As a music prodigy and an amazingly talented singer/multi-instrumentalist, by age 15 Stevie Winwood’s vocals were astoundingly soulful and mature, and his skills at the piano were also advanced beyond his years. At 16, he’d played with numerous American blues legends both in concert and in the studio.
A soulful teenage wonder initially, he pursued more adventurous territory in Traffic and Blind Faith then settled into a solo career that soared in the 1980s with a pair of huge popular albums, Back in the High Life and Roll With It.
For more than five decades Winwood has remained a primary figure in rock ‘n’ roll, and a respected innovator who has helped to create some of the genre’s most celebrated achievements.
Stephen Lawrence “Steve” Winwood
(born 12 May 1948)
This clip is from a naff film “The Ghost Goes Gear”, a 1966 British musical comedy film directed by Hugh Gladwish and starring the Spencer Davis Group. Audio is from a studio recording, synced (badly) into the film. This version is from the Spencer Davis Groups third album – Autumn 66.
THE SPENCER DAVIS GROUP (Featuring: Steve Winwood) – 1966 – “I’m A Man“
This song was from the 1967 debut album by Traffic
Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton at the Crossroads Guitar Festival 2007, with Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall
Little Wing with Eric Clapton (guitar) and Steve Winwood on B3 Hammond
Stephen Lawrence Winwood was born on May 12, 1948, in Birmingham, England. His father, Lawrence, was semi-professional musician who played the clarinet and saxophone. His mother loved to sing. The music bug caught both sons, younger Steve, and his older brother, Muff. Steve became interested in swing and Dixieland jazz as a boy and started playing drums, guitar and piano.
By the the age of 8 Steve was performing in the Ron Atkinson Band with his father and brother.
At St John’s Church of England, Perry Barr, Winwood was a choirboy. He later admitted to having “sneaked a few plays” of the organ there.
While he was still young the family moved from Handsworth to the semi-rural suburb of Great Barr at the northern edge of the city. Winwood attended the Great Barr School, where a teacher recalled him being a conscientious and able student who displayed ability in mathematics. He also attended the Birmingham and Midland Institute of Music to develop his skills as a pianist.
In 1959 the brothers formed their own group, “Johnny Star And The Planets”, with 11 year-old Steve singing and playing lead guitar.
Whilst still a pupil at Great Barr School Winwood was a part of the Birmingham rhythm and blues scene, playing the Hammond B-3 organ and guitar, backing blues singers such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Eddie Boyd, Otis Spann, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley on their United Kingdom tours, the custom at that time being for US singers to travel solo and be backed by pickup bands.
At this time, Winwood was living on Atlantic Road in Great Barr, close to the Birmingham music halls where he played. Steve modeled his singing after Ray Charles.
18 year old Steve Winwood – Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out
Steve was expelled from several schools, in part, because he dedicated so much of his time to music. In 1963, Muff and Steve decided to make music their full-time pursuit, a move that earned the full backing of their father, who realized his sons were following their passion.
In 1963, Muff and Steve reorganized and formed the Muff Woody Jazz Band and started playing gigs on weekends. When the British R&B craze swept through Birmingham, the Muff Woody band began adding blues numbers to their repertoire and shortly thereafter they met guitarist Spencer Davis.
In 1963, Muff and 14 yr-old Steve joined the Spencer Davis Group.
Steve Winwood – Piano, Lead Guitar, Organ, Vocals
Muff Winwood – Bass Guitar
Pete York – Drums
Spencer Davis – Rhythm Guitar, Vocals
By the age of 16 Steve was putting out great songs such as Keep On Running.
Keep on Running was a ska track originally, but we transformed it into a fiery mixture of rock and R&B. I’d started the Spencer Davis Group when I was a linguistics student at Birmingham University. I was due to play a pub called the Golden Eagle but only had a drummer, Pete York. Someone told me to check out this combo called the Muff Woody Jazz Band. The guitar-player was Muff Winwood, who would later switch to bass, and there was this kid playing piano like Oscar Peterson and singing like Ray Charles. It turned out to be Steve Winwood, Muff’s 16-year-old brother. We played the Golden Eagle as the “Spencer Davis Rhythm and Blues Quartet”.
Chris [Blackwell, their manager] was selling ska and bluebeat records out of the back of a minivan when we first met him. One day, he played me Keep on Running by Jackie Edwards, a lovely Jamaican man with a pork-pie hat. I said: “We’ve got to cover that.” Jackie was thrilled with our transformation of his song.
Steve had the same fuzz pedal Keith Richards had used on Satisfaction, so used it to give the guitar that distinctive raw riff. For the rhythm, I played a choppy guitar style influenced by Motown. Muff had wanted to do some Duane Eddy style bass, but I said that wouldn’t work, so he came up with that famous bassline. It almost sounds like brass. The shouting you can hear in the background is Jimmy Cliff, who happened to be in the studio, whooping with excitement.
The first radio stations to play it were the black ones in America, because we sounded black. When they saw pictures of four little white boys, they dropped us from their playlists, but by then the song had taken off.
During this time Winwood joined forces with guitarist Eric Clapton as part of the one-off group “Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse”. Songs were recorded for the Elektra label, but only three tracks made their “What’s Shakin'” compilation album.
Also during this time, Winwood had met drummer Jim Capaldi, guitarist Dave Mason, and multi-instrumentalist Chris Wood when they jammed together at The Elbow Room, a club in Aston, Birmingham. All of these musicians played on “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
I’m A Man
Winwood co-wrote both hits “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man” .
1965 Spencer Davis Group – Their 1st LP
Track #1 – My Babe / Steve Winwood lead guitar
In 1965, as a side project Winsood also recorded the solo single “Incense” as the Anglos, crediting himself as Stevie Anglo.
Winwood eventually tired of the tight pop-single format and wanted to experiment with the band’s sound by infusing jazz elements. By the mid-’60s, the cutting edge of rock & roll often involved stretching out instrumentally, and with his roots in jazz, Winwood wanted the same opportunity. Accordingly, he left the Spencer Davis Group in 1967 to form Traffic with guitarist Dave Mason, horn player Chris Wood, and drummer Jim Capaldi.
Over the band’s history, Winwood performed the majority of their lead vocals, keyboard instruments, and guitars. He also frequently played bass and percussion up to and including the recording sessions for their fourth album.
Early in Traffic’s formation, Winwood and Capaldi formed a songwriting partnership, with Winwood writing music to match Capaldi’s lyrics. This partnership was the source of most of Traffic’s material, including popular songs such as “Paper Sun” and “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys“.
The quartet retired to a small cottage in the Berkshire countryside, where they could work out their sound — a unique blend of R&B, Beatlesque pop, psychedelia, jazz, and British folk — and jam long into the night without angering neighbors.
In May 1967, Traffic debuted in the U.K. with the single “Paper Sun”
Also in 1967, Traffic released it’s debut album, Mr. Fantasy (re titled Heaven Is in Your Mind in the U.S.)
Track #5 Dear Mr. Fantasy (Capaldi, Winwood, Wood)
While being pulled together by their mutual love of musical experimentation, the band’s members were often yanked apart by differing visions for the group’s future. During the group’s seven-year-run, they navigated squabbles and band member changes while developing a revolutionary sound.
1968 Traffic’s self-titled second album “Traffic“
Included in this album was the big hit song “Feelin’ Alright” written by Dave Mason (and later covered by Joe Cocker)
Also on this album, which is widely considered the group’s finest recording, “No Time to Live”
You Can All Join In is also on this landmark album
In late 1968, Traffic disbanded, guitarist Dave Mason having left the group for the second time prior to the completion of the Traffic album.
1969 Blind Faith
In 1969 Winwood formed the super-group Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech. They helped to pioneer the genre of blues/rock fusion.
When Winwood went to Blind Faith, drummer/lyricist Jim Capaldi and woodwinds player Chris Wood turned to session work.
Blind Faith produced one album called “Blind Faith“.
One of Steve Winwoods songs on this album was Can’t Find My Way Home
The band was short-lived owing to Clapton’s greater interest in Blind Faith’s opening act Delaney & Bonnie & Friends—Clapton left the band at tour’s end.
1970 Ginger Baker’s Air Force
When Clapton split, Baker, Winwood and Grech stayed together to form the a jazz-rock fusion group “Ginger Baker’s Air Force”.
The lineup consisted of 3/4 of Blind Faith (without Clapton, who was replaced by Denny Laine), 2/3 of Traffic (Winwood and Chris Wood, minus Capaldi) plus musicians who interacted with Baker in his early days, including Phil Seamen, Harold McNair, John Blood and Graham Bond.
The band’s first album in 1970 was called “Ginger Baker’s Air Force”
This album was a recording of a sold-out live show at the Royal Albert Hall, on 15 January 1970, with the original 11-piece line up.
Side four track 1 features Steve Winwood singing “Do What You Like” (Baker) – 11:47
1970 return to Traffic
In the beginning of 1970, after the demise of Blind Faith, the band having lasted barely six months, Winwood returned to the studio ostensibly to make his first solo album, originally to be titled Mad Shadows. He recorded two tracks with producer Guy Stevens, “Stranger to Himself” and “Every Mother’s Son“, but yearned for like-minded musicians to accompany. Inviting Wood and Capaldi to join him, Winwood’s solo album became the reunion of Traffic, and a re-launch of the band’s career.
In 1970 Traffic produced their fourth studio album, John Barleycorn Must Die
- Side one
“Glad” (Steve Winwood) – 6:59
- Steve Winwood – Hammond organ, piano, bass, percussion;
- Chris Wood – saxophone, flute, percussion;
- Jim Capaldi – drums, percussion
“Freedom Rider” (Winwood, Jim Capaldi) – 6:20
- Winwood – vocals, Hammond organ, piano, bass, percussion;
- Wood – saxophone, flute, percussion;
- Capaldi– drums, percussion
Glad / Freedom Rider
- Side two
“John Barleycorn (Must Die)” (traditional, arr. Winwood) – 6:20
- Winwood – vocals, guitar, piano;
- Wood – flute, percussion;
- Capaldi – vocals, tambourine
(Traffic at the Santa Monica, CA Civic Center 2/21/72 and the only concert video from back in the day)
As did most of their albums, it featured influences from jazz and blues, but the version of the traditional English folk tune “John Barleycorn” also showed the musicians attending to the same strains of folk baroque and electric folk as contemporary British bands Pentangle and Fairport Convention.
Traffic’s fifth studio album was Low Heeled Spark of High Heeled Boys
Perhaps one of the most eclectic, this album featured different forms and offshoots of rock including jazz rock, progressive rock, as well as classic rock and roll. The name of the album’s title track was suggested by the actor Michael J. Pollard.
- Side 1
“Hidden Treasure” (Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi) – 4:16
“The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” (Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi) – 11:35
“Light Up or Leave Me Alone” (Jim Capaldi) – 4:55
- Side 2
“Many a Mile to Freedom” (Steve Winwood, Anna Capaldi) – 7:26
“Rainmaker” (Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi) – 7:39
Throughout this time his talents were sought as a session musician and he became the unofficial in-house keyboard player for Island Records. During 1972, Winwood was seriously ill with peritonitis and this contributed to the sporadic activity of Traffic.
In 1974, Traffic’s 7th studio album When the Eagle Flies would be the final album released by the band until their 1994 reunion Far from Home. The album uses a broader variety of keyboard instruments than previous Traffic albums, adding Moog to their repertoire.
- Steve Winwood – guitar, vocals, keyboards
- Chris Wood – flute, saxophone
- Jim Capaldi – drums, percussion, backing vocal (5), keyboards
- Rosko Gee – bass
- Rebop Kwaku Baah (uncredited) – percussion (3, 7)
- “Something New” – 3:15
- “Dream Gerrard” (Steve Winwood, Vivian Stanshall) – 11:03
- “Graveyard People” – 6:05
- “Walking in the Wind” – 6:48
- “Memories of a Rock N’ Rolla” – 4:50
- “Love” – 3:20
- “When the Eagle Flies” – 4:24
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.
When Traffic slowly ground to a halt in 1974 Winwood seemed poised to start the solo career he had been threatening for so long. Instead he maintained a low profile and became a musicians’ musician, contributing keyboards and backing vocals to many fine albums including: John Martyn’s One World, Sandy Denny’s Rendezvous, George Harrison’s Dark Horse, and Toots And The Maytals Reggae Got Soul.
His session work reads like a who’s who: Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Howlin’ Wolf, Sutherland Brothers, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Alvin Lee, Marianne Faithfull and many others.
In 1976, he performed with Stomu Yamash’ta and Klaus Schulze, resulting in Go and Go 2. He also appeared on stage with the Fania All Stars playing percussion and guitar.
The eagerly anticipated self-titled solo album did not appear until 1977, and was respectfully, rather than enthusiastically, welcomed. It displayed a relaxed Winwood performing only six numbers and using first class musicians like Willy Weeks and Andy Newmark.
Following its release Winwood retreated back to his 50-acre Oxfordshire farm and shunned interviews. He became preoccupied with rural life, and took up clay pigeon shooting, dog training and horse riding. It appeared to outsiders that his musical activity had all but ceased.
Winwood had to weather Britain’s growing punk obsession and America’s embrace of disco, and he was slow to embrace the changing rock landscape. His first solo debut album ‘Steve Winwood’ release in 1977 tanked.
But Winwood’s first album signaled a bold new artistic direction. Such a shift should hardly come as a surprise for those who have followed his distinguished career.
1980 Arc Of A Diver album
This was Winwood’s true breakthrough album as a solo artist. It peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart, establishing him as a commercially viable act.
“While You See a Chance” – 5:12
“Arc of a Diver” (Winwood, Vivian Stanshall) – 5:28
“Slowdown Sundown” – 5:27
“Spanish Dancer” – 5:58
“Night Train” – 7:51
“Dust” (Winwood, Fleming) – 6:20
“Talking Back To The Night” (1982) soon followed.
Winwood, however was not altogether happy with the album and seriously contemplated retiring to become a record producer. His brother, Muff, wisely dissuaded him.
Winwood began to be seen more often, now looking groomed and well preserved. Island Records were able to reap rewards by projecting him towards a younger market.
His European tour in 1983 was a revelation, a super-fit Steve, looking 20 years younger, bounced on stage wearing a portable keyboard and ripped into Junior Walker’s ‘Roadrunner’. It was as if the 17-year-old ‘Stevie’ from the Spencer Davis Group had returned. His entire catalogue was performed with energy and confidence. It was hard to believe this was the same man who for years had hidden shyly behind banks of amplifiers and keyboards with Traffic.
Two years later, while working in New York on his forthcoming album his life further improved when he met his future wife Eugenia, following a long and unhappy first marriage. His obvious elation overspilled into Back In The High Life (1986).
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.
Most of the tracks were co-written with Will Jennings and it became his most commercially successful record so far. The album spawned three hits including the superb disco/soul cut ‘Higher Love’, which reached number 1 in the USA.
A 1986 single written by Winwood and Will Jennings and performed by Winwood was “Back In The High Life Again” / Listen in this one to Steve’s prominent mandolin playing
“Back In The Highlife Again” included backing vocals by James Taylor. It was Winwood’s second number one on the Adult Contemporary chart and it stayed at number one for three weeks and went to number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100
In 1987, Winwood’s long association with Chris Blackwell and Island Records ended amidst press reports that his new contract with Virgin Records guaranteed him $13 million.
The reclusive ‘Midland maniac’ had now become one of the hottest properties in the music business, while the world eagerly awaited the next album to see if the star was worth his transfer fee. The single ‘Roll With It’ preceded the album of the same name.
Roll With It – Royal Albert Hall 1988
“Roll With It” was an enormous success, being a chart-topper in the USA. The album completed a full circle and Winwood was back singing his heart out with 60s inspired soul/pop. His co-writer once again was Will Jennings, although older aficionados were delighted to see one track written with Jim Capaldi.
In 1990, Winwood was involved in a music publishing dispute in which it was alleged that the melody of ‘Roll With It’ had been plagiarized from ‘Roadrunner’. ‘Roll With It’ was written by Winwood and songwriter Will Jennings. Publishing rights organization BMI later had Motown songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland credited with co-writing the song due to its resemblance to the Junior Walker hit “(I’m a) Roadrunner”.
The album, Refugees Of The Heart was commercially unsuccessful, although it contained another major US hit single with the Winwood/Capaldi composition ‘One And Only Man’.
Following the less than spectacular performance of that album, rumours began to circulate that Traffic would be re-born and this was confirmed in early 1994.
Rebirth of Traffic
Released in 1994 on the Virgin label, Far From Home was the tenth and final studio album by the rock band Traffic. It sounded more like a Winwood solo album than any Traffic project, but those who love any conglomeration that has Winwood involved were not disappointed.
- Steve Winwood – organs, piano, synthesizers, lead vocals (all tracks), backing vocals (8), lead guitar, basses, programming, flute, saxophone (6), congas (9), timbales (1),
- Jim Capaldi – drums, backing vocals (4, 6, 7), percussion, art direction
Track #1 Riding High
Track #2 Here Comes A Man
Later that year he participated on Davy Spillane’s album A Place Among The Stones, singing ‘Forever Frozen’, and in the same year sang the theme song ‘Reach For The Light’ from the animated movie Balto.
Winwood’s next studio album, 1997’s Junction 7, was a bitter disappointment to his legions of fans. For once, a man that had barely put a musical foot wrong in over 30 years had missed the bus.
It was a great relief to long-time fans that 2003’s About Time was a magnificent return to form. Highlights included the ten-minute plus ‘Silvia (Who Is She?)’ and the beautiful ballad ‘Horizon’.
- Steve Winwood – vocals, Hammond B-3 organ
- José Pires de Almeida Neto – guitar
- Walfredo Reyes, Jr. – drums, additional percussion (2,4)
- Karl Vanden Bossche – congas (2,4,6,7,8,10)
- Richard Bailey – timbales (2,4,6,7,8,10)
- Karl Denson – saxophone (1,6), flute (8,10)
Winwood’s influences were allowed to come to the foreground as he indulged himself in a spectacular jam session, with shades of Jimmy Smith, Tito Puente and Ray Charles everywhere.
On this album he combined the soul jazz Hammond organ sound from his Spencer Davis Group days with some fine jazz funk and Latin beats of the style embraced by Traffic in their latter meandering days.
Track #1 Different Light
Track #2 Cigano (For the Gypsies)
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, 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.
Traffic – Full Concert – 08/14/94 – Woodstock 94 (OFFICIAL)
Winwood is a great survivor and a dedicated musician, and he still retains one of the greatest voices of the rock era.