Singer, songwriter, keyboardist
British rocker Steve Winwood was making music professionally at an age when most young men are still attending high school proms. As a member of the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and Blind Faith—and now as a successful solo artist—Winwood has produced highly eclectic songs based on a grafting of blues, folk, experimental rock, and rhythm and blues. His best-known pop hits have all been released since 1981, and his self-produced albums, Arc of a Diver (1981), Talking Back to the Night (1982), and Back in the High Life (1986) have all gone platinum. “That Winwood … has come through [the 1960s] glory grind with minimal scars is evident in the supple, good-natured funk and romantic electronic-keyboard glaze of his recent work,” writes David Fricke in Rolling Stone magazine. “Arc of a Diver and … Talking Back to the Night are logical high-tech extensions of Winwood’s original fusion of American rhythm and blues and European classical and folk traditions with Traffic.”
Winwood can hardly remember a time when he wasn’t singing in front of an audience. The son of a foundry worker, he grew up in blue-collar Birmingham, one of a family of amateur musicians. By the time he was six, Winwood was playing the piano; he joined an Anglican church choir the following year for his first “professional” work. “I used to get a shilling for every wedding,” he told People magazine. “That was when I first realized that one can make money out of singing.” Schoolwork held no fascination for Winwood. He was consumed by the popular music of the day, especially American blues and the burgeoning rock and roll sound. At eleven he joined a skiffle band, and at fifteen he dropped out of school permanently to join his older brother in a rock band, the Spencer Davis Group.
The teenage Winwood provided lead vocals and organ riffs for the Spencer Davis Group, guiding it to a pair of hit singles, “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man.” According to Lillian Roxon in her Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, it was Winwood’s “voice, his songs, his organ and piano work that made Spencer Davis’ band soar. I’m a Man and Gimme Some Loving, done under the Davis umbrella, were so black and strong it took a lot of adjusting to get used to the fact that they were coming from a seventeen-year-old English kid from Birmingham.”
In 1967 Winwood left the Spencer Davis Group to start his own band. With Chris Wood, Dave Mason, and Jim Capaldi he formed Traffic, an experimental psychedelic pop ensemble that drew its musical inspiration from jazz, soul, blues, and folk. Traffic’s debut album, Mr. Fantasy, included two British hits, “Paper Sun” and “Hole in My Shoe,” and by virtue of Winwood’s already-established fame, the group quickly became a favorite.
Full name, Stephen Lawrence Winwood; born May 12, 1948, in Birmingham, England; son of Lawrence Samuel (a foundry worker) and Lillian Mary (Saunders) Winwood; married Nicole Tacot (a singer), 1978 (divorced); married Eugenia Crafton, January 17, 1987; one child.
Singer-songwriter, 1964—; member of the Spencer Davis Group, 1964-67, had first two hit singles, “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man” ; founder and member of band Traffic, 1967-74, cut first album with Traffic, Mr. Fantasy, 1967; member of groups Blind Faith, 1970, and Ginger Baker’s Air Force, 1970; solo artist, 1974—; cut first solo album, Steve Winwood, 1977, had first top ten single, “While You See a Chance,” 1981.
Awards: Grammy Awards for record of the year, and for best male pop vocal performance, both 1986, both for “Higher Love.”
Addresses: Office— Island Records Inc., 14 W. 4th St., New York, N.Y. 10012.
“At its best, Traffic was a band to be reckoned with,” writes a Rolling Stone Record Guide contributor. “The first two Traffic albums are late-sixties classics, an eclectic combination … that was polyglot without ever becoming overextended.” Unfortunately, the members of Traffic had disparate musical tastes, and the band changed personnel frequently during its seven-year run. Winwood himself quit Traffic briefly in 1970 to play with Blind Faith (a “supergroup” consisting of Winwood, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Rick Gretch), but he returned to cut several session albums, including the 1974 When the Eagle Flies.
Winwood went solo in 1974, building himself his own personal recording studio on his fifty-acre farm in Gloucestershire. He seemed almost in retirement as the years passed, but instead he was working hard on new material, laying down every track himself at his studio and accepting help only with an occasional lyric. In 1977 he released Steve Winwood to unenthusiastic sales. Winwood told People that his first solo effort “got buried,” and when time came to cut the next album “it was a make-or-break situation. If it hadn’t been for Arc of a Diver, I might be a taxi driver.” Indeed, the 1980 Arc of a Diver, with its hit single “While You See a Chance,” was a great success both in England and America—even though Winwood refused to tour.
A reputation for reclusiveness (and drug abuse) hounds Winwood, although he denies both charges at every turn. He spends so much time at his farm, he says, because he is a perfectionist who makes albums very, very slowly. As for the drug abuse, he told Rolling Stone that he had no interest in drugs during the 1960s or in subsequent years. “I saw what drugs were doing to people,” he said of the psychedelic era, “and in most cases I had to suffer the consequences of their substandard work…. I just don’t fit into the predominant image of rock and roll. I never quite understood or had the attitude that certain other bands had. We were never really involved with the smashing-up of hotel rooms, the rowdy parties, like the other bands of the period.”
The 1980s have been a period of resurgence for Winwood. To quote Lisa Robinson in Vogue, the artist “sits comfortably at the top of the rock pantheon, a graceful survivor of… [an] extraordinary [number of] years in the music business.” Winwood has followed Arc of a Diver with two more platinum albums, Talking Back to the Night and Back in the High Life, and he has even undertaken a concert tour after thirteen years off the road. “More and more,” he told Rolling Stone, “I see that rock and roll doesn’t just need a youthful energy and spirit to it. It also needs a craft, an experience to get it across.”
Today, Winwood said, his aim is to make music that he likes, hoping that an audience will like it as well. “The point for me is to reach people through what I’m doing,” he said. “… If I make music that people might dance to, that’s fine with me.” He elaborated in High Fidelity: “I try not to aim at an audience. That can be dangerous—you might just miss, and then you haven’t got anything. I basically make albums because I like to make them. I like to make successful albums, too, but I make them for my own ear in the hope that other people will like the same things as me.” Rock and roll is entertainment, Winwood concluded, “and really, that’s what it always was.”
With the Spencer Davis Group
Their First LP, Sonnet, 1965.
Every Little Bit Hurts, Wing, 1965.
Second Album, Fontana, 1966.
Autumn 66, Fontana, 1966.
Gimme Some Lovin’, United Artists, 1967.
I’m a Man, United Artists, 1967.
The Very Best of Spencer Davis, United Artists, 1968.
Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, United Artists, 1968.
Greatest Hits, United Artists, 1968.
Heavies, Vertigo, 1973.
Somebody Help Me, Island, 1973.
Mr. Fantasy, United Artists, 1967.
Traffic, United Artists, 1968.
Last Exit, United Artists, 1969.
John Barleycorn Must Die, United Artists, 1970.
Welcome to the Canteen, United Artists, 1971.
The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, Island, 1971.
Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory, Island, 1974.
On the Road, Island, 1973.
When the Eagle Flies, Asylum, 1974.
More Heavy Traffic, Island, 1975.
With Blind Faith
Blind Faith, Atco, 1969.
Steve Winwood, Island, 1977.
Arc of a Diver, Island, 1980.
Talking Back to the Night, Island, 1982.
Back in the High Life, Island, 1986.
Chronicles, Island, 1988.
Roll With It, Virgin, 1988.
Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, Grosset & Dunlap, 1978.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Summit Books, 1983.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Random House, 1979.
High Fidelity, June, 1981.
People, November 15, 1982.
Rolling Stone, February 19, 1981; November 11, 1982.
Vogue, July, 1987.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Winwood, Steve." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/winwood-steve
"Winwood, Steve." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/winwood-steve
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