DOUG THOMPSON – JOHN LENNON CALLED HIM ‘SPEN’

Although his legal name was Spencer David Nelson Davies (he dropped the ‘e’ from his last name early on), those of us who were fortunate enough to be his friend knew him as Spence.

When my friend died on Monday (October 19), the news hit me like the grill of a Mack truck going 200 (miles or kilometres, you choose).  Spence was 81 but I always thought he’d live into his 90’s.  His mother did.  He came from strong Welsh stock and that’s one of the initial things we had in common.

I first met Spence in 1981 at the coffee machine at Eastern Sound, a recording studio on Yorkville Avenue in downtown Toronto.  Having worked at CHUM radio from 1965 until 1972, I was well aware of who the Spencer Davis Group was.  The new line up of the group (Steve Winwood had left by ‘67) had even appeared at CHUM’s broadcast trailer at the Canadian National Exhibition in late August 1967.

CHUM Trailer at the CNE

As he was finishing pouring his coffee, I said, ‘You’re Spencer Davis!”  “I am” was his replied, “and you are?”  I told him my name and he said “Thompson?  That wouldn’t be Welsh by any chance, would it?”  I mentioned that my fraternal grandparents had come from Swansea.  “I’m from Swansea” he proudly announced.  I knew he was in Toronto producing an album with the Downchild Blues Band for Attic Records so I didn’t ask what he was doing, but then he said “so what are you working on?”.  I told him I was producing a John Lennon special for NBC radio in New York.  His eyes lit up. “John Lennon was a mate of mine”. “Wow!” was my response, “maybe you could come down to studio 3 later and do an interview with me for the special?”  “Delighted” was his reply.

True to his word, a few hours later, in the door he came.  We spoke on tape for over half an hour about Lennon and The Beatles and Spence’s connection and how he and his family became part of the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’.  Spence, his then wife Pauline and his two daughters, Lisa and Sarah are all in the photo included in the booklet with the vinyl album which also appeared on the cover of the 3rd issue of Rolling Stone magazine in 1967.  Spence is third from the left in the back row standing beside John Lennon.  Pauline is sitting in the row below him holding Sarah, with older daughter Lisa beside them, ducking down.

I won’t go into Spence’s background and musical history as you can easily find that in his obituary or on Wikipedia.  One of the better obits I’ve seen is from the Guardian.

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/oct/21/spencer-davis-obituary

I spent a lot of time with Spence over the years and even though he was 7 years older than me, he was constantly on the go, even well into his 70’s.  When I stayed at his place on Catalina Island, I had the guest bedroom, which was next door to his master suite.  I’d hear him get up at the crack of dawn, 6 or 6:30, make his bed, start the laundry, cook his breakfast, eat it, do the dishes, make a few phone calls and by the time I eventually rolled out of bed at 8:30 or 9, he’d already be having a second cup of tea in the kitchen and would casually say, “Oh, I thought you were planning to stay in bed all day.”  Then we’d be off for the day’s adventures.  He loved Catalina.

What’s Not to Love?

We’d either walk down the steep hill to the town of Avalon or take his golf cart or his 1967 Mini Cooper, that he had restored.  Cars are not allowed on Catalina unless they are small, so his Mini fit that criteria perfectly yet even then, he had to get written permission to bring it over from the mainland.

For several years, I worked for actor John Candy in Los Angeles.  John and I had been friends since the mid 1970’s when I hired him and other Second City performers for various radio commercials and we worked together on many projects over 17 years.  I had introduced Spence to John years earlier and one day in ’87, John said to bring Spence to the set of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” in LA.  Most of the movie was shot on location in New York, Chicago, Buffalo or wherever they could find snow, but some scenes (the interior of the plane, the cab ride to the motel, the restaurant scene where they discover they’d both been robbed at the motel plus a few others) were shot on the Paramount lot in Hollywood and on location in Glendale.

Steve John Spence and Doug

John and Spence instantly hit it off.  They were kindred spirits.  John was a musician-in-training and they both were incredibly charming.  Co-star Steve Martin often spent time in John’s trailer and when he popped by that day, John introduced Spence to Steve and Spence said to Steve, “I love your banjo playing.”  Steve softly replied, “I don’t play any more”.  “Pity” was Spence’s response.  Steve later did pick up the banjo again and released several albums and toured extensively.

I don’t remember what year it was, but I believe it was sometime in the mid to late 1980’s, Spence discovered that their former manager and credited record producer (It was really Jimmy Miller who produced the Spencer Davis Group hits), Chris Blackwell had sold all of the SDG master tapes without bothering to inform any of the members in the band (or pay them anything).

Spence was livid and contacted Pete York as well as Muff and Steve Winwood and the four launched a lawsuit against Blackwell in British court, which dragged on and on.  Blackwell (the founder of Island Records), who had so much more financial resources than any of the members of the Spencer Davis Group (even combined) kept filing appeals and Spence and the other three had to keep coming up with more and more money to pay British court costs.  Eventually, they decided to throw in the towel.  I was visiting Spence at his home in Northridge at the  time and he asked me to witness his signature on the final official document…so somewhere in the dusty and long forgotten files in Great Britain, there is a legal document with my signature just below Spencer’s, acknowledging the end of the lawsuit.

During much of the 1980’s and onwards, Spence was doing well financially.  Over and above his touring and appearance fees, he was receiving large cheques (checks for U.S. readers) for the use of “Gimme Some Lovin’” in several movies and commercials.  The song had been a huge worldwide hit in 1966 with Spencer, Steve and Muff Winwood credited as writers.  Fifty years after the song was a hit, the estate of American singer/songwriter Homer Banks sued for copyright infringement from his 1966 song “Ain’t That A Lot of Love” which came out a few months before “Gimme Some Lovin’”.  The opening bass riff on both songs is markedly similar, the only difference being that the Homer Banks intro has a slightly slower tempo.

After protracted legal wrangling back and forth, including the plaintiff’s claim that in Timothy White’s 1990 book “Rock Lives: Profiles and Interviews”, Spencer was quoted as saying they had used the opening bass riff from “Ain’t That A  Lot of Love”, the case was finally dismissed for ’insufficient evidence’ in 2019.  Although, Spence had always told me that he distinctly remembers a broken 45 tacked to the wall in manager Chris Blackwell’s office and it was that Homer Banks song, but he didn’t put two and two together until years later.

In 1994, I was scheduled to fly into LA on January 16th, but had to postpone for a week.  The next day, the 17th, the Northridge earthquake hit with a magnitude of 6.7 on the Richter scale.  When I did arrive, Spence picked me up at LAX and drove me back to his house, which had only sustained minor damage in the backyard where one wall by his swimming pool had collapsed.  The next day, Spence drove me around Northridge and showed me the devastating damage, including the three story apartment complex known as Northridge Meadows. that had collapsed on the tenants on the first floor killing most of them.  Ass ends of cars were sticking out after having been crushed by the building collapsing.  Cal State Northridge’s parking structure had completely been destroyed and was a mass of broken concrete and twisted metal.   All tolled, 57 people died and the damage estimate was twenty BILLION dollars.

A few years later, Spence bought a split level condo in the town of Avalon on Catalina Island overlooking Avalon Bay and he lived there for much of the year when he wasn’t on tour and during the last couple of years of his life, visiting doctors and hospitals.

Avalon Catalina

In August of 1997, my mother passed away and at the end of the year, my brother Tom, my sister-in-law Mani, their two pre-teen sons, Trevor and Randy and I decided to spend the Christmas holidays in Los Angeles and San Diego and New Years in Las Vegas (NEVER, EVER spend New Years Eve in Las Vegas.  NEVER EVER DO THAT!).  Spencer graciously invited the entire Thompson clan to his Northridge house for Christmas dinner.  His mother was visiting from Wales.  We got there in the early afternoon and Spence was showing my nephews around his house.  When they got to the garage, my nephew’s eyes almost popped out of their sockets.  There was Spencer’s ’67 Mini Cooper…but to my nephews, it was the car Mr. Bean drove on TV.  They had never seen one in person before.  So great guy that he was, Spence took the two boys for a spin around Northridge in the Mr. Bean car.  It was the highlight of the trip for them.  New Years Eve in Las Vegas was their nightmare.

One of the last extended times I spent with Spence was in either 2009 or 2010.  Spence was on tour with The Animals (although the only original member was drummer John Steel) in Germany and Great Britain.  Peter Barton was the tour organizer/lead singer, and did an amazing job in the Eric Burdon role.

I flew to London from Toronto and took a train up to Newcastle to join the last week of the tour.  That first night, four black men in tuxedos walked by Spence’s dressing room.  They all had English accents.  I asked Spence who they were as I hadn’t seen any performances yet.  He said, “that’s the Four Tops”.  I was aghast.  I said, “the Four Tops?  All of those guys had British accents!”  Spence slowly turned to me and quipped, “they’re the British Four Tops Doug.”  So, that night Spence was second on the bill playing live with The Animals band, followed by Pete Barton and The Animals.  Starting the whole evening off, were these four guys with British accents singing Four Top songs to CD backing tracks.

Spencer loved to gamble and especially loved electronic poker games.  I remember one time he was performing at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.  I had driven there from Toronto for a visit.  After dinner, but before he went to his room to change for that night’s gig, he motioned me to follow him to the back of the Casino where the high rollers slot machines were located.  He literally put his first three dollar coins into the machine and…WHAM! instantly won $1800.

Spencer was lucky that way.  A few years ago, I received an e-mail from him with a picture of his little dog, captioned ‘Lucky Dog’.  I was curious as to what he meant, so I called him.  Turns out, he’d taken the dog for a walk on Catalina, they’d stopped at the local Vons Market where Spence bought a few scratcher lottery tickets.  One of them won Spence $250,000.  That happened to him on a regular basis (only in much smaller dollar amounts).

His last CD, titled “So Far” was released in 2006.  In it, Spence re-visited his Welsh roots with songs like “Uncle Herman’s Mandolin”, “The Mumbles Train” and “The Swansea Shuffle”.  He also took a few sly swipes at nemesis Chris Blackwell with “The Viper”.

I last spoke with Spence a few weeks ago.  He did not sound like his old self.  He was on heavy medication and I had to strain to understand some of what he was saying.

The last couple of years, Spencer’s health was not good, especially after he had stomach surgery a number of years back that never completely healed.  He had to completely stop touring (even leaving a ‘Happy Together’ tour after only a few dates a year or so ago.  Then, with the help of his life partner June, it was one doctor visit after another, still more doctor visits and then, even more doctor visits.

On Monday October 17th the end came.

Spence is now in heaven with his friend John Lennon, and is, no doubt, cracking jokes and hanging out with John Candy when he isn’t trading licks and belting out songs with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Brian Jones and Willie Dixon and as the lyrics of Alan O’Day and Johnny Stevenson’s “Rock And Roll Heaven” song go, “you know they’ve got a hell of a band.”

=DT=

Doug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in radio and television, both in Canada and the U.S.  He’s won a shitload of awards for his creative efforts, over 150 at present count.  He’s interviewed as well as worked with, such celebrities as Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, Randy Bachman, producers David Foster and Bob Ezrin, Wolfman Jack, Jim Henson, Graham Nash and John Candy (with whom Doug created multiple radio series).

Doug began his radio career at CJCA, Edmonton, at the time, the number one Top 40 station in Alberta.  Less than a year after that, he was hired by CHUM Radio, Toronto, where he eventually became Production Manager.  For over a dozen years, Doug was Creative Director for Telemedia Network Radio, creating dozens of nationally (and internationally) syndicated radio programs.  He also created award winning radio projects for Rogers Radio as well as the ABC and NBC radio networks in the U.S. Starting in 2011, Doug created, wrote and directed for the Hi-Fi channel in Canada, “Hi-Fi Salutes”, a series of 28 episodes that profiled legendary Canadian musicians, producers, managers and DJ’s.  An episode from the first season won a Platinum award at the World television Festival in Houston, Texas. Also for the Hi-Fi channel, Doug also wrote and directed “Pressed In Canada”, a one hour television documentary on the early independent record companies in Canada.   Doug’s latest television documentary, 2016’s “Hitsville U.S. Eh!” is a one hour look at Motown from a Canadian perspective.  It aired on Hollywood Suite cable channel in Canada.

Doug has created and produced projects and programs for Sirius/XM Canada, NFL Canada and many other companies.  Since 2008, Doug has been a part time professor of broadcasting at Seneca College @York. At the moment, Doug has no plans to sit in a rocking chair in his backyard sipping Vernor’s Ginger Ale and growing old gracefully.

4 Responses to “DOUG THOMPSON – JOHN LENNON CALLED HIM ‘SPEN’”

  1. Wonderful, Doug .. a very personal spin to the tale of an icon.

  2. Peter Montreuil Says:

    Wonderful column, Doug!

  3. Love the stories! Great read.

  4. Damon Hines Says:

    Really lovely inside look at a man and music-maker much-loved by those in the know, which perhaps unfortunately – perhaps not – may not have included much of the music-loving and buying public…but DID include a couple of widely adored Johns. Thank you so much for sharing, Doug. D

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