Fringe Box



Amazing Night In 1964 When Steve Winwood Played Guildford Civic Hall

Published on: 23 Oct, 2017
Updated on: 23 Oct, 2017

The year was 1964. The guy behind the microphone was virtually unknown at that stage. But for former journalist Dave Reading it was one of the musical highlights of his life.

Steve Winwood when aged 19.

It’s a Saturday night and the gig at Guildford Civic Hall is a sell-out. Outside, you find the usual small crowd of hopefuls who are planning to slip past the bouncer when he’s looking the other way.

Inside, the band is into its third number – a slow, soulful song with a Hammond organ backing. The bouncer is singing along in a low murmur, out of tune and out of time. He kind of knows the song from the band’s latest album.

A small group of young dudes in suits pass by at that moment. More sophisticated than the crowd inside the hall, they are jazz lovers who scoff at any form of music they don’t consider to be high art. That includes most of the pop stuff that’s in the charts – even the Beatles, who are still months away from their ground-breaking Rubber Soul album.

The young men stop outside the club, transfixed by what they can hear coming from inside. “Shit,” one of them says. “How the hell did we miss out on this? They’ve got Ray Charles in there.” Here, in their home town of Guildford, they’ve overlooked the musical event of the decade!

The bouncer gives a knowing laugh. “It’s not Ray Charles,” he says. “Look at the poster.”

The Spencer Davis Group with Steve Winwood second from left.

And so they turn together and look up at the advertisement just inside the entrance. “For one night only,” the poster proclaims. “The fantastic Spencer Davis Group.” For the singer behind the microphone is not a blind, black guy from Greenville, Florida, but a 17-year-old white kid born in Birmingham, UK. But if you close your eyes, you can hardly tell them apart.

This was Steve Winwood – a boy just out of school with a voice that brought you out in goosebumps. As he told the BBC years later, it was no accident that when people heard him on the radio they thought they were grooving to Ray Charles. He had worked hard at sounding like his idol. “I just ended up trying to copy him,” he told the interviewer. “It’s the way everybody learns. He became my model by which I learned to sing.”

Although Spencer Davis was the name on the posters, it was Winwood who people went along to hear. In 1964 there was a small group of us in Guildford, aspiring musicians, who hoped one day to play and sing just like those black guys on the records: not only Ray Charles, but also Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and John Lee Hooker.

The night Steve Winwood played at Guildford Civic Hall was one of the musical highlights of my life. Or at least it could have been if I’d managed to get tickets. I was one of the guys standing outside, forced to listen at a distance. With a few friends and a bottle of cheap white wine that we passed around, I stood there transfixed for more than an hour in the freezing cold – that’s how good it was.

More than half a century later, I still remember the best bits: the John Lee Hooker blues classic Dimples; Rufus Thomas’s R&B number Jump Back; and of course that Hoagy Carmichael masterpiece, Georgia On My Mind, the one that had caught the attention of those young Guildford jazz fanatics.

We had “discovered” Steve Winwood during one of our weekend trips by bus into Guildford. On Saturday afternoons a group of us would gather at the Astor record shop, which stood at the town centre end of Woodbridge Road, opposite Swan Lane.

We knew the assistant, so we would spend two or three hours in one of the sound-proofed booths listening to the new releases.

The Astor record shop (on the left) was next to the Astor cinema in Woodbridge Road, Guildford. Picture by David Salmon / Geoff Burch Collection.

First of all it was Elvis, Cliff Richard and Del Shannon; later it was the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Animals. And then we heard the Spencer Davis Group for the first time. This was different again.

It was raw and basic but we recognised greatness when we heard it. As we might have predicted, Steve Winwood went on to enjoy a lifetime of success – from his beginnings with Spencer Davis, through his Traffic and Blind Faith phase, through to his Arc of a Diver album and beyond.

As an occasional contributor to The Guildford Dragon NEWS, I’d be interested to know if anyone else remembers being at that Guildford gig. What are your memories of the night? Please leave a reply in the box below.

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