The Spencer Davis Group - interview with Pete York

 

I have loved the Spencer Davis Group’s records ever since I first heard them in 1966 and 1967. Their hits include Keep On Running, When I Come Home, Gimme Some Lovin’, I’m A Man, and Somebody Help Me. The band was from Birmingham, a quartet of Spencer Davis (guitar and vocals), Steve Winwood (organ, guitar, and most of the lead vocals), his brother Muff Winwood (bass, backup vocals), and Pete York (drums).

During a recent course I gave on the British Invasion, I showed some of the excellent DVD of the band live in Sweden in 1966, and it was so terrific that the attendees insisted I show them more than one song. This interview was conducted via email in June 2015.

EARLY DAYS AND INFLUENCES

Craig Morrison : What kind of music did you hear at home ?

Pete York : We had a radio, no records, and I heard various styles of jazz. I was around eight years old when I began to search out music that I liked. It was mostly dixieland and big bands. No rock back then. Later we had a 78 gramophone and then a record player for singles and LPs. The first LP I bought was the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert [of 1938].

CM : What inspired you to play the drums ?

PY : This music often featured drummers, particularly Gene Krupa. I used to keep time on a little brass bell which was an antique decoration in our house. Drove my father mad.

CM : What did your parents think of your career in music, and the music that you made ?

PY : My father wanted me to have a good regular job in industry ; my mother supported me as she loved the music. When we became successful they were both happy, although my mother died soon after the first big hits. She did at least enjoy my fame, if briefly.

CM : What were some of your early experiences hearing live music ?

PY : First big name live concert was Count Basie in maybe 1958, Sonny Payne on drums. Huge impression. Soon after this I saw [Duke] Ellington, [Louis] Armstrong, Cannonball [Adderly] ; they all came over on tour. Buddy Rich in 1966 knocked us all out and urged me to work more on some chops.

CM : Was the dixieland you heard the British trad [traditional] bands ?

PY : I don’t know how or why but I liked better the US bands. Trad didn’t quite make it with me except for the Alex Welsh band which had a great drummer, Lennie Hastings. We have to be careful because dixieland, New Orleans, and Chicago style are sort of the same feel.

CM : Do you still like or listen to dixieland ?

PY : I still listen to dixieland. Eddie Condon and all the great guys who played with him, Bob Crosby with Ray Bauduc on drums, Pete Fountain with Jack Sperling on drums. I never stopped listening to Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. These guys are just too strong to forget about.

CM : Can you give me your birth date and place ?

PY : Middlesbrough UK, August 15, 1942.

CM : Did you play other instruments ?

PY : My mother wanted me to play the clarinet because she loved Benny Goodman. But I loved the rimshots and tom-toms of Krupa which were exciting for me. Later at school I played the trumpet in addition to drums.

CM : I know Spencer brought in some skiffle influence. Were you interested or involved with skiffle yourself ?

PY : I had a skiffle group at school with two guitars, tea chest bass, me and a trumpet player. I’m sure we were crap. I lost interest after my school days. It was a bit insipid, like folk music. I like sexy music. Remember what jazz and rock ’n roll really mean. It’s all to do with fucking.

CM : Did you have a mentor early or later that inspired you or opened doors for you ?

PY : After the hits with Spencer I decided I didn’t play well enough and I began to practice more. I went on the road with Roy Burns, an American who had played with Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson. He was a great help and the nearest thing to a teacher that I ever had.

CM : What did Roy Burns play and what was that band like ?

PY : Roy Burns was a drummer with beautiful chops, almost Buddy Rich-like. He was a master brush player. Roy was not in a band when I met him. He was staff clinician for Rogers drums, probably the best drums of the ’60s. Roy’s clinic was the best I have ever seen.

CM : What did you learn from him ?

PY : He taught me stick grip and a relaxed way to play, how to move the stick and conserve energy. No wasted motion. He used to say, look at me, I have no muscles, it’s not about strength.

THE SPENCER DAVIS GROUP AND THE BIRMINGHAM SCENE

CM : What was the scene like in Birmingham ?

PY : There were gigs all over the place, jazz, folk and rock. We were the first to play real rhythm and blues, not the watery version they call r & b today. Not only does much of today’s music not have feeling, it also doesn’t have balls. You could sit in any night of the week and jam. Great training ground. We even jammed in strip clubs like in the old days in the US.

CM : What Birmingham bands/ musicians did you admire ?

PY : Moody Blues, Move, Roy Everett, Roy Wood, the Rockin’ Berries.

CM : Were you close with any of the other bands, or was there rivalry ?

PY : We all knew each other and I think helped each other. The Moody Blues wanted to be a bit like us and Denny Laine learned blues harp from Spence I think.

photo at right : Steve and Muff Winwood, Pete York and Spencer Davis from The Spencer Davis Group - source

CM : Did the Spencer Davis Group pay much attention to what other bands were doing at the time ?

PY : All four of us listened to different things. I guess I was jazzed out wanting to be Buddy [Rich].

CM : Were you impressed or influenced by bands that you shared a stage with ?

PY : When we heard some music that we liked as when the black blues and soul singers came to town and played the clubs we certainly would have taken this on board. We shared stages with the Stones, the Who, the Hollies, Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis - just about everybody.

I didn’t hear many drummers that impressed me on our own scene. Some hot drummers appeared in the ’70s. I was always off to jazz shows and saw all the greats. They really impressed me although no drummer has ever made as much money as Charlie [Watts] and Ringo [Starr]. But being great on your instrument has nothing to with gaining fame or fortune. It’s a matter of being in the right band at the right time. Our mistake was that we had that moment but were too dumb to build on it.

CM : I have a CD anthology of the Spencer Davis Group called 8 Gigs a Week. It’s two CDs of supposedly everything from the first incarnation, and I think in chronological order. I listened to it again last week (in the car so I may have missed some nuances) but I did not hear any drums on a few early tunes. Is that the case or were they just mixed very low ? On other tracks you are clearly present and on some very much featured. If it’s the case that you are absent, did that have to do with the skiffle component from Spencer ? Or was there a shift in your role within the band ?

PY : I think it’s a fact that drums were often under-recorded and I don’t remember anything that I did not play on. I sometimes used brushes which got lost in the primitive mixes. I was never a basher like Keith Moon or John Bonham. Always a jazzer at heart. That cost me a few gigs I guess.

CM : What are your favourite SDG tracks ? What tracks are you most proud of for your own contributions ?

PY : I am proud of having played on those hits and I believe Muff and I laid down good beats for Steve to work off. Steve was great to play with obviously. We all came out of a jazz background and I think our rock rhythms still swung. Our group was the group’s group at the time, although anything jazzy was regarded with suspicion by pop people. That hasn’t changed much. I play the way I feel and if anybody does not get it, they can book somebody else. The Spencer Davis Group was not the best music I have ever played. I have recorded around 200 LPs and CDs with many others and some of them were pretty good but not well sold.

CM : How was your experience with the first edition of the SDG, and with the post-Winwoods edition ?

PY : I had a great time with the first SDG becoming well known etc. Most of the money was ripped off because we were young and naive, but what the hell. I am still playing over 50 years later when many of my pals have died or given up. The post-Winwoods groups were not particularly comfortable ; Spencer and I had a different relationship. But I did meet Eddie Hardin and we formed our duo which was one of the most creative partnerships in my life. There I became a soloist and name drummer.

CM : I’m listening to an anthology called Taking Out Time of unreleased material/ alternates from the post-Winwoods SDG lineup, and Eddie Hardin’s voice can sometimes sound quite close to Steve Winwood’s. Any comments on this ?

PY : I think they were both influenced by some of the same people. Certainly Ray Charles.

CM : The sound of the post-Winwoods SDG lineup—repertoire, texture, etc.—sounds like a continuation of the earlier one. This makes me think that the band’s approach was clear from the beginning and just carried on in a logical evolution despite changes in personnel. Is this a safe assumption ?

PY : I think this is a fair assumption. Any band that has the hits that we did is going to have to go on playing them forever. But I never minded that. I’ll be playing them tomorrow for example.

CM : I’m listening now to the German version of Aquarius. I know that Spencer was fluent in German – were you or are you now ?

PY : I am fairly fluent but I retain the charm of making mistakes because the audience loves it.

CM : I have read that your break with Spencer was because he wanted a more commercial direction. Is that true ?

PY : There was a great deal of resentment that Steve left when he did [to form the band Traffic] and we definitely needed hits to keep up the touring standard. There were elements in the later bands that thought I was too jazzy and they bent Spencer’s ear. At one point I was in hospital waiting for an operation when they secretly auditioned someone else because panic was setting in about the future. My belief is that the jazzy element from Steve, Muff, and I made the first band the success that it was, so Spencer should have counted his blessings. Anyway I left because I didn’t like all the secret plotting. Surprisingly, Eddie left at the same time for different reasons and after a few months doing our own things we started our duo and made more satisfying music than anything I’d done before.

HARDIN AND YORK

CM : I was not familiar with your Hardin and York duo until now. You guys were amazing ! Were you familiar with Lee Michaels, the American organist who worked with only a drummer ?

PY : Hardin and York was, and still is, one of the best things I’ve ever done. We knew about Lee Michaels, also Teagarden and Van Winkle.

CM : How did you enjoy the duo format ? Was it liberating or restrictive ?

PY : When you have one instrument which plays the orchestra and a drummer you have enormous freedom. We fed each other ideas and I would call it liberating. The music could go anywhere. Eddie was never a jazzer as such but a great improviser and very exciting. He could change harmonies and keys at will because there was no tonal instrument with whom he had to communicate or cooperate. It got so I could anticipate a figure he would play and phrase with him. People thought we worked all this out but mostly it was spontaneous.

UPDATE


photo from Pete York’s website

CM : What’s happening with you these days ? You seem to be doing well and busy in music with a great career.

PY : My wife and I now live in Rottach-Egern in Bavaria. I expect to end my days here in this beautiful place at the foot of the Alps. I’m looking forward to a happy retirement.

I am booked on the Birmingham Jazz Festival in July [2015]. The reality of being a gigging musician today is no longer rosy, as you probably know. There are more musicians than ever, some pretty good, who are chasing too few work possibilities. When the laws of economics kick in it becomes plain that making a living wage is extremely difficult. Mass public taste continues to decline. Mediocrity becomes the norm. I can’t remember when I last heard a decent melody line with moving harmonies composed by a new artist.

CM : I do agree with you about the declining of public taste and am doing my bit to keep good music alive. The music I prize the most is what I teach in my courses, play in my bands, and write in my books. But harmony and melody have been eclipsed by rhythm and timbre in recent decades. With diminished attention spans you get a lot of simplistic repetition, which is usually annoying.

PY : I still fly the flag for "complete" music, i.e. that which contains all the elements.

CM : Thank you so much for being willing to chat with me.

PY : Thank you for your interest in doing an interview. Kind regards, Pete York.


comments or questions ? email me

I have also posted several other interviews with veteran and legendary musicians. To go to the index page, click here.

comments from readers :

Hi Craig, I’ve had a look and it’s very nice. Rare photo of Roy. I hadn’t seen that. Good luck in your endeavours. Kind regards, Pete [York]

I was at Birmingham University a year or two after Spencer, doing French and Spanish, and still remember the incredible voice of Stevie Winwood. I also remember Long John Baldry. - HM

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006