Jeff Meshel's World

133: Spencer Davis Group (Stevie Winwood), ‘I’m A Man’

Spencer Davis Group, ‘I’m A Man’

I never cease to be amazed at the disparity between what you expect from some ostensibly tasteful people and their ringtones. You know, like the professorial octogenarian on the train, and all of a sudden some crass electronic salsa comes blaring out of his iPhone.

I of course have a metal bell ringtone on my phone. But I’ve often wondered, if I had to pick a pinch of music that would identify me to all those people on the train, and one that I had to hear at least five times a week (I don’t get a lot of calls), what would it be?

I’m not sure how well I could hear a bass guitar above the rumble of the train, but mundane technicalities aside, my runaway choice would be the spooky, funky, dark, glorious introduction to The Spencer Davis Group’s ‘I’m A Man’ – written, played, and sung by the 18-year old Stevie Winwood.

Stevie was a 15-year old Birmingham schoolboy when he formed a band with his brother Muff and their mate Spencer. Muff: “Spencer was the only one who enjoyed doing interviews, so I pointed out that if we called it the Spencer Davis Group, the rest of us could stay in bed and let him do them.” They had two very forgettable hits in 1966 which will remain uncited here. Then in 1966-7 (“Although the recording is said to be late 1966, this date is in fact controversial. In an article and an interview on the “Living Archives” (Elävä arkisto) website of YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation, the producer of the original live recording, Mr. Tapani Karhu, clearly states that the date of the show was 19 March 1967.”) [SNORE—JM] they recorded two stunning, deep black-and-blue smash hits cut from the same bolt of cloth, “Gimme Some Lovin’” and our SoTW, ‘I’m A Man’.

Both songs are co-written by the adolescent Winwood, ‘I’m A Man’ together with Yankee mega-producer-to-be Jimmy Miller (“Beggar’s Banquet”, “Let It Bleed”, “Blind Faith”). I don’t know what instruments Stevie plays on the recordings. On these very live versions of ‘I’m A Man’ and “Gimme Some Lovin’”, he plays organ. (Why are organists always pushing all those buttons? It almost always sounds like a skating rink anyway. But not in the masterful hands of Stevie Winwood.) For my money, he’s the most talented white multi-instrumentalist in rock (no one’s going to try to compete with that other Stevie W., right?), rivaled only by Stephen Stills. He plays organ, piano, acoustic, rhythm, lead and bass, all brilliantly, all worth the price of admission.

I don’t know who plays bass on the recorded version of ‘I’m A Man’. It might be Stevie’s older brother, but if you watch him fumble through the bass intro on the live version, and then compare it to the memorable recorded version–I’d put my money on the younger Winwood.

And that’s not to mention his voice, one of the most distinctive and soulful ever heard in honky town. Listen to his rendition of ‘Georgia On My Mind’. He admits his debt to Ray Charles, and the surface similarity is obvious. What I find so remarkable is this British kid doing The Genius’s song with such mature respect, without slavish imitation and without competing. His treatment is mature, self-confident, and virtuosic. Stevie Winwood’s voice takes a back seat to absolutely no one, never.

So what about the song ‘I’m A Man’ itself? The bass, the shakers, the Hammond, the little bell, the guitar, the drums, the handclap, the voice, the backing vocals, Jimmy Miller’s percussion embellishments. Ay ay ay, it just doesn’t get any better than that. The lyrics rank with The Rolling Stones of that era (‘Satisfaction’, ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’, ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby’) for indecipherability, but who cares?

Stevie went on to bigger things (Traffic, Blind Faith) but never better ones. There is nothing better than these two songs. The kid is eighteen, his acne clearly showing in the close-ups. But, oh, the voice.

I have a long history with ‘I’m A Man’. Once upon a time I directed a funky, punky ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in a discotheque. The actors occupied the dance floor, the audience the rest of the space. The first two scenes dispense with the young royals in the palace, and with the rustics. Then the third scene gets into the nitty-gritty: the haunted, enchanted wood inhabited by Oberon, Titania, and a whole gaggle of fairies. I like visual (as opposed to verbal) theater, especially Shakespeare (“Would he had blotted a thousand”). So instead of Puck describing the frightful atmosphere of the forest Elizabethan pentameter, I had a lot of luscious lasses in lascivious leather leaping across the disco floor, strobes all a-strobing. And some Winwood thumping that inimitable bass introduction to ‘I’m A Man’.

That’s my ringtone.

Well my pad is very messy and there’s whiskers on my chin
And I’m all hung up on music and I always play to win
I ain’t got no time for lovin’ cause my time is all used up
Just to sit around creatin’ all that groovy kind of stuff.
I’m a man, yes I am, and I can’t help but love you so
I’m a man, yes I am, and I can’t help but love you so

Well if I had my choice of matter I would rather be with cats
All engrossed in mental chatter moving where our minds are at
And relating to each other just how strong our wills can be
I’m resisting all involvement with each groovy chick we see

I got to keep my image while suspended from a throne
That looks out upon a kingdom full of people all unknown
Who imagine I’m not human and my heart is made of stone
I never had no problems and my toilet’s trimmed with chrome

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