Winwood, Steve (a.k.a. Stevie)
Winwood, Steve (a.k.a. Stevie)
Winwood, Steve, (a.k.a. Stevie) one of the most distinguished talents in English music; b. Birmingham, England, May 12,1948. Steve Winwood took to the stage as a teenager, and never let it go. At 15, he and his bass-playing brother Muff were asked to join the Spencer Davis Group. With Steve’s preternaturally soulful vocals, they generated hits with “I’m a Man” and the classic “Gimme Some Lovin’.” In other words, by 17, he had recorded a couple of songs that remain part of the litany of classic rock. Where that might have been the end for some artists, for Winwood it was just the beginning.
He formed Traffic, a group that reflected his burgeoning interest in jazz, successfully blending it with the SDG’s soulful pop. Traffic broke up for a brief time for Winwood to enlist Eric Clapton in arguably the first “supergroup,” Blind Faith. He had worked with Clapton several years earlier on the Powerhouse sessions. Blind Faith lasted for one incendiary, chart-topping album, after which Winwood joined another former
Cream member, Ginger Baker, in his “supergroup” The Air Force, which featured Winwood’s Traffic mate Chris Wood and his old Blind Faith mate Rick Gretch, Denny Laine of the Moody Blues, and many others. The band released an album and then imploded on the weight of its talent.
In 1970 Winwood began working on his solo debut. However, former Traffic bandmakes Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood soon joined him and the album began a revival of Traffic, becoming John Barleycorn Must Die. Over the course of the next five years, Traffic put out eight albums. Additionally, Winwood went to Nigeria in 1963 and worked with a couple of local drummers on the album Aiye- Keta (the Third Word), a fusion of African and Western sounds that was 10 years ahead of its time.
By 1976, Winwood was exhausted. He did some informal work recording with Japanese percussionist Stoma Yamashta and his group Go. Then, in 1977, Winwood did something people thought was 10 years overdue: he released a solo record (a 1971 album called Winwood compiled his work in various groups). Featuring Capaldi and other former bandmates, the album still had a whiff of Traffic musically. It didn’t fly commercially, as 1977 was the height of the punk rock explosion, although the album did manage to reach #22 on the U.S. charts. For the next four years, Winwood bided his time and got up to date with musical technology.
In 1981 Winwood re-emerged from his seclusion with the album Arc of a Diver. Recorded using state-of-the-art synthesizers, samplers, and studio equipment allowed Winwood to play every note on the record. The #7 hit “While You See a Chance” propelled the album to #3 and platinum. A year and a half later, he came back with Talking Back to the Night, an album that used the same formula as Arc of a Diver but lacked some of the spark. The album received a lukewarm reception both critically and commercially.
Retreating for another four years, he came up with Back in the High Life. It was the album he had been working on for the last 25 years. Full of soulful songs, real horns, and impassioned performances, the album rose to #3 and spun off the chart-topping hit “Higher Love,” the #8 “The Finer Things,” and two other Top 40 singles: the title track and “Freedom Overspill.” “Higher Love” won both Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male at the 1986 Grammy Awards.
A greatest hits record came out, featuring a remixed version of an ignored song from Talking Back to the Night. In this guise, “Valerie” rose to the Top Ten. In 1988 Winwood returned with Roll with It. A more R&B-oriented album, it reunited him with Jim Capaldi for one song. The album spun off three hits. The title track spent four weeks at #1. “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do?” hit #6 and “Holding On” fell just shy of the Top Ten at #11. The album topped the charts and went double platinum.
1990’s Refugees of the Heart was something of a letdown after the fire of Roll with It. Leaning even more toward the sound of Traffic, the album featured Jim Capaldi both on drums and as collaborator on the album’s only hit, “One and Only Man,” which reached #18. The album went gold and fizzled at #27. However, on the ensuing tour, Winwood and Capaldi threw in a few Traffic songs and the audiences went wild. In 1994 they put out the first Traffic record in nearly 20 years, Far from Home. They toured it, playing at Woodstock ’95.
In 1997 they released the disappointing Junction Seven as a Steve Winwood album. While the album failed to chart or generate a single, and although the winds of pop music might seem to have blown past Winwood, his history proves that it’s never safe to write him off.
DlSC.: Winwood (1971); Steve Winwood (1977); Arc of a Diver (1981); Talking Back to the Night (1982); Back in the High Life (1986); Roll with It (1988); Refugees of the Heart (1990); The Finer Things (boxed set, 1995); Junction Seven (1997).
C. Welch, Roll with It (a.k.a. Keep on Running) (London, 1989).