My Music – My Music Heroes – #1 Steve Winwood

I could write about my favourite guitarist, or keyboard player, drummer, singer or front-man/woman.  But I am going to write about a music hero of mine who is all those things – except a woman that is.

This is a man who during his career played pop-rock, blues-rock, progressive rock, soul, rhythm and blues and psychedelic stuff.  He learned to play the piano at age four and joined his first professional group at age 15.  Though primarily a vocalist and keyboard player he is a brilliant guitar player and is a proficient player of the drums, mandolin, guitars, bass and saxophone.  He has played with many of the biggest names in music (helping out Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, George Harrison, Leon Russell, Muddy Waters, Joe Cocker and Howlin’ Wolf, Phil Collins, Sandy Denny, David Gilmour and many others). He is also well known for collaborating with Eric Clapton.  He started his professional career as a key member of the Spencer Davis Group, then co-formed Traffic, Blind Faith and Go before embarking on a highly successful solo career.

His name is Stephen Lawrence Winwood, or just Steve Winwood, and he was born in Birmingham, England in 1948.  At 73, he is still selling out concerts today. 

Let’s look at his career and why I rate him so highly. 

Spencer Davis Group

At the age of just 14 he started gigging and at 15, he made his professional debut with the Spencer Davis Group. Winwood recalls, “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.” 

The band enjoyed a string of chart-topping hits by way of such enduring classics as “Gimme Some Lovin’”, “I’m A Man”, and “Keep On Running”. Keep on Running became the group’s first number one hit in the U.K., in late ’65. This is the one I remember being played over and over at my youth club when I was the tender age of 12.

Many readers will be familiar with those hits but to show just how soulful and mature his voice was back then at age 15, here is video of him singing (in his pyjamas) ‘Nobody knows you when you’re down and out’.  Eric Clapton once commented, “If you closed your eyes you would swear it was Ray Charles. Musically he was like an old man in a boy’s skin.” (I read that listening to his voice back then many Americans assumed he was a black American.)


Traffic

By the age of 18 Winwood was already a confident and accomplished musician ready to explore new avenues.  It’s at this time in 1967 that 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. They became one of the most important British groups of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Their sound leans more towards prog rock but with a folky, jazzy, psychedelic twist.  Winwood put music to Capaldi’s lyrics and also proved to be quite the lead guitarist.   I’ve always liked the diversity in their songs and the way they can turn from rock to folk to funky, jazzy instrumentation, all in the same song .  Here’s one of their classic rock songs, ‘Dear Mr Fantasy’ filmed in Santa Monica in 1972.  An awesome much later version of this and various other Winwood classics played in collaboration with Clapton and others can be seen on videos of the Crossroads Guitar Festival.

After some 7 albums, and a collaboration with Jimi Hendrix on “The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s” 1968 double album Electric Ladyland, Winwood decided to leave Traffic in 1969.

Blind Faith

So, he joins Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton and, later on, Rick Gretch to create what is hailed as Rock’s first Supergroup ‘Blind Faith’. Seriously, can it get any better than this combination? The first gig for this newly formed band is to an estimated crowd of 100.000 fans in Hyde Park, London. It seems the chemistry didn’t work for long and the band split up immediately after their last performance on the tour. Despite the breakup, Clapton and Winwood would later collaborate on several occasions. Their only album, Blind Faith still dazzled the critics and is a #1 album. I would have loved to see them live. 

There was only one live concert recording of the band and I have to say it is a bit ropy. Here is Steve Winwood playing an acoustic version of Blind Faith’s ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ in 2012. 

Interestingly, some sound engineers and producers accused Winwood of lip-syncing a version that had been cut earlier and doctored up in a recording studio, saying that this recording sounded so good that no way could it be live. After a week of debate, Steve himself sent an e-mail wondering what all the fuss was about, and that yes, indeed it was he live, with just two mics.

Solo Career

In 1970, Steve reformed Traffic with Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood and produced three innovative and successful albums: ‘The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys’, ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’, and ‘Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory’. Thanks to these albums, and their popularity among my fellow undergraduates, I was re-introduced to Traffic and at some point bought and later ‘lost’ these albums.  My only remaining vinyl album is their studio album ‘When the Eagle Flies’.   By 1975, Traffic split again as Winwood finds the allure of solo projects and new creative partnerships too tempting to resist.

In 1977 he released a debut album, ’Steve Winwood’ and shortly after his landmark solo albums, ‘Arc Of A Diver’, the three-time Grammy-Award-Winning ‘Back In The High Life’, and the Grammy-award-winning ’Roll With It’.  Of course he has released many more including one of my favourites, ‘Nine Lives’. (Check out the really good Steve Winwood Nine Lives documentary on YouTube.)

He has sold over 50 million records in the course of his five-decade career.  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, is a recipient of the Ivor Novello Outstanding Song Collection, the BMI Icon Award, the Musicians Union Classic Rock Award, The Nashville Symphony Harmony Award, Brit Awards, and has been nominated for 11 Grammys, winning two. I  think he is one of the most influential and important artists of our time.

Author: Paul

I am a retired, married bloke, dad and grandad - growing old with attitude.

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