By Mike Greenblatt
R&B, delta blues, soul, folks, rock and roll — from what we can tell, Steve Winwood never met a musical genre he didn’t like. And he’s been making those acquaintances for more than 50 years.
Born May 12, 1948, Winwood was still a schoolboy when he backed such blues legends as Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf on their tours of England. In 1963, he and his older, bass-playing brother, Muff, joined The Spencer Davis Group; the band scored its first No. 1 single in late 1965 with “Keep On Running.”
Winwood turned 18 the year he co-wrote and sang the lead vocals on the band’s smash hit “Gimme Some Lovin’,” a song so stark and dramatically rockin’ that it still stands up today. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic compared the soulful teen to Ray Charles; the young, white Brit had the chops to record covers of music by The Righteous Brothers, John Lee Hooker, Leiber & Stoller, Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas, Don Covay, Ivory Joe Hunter, Curtis Mayfield, Elmore James and even Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind” (which Charles, his hero, also had covered).
Armed with youthful good looks and a Hammond B-3 organ, Winwood left the Spencer Davis Group at the ripe old age of 19 to form Traffic with drummer Jim Capaldi, guitarist Dave Mason and multi-instrumentalist Chris Wood.
With the melodic flair of someone three times his age, Winwood put music to Capaldi’s lyrics so successfully that their songwriting partnership outlasted Traffic itself. That wasn’t the only trick Winwood had up his sleeve; he also proved to be quite the lead guitarist. When Traffic split up in 1969, Winwood formed Blind Faith with two-thirds of Cream — guitarist Eric Clapton became weary of the constant fighting between drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, so Bruce went his own way and Winwood, Baker, Clapton and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Ric Grech became Blind faith. (Winwood knew Clapton from playing with him in an early ’60s side project called Eric & The PowerHouse.)
Blind Faith completed only one self-titled album — its controversial original U.K. album cover featured a photo of a topless 12-year-old girl that was promptly banned in the United States — and one tour before the band was pulled apart by Clapton’s infatuation with Blind Faith’s opening act, Delaney & Bonnie. (It’s probably the only instance in rock history where a lead guitarist leaves his superstar band to join the opening act.)
But that one album is a classic, featuring a great cover of Buddy Holly’s “Well All Right,” Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” and Clapton’s “Presence Of The Lord.” Times being what they were, it also featured the self-indulgent Ginger Baker song “Do What You Like,” which rambled on for 15:20 in all its ragged hippie glory.
When Blind Faith broke up, Winwood reorganized Traffic, and the results were splendid. The band’s “John Barleycorn Must Die” reached No. 5 in 1970. “The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys” (No. 7) and “Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory” (No. 6) followed, enough to insinuate Traffic into the minds and hearts of America’s youth as one of the elite Brit bands, alongside the Beatles and the Stones. I even remember when I first heard they broke up; I was in my kitchen, making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the radio on. I think it was Scott Muni who announced the bad news. The sandwich fell to the floor, and the phone started ringing. I remember it like it was yesterday.
After Traffic, Winwood started a new chapter as a hired gun at studio sessions. He loved the freedom of being able to contribute to a recording without having to survive a grinding tour to support it.
Ultimately, he was unable to hide his light under a basket for long. Island Records’ Chris Blackwell practically dragged Winwood kicking and screaming to the altar of stardom with his self-titled 1977 solo debut. “Arc of a Diver” (1980) and “Talking Back To The Night” (1982) soon followed. It took four years for Winwood’s next solo album to arrive, but the critical and commercial success of 1986’s “Back In The High Life” showed the musician was just as relevant to the second British Invasion as he was to the first.
Only five studio albums have followed since then, although Winwood reunited with his old friend Clapton in 2009 for a well-received tour and the obligatory “Live At Madison Square Garden” CD. When Winwood, 66, takes the stage these days — he toured with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers in 2014 — his voice is a bit huskier. But his delivery is as soulful as ever. GM