged a bottle of milk that he then went on to knock The Beatles off the top of the charts.
Take a bow Spencer Davies, the paratrooper’s son from Swansea who died in California aged 81 on Monday, October 19, 2020.
The Welshman had an ear for music that was as sharp as he was modest.
The Beatles had been No 1 over Christmas 1965 with Day Tripper, but along came Keep On Running in mid January to send them flying.
The Spencer Davis Group – which had dropped the ‘e’ from its co-founder’s name – were on a roll.
A follow-up song Somebody Help Me also topped in the charts in March 1966.
The Rolling Stones managed just one week at No 1 that year when Paint it Black topped the charts in May, weeks before England’s World Cup Win.
Meanwhile, there were two more massive hits in store for guitarist Spencer along with drummer Pete York and Great Barr brothers Muff (bass) and Steve Winwood (vocal, keyboards).
Gimme Some Loving reached No 2 in November and I’m a Man peaked at No 9 in February, 1967.
But by then the fire was fading, in as much as star man Steve Winwood – from Atlantic Road in Great Barr – was destined for pastures new with Traffic and Blind Faith.
Spencer kept the band going without Steve, even turning down Reg Dwight (Elton John) as a potential replacement singer.
“It was 1967, but while I liked his songwriting, I didn’t think he was right for us,” said Spencer who met Jimi Hendrix, toured with The Stones and The Who and jammed with Charlie Watts and Jack Bruce.
Decades later, it’s 2014 and Spencer has recently turned 75.
As he prepared to play Birmingham’s Symphony Hall for the first time he gave me what turned out to be his last interview with us…
Spencer’s teaching career at Yardley’s Whittington Oval School was short and not always sweet.
“I found I was earning more money playing blues and moved to Sutton Coldfield,” he says.
“One day at The Oval I had a small milk bottle thrown at my head.
“I grabbed two kids by the hair and banged their heads together.
“The headteacher, whose name Entick Mapp was, I think, Scandinavian, said: ‘We’ll call it unorthodox this time’.
“But I knew my days as a teacher were numbered.”
Goodbye blackboard way, hello music…
Spencer Davies looks back
Nobody could be a 1960s’ star without without having a few stories up their sleeve.
You just had to survive long enough to tell them.
As former Yardley teacher Spencer Davies put it so brilliantly in a 2014 interview with me: “I had a drug problem – I couldn’t afford them.”
If only that were true for Rolling Stones’ founder Brian Jones who drowned in his own swimming pool at the age of just 27 on July 3, 1969.
By then, Spencer had an anecdote good enough to last a lifetime.
Like The Spencer Davis Group, the Stones’ origins were in the blues and both bands had toured together.
“There was a scene (in Birmingham) with hash or pot and I knew some of those having their fair share of it,” Spencer told me.
“The Elbow Room (in Newtown near to The Barton’s Arms) was the main source of supply.
“I remember driving and Brian Jones (from the Rolling Stones) shoved some amyl nitrate under my nose.“
I said to him: ‘I am driving, for God’s sake Brian!’
“But he was a talent. Brian founded The Rolling Stones, there’s no getting away from that.”
Perhaps if it hadn’t been for the success of the Spencer Davis Band and mid-60s contemporaries The Moody Blues, perhaps we’d never have had ELO, Black Sabbath or Duran Duran following in their wake.
In the early 60s, Spencer he was playing folk clubs alongside Ian Campbell, whose sons Robin and Ali were founder members of city reggae legends UB40.
Looking back 50 years to his own band’s origins, Spencer said: “We helped to put Birmingham on the musical map with rhythm and blues.”
In the evenings he would play his 12 string guitar and sing traditional blues songs at various venues in the city and for a short time formed a duo with future Fleetwood Mac member Christine Perfect (McVie).
Just like the long demolished Golden Eagle on Hill Street where he had a residency, Spencer was hugely disappointed that The Crown on Station Street – where Black Sabbath played their first gig for then manager Jim Simpson – was closed in June 2014 after being bought by Japanese development company (which is still sitting on it).
“When Liverpool demolished The Cavern at least they built a replacement,” Spencer told me.
“But can you imagine San Francisco wanting to get rid of its street cars? Or Blackpool its trams? There would be a revolution.”
The one regret
Spencer was a man who always liked to look forward, but his biggest regret was not have had the foresight to take charge of his own affairs earlier.
The Spencer Davis Group’s original manager was Island Records founder Chris Blackwell.
But Spencer says their songs were sold without his knowledge to United Artists for $180,000.
“It was a classic case of the horse having bolted because I didn’t know how to lock the stable door at the time.” Spencer told me.
“So many bands in the 60s were just delighted to see their songs on a recording but when you have one person as a agent, publisher and producer that was a conflict, big time.
“If you have written something… trust me, the red flag goes up every time someone says ‘I can help you’.
“I then formed my my own management and publishing company and joined the Performing Rights Society.
“One of our singles Time Seller wasn’t a big seller despite its name, but when the Allman Bros covered the B-side Don’t Want You No More it sold six million copies.”
The upside is that Spencer enjoyed many of the trappings of fame – but not as many of the downsides.
Although Spencer never became as big of a star as he might have done, the important thing is that he didn’t have to go back to civvy street.
“There’s no harm in being an eternal optimist who keeps trying.” he said.
“I’m still writing and recording today and will never stop.
“When I’m in a studio, the only time I’m interested in the new bells and whistles is for editing, not recording.”
Being given a harmonica at the age of five helped to turned him into a multi-instrumentalist – because when he then wanted a guitar his parents turned that request into a piano accordion.
“I can only think they must have got a deal,” he mused.
But he learned to play it well enough to go busking and that paid for his first guitar at the age of 16.
Fluent in German, French and Spanish, he lived on Gladstone Road, Sparkhill during his University of Birmingham student days and showed a flair for finance by re-renting a room to a fellow student
“I learned things like that from my mother who was as sharp as a whip,” he said
“My middle daughter, Lisa, is the same, she was the office manager for Neversoft, the (former) company which created Guitar Hero.”
Home is where the heart is
In his later years, Spencer lived on the 22-mile island of Catalina off the coast of California, where the town of Avalon makes use of the Welsh word for apple.
But he still loved to return to his mother’s former home in Swansea to enjoy its view of The Mumbles from the loft, saying: “I love going to the market and walking out with cockles sprinkled with pepper and vinegar.”
And, despite ill health in recent years – including several years with a mystery condition which defied diagnosis – Spencer enjoyed a fair amount of luck.
“My dog Dexter chose a $5 lottery ticket for me in 2012 and it won $250,000 – or $187,000 after Uncle Sam had taken his cut.
“I tried to claim that the dog wasn’t a taxpayer.
“Another time I was in Germany, I put a 200 euro note into a machine and won 5,000 euros.
“I put another 200 in and won 6,000.
“Everyone else in the band then put in 100 and nothing came out.
“I then put in another 200 and won 6,000, making 17,000 euros in total which I used to buy a Mini Cooper S.”
Not that he was afraid of making savings where savings could be made.
“I hear these days they are selling jeans that are pre-ripped,” Spencer said.
“I noticed my jeans had ripped at the knee only this morning so look at this… I’ve stitched it up myself.”
+ Spencer Davies died in California on Monday, October 19, 2020 aged 81.