Monday, June 11, 2012

The Spencer Davis Group honoured in California

Catalina Island off the coast of California is home to the British musician Spencer Davis. And from 30 June until  22 August the island's museum will be host to an exhibition entitled Gimme Some Lovin’: The Spencer Davis Group.

Not only that. On 30 June the island will see a symposium. The Catalina Island Museum Presents The British Invasion Rocks America is billed as "the first of its kind" and will examine the movement of the blues from America to Britain and back to America during the British Invasion.

And it has a remarkable list of participants:
  • Spencer Davis himself
  • Mickey Dolenz from the Monkees
  • Peter Asher from Peter and Gordon (who once left a comment on this blog)
  • Emperor Rosko, the famous DJ
Sadly, I don't suppose I shall be on Catalina Island for these events - there will also be a concert from Spencer Davis and the Catalina Island All-Stars and a firework display on 4 July - but I did shake hands with Spencer when he played in Market Harborough.

But thanks are due to Jessica Zumberge from Catalina Island Museum for sending me the photographs used in this post (the two below come from Spencer Davis's own collection) and also its press releases about the exhibition and the symposium.

On the exhibition they say:
The exhibition Gimme Some Lovin': The Spencer Davis Group opens on June 30th at the Catalina Island Museum and is the first exhibition dedicated to the band. The exhibition draws from Spencer Davis’ own archive of photographs, memorabilia and recorded interviews. “Unlike so many groups coming out of Britain in the mid-1960s, the Spencer Davis Group was not a pop band trying to emulate the Beatles,” 
Michael De Marsche, director of the museum and curator of the exhibition recently stated. “They were a band heavily indebted to American blues. They incorporated that sound with greater authenticity than any other band of the time—British or American. My question was: how did a bunch of white guys from England and Wales create music that sounded like it came from rural Mississippi or Alabama?" 
To answer the question De Marsche sought out Spencer Davis, a long-time resident of Catalina Island ... 
“I’ve been interested in the influence of the blues on British rock for a long time. I thought I knew a thing or two until I met Spencer. His knowledge is absolutely encyclopedic, and his interest started when he was a kid. He had exotic tastes for his native Wales, and he developed early an abiding love for black musicians from the American South. The raw emotion of the blues was far different than anything he could hear on BBC radio. The music inspired him to pick up the guitar and sing. After he enrolled in college, he realized that he could make a little money singing and playing the blues in little pubs and coffee shops.” 
It was during Spencer Davis’ earliest days as a musician that a single comment from a pub owner changed his life. 
“He was told that the trend was toward hiring groups like the Beatles, who were now all the rage in Britain,” states De Marsche. “He’s living in Birmingham and begins to search the city for a few musicians who might share his interest in American blues. 
"He finds himself one night in a dark, little back room and hears a boy of 15 who is, in Spencer’s words, playing the piano like Oscar Peterson and singing like Ray Charles. He recognized immediately that Steve Winwood was something special. But, as Spencer is fond of saying, the important thing was that they had similar record collections.” 
Spencer Davis’ discovery of Steve Winwood’s immense talent is a defining moment in rock history. Joined by Steve’s brother Muff on bass and Peter York on drums, the Spencer Davis Group exploded onto the rock scene, releasing within a startling brief period of time a series of hits, including “Somebody Help Me,” “Keep on Running,” “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man.” 
The band rocketed from obscurity into instant stardom. Much of the group’s popularity was based on Winwood’s voice, which seemed to strain plaintively for every note. Few bands incorporated better the emotion of the blues with the driving beat, lilting rhythms and melodic lyricism of the Mersey Sound.

And on the symposium:
On December 10, 1963 the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite introduced the American public to an obscure band from Liverpool that was causing near riots among teenagers in Great Britain. The following day disc jockeys in America were inundated with calls from anxious teens to play the music of The Beatles. When the band played on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964 nearly half of all American television sets were tuned to the broadcast. 
Two months later, the “British Invasion” was in full swing, and Beatles songs held the top 5 spots of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, a feat that has never been equaled. During the next three years British groups dominated British and American charts. Groups and individuals like Peter and Gordon, The Animals, Manfred Mann, Petula Clark, Herman’s Hermits, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Dave Clark Five, Donovan and the Spencer Davis Group changed the course of American music and the landscape of pop culture forever. 
But just what was it that made these British groups so appealing to American teenagers? In many respects the answer is surprising. This symposium The Catalina Island Museum Presents The British Invasion Rocks America is the first of its kind and will examine the movement of the blues from America to Britain and back to America during the “British Invasion.” ... 
Grounded in the recordings of African-American artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, the roots of the British Invasion were in the poor rural areas of the American South. Labeled the “blues,” it developed from the spirituals of black churches, the chants of workers in cotton fields, and the plaintive songs that filled the long, lonely evenings of Southern prisons. 
Because the blues emanated from the black American South, its artists were condemned to obscurity in the 1950s. Rejected by a predominantly white establishment that related the sound with its African-American roots, the blues was labeled dangerous and a potentially corrupting influence on American youth. But singers like Little Richard, Chubby Checker, Bill Haley, Fats Domino and Elvis Presley discovered popular success by incorporating the blues into a sound that would become known as “rock n’roll.” 
To appeal to a wide audience, the earliest rock n’roll recordings present a more acceptable, “homogenized” version of the blues. Its simple solos laden with melancholy were transformed into a dance music played by four-piece combos that sped up its tempo and underscored its melody with a driving, rhythmic beat. 
In Britain, however, teenagers living in cities like Liverpool were purchasing recordings from sailors who had acquired a taste for the blues while traveling to American port cities like New Orleans. The gritty authenticity of the sound was irresistible and vividly evoked the smoky juke joints and sun-bleached cotton fields of a black America that was far away and, therefore, fairly benign to British tastes. It offered a striking contrast to the soft jazz and classical symphonies that dominated British radio, which was strictly regulated by the BBC.
I shall be very interested to hear or read the conclusions of this symposium, because the way that white, middle-class British youth took to the blues puzzles me too.

The common factors I have noticed amongst British musicians of this era are that they had fathers who were in jazz bands, meaning they grew up familiar with black music, and sang in church choirs as boys, meaning that they had a good musical education.

But that explains why the ground was fertile, not why the blues were the seed that grew so vigorously.

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