Steve Winwood – circa 1980
“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’m A Man’ (Steve Winwood, Jimmy Miller)
It’s the voice. The first thing that draws attention to Steve Winwood is his voice. With eyes closed, he sounds like a middle-aged African-American rhythm and blues singer. In reality, the voice comes from a skinny white teenager from England. Steve Winwood quickly demonstrates that he is not just a singer; he is a formidable keyboards player, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. He then goes on to notoriety as a songwriter and record producer as well. It is Steve Winwood’s voice that first brings him to fame – but there is a lot more to him.
This is the story of Steve Winwood. It includes his work with The Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith as well as his solo recordings. It does not encompass the lives and other recordings of the musicians Winwood works with in these groups.
Stephen Lawrence Winwood is born 12 May 1948 in Handsworth, Birmingham, England. He is the son of Lawrence Winwood and his wife, Lillian Winwood (nee Saunders). Lawrence Winwood is a foundryman by trade but is also a semi-professional musician, playing saxophone and clarinet. Steve has an elder brother, Mervyn ‘Muff’ Winwood (born 15 August 1943).
Steve Winwood becomes interested in swing music and Dixieland jazz as a boy. When he is 8 he begins playing guitar alongside his brother, Muff, and their father in The Ron Atkinson Band. Soon after, Steve masters the drums and piano as well.
There are other influences in Steve Winwood’s musical background. He recalls, “I was brought up a Christian in the Church of England…As a young boy, I was a choir boy and server [at St John’s Church, Perry Bar], and in fact, many of my musical influences come from Hymnals, Psalters and organ music from the English church…In 1962, around the age of 14, I drifted away from the church, although I have always been interested in anything religious and spiritual.”
Steve Winwood’s family moves from Handsworth to the semi-rural suburb of Kingstanding while he is ‘still young’. He attends Great Barr School in Birmingham.
Steve Winwood’s career in music takes off in 1961 when the 13 year old plays with a trombonist named Rico. By this time, Steve’s elder brother has an eight-piece mainstream jazz group, The Muff Woody Jazz Band. Steve sometimes sits in with them, supplying piano and vocals. Steve’s interests are broader than jazz, though: “I got thrown out of music school for listening to [1950s rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues pioneers] Fats Domino and Ray Charles.”
Spencer Davis, a lecturer at Birmingham University, also has a traditional jazz band. He and Muff Winwood occasionally appear with each other’s groups. However, Spencer Davis also plays blues in local clubs. In August 1963, Davis invites the Winwood brothers to join him in a new enterprise. Steve Winwood is 15 years old now. “I went straight from boy scouts to rock ‘n’ roll, fancy that!” he exclaims. The Spencer Davis Rhythm ‘N’ Blues Quartet consists of: Spencer Davis (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Steve Winwood (usually referred to as ‘Stevie’ because of his youth) (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Muff Winwood (bass) and Pete York (drums). The act quickly changes its name to The Spencer Davis Group. “When I started playing in a blues band,” Steve Winwood says, “I just wanted to bring [blues music] to a wider public [in Britain] who hadn’t really heard it [since it is an American music]…I really love the Americans and American musical roots. It could be my British need for discipline that makes me admire the American appetite for freedom and passion…There was an emotion and power in that music [i.e. blues] that [British] teenagers identified with.” The Spencer Davis Group scores a residency at a Birmingham pub, the Golden Eagle. Although they may start out as a purist blues act, The Spencer Davis Group swiftly adopts a wider view, taking in not only the blues of John Lee Hooker, but the music of rhythm and blues-flavoured pop singers like Betty Everett.
A turning point comes when Chris Blackwell catches a gig by The Spencer Davis Group. ‘Blackwell is astonished to find a young English singer who sounds a little like Ray Charles.’ Blackwell is a white Jamaican. In June 1962 Chris Blackwell founded Island Records to popularise acts from his Jamaican homeland. Rather than sign The Spencer Davis Group to his own, more ethnically focussed label, Blackwell arranges a record contract for them with the Fontana label.
Steve Winwood claims that, in the Spencer Davis Group, “We used to play the blues, play our own version of the blues.” That’s true enough in the beginning, but they are more accurately seen as ‘one of the British invasion’s most convincing rhythm and blues-based combos.’ The ‘British invasion’ is a term applied to acts from the U.K. who follows the famous Beatles’ example of scoring hits in America as well as their homeland. Other U.K. groups like The Animals and The Rolling Stones had already reinvented blues and rhythm and blues music and sold it back to the country of origin of those types of music. The Spencer Davis Group represents the next step in that evolution.
Despite having his name in the title, Spencer Davis is fairly comprehensively overshadowed by Steve Winwood in The Spencer Davis Group. Compared to the quartet’s resident wunderkind, Davis appears distinctly paternal.
The Spencer Davis Group opens their account with the 1964 single ‘Dimples’, a cover of a song by bluesman John Lee Hooker. This is followed in 1965 with ‘I Can’t Stand It’ (UK no. 47) and ‘Every Little Bit Hurts’ (UK no. 41). The latter is a cover of the Ed Cobb song first performed by Brenda Holloway in 1964 and Steve Winwood’s vocal wrings all the pathos from the slow, piano-based ballad. The three singles that start the career of The Spencer Davis Group are all present on ‘Their First Album’ (1965) (UK no. 6), released by Fontana in July.
Steve Winwood takes a break to cut a solo single, ‘Incense’, in 1965. The recording is credited to The Anglos with the incognito Winwood masquerading as Stevie Anglo.
The 1965 singles by The Spencer Davis Group continue with ‘Strong Love’ (UK no. 44). However, their next single is a major breakthrough. Producer Chris Blackwell supplies the group with ‘Keep On Running’ (UK no. 1, US no. 76), a song written by Jamaican singer Jackie Edwards. “Keep on running, keep on hiding / One fine day I’m gonna be the one to make you understand / Oh yeah, I’m gonna be your man,” sings Steve Winwood in a voice that’s thick with excitement. Musically, the band’s performance is perfectly matched to this breathless exhilaration. The pulsing rhythm is broken only by Steve Winwood’s remarkable bursts of fuzz guitar, brimming with dirt and distortion. ‘Strong Love’ and ‘Keep On Running’ both appear on ‘The Second Album’ (1966) (UK no. 3), released in January. The disc is co-produced by Chris Blackwell and Jimmy Miller.
In March 1966 Steve Winwood undertakes another extracurricular excursion. He participates in a group called Eric Clapton And The Powerhouse. At the time, Clapton is famed as the guitarist in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. The line-up of Eric Clapton And The Powerhouse is: Eric Clapton (guitar), Stevie Winwood (vocals), Paul Jones (harmonica), Ben Palmer (piano), Jack Bruce (bass) and Pete York (drums). Originally, Ginger Baker was to be the band’s drummer but when that plan fell through Winwood enlisted York, his colleague from The Spencer Davis Group. Jones and Bruce both hail from British pop group Manfred Mann. Ben Palmer played in The Roosters (March 1963 – October 1963) with Clapton – and Paul Jones also occasionally played with that act. Eric Clapton And The Powerhouse never play live but they record three songs with producer Joe Boyd for the Elektra Records sampler ‘What’s Shakin’’ (1966). Those songs are two blues covers (Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’ and Memphis Slim’s ‘Steppin’ Out’) and one original song (‘I Want To Know’). The last-named piece is said to be written by S. McLeod, but this is thought to be Paul Jones using a pseudonym derived from his wife’s name, Sheila McLeod. Winwood too uses a pseudonym, resurrecting the Stevie Anglo identity to avoid legal complications. Eric Clapton And The Powerhouse is very short-lived. Clapton goes on to form Cream instead with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker (July 1966 – November 1968).
Jackie Edwards is again prevailed upon to supply a song for the next single by The Spencer Davis Group. ‘Somebody Help Me’ (UK no. 1, US no. 47) doesn’t disappoint. The tune is again limned by Steve Winwood’s distorted guitarwork. Unlucky in love – “When I was just a little boy of 17,” sings the 17 year old Winwood – the narrator is left to howl, “I need someone in my life / I need a girl to hold me tight / Someone to make me feel, yeah, make me feel all right.” ‘Somebody Help Me’ is followed by ‘When I Come Home’ (UK no. 12) and both are included on the Chris Blackwell produced ‘Autumn ‘66’ (1966) (UK no. 4), issued in September.
The Spencer Davis Group records one more single in 1966 – but it is the all-time best single to feature Steve Winwood. ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ (UK no. 2, US no. 7) is a brilliant evocation of swinging London in the mid-1960s. Steve Winwood’s vocal, ‘one of the most excited and exciting vocals ever recorded by a white man’, seems to ‘yank him out of his body.’ Such is the level of excitement that the words are somewhat garbled, but the lyric advises, “Been a hard day / And I don’t know what to do / Wait a minute, baby, it could happen to you.” The song contains a couple of major surprises. Instead of a fuzz guitar, Steve Winwood plays a surging Hammond organ on ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’, in the process creating one of rock’s most recognisable keyboard tones. “Being a keyboard player and a guitar player, I didn’t always do myself any favours like that,” Winwood notes ruefully, “because people didn’t know whether to see me as a guitar player or a keyboard player or a singer so perhaps I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades.” Additionally, ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ is the first major hit Steve Winwood has a hand in writing, co-writing with his brother, Muff Winwood, in this case. ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ sums up Steve Winwood’s talent and versatility as well as capturing the spirit of the era. “Those were exciting times,” he says of the mid-1960s.
Heading into 1967, The Spencer Davis Group issues the single ‘I’m A Man’ (UK no. 9, US no. 10). This track is co-written by Steve Winwood and producer Jimmy Miller. With its blaring organ, the song adopts an emergency siren tempo. It also seems to presage the onset of psychedelia as the rhythm and blues style begins to be supplanted. “I ain’t got no time for lovin’ / Cause my time is all used up / Just to sit around creating / All that groovy kind of stuff,” insists the lyric, before adding, “I’m a man / Yes I am / And I can’t help but love you so.”
The material issued by The Spencer Davis Group in Great Britain is reformatted in the U.S.A. for the United Artists’ albums ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ (1967) (US no. 54) and ‘I’m A Man’ (1967) (US no. 83).
On 11 March 1967 it is announced that Steve Winwood and Muff Winwood will both leave The Spencer Davis Group after their show on 2 April. “A band is not a marriage,” Steve Winwood sagely observes. Muff Winwood becomes a record producer.
“I wanted to explore music a bit more, to bring in more elements of music: folk, classical music and even elements of ethnic music…I feel I wanted to reinvent myself at 19,” Steve Winwood explains. On 18 March 1967, before he has even played his last gig with The Spencer Davis Group, Winwood announces his new band. The line-up is: Steve Winwood (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Dave Mason (guitar), Chris Wood (saxophone, flute) and Jim Capaldi (drums). The band’s lack of a bass player is usually compensated for by Winwood playing a bass pedal on the keyboards. Although initially unnamed, this act will come to be called Traffic.
“[Traffic] was a bit of a quirky, unusual band,” Steve Winwood admits. “It was never really mainstream.” They mix ‘eclectic pop singles’ and ‘improvising in a jazz-like manner.’ The most common songwriting configuration has Steve Winwood co-writing with drummer Jim Capaldi. It seems like the lyrics are primarily Capaldi’s work so they should not be seen as providing much insight to Winwood’s thoughts.
The four members of Traffic retreat to a cottage in Aston Tirrold in Berkshire for the next six months. In the argot of the times, they are ‘getting it together in the country.’ The group is intended to be a cooperative with the members living together in the same residence. Actually, there is a more practical reason for their rural idyll: “The main reason for doing it…was so that we could play music very loud any time of the day or night without getting complaints from the neighbours,” Steve Winwood admits.
Traffic emerge with their debut single, ‘Paper Sun’ (UK no. 5, US no. 94), in the summer of 1967. Unlike The Spencer Davis Group, Traffic is signed directly to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, which is now adopting a more cosmopolitan approach. Jimmy Miller acts as the band’s producer through the 1960s. ‘Paper Sun’ captures the times as adroitly as ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ – but the times have changed. This is the era of psychedelia, flower power and mind-expanding drugs. On ‘Paper Sun’ Dave Mason plays the sitar, an Indian instrument similar to a long-necked guitar. Its wiry twang has earlier been exploited by George Harrison of The Beatles and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. The sitar is a symbol of the whole ‘far out’ age. “But if you look around and see / A shadow on the run / Don’t be too surprised if it’s just a paper sun,” sings Steve Winwood in the nursery rhyme fashion common to psychedelia. Winwood is the co-author of the song with drummer Jim Capaldi.
Traffic’s second single for 1967 is ‘Hole In My Shoe’ (UK no. 2) (written by guitarist Dave Mason) backed with ‘Smiling Phases’ (co-written by the other three members of Traffic). ‘Hole In My Shoe’ has ‘dream-like imagery.’
Traffic’s third 1967 single is ‘Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush’ (UK no. 8). This group composition is like a child’s rhyme turned into a fusion of soul and psychedelia. It is created for the British film, ‘Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush’ (1968).
The debut album for Traffic is ‘Mr Fantasy’ (1967) (UK no. 8, US no. 88), released in December. None of the songs from the band’s first three singles are included on the album. The agonised, lovelorn acoustic guitar track ‘No Face, No Name, No Number’ (UK no. 40) from this album is released as a single in spring 1968. It is written by Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi. They are joined by Chris Wood to write ‘Heaven Is In Your Mind’, a song that is perhaps more representative of Traffic. The song’s precise and measured instrumentation is joined to a bit of hippie philosophy: “Guiding your visions to heaven / And heaven is in your mind.” The same songwriting trio contributes the similarly psychedelic ‘Coloured Rain’.
On 29 December 1967 guitarist Dave Mason leaves Traffic. Steve Winwood explains, “[Traffic] had some attempts at being mainstream. There was a song [‘Hole In My Shoe’] that was written by a member of Traffic, who was a member for a short while, called Dave Mason. He wrote a kind of pop song for us that became a hit in England but he soon left because we didn’t like the idea of having pop songs. We didn’t want really to be a pop band…so that all ended.”
On 2 May 1968 Steve Winwood plays organ on ‘Voodoo Chile’ by famed guitarist Jimi Hendrix. It is included on Hendrix’s album ‘Electric Ladyland’ (1968), released in September. The longer jam ‘Voodoo Chile’ (on which Winwood plays) should not be confused with the shorter, tighter ‘Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)’ (on which Winwood does not play) that later becomes a hit single for Hendrix.
On 1 June 1968 Dave Mason rejoins Traffic, six months after leaving. The group’s second album, ‘Traffic’ (1968) (UK no. 9, US no. 17), is issued in October. It is highlighted by Mason’s soulful groove, ‘Feelin’ Alright’ (US no. 123). The guitarist contributes three more songs to the disc, but the gulf between Dave Mason and the rest of the group feels wide. In October 1968 Mason departs once more.
Traffic splits up in January 1969. ‘Last Exit’ (1969) (US no. 19) in May closes the book on Traffic. Some tracks on this set were recorded live, others in the studio.
Steve Winwood’s talents make him much in demand. He is invited to join David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash around the turn of 1968-1969 in what becomes Crosby, Stills And Nash, a folk rock vocal harmony act. Winwood declines because he is already committed to another project.
On 8 January 1969 the formation of Blind Faith is announced, but auditions for a bassist are still being held. The eventual line-up of this act is: Steve Winwood (vocals, keyboards, guitar), Eric Clapton (vocals, guitar), Rick Grech (bass) and Ginger Baker (drums). Winwood and Clapton previously worked together in 1966 in the short-lived Powerhouse. Clapton and Baker then worked together from 1966 to 1968 in Cream. Rick Grech is recruited from a British group called Family. Blind Faith is arguably the first ‘supergroup’ – though Cream or even Crosby, Stills And Nash could also be considered to fit the definition. Most bands come from young friends starting out as complete unknowns. A ‘supergroup’ is a more artificial construct, a gathering of musicians who are individually famous already from their work in other bands. Even the name, Blind Faith, is chosen as an acknowledgement of the high expectations placed on the unit by the collective fans of the four musicians.
Blind Faith debuts amid much fanfare with a free concert in London’s Hyde Park on 7 June 1969. One hundred and twenty thousand fans attend. Blind Faith goes on to tour Europe in June 1969 and the United States from 12 July to 24 August 1969.
It is difficult to characterise the sound of Blind Faith given the paucity of their recordings. They are probably closer to Cream’s heavy blues sound than Traffic’s psychedelic jazz tones.
‘Blind Faith’ (1969) (UK no. 1, US no. 1) is released in August on Polydor in the U.K. and Atco in the U.S. The album’s best known track is Blind Faith’s cover version of Buddy Holly’s 1958 song ‘Well All Right’ (it was the B side to the early rock ‘n’ roller’s single ‘Heartbeat’). Blind Faith’s rendition of ‘Well All Right’ is marked by Eric Clapton’s serpentine guitar, though the track is sung by Steve Winwood. ‘Well All Right’ was also the first song Blind Faith played at their Hyde Park debut performance. ‘Blind Faith’ contains only six songs: ‘Well All Right’; one song each from guitarist Eric Clapton (‘Presence Of The Lord’) and drummer Ginger Baker; with the remaining three songs being Steve Winwood compositions. ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ is the most significant of the Winwood songs. The cover image for the album ‘Blind Faith’ causes some controversy. It is a topless teenage girl holding a small metal aircraft. In America, this shot is replaced by a more innocuous picture of the four musicians.
Blind Faith’s U.S. tour is described as ‘traumatic’ with ‘major rows’ between the musicians. Blind Faith break up in October 1969 after less than seven months together. Their brief existence is an object lesson in the inherent instability of supergroups.
While Steve Winwood was working with Blind Faith, his former comrades from Traffic had a new act of their own. Dave Mason, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi joined with Wynder K. Frog (a.k.a. Mick Weaver) (vocals, keyboards) as Wooden Frog (January 1969 to March 1969). This short-lived group never recorded.
After Blind Faith folds, Steve Winwood loiters with that group’s drummer in Ginger Baker’s Air Force (January 1970 to June 1970). Other familiar names in this rather amorphous crew include Blind Faith’s Rick Grech (bass) and Traffic’s Chris Wood (saxophone). The act releases two albums, ‘Air Force 1’ (1970) and a live recording ‘Air Force 2’ (1970), before falling apart.
Steve Winwood plans to record a solo album to be titled ‘Mad Shadows’. Work begins in 1970 with producer Guy Stevens. During the recording sessions, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi are enlisted to help out. Consequently, Traffic is reactivated as a trio in February 1970 and Winwood’s solo album becomes a new release by Traffic instead. Production duties are shared by Guy Stevens, Chris Blackwell and Steve Winwood. The title of the album, released in July, is ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’ (1970) (UK no. 11, US no. 5). The title track, arranged by Winwood, is a sixteenth century folk song. Actually, the origins of ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’ are more complicated. It is estimated that between one hundred and one hundred and forty variations of it exist, the oldest known example dating back to 1465. Versions of this traditional song hail from Oxfordshire, Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey and Somerset. As to the subject of ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’, ‘the popular interpretation is the effort of the people to give up alcohol distilled from barley…but there are many interpretations.’ Over a simple acoustic guitar, Steve Winwood sings the tale of “three men [who] came out of the west…and…made a solemn vow / John Barleycorn must die.” The crop is harvested (“They’ve hired men with their sharp pitchforks who’ve pricked him to the heart”) but, in the end, “Little Sir John and the nut brown bowl proved the strongest man at last” as the pervasiveness of alcohol is greater than any person. Chris Wood’s flute lends a sinister tone to this remarkable and unusual folk song. ‘Empty Pages’ (US no. 74), a poised and polished example of studio craft that survives from the original ‘Mad Shadows’ sessions, is actually the nominal single: “Staring at empty pages / Centred ‘round the same old plot.” Jim Capaldi co-writes ‘Empty Pages’ with Steve Winwood. ‘Freedom Rider’ also belongs to this set, ‘one of the finest Traffic albums.’
Although multi-tracking allows Steve Winwood to play multiple instruments, the trio format is not practical for Traffic’s live shows. Over the next few months the group’s membership expands dramatically. Bassist Rick Grech, who worked with Steve Winwood in Blind Faith, is the first new addition to Traffic in August 1970. In May 1971 the four-piece Traffic grows into a seven-piece outfit with the introduction of Jim Gordon (drums) and Reebop Kwaku-Baah (percussion) as well as the return of Dave Mason (guitar). This line-up plays only six gigs in the summer of 1971, but during that time a live album, ‘Welcome To The Canteen’ (1971) (US no. 26), is recorded. It is issued in September.
Minus Dave Mason, Traffic cuts ‘The Low Spark Of The High Heeled Boys’ (1971) (US no. 7), released in November. Produced by Steve Winwood, this album sets the pattern for the next few Traffic discs: a small number of tracks (six in this case) with one or more lengthy improvisatory works. Winwood ponders his years in Traffic and says, “I suppose I should say we had no eye or ear for commerciality. That was something that wasn’t of any interest to us. We wanted to particularly create something that we thought was unique or peculiar to ourselves.”
A U.S. tour to promote ‘The Low Spark Of The High Heeled Boys’ proves costly. Bassist Rick Grech and drummer Jim Gordon both bid farewell to Traffic. Steve Winwood is laid low by a life-threatening bout of peritonitis (an inflammation of the peritoneum, the thin tissue that lines the abdominal wall and covers most of the abdominal organs. It may be caused by a rupture of the appendix.).
By the time Steve Winwood recovers and Traffic reconvenes for ‘Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory’ (1973) (US no. 6) in February, the band’s line-up has been amended again. Replacing Rick Grech and Jim Gordon are, respectively, David Hood and Roger Hawkins. Hood and Hawkins are veterans of the Muscle Shoals recording studio in Alabama, U.S.A. Their presence is testimony to the musically challenging work Traffic is doing and the respect the band engenders amongst professional musicians.
Steve Winwood takes time out for ‘Aiye-Keta’ (1973) in July. This set finds Winwood working with African musicians Remi Kabaka and Abdul Lasisi Amao.
Traffic undertakes a world tour in 1975 with Barry Beckett (another Muscle Shoals musician) joining them on keyboards. ‘On The Road’ (1973) (UK no. 40, US no. 29), released in October, is recorded in Germany. It captures the sound of these shows.
The three Muscle Shoals musicians exit Traffic and return to their recording studio work in autumn 1973. Reebop Kwaku-Baah also decides to become a session musician and the percussionist leaves Traffic.
Bassist Rosko Gee joins Steve Winwood, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi in a new four-piece version of Traffic from November 1973. This incarnation of Traffic records the album ‘When The Eagle Flies’ (1974) (UK no. 31, US no. 9), produced by Chris Blackwell. The Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi composition ‘Something New’ from this set seems to presage the end of Traffic. Indeed, the band winds down in December 1974 to go on to new individual works.
Over the next three years, Steve Winwood builds Netherturkdonic, his own home recording studio in Gloucestershire.
‘Go’ (1976) is Steve Winwood’s next project. It’s a one-off unlikely collaboration with Stomu Yamash’ta, Klaus Shulze, Michael Shrieve and Al DiMeola.
Steve Winwood proceeds to his first real solo album. ‘Steve Winwood’ (1977) (UK no. 12, US no. 22) is released in June on Island Records, continuing Winwood’s relationship with Traffic’s old label. The album is co-produced by Steve Winwood, Chris Blackwell and Mark Miller Mundy. Jim Capaldi from Traffic plays drums on the album and co-writes most of the material with Winwood. One of the exceptions is ‘Vacant Chair’, co-written with Viv Stanshall (formerly of British rock humourists The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band but who works with Winwood in a serious, straight-faced mode). The disc is also host to the dark and creamy soul of ‘Hold On’, the crackling urgency of ‘Time Is Running Out’ and the meditative ‘Midlands Maniac’.
Nicole Tacot Weir provides backing vocals to some of Steve Winwood’s earliest solo work. She marries Steve Winwood on 31 August 1977 at Cheltenham Register Office.
In the late 1970s Steve Winwood seems to retreat from the music business. He makes his home on a fifty acre farm in Oxfordshire and devotes himself to clay pigeon-shooting, dog training and horse-riding.
Steve Winwood finally emerges from self-imposed exile with ‘Arc Of A Diver’ (1980) (UK no. 13, US no. 3) in December. This is Winwood’s best album. “My goal has always been to make classic records, classic albums,” he claims and this may be the closest realisation of that goal. It is a ‘majestic’ album that ‘exudes upbeat exuberance [and] a rapturous feeling of recovery.’ This is perhaps best exemplified by the album’s hit single, ‘While You See A Chance’ (UK no. 45, US no. 7, AUS no. 16). In this ode to the triumph of optimism, Winwood urges, “While you see a chance, take it / Find romance, fake it / Because it’s all on you.” Two factors distinguish this song – and the album as a whole. ‘While You See A Chance’ is co-written by Will Jennings, who becomes the primary lyricist on Steve Winwood’s songs. Secondly, keyboard technology has advanced to a point that Winwood can use his instrumental skills to become a true one-man band, multi-tracking synthesisers. More, ‘Winwood doesn’t just master the synthesiser, he humanises it.’ Synths often sound cold and robotic, but Winwood makes them seem more lively and warm. ‘Spanish Dancer’ takes a different tack, sounding delicate, yet steely. Viv Stanshall co-writes the title track, ‘Arc Of A Diver’ (US no. 48), and the album also encompasses ‘Night Train’ (US no. 104). This album is rightly considered ‘a landmark record’ in Steve Winwood’s career.
Steve Winwood considers going on tour after ‘Arc Of A Diver’, but instead throws himself into another solo album. The artist again plays all the instruments on the self-produced ‘Talking Back To The Night’ (1982) (UK no. 6, US no. 28). The tracks on the album include the brash title tune, ‘Talking Back To The Night’, and the plaintive ‘Help Me Angel’. Although it goes comparatively unnoticed at the time, ‘Valerie’ (UK no. 51, US no. 70, AUS no. 98) is first heard on this album. There will be more about this song later when it enjoys a second life.
The delayed tour of Britain and Europe is undertaken by Steve Winwood in 1983. Although his recent recordings have been made with Winwood as the sole musician, in taking on a tour he is accompanied by session musicians.
Another period of retreat follows for Steve Winwood. His marriage to Nicole Tacot Weir breaks down, ending in divorce in December 1986. In 1985 Steve Winwood begins dating Eugenia Crafton. “I had actually been thinking about giving up music altogether and doing something else around that time in the Eighties,” Winwood reveals. The singer also nourishes his spiritual side. “It wasn’t until I met [Eugenia] in 1985 and began to think about a family that I became again interested in Christianity.”
‘Back In The High Life’ (1986) (UK no. 8, US no. 3) is Steve Winwood’s bold declaration of return. Instead of recording alone in the British countryside, he travels to New York in the U.S.A. and records with session musicians and some well-known rock stars (e.g. Joe Walsh from The Eagles, Nile Rogers from Chic, James Taylor). Russ Titelman co-produces the set with Steve Winwood. The acoustic-based title track, ‘Back In The High Life’ (UK no. 53, US no. 13, AUS no. 87), seems filled with resolve and self-assurance. ‘My Love’s Leavin’’ comes from this album as does the horn-infused neo-soul of ‘Freedom Overspill’ (UK no. 69, US no. 20) (co-written with George Fleming and James Hooker). However, the most important track is ‘Higher Love’ (UK no. 13, US no. 1, AUS no. 8). Bolstered by backing vocals from funk diva Chaka Khan, this is a prayer of soulful aspiration: “Think about it, there must be a higher love / Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above / Without it, life is a wasted time.” Lyricist Will Jennings seems to be tapping into Steve Winwood’s own renewed Christian faith. ‘Wake Me Up On Judgement Day’ could also be interpreted as having a spiritual overtone. ‘Back In The High Life’ is Steve Winwood’s last album for Island Records, concluding a long association with that label.
Steve Winwood marries Eugenia Crafton on 18 January 1987. They go on to become the parents of four children: Mary Claire (born 20 May 1987), Elizabeth Dawn (born 1 December 1988), Stephen Calhoun (born 23 February 1993) and Lillian Eugenia (born 25 September 1995).
‘Chronicles’ (1987) (UK no. 12, US no. 26) collects together material from Steve Winwood’s first four solo albums. ‘Valerie’ (UK no. 19, US no. 9, AUS no. 19), from ‘Talking Back To The Night’, is remixed for this set and becomes a hit single. Co-written by Winwood and Will Jennings, this is a neat piece of pure pop: “Valerie, call on me / Call on me, Valerie / Come and see me / I’m the same boy I used to be.”
‘Roll With It’ (1988) (UK no. 4, US no. 1) is Steve Winwood’s first album for Virgin Records. It is co-produced by Winwood and Tom Lord Alge. The title track, ‘Roll With It’ (UK no. 53, US no. 1, AUS no. 36), finds Steve Winwood collaborating on the songwriting with not only Will Jennings but 1960s Motown Records hit-makers Holland/Dozier/Holland. “When life is too much, roll with it, baby,” is the sage advice of this warm, rhythm and blues-inflected song. The album is also home to ‘Holding On’ (US no. 11) and ‘Don’t You Know What The Night Can Do’ (UK no. 84, US no. 6), a ‘smoky ballad.’
‘Refugees Of The Heart’ (1990) (UK no. 26, US no. 27) is most notable for the rattling synths of ‘One And Only Man’ (UK no. 87, US no. 18, AUS no. 100), a track Steve Winwood co-writes with his long-time Traffic associate Jim Capaldi.
The appearance of Jim Capaldi foreshadows a new Traffic album, ‘Far From Home’ (1994) (UK no. 29, US no. 33). Actually, it is only a reunion of Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi (Chris Wood died of liver failure in 1983). The duo also undertakes a tour as Traffic. (Capaldi dies in 2005.)
‘Junction Seven’ (1997) (UK no. 32, US no. 123) is Steve Winwood’s last album for Virgin. ‘About Time’ (2003) (UK no. 97, US no. 126) is issued on Wincraft Music and ‘Nine Lives’ (2008) (UK no. 31, US no. 12) comes out on Columbia.
“One of my problems is I’m not really sure if I slot into rock or not,” said Steve Winwood. “I’ve always tried to combine world music, folk, jazz, blues and rock.” Yet it was this dizzying diversity that was part of Winwood’s appeal. His life and times spanned The Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Blind Faith, a solo career and various other combinations. He seemed equally at home burning up a rhythm and blues number in a club or playing organ in his local church in the Cotswolds. Maybe it’s because so many African-American rhythm and blues singers learned their craft with gospel numbers in the church that the vocal tones have a kinship. In the end, perhaps it all came back to Steve Winwood’s voice. Steve Winwood was ‘a former teenage rhythm and blues shouter who moved through jazz, psychedelia, blues, rock, and progressive pop.’ He was ‘generally acclaimed as one of Britain’s greatest white rhythm and blues vocalists.’
- lyricsfreak.com as at 19 August 2014
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 23 June 2014
- answers.com as at 25 August 2014
- wikipedia.org as at 23 June 2014
- ‘The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Eighties Music’ – Edited by Colin Larkin (Virgin Books, 1997) p. 477
- stribble.com/shortarticle via wellsofsalvation.com (21 January 2008)
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 25, 53, 141, 214, 229, 230, 231, 255
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 18, 33, 216, 233, 234
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 24 August 2014
- brainyquote.com as at 24 August 2014
- ‘Manchester Evening News’ (U.K. newspaper) – Steve Winwood: Music Has Been My Life’, interview conducted by Paul Taylor (27 April 2013) (reproduced on manchestereveningnews.co.uk)
- ‘Keep On Running’ – Sleeve notes by Rob Partridge (Island Records Ltd., 1991) p. 2, 4 ,6, 8, 9
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 70, 128, 137, 145, 155, 159
- WNYC (New York Public Radio, U.S.A.) – Steve Winwood interview conducted by Leonard Lopate (2008)
- allmusic.com, ‘The Spencer Davis Group’ by Bill Dahl as at 24 August 2014
- allmusic.com, ‘Steve Winwood’ by Steve Huey as at 24 August 2014
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Britain: The Second Wave’ by Ken Emerson (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 424, 425
- allmusic.com, ‘Traffic’ by William Ruhlmann as at 24 August 2014
- ‘Sunday Express’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘Growing Up In Public – An Interview with Steve Winwood’ by Jonathan Wingate (22 February 2011) (reproduced on express.co.uk)
- allmusic.com, ‘Blind Faith’ by Bruce Eder as at 24 August 2014
- ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’ (1970) – Sleeve notes via songfacts.com as at 24 August 2014
- whosdatedwho.com as at 23 August 2014
Song lyrics copyright Festival Music P/L / Warner/Chappell Music with the exceptions of ‘Keep On Running’ and ‘Somebody Help Me’ (both PolyGram Music Publ.); ‘While You See A Chance’, ‘Higher Love’, ‘Valerie’ and ‘Roll With It’ (all Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.)
Last revised 16 September 2014