Steve Win­wood

He was a teen prodigy with the Spencer Davis Group, tripped the light fan­tas­tic with Traf­fic, al­most joined Cream but was in Blind Faith, and had ma­jor suc­cess as a solo artist in the 80s. The ever-rest­less Steve Win­wood looks back over a glit­ter­ing ca­ree

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Rob Hughes

From teen sen­sa­tion to Traf­fic, Blind Faith, ses­sion work and solo star, it’s been a long, suc­cess­ful and gem-stud­ded ca­reer.

In his 2007 mem­oir, Eric Clap­ton vividly re­calls hear­ing Steve Win­wood for the first time. The gui­tarist was in the early flush of his ca­reer play­ing in The Yard­birds when he en­coun­tered the Spencer Davis Group in club­land in 1963. Win­wood, SDG’s pre­co­cious singer/or­gan­ist, may have been just 15 but, Clap­ton notes: “If you closed your eyes you would swear it was Ray Charles. Mu­si­cally he was like an old man in a boy’s skin.”

Bob Dy­lan was gripped by a Spencer Davis Group gig three years later, mid­way through his UK tour. Af­ter­wards, as seen on the Eat The Doc­u­ment film, an open-mouthed Dy­lan asks of Davis: “How’d he learn to sing like that?” To which Davis, ap­pear­ing lost for an an­swer, merely replies: “Well, since the day we found him.”

Steve Win­wood al­ways seemed fully formed from the start. He was still in his teens when he quit the Spencer Davis Group and formed

Traf­fic in 1967, leav­ing be­hind a trail of huge-sell­ing hits, among them Keep On Run­ning, Gimme Some Lovin’ and the some­what iron­i­cally ti­tled I’m A Man.

At 21 he was in Blind Faith, the band that came to em­body the late-60s ideal of the mer­cu­rial su­per­group. Win­wood was so much in de­mand as a mu­si­cal ally – help­ing out Jimi Hen­drix, Lou Reed, Ge­orge Har­ri­son, Leon Rus­sell, Muddy Wa­ters, Joe Cocker and Howlin’ Wolf, to name but a few – that he was an in­dus­try vet­eran by the time he fi­nally got around to a solo ca­reer in the lat­ter half of the 70s.

“I came into mu­sic from a slightly dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion than some of my con­tem­po­raries,” he tells Clas­sic Rock to­day. “I started off play­ing with my dad, learn­ing thir­ties and for­ties dance mu­sic and Amer­i­can clas­sics, which wasn’t par­tic­u­larly easy stuff. And I was a cho­ris­ter in the High Angli­can church. That mu­sic got un­der my skin some­how. Then along came skif­fle and early rock’n’roll and Buddy Holly. And later on came

Ray Charles, who in­tro­duced me to this cross­over from be­bop and jazz into rock and R&B. I was so en­grossed with learn­ing all these dif­fer­ent kinds of mu­sic, and try­ing to play them all, that be­ing on stage was just part of it. It didn’t oc­cur to me that there was any­thing I should shy away from.”

If there’s one prime di­rec­tive in all of Win­wood’s work, it’s an in­clu­sive ap­proach to mu­sic mak­ing; there’s very lit­tle that’s off lim­its to his imag­i­na­tion. “With Traf­fic we made a con­scious de­ci­sion that we would try to in­cor­po­rate a lot more el­e­ments – folk, jazz, eth­nic mu­sic and even bits of clas­si­cal mu­sic and dif­fer­ent forms,” he ex­plains. “I’d prob­a­bly say that I’ve been try­ing to do that ever since.”

Grow­ing up in the Great Barr area of Birm­ing­ham, Win­wood might eas­ily have fol­lowed his fa­ther into the fam­ily’s lo­cal foundry busi­ness. But mu­sic took hold at an early age. He was eight when he made his stage de­but, play­ing in the same band as his fa­ther, a semi-pro mu­si­cian, and elder brother Muff. Ste­vie be­came a reg­u­lar on the Mid­lands R&B scene in his early teens, be­fore he and his sib­ling formed the Muff-Woody Jazz Band.

Look­ing to put his own group to­gether, Spencer Davis caught them one night.

“Punk rock was al­most a re­ac­tion against what I’d been do­ing. It was dif­fi­cult for me to grasp that.”

“They were play­ing a form of mu­sic that was a step up from tra­di­tional or New Or­leans jazz,” he re­calls to­day. “I walked in and there was this kid, pretty much not long out of short trousers, who played pi­ano like Os­car Peter­son and sang like Ray Charles. I asked him if he’d like to be in the band and, in a lovely lit­tle Birm­ing­ham ac­cent, he went: ‘I’d love to, but I don’t have a driv­ing li­cence.’ I told him I’d come and get him, be­cause I had a beat­enup old Brad­ford, which I’d paid fifty quid for.”

With Muff also on board as bassist, along­side drum­mer Pete York, the quar­tet started work­ing up tunes by Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. Be­fore long they’d se­cured a weekly res­i­dency at the Golden Ea­gle, and soon at­tracted a BBC crew to film the queues around the block.

“With Spencer Davis we were dis­cov­er­ing blues and R&B, all this fan­tas­tic mu­sic we were hear­ing from Amer­ica,” says Steve. “They were singing in a form of English and a lot of the time I didn’t un­der­stand what they were talk­ing about, like ‘another mule kick­ing in your stall’ [from Muddy Wa­ters’s Long Dis­tance Call, re­fer­ring to some­one else mak­ing moves on your loved one]. There were lots of things like that. And by not be­ing able to em­u­late that stuff ac­cu­rately or faith­fully, we were in­ad­ver­tently cre­at­ing our own style.”

Life as a tour­ing mu­si­cian soon took prece­dence over ev­ery­thing else. “I’m afraid it has to be said

“With Traf­fic we made a con­scious de­ci­sion to in­cor­po­rate a lot more el­e­ments – folk, jazz, eth­nic mu­sic and even bits of clas­si­cal mu­sic. I’d prob­a­bly

say that I’ve been try­ing to do that ever since.”

that I never had a proper job,” Win­wood says.

“At fif­teen I’d be go­ing up to play all-nighters at the Twisted Wheel in Manch­ester, fin­ish­ing at five or six in the morn­ing. Then on the Sun­day the same pro­moter had a club in Han­ley, called The Place, and we’d play that. I’d get home at one in the morn­ing, then have to go to school that day. That was pretty un­sus­tain­able and I was kicked out of school.”

Had the plan­ets aligned a lit­tle dif­fer­ently, Win­wood’s mu­si­cal life may have taken a whole other turn in 1966. Not long af­ter the Spencer Davis Group had scored their sec­ond UK chart­top­ping 45 with Some­body Help Me, Gin­ger Baker was putting Cream to­gether. Eric Clap­ton had orig­i­nally en­vi­sioned the band as a quar­tet, with Win­wood out front, although both Jack Bruce and Baker favoured a trio set-up. Clap­ton was out­voted, of course, but it’s tempt­ing to imag­ine how Cream might have de­vel­oped with Win­wood also in the band.

“There was a slight lack of syn­chro­ni­sa­tion in the tim­ing of things,” says Win­wood, musing on what might have been. “There came a point in the Spencer Davis Group where I thought:

‘I’ve def­i­nitely had enough of this, I want to do some­thing else.’ But I’m not quite sure whether that oc­curred be­fore Cream or not, or if I was in that mind-set. Af­ter that point oc­curred, though, then yes, I would cer­tainly have taken the job.”

As it tran­spired, Win­wood elected to form Traf­fic with three long-time friends from the Mid­lands R&B scene – Jim Ca­paldi, Dave Ma­son and Chris Wood. The four-piece shifted around var­i­ous bases in Lon­don be­fore fi­nally tak­ing up res­i­dence in a re­mote cot­tage in As­ton Tir­rold, deep in ru­ral Berk­shire. In do­ing so they set the trend for bands sud­denly up­ping sticks and ‘get­ting it to­gether in the coun­try’.

“The big prob­lem was that we felt we couldn’t play mu­sic when­ever we wanted,” Win­wood says. “In Lon­don we couldn’t set the gear up in one of our flats and make a racket at two or three in the morn­ing. So mov­ing to the coun­try was re­ally a prac­ti­cal move. We were liv­ing at the cot­tage in squalor. It was kind of like a crash pad, four lads liv­ing like stu­dents. But in­stead of be­ing in a univer­sity town it was half a mile up a muddy track with no elec­tric­ity and wa­ter from a well. We were crusties, re­ally.”

There were ru­mours, too, that the cot­tage was haunted. “A few peo­ple have told me they thought it was,” he says. “Of course, Jim and Chris are no longer around to talk about it [Ca­paldi died in

2005, Wood in 1983], but I think they both had quite vivid ex­pe­ri­ences. Whether or not that was to do with what­ever sub­stances were around or not I don’t know. Be­cause there was a lot of that about.”

Spooked or oth­er­wise, the cot­tage proved an ideal base for Traf­fic to con­ceive their de­but LP. Re­leased in De­cem­ber ’67, Mr. Fan­tasy was a mi­nor psy­che­delic clas­sic, its loose-limbed songs stirred by ex­otic rhythms, soul­ful white blues and East­ern strange­ness. Its stand­out tune was Dear Mr. Fan­tasy, the prod­uct of a fer­tile song­writ­ing part­ner­ship with Ca­paldi and Wood. Its ges­ta­tion, as with most things Traf­fic, was a lit­tle un­con­ven­tional by pop stan­dards.

“Our song­writ­ing orig­i­nally came out of a need to have ma­te­rial for us to jam,” Win­wood re­mem­bers. “We learned to play to­gether – I’d be on guitar or or­gan, Jim on drums and Chris would play flute and sax – and that gave us a free­dom to move dif­fer­ent ways. We’d do these long im­pro­vi­sa­tions, and Jim, very of­ten, would scrib­ble down a verse or cho­rus on an en­ve­lope or the back of a fag packet, which I’d stand up on the or­gan.

“Hav­ing recorded it, we’d go back and lis­ten to what we’d done and work out which bits to keep. That was re­ally the way we wrote. It was only later, when Jim and I started writ­ing with dif­fer­ent peo­ple, that we re­alised that wasn’t the way most peo­ple wrote songs.”

Af­ter a sec­ond al­bum in late ’68, Traf­fic were fin­ished, at least for the short term. It was a year in which the in­creas­ingly rest­less Win­wood guested on Jimi Hen­drix’s Elec­tric Lady­land, slip­ping a Ham­mond groove un­der Voodoo Chile.

By the next spring, Cream hav­ing dis­banded, Win­wood and Clap­ton started hang­ing out to­gether more reg­u­larly. The pair would smoke joints and jam amid the bu­colic peace­ful­ness of As­ton Tir­rold. Gin­ger Baker popped over too, and with the ad­di­tion of Fam­ily bassist Ric Grech, Blind Faith were born. Mak­ing their live de­but at a huge free con­cert in Lon­don’s Hyde Park, Blind Faith lasted for one al­bum and a brief US arena tour.

“Blind Faith was pretty murky, re­ally,” Win­wood re­mem­bers. “That didn’t re­ally work out quite as well as Eric and I had in­tended. I don’t think there was any one rea­son for that, but Eric didn’t want to carry on do­ing what he’d been do­ing with Cream. We were both look­ing for some­thing else. The mu­sic that we started off do­ing was acous­tic and jan­gly. It had a sort of folk el­e­ment to it, not some­thing that goes down too well in the arena rock en­vi­ron­ment. But of course rock was be­com­ing big money at that time.

“There was a lot of pres­sure on Blind Faith with this sort of ‘su­per­group’ tag,” he con­tin­ues. “We had pres­sures from the busi­ness to start record­ing be­fore we were per­haps ready, and we were sud­denly play­ing big places. So we were caught out a bit, adapt­ing what we were do­ing to those venues, which wasn’t quite the right thing. Nei­ther of us were into that. We were start­ing to lose in­ter­est at dif­fer­ent points and were drift­ing apart.”

Win­wood re­turned to the stu­dio in 1970, ini­tially to make a solo al­bum, un­der the guid­ance of pro­ducer Guy Stevens. But things didn’t quite work out. Stevens wanted to in­tro­duce a few cov­ers, whereas Win­wood was more keen on some­thing more chal­leng­ing. Stevens left, and Win­wood brought in Ca­paldi and Wood, re­unit­ing Traf­fic.

The re­sult was John Bar­l­ey­corn Must Die, a prog­folk master­piece that also voy­aged into free jazz and R&B. “For me, Traf­fic was like com­ing home,” he says. “It was eas­ier to ex­plore mu­sic with Traf­fic than it had been with Blind Faith. We were util­is­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of mu­sic, try­ing to con­tinue the le­gacy we’d started and which hadn’t prop­erly come to fruition for us. There were still plenty of other things for us to ex­plore.”

Traf­fic’s jour­ney ended in 1974, amid Win­wood’s re­cur­rent is­sues with peri­toni­tis (in­flam­ma­tion the ab­domen) and af­ter a cou­ple of un­even fi­nal al­bums. The decade proved a tran­si­tional, some­times dif­fi­cult one for him. He threw him­self into ses­sion work.

“Some­thing hap­pened in the mid-to-late seven­ties,” he re­flects. “I dropped out a lit­tle from the rock’n’roll world. I’d been do­ing it for ten years since I left school and was look­ing for other things. So I made a con­scious ef­fort to do a lot of ses­sions and work as a side­man, to try to learn how other peo­ple were putting mu­sic to­gether. I toured as a side­man with John Mar­tyn and played with a lot of amaz­ing peo­ple dur­ing that time. Then later on, of course, punk emerged. I found that tricky, be­cause punk rock was al­most a re­ac­tion against what I’d been do­ing. It was dif­fi­cult for me to grasp that, so I sup­pose I sort of went un­der­ground a lit­tle.”

One of his ‘un­der­ground’ ac­tiv­i­ties in­volved a mu­si­cal li­ai­son with the ec­cen­tric Bonzo Dog man Viv Stan­shall. The pair had al­ready co-writ­ten Dream Ger­rard for Traf­fic’s swansong al­bum and col­lab­o­rated on Stan­shall’s solo record Men Open­ing Um­brel­las Ahead. They then con­cocted a sound­track for a film ver­sion of Mervyn Peake’s Gor­meng­hast, hop­ing for fi­nan­cial back­ing. It never ar­rived.

They did, how­ever, man­age to fun­nel some of its ideas into Sir Henry At Rawl­in­son End, Stan­shall’s sur­real satire of up­per-English mores that was even­tu­ally made into a film star­ring Trevor Howard in the ti­tle role.

“Viv was hi­lar­i­ous,” Win­wood says, laugh­ing. “He al­ways sort of needed a straight man to do the mu­si­cal things that he was want­ing to do. And for a while I be­came that. We’d go into pubs and peo­ple’s houses and start off some kind of act. I’d play some mu­sic, he’d play a bit on his eu­pho­nium, then try to do con­jur­ing tricks.”

In among all this lark­ery, in 1977 Win­wood re­leased his fairly un­der­whelm­ing solo de­but. His re-emer­gence as a ma­jor force didn’t hap­pen for another three years, with the ar­rival of the be­lated fol­low-up, Arc Of A Diver. Stan­shall co-wrote the ti­tle track, although more cru­cially the record marked the be­gin­ning of Win­wood’s work­ing part­ner­ship with Texan song­writer Will Jen­nings. Win­wood also found him­self re­stored to the busi­ness end of the charts in both the UK and US, with lead-off sin­gle While You See A Chance mak­ing the Bill­board Top 10.

“At the end of the seven­ties my con­tract had run out, but I was still held by another op­tion,” Win­wood ex­plains of the al­bum’s in­cep­tion. “So I de­cided that I was go­ing to ac­tu­ally do ev­ery­thing on this record – play all the in­stru­ments, en­gi­neer it and write all the songs. I think the A&R depart­ment at Is­land thought I’d lost the plot and for­got about me a lit­tle bit. Then at some point they said: ‘Why don’t you at least work with some­one who can help you with the lyrics?’ And they sug­gested Will. Lyrics were cer­tainly al­ways some­thing I could do with help on, so I thought, yeah, I’ll work with this fella. I didn’t re­ally know much about him or who he was, but we just hit it off. I started to work in a dif­fer­ent way with Will. We dis­cov­ered lots of ways of work­ing to­gether.”

Win­wood’s 1982 al­bum Talk­ing Back To The Night made less of an im­pres­sion, how­ever. Aim­ing to re­peat the DIY for­mula of Arc Of A Diver, the al­bum in­stead felt un­der­pro­duced and a lit­tle pro­saic. Its rel­a­tive lack of suc­cess, in ad­di­tion to mar­i­tal prob­lems at home, led to a pro­longed bout of soulsearch­ing for Win­wood. There were even ru­mours that he might quit mu­sic al­to­gether.

“Was I think­ing about giv­ing it all up? Yeah, I was,” he re­veals. “I was look­ing at what else was avail­able – not that I could do any­thing else. But I was look­ing for some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent.”

His so­lu­tion was to switch man­agers and re­lo­cate to New York. He cor­ralled a crack team of helpers – in­clud­ing co-pro­ducer Russ Titel­man, James Tay­lor, Joe Walsh, Chaka Khan and Nile Rodgers – and re­turned with his big­gest-sell­ing solo record to date, 1986’s ap­pro­pri­ately

“Blind Faith was pretty murky, re­ally. That didn’t re­ally work out quite as well as Eric and I had in­tended.”

named Back In The High Life. The al­bum won three Gram­mys, went triple-plat­inum and de­liv­ered his first ever US No.1, the ec­static Higher Love.

His writ­ing part­ner­ship with Jen­nings pro­duced fur­ther hits with Back In The High Life Again and

The Finer Things.

In his late 30s, Win­wood was sud­denly a main­stream su­per­star. His sound may have taken on the req­ui­site gloss and pol­ish that the era tended to de­mand, but his ab­sorp­tion of dis­parate styles re­mained in keep­ing with his pre­vi­ous work. His new stand­ing was com­pounded in 1988 by the equally big-hit­ting Roll With It, whose ti­tle track also topped the Bill­board chart.

Win­wood is quick to de­fend his out­put dur­ing the lat­ter half of that decade. “The mu­sic in­dus­try was grow­ing at a rate of knots, be­com­ing huge and much more pow­er­ful,” he says. “In some ways I was get­ting led astray a lit­tle by the ex­ec­u­tives. I’m of­ten ac­cused, in that pe­riod, of mov­ing much more to­wards pop. But Back In The High Life still has those el­e­ments of eth­nic mu­sic, folk, jazz and all those things we were try­ing to do in Traf­fic. It’s just that Traf­fic had a lot of rougher edges, whereas this has that smooth eight­ies pro­duc­tion tech­nique. So I would main­tain that I wasn’t par­tic­u­larly sell­ing out. It was all down to the way it was recorded.”

It’s been a while since we heard from Steve Win­wood on record. His last stu­dio al­bum, Nine Lives, was re­leased in 2008. When he’s not at home with his fam­ily in his cen­turies-old manor house in the Cotswolds, he’s out on the road with his trusty band, play­ing dates around the US and Europe. It’s a vo­ca­tion he takes very se­ri­ously, and tapes ev­ery show in or­der to as­sess the nu­ances of each per­for­mance.

“Tech­nol­ogy has made that very easy to do now,” he says. “It’s just a sort of lap­top set-up that we have. Some­times we do it just for our own ed­u­ca­tional pur­poses, so we can lis­ten af­ter­wards and check on things to see how we’re sound­ing.”

Now, he has just re­leased his first ever live solo col­lec­tion, Win­wood: Great­est Hits Live. The two-disc set serves as a glo­ri­ous over­view of his 50-plus years in the busi­ness, dip­ping freely into the back pages of the Spencer Davis Group, Traf­fic, Blind Faith and be­yond. Most of what you might wish for is here, in­clud­ing Gimme Some Lovin’ and I’m A Man, Dear Mr. Fan­tasy, John Bar­l­ey­corn and The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys (ar­guably Traf­fic’s great­est mo­ment), and While You See A Chance and Back In

The High Life Again. Above all, the al­bum re­veals that Win­wood is still fully en­gaged with all the things that make him great, chief among them be­ing the finest white-soul voice of his gen­er­a­tion.

“Over the last five or ten years we’ve been try­ing to hone our live show a lit­tle more,” he says. “A lot of the time I have to do cer­tain stuff, or else peo­ple com­plain if I don’t play Can’t Find My Way Home or I’m A Man. So through­out the years we’ve tried to rein­vent them or give them a slightly dif­fer­ent twist, to keep our­selves in­ter­ested if any­thing.

And the au­di­ences seem to like them too.

“I’ve been work­ing for the last decade with

José Neto, the Brazil­ian gui­tarist, and Richard Bailey, who’s Trinida­dian. So we give it a sort of Latin/Brazil­ian feel, and some­times with a lit­tle jazz in there. We thought it was about time we com­mit­ted all this to record.”

De­spite the sub­tle re­cal­i­bra­tions of his back cat­a­logue, it might be easy to sur­mise that Steve Win­wood is rid­ing out his days on past glo­ries.

But it turns out that he’s very much fixed on the fu­ture, and in a way that you might not ex­pect. Nearly ten years on, he re­veals that he’s fi­nally be­gun work on a suc­ces­sor to Nine Lives.

“I’ve been quite into dance mu­sic lately,” he says. “There are some DJ/pro­duc­ers who are do­ing some very in­ter­est­ing stuff, so I’ve been look­ing at dif­fer­ent ways to see how I can work with that. I’ve started putting some things down, and there are also lots of peo­ple in places like Brazil and Cuba that are do­ing things with dance mu­sic too. So that taps into the eth­nic mu­sic side of things. I’m not sure whether it’ll ac­tu­ally be me or whether I might try to in­vent a third-party act, as it were. I’m just look­ing at all pos­si­bil­i­ties right now.

“There are so many dif­fer­ent sub-gen­res that it’s some­times dif­fi­cult for peo­ple of my age to un­der­stand it,” the 69-year-old says laugh­ing,

“so I have to get my son to help me fathom it all out. But I do think that dance mu­sic takes as much play­ing and ma­nip­u­la­tion as any in­stru­ment does.

“I’m not one of those peo­ple who thinks, as a lot of my gen­er­a­tion do, that the best mu­sic was made in the six­ties and seven­ties and since then it’s all been go­ing down­hill. There’s some great stuff around, and the fu­ture holds a lot of very in­ter­est­ing things for me. I’m not fin­ished yet.”

Traf­fic in 1965: (clock­wise from top left) Jim Ca­paldi, Chris Wood, Steve Win­wood, Dave Ma­son.

Still in the spot­light: Win­wood in 1983.

Blind Faith in 1969: (l-r) Steve Win­wood, Ric Grech, Gin­ger Baker, Eric Clap­ton.

Back in the high life: Win­wood col­lect­ing his Gram­mys in Los An­ge­les in 1987.

Win­wood with song­writ­ing part­ner Will Jen­nings.

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