They say the greatest songs almost write themselves. Roy Orbison claimed Oh, Pretty Woman took him half an hour. Tony Iommi came up with the riff to Paranoid while the rest of Black Sabbath were at lunch. Keith Richards supposedly dreamt (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction in a Florida hotel room.
“The classic ‘wrote it on the back of a fag packet’ story was often true,” recalls Muff Winwood, then the band’s bassist. “Sometimes there’s that little bit of magic that you can’t put your finger on, but it happens and it just works. Gimme Some Lovin’ came really fast.”
So fast, in fact, that Island Records boss Chris Blackwell was convinced the band were wasting his time.
“We’d been rehearsing at the Marquee,” Muff laughs, “and he came down at midday but we weren’t there. We were down the road in a café in Wardour Street, and Chris found us in there. He went berserk: ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing with your careers? You’ve got work to do and you’re lazing around here!’ So we said: ‘Just wait until we’re finished, then come back and listen to what we’ve done.’
“We’d done Gimme Some Lovin’ in ten minutes and couldn’t believe how good it was. So we’d packed up and gone for lunch. Of course, when Chris came back and heard it his jaw just dropped. It just sounded like an instant hit.”
The Spencer Davis Group were on a roll by the end of 1966. The Birmingham four-piece’s electrifying mix of jazz, soul and R&B had already scored them two No.1 hits – Keep On Running and Somebody Help Me – and their first three albums had all gone Top 10.
They were led by Spencer Davis, a Welsh disciple of folk and blues, but their star talent was Muff Winwood’s younger brother Steve, then only 18 but with a voice like Ray Charles.
Both previous big single successes had been written by Jamaican songwriter Jackie Edwards; now it was time for them to come up with their own songs. Blackwell brought in Brooklyn-born producer Jimmy Miller, ostensibly to ‘Americanise’ their sound, and packed them off to rehearse at the Marquee.
Once there, said Spencer Davis: “Muff played this bass riff at me. I thought it was nice, so I added some ascending chords while I told him to keep playing it. I started playing minor chords, but Steve went: ‘No, play majors.’ Then – bang! – it worked. There were no lyrics at that point.”
The end result thumps along to Muff’s bass line, Steve’s growling Hammond riff and a raw vocal delivery. It’s an exhilarating three minutes of prime 60s pop. Officially the songwriting credits are split three ways – Davis and the Winwood brothers – but Davis contends that “the person who actually came up with the bulk of the lyrics was a guy called Paul Metcalfe, who’s no longer on this earth. Paul was a graphic designer. He and Steve hung out as pot-smoking buddies.”
The music itself owes more than a little to (Ain’t That) A Lot Of Love, written by Stax soul star Homer Banks and Willa Dean Parker. The similarity in the bass lines is unmistakable.
“I think I came up with the bass line,” Muff says, “then somebody played me the Homer Banks song and said that I’d copied it. But I hadn’t even heard that record,” he insists, “even though it’s extraordinarily similar. I could have heard it subconsciously in a club somewhere, but I know that the two records are almost identically timed as far as release dates go.”
It’s a point that Davis, particularly, is keen to redress. “Am I guilty by association, or the innocent receiver of stolen goods?” he argues. “I’d like to put that record straight. Listen to the Homer Banks song. When The Rolling Stones did Rock And Roll Circus [December 1968], Taj Mahal played that song. I saw the film in Hollywood, and when I heard them do it I thought: ‘Are they all looking at me?’
“I do remember seeing the Homer Banks single, broken in half, pinned on the wall behind Blackwell’s desk in Oxford Street where his office was. I never understood the significance of that until I got a copy of the Homer Banks song. In all innocence, all I’d done was add a further chord to it. I have no qualms about all this, because I believe that people prefer to read the truth.
The band’s former drummer, Pete York, remembers the unorthodox input of producer Jimmy Miller: “For Gimme Some Lovin’, Jimmy came into the studio with this great big African drum, sat on the floor and pounded on it. At the end, when there’s that big note to finish, he hit it with this huge beater. He wanted it to sound as big and as thick as possible, bigger than anything I had in the drum set.”
The single was a huge success, just missing the No.1 spot in the UK and marking the band’s first US Top 10 entry. Six months later, Steve Winwood – who has since called the song “the bane of my life, because I’ve got to do it all the time” – announced he was leaving to form Traffic with his after-hours jamming buddies Chris Wood, Dave Mason and Jim Capaldi.
Meanwhile, Davis was quick to correct what he perceived as another contentious point of authorship. “When Gimme Some Lovin’ first came out,” he said, “there was only one name on it, which was Steve’s. But I said no, this is wrong. I don’t know how you go about putting these things right without people saying it’s acrimony or sour grapes, but you don’t want a situation years later like the one Procol Harum went through.
“If people can’t agree at the beginning, you just walk away. It’s so good to get things like this off your chest.”