The former ‘60s prodigy talks Ray Charles, people skills and adversity.
After a few years away, The Spencer Davis Group/Traffic/Blind Faith and solo star is back. But what’s he been up to?
As the Glastonbury crowds found their way home, further up the Avon near Cheltenham Steve Winwood had enjoyed surfing the BBC’s broadcast coverage. BadBadNotGood stood out for him and “Chic were good, though with more showboating than I would have thought. I saw through that and enjoyed the songs and musicianship.” This essentialist take has been his stance since he scored his first Number 1 with Keep On Running in 1965, as the 17-year-old singer/keyboardist with The Spencer Davis Group. Legendary stints in Traffic, Blind Faith and as a mega-selling solo star followed. In September the Brit-rock elder statesman breaks a decade’s silence with an archival set, Greatest Hits Live. “Playing music is not a holiday,” he says. “Work is work.” On Winwood: Greatest Hits Live, your music is driving and groovy yet you mostly play to sedentary audiences. Ever miss playing to a club packed with dancing Mods?
I constantly battle with agents telling me my audiences are of an age to want to sit down. I like playing shows with standing areas. When the jam band scene was happening in America, I was identified as one of the founding figures and a younger demographic started coming to my shows. For the first time in a very long time I’d see scuffles between young people at the front dancing and older ones sat behind who couldn’t see.
What is your touring routine today?
I never used to like opening for people but now I realise it’s quite good. I have opened for Tom Petty, Santana, The Allman Brothers, Steely Dan and even Rod Stewart. So I play to bigger audiences and often come on to do a few songs with the main act. My routine is I travel on the bus, then when I get to the show I have toast and coffee and drink the pressé orange and grapefruit juice I’ve made the night before. I might have a walk if it’s not too hot, and Uber has opened up a whole new world so I can do a bit of shopping. My main meal is at 3pm and then back for the soundcheck around 4.30, going on around 8.30 or 9.
What is the hardest thing about recruiting and leading a band? Personalities – and everybody’s different. You need people skills. You keep morale up by not separating yourself from the band – we soundcheck and listen to stuff together on the bus. We generally have a young crew and when they start to think they’re on holiday, James [Towler, Winwood’s soundman and tour manager] runs a tight ship and they realise it isn’t at all, haha.
As a songwriter, have you hung up your boots? I have been looking hard at Electronic Dance Music from Brazil, Cuba and Europe. EDM covers 100 tribes; to
make it complex so that older people can’t understand it young people have invented loads of sub-genres which I’m still learning about. I don’t think Electronic Dance Music is a good name for it – it sounds like it’s not really put together by humans when it very much is. It’s a long form which offers a lot of scope compositionally for doing amazing things with modern technology. I have done some stuff along that line and put it on the back burner when I went touring this year.
Who would you love to have worked with but haven’t?
Ray Charles, though I met him – the first time was a complete disaster, the second time he was very nice. Jim Capaldi and I submitted a song to him called Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired which we thought would be perfect for him. It was refused! I’ve worked with some fantastic people – Hendrix, Clapton, Howlin’ Wolf – but Eddie Harris stands out for me as an unsung hero; I was very happy to have done a session with him.
As a singer and keyboardist Ray Charles is your main man. As an ace guitarist, who have been your fretboard inspirations?
Before I got my first guitar in 1957, I had an uncle who would hand down stringed instruments like mandolins and banjoes with odd scales. There was the skiffle craze, then I heard Bert Weedon, Hank Marvin in The Shadows, Scotty Moore on Elvis records, and Buddy Holly, a great guitar player too. Then I started hearing blues guitar: Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker; Hubert Sumlin who played with Howlin’ Wolf was a great influence on many of us.
You started very young down the path of being a professional musician. Have you ever had what might be called a proper job?
Nope! From the age of nine or 10, I have made money as a musician, back then earning a shilling as a chorister at weddings. I’m very lucky.
What would your advice be to any aspiring musician today?
Don’t be too precious. That’s hard to say to young people because they’re often precious about what they believe in – which is also good in the face of adversity. But it’s good to grasp any opportunity that comes along. If you’re a guitarist who plays a bit of drums and a drumming opportunity comes up, take it. Or a keyboard player who knows a bit of programming should take a production opportunity if it comes along. Keep options open.
Tell us something you’ve never told an interviewer before.
I listen to Gilles Peterson every Saturday.