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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It’s a classic. But this is one of those instances where we could have done without the actual lyrics.
What do you have against chrome-trimmed toilets?
One of the sweetest memories I will ever have! Thanks, Mesh, for granting me with the once in a lifetime opportunity to somersault my way into the Forum dance floor with ‘Im a man’ blasting all around me. To this day, whenever I hear that Bass/Hammond/Funky snair intro, I go back to the winter of 1995. And what a winter that was… 🙂
Great post. I like this song a lot and downloaded it a few years ago when I was creating a playlist of songs I remembered being on the radio in 1969, the summer I was 11 and had just arrived in the States from Europe and was hit with the wonder that was AM radio. (I’d grown up on Armed Forces radio and the German hit parade, but that’s another story.) But can you believe I’d never really taken in the opening bassline you write about here? I just played the song again. Wow, that IS a great opening, and I totally see how it would work as a ringtone! Beautiful! Now I have to think about what ringtone I would want (if I had a phone).
I do like Steve Winwood quite a bit, but sort of from the fringes–I’m no superfan. But I like a lot of Traffic, love Blind Faith, even sort of like some of the ’80s hits. I agree that “I’m a Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin'” stand out as mysterious, funky gems in his opus.
PS I had NO idea what the lyrics were before reading this post, either. Isn’t it crazy how I could dig this song for 40 years with no idea what the heck he was saying? (I don’t mind knowing now, though.)
great post jeff ! you get better every week
PPS And what an amazing lyric it is–about resisting “groovy chicks” in favor of a creative work ethic! This would NOT have been a top 40 hit if anyone had understood it! There’s not another song I can think of like it. Working and avoiding sex and romance are very undeveloped themes in popular music. Wow. Thanks, Jeff.
@Elizabeth–Hubba hubba! We need more songs about less love, more work!! Thanks for the encouragement.
I was around then between college and University and had a job with their management. The Spencer Davis group used to hang around with The Yardbirds’. Musically they were really nothing to write home about but Winwood was an absolute star, even then, and made the sum of the parts of the others into something reallly good. Stevie didn’t do so bad but he could have really been a contender. Sadly, as I remember, he was a bit wild and uncontrollable and somehow just could not settle. Eric Clapton, a friend and admirer, tried to help him bringing him into some of his sessions (under the name of Steve Anglo) but Winwood never really became any more than ‘a musician’s musician’, whilst many of his contemporaries (like Eric) really made it huge. I remember discussing Stevie at the time and he was lumped in with Paul Jones (of the Manfreds) who ‘management’ felt should have become a mega star but sadly, his personality meant that despite his great voice and ability to mesmerise an audience (and drive girls wild) he never attained the popularity he deserved as a solo star. He was one of the very best and could have been the new Sinatra. Shame for him really. Nevertheless, in those days they all made good money (providing management didn’t fleece them) so I guess he did OK out of that and presenting The Blues on radio and a bit of theatre work.
Very interesting, Adrian. I really didn’t follow the arc of the diver’s career in the 80s, etc, but I thought he’d done quite well in his career. I thought he lapsed into disco at some point. I heard a greatest hits at one point–once. Cried, never listened again. I’ve seen some clips of him playing with Clapton. I agree that he had really unlimited musical talent, but apparently not the artistry to mold it. Notwithstanding the first two Traffic albums. I guess Capaldi and Mason had a really good influence on him.
He really was amazing as a teenager. Played guitar, keyboards and Hammond organ to name but some. Although he had a reasonable career, he never became a ‘household’ name and most would never have heard of him. I don’t think he made it as a front man with his own group but really he should have had. He was a remarkable talent in the eyes of those who knew about these things and could, so easily have been a top name, in pop and Jazz too. Could have been huge like Clapton, Jeff Beck or Rod Stewart who were around at the same time working together at the Marquee. Clapton was always top dog in every group in which he appeared. Traffic was well thought of but never became a super group, I think Clapton helped him into Blind Faith but that didn’t really last. Now, I think, he is doing the rounds reprising his earlier career but in the second division. I was sad for him at the time but he was not unique in the way in which he lost out, there were so many others, now forgotten, like Zoot Money, Eric Burden, the list goes on.
Incredible, Jeff. I’m such a no-brainer for singers and you keep surprising me – some of those songs I danced too and never cared to know who sung what, and without truly understanding the words. This gentleman certainly made to the top of the unintelligibility list. Can you imagine how much lyrics and how much informations a non-English speaking child misses when listening to those great voices ?
Wow. You guys really have no clue about Winwood’s career, do you? Never attained the popularity he could have as a solo star? He was only the biggest R&B AOR star on the charts in the 1980s. Do “Higher Love”, “Back in the High Life”, “While You See A Chance”, or “Valerie” ring any bells? Back then, you could not turn on the radio without bumping into an SW song. He dominated the charts, went gold and platinum numerous times, won Grammys, had a slew of Number 1 hits, was the voice of Michelob, and was consistently in the Top Ten. And yes, as an MTV sex symbol at a boyish age 40, he was still driving the girls wild. A shy genius who sees himself as a musician first, I don’t think his ambition was ever to be a big star, but he accidentally ended up being one anyway. Now at 67, he still tours solo and plays to sellout crowds. He is a multimillionaire who lives on a huge country estate in England. He is still making music,and he has not lost his “artistry” one bit. When he toured with Clapton a few years ago, it was Stevie who was the crowd-pleaser. To this day, you can’t turn on any AOR or classic rock station and not hear a Winwood song. So lost out, no. Forgotten, no. It’s nice of Adrian to feel so sad about him, but he’s doing just fine, thank you.
Further evidence of SWs amazing – and very impressive- career is outlined on http://www.stevewinwood.com – look at the bio tab.
Got to say that I agree… with everybody. The miracle of the acne- faced English teen kid from nowhere who passed for ray charles, not just with uncanny vocals but wizardry and feel on the keys.
And the long, jammy, hippie-dippie recordings of traffic, the soulful but short-lived Blind Faith, which strongly influenced Layla (which would/coulda been to great hear SW singing/on). Then those slighly too slick and lyrically lite “hits” which feature many good-looking people (including the eternally chiseled SW), but remind me too much of EVERYTHING ELSE Michael McDonald recorded after What a Fool Believes.
So a stunning and precocious talent? One of the GOAT, with no end in sight. A spectacular songwriter? Yes, on two or 3. A very good songsmith on 5 to 7 others. While literally swooning over the first dynamic hits out the Spencer Davis Group, including Keep on Runnin’, the later solo stuff never got the blood boiling, no matter how many writhing dancers fill the frame.
Still, great to relive, rethink, reconsider, and crank up that hammond b-3 ONE. MORE TIME.
I first discovered this song on a soundtrack album for “Nighthawks,” where Keith Emerson covered it in a very minimal, coolly unemotional ways, although the lyrics were just as impenetrable. When I finally heard the original, it was a revelation, because until then I hadn’t even imagined the song could serve as a vehicle for anything but hip irony (and, to be fair, I still kind of like the Emerson version.
And “a lot of luscious lasses in lascivious leather leaping”? You alliterative minx, you. 🙂
Stevie Winwood holds a place of honor in my Pantheon of Voices.
“Can’t Find My Way Home” never fails to produce goosebumps, he transcends any genre.
Thank you for revisiting!