One of British rock's most enduring figures, singer-keyboardist Steve Winwood enjoyed a half-century of success with such acclaimed groups as The Spencer Davis Group, Blind Faith and Traffic, as well as being a Grammy-winning solo artist. He was something of a teenaged prodigy in the early 1960s, earning accolades for his almost supernaturally soulful voice on such enduring favorites as "Gimme Some Lovin'" with the Spencer Davis Group. Winwood left for more experimental pastures with Traffic, a jazz-rock-psychedelic group that recorded the FM radio favorites "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" between tumultuous breakups and reunions throughout the late '60s and early '70s. Winwood also briefly joined Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in the legendary Blind Faith before severing ties with Traffic and taking a lengthy hiatus from music. He emerged in the late 1970s as a solo performer with a synthesizer-driven sound on singles like "While You See a Chance," though his true breakout release would not come until 1987 with his wildly popular Back in the High Life. Its slick, R&B-pop tone would largely define his solo efforts for the next decade, which enjoyed less acclaim as the '90s drew to a close before a successful return to his R&B roots with About Time (2003) and Nine Lives (2008). Winwood's participation in some of the most popular music acts of the '60s and '70s, as well as his storied library of songs, made him one of the most accomplished rock musicians of the 20th century.
Born May 12, 1948 in Handsworth, an inner city area in Birmingham, England, Stephen Lawrence Winwood received his first exposure to music through his father, Lawrence, a semi-professional saxophone and clarinet player who imbued in his son a love for swing and Dixieland jazz. By the age of eight, Winwood was playing drums, guitar and piano and making his stage debut alongside his father and brother, Mervyn, who went by the nickname of "Muff," in the Ron Atkinson Band. He later joined his brother's group, the Muff Woody Jazz Band, which expanded its set lists to include R&B numbers in order to take advantage of the 14-year-old Winwood's extraordinarily soulful voice and keyboards, which drew comparison to Ray Charles. The teenager dove deeper into roots music by backing such legendary American bluesmen as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf on live dates in the United Kingdom. In 1963, both Winwood brothers joined the Spencer Davis Group, a popular R&B/rock act that scored its first No. 1 hit with "Keep On Running" in 1965. That same year, Winwood recorded his first solo effort, the single "Incense," for which he adopted the pseudonym "Steve Anglo," a name he would use in later sessions with John Mayall and Eric Clapton's Powerhouse, a one-off supergroup featuring future Cream bandmates Clapton and Jack Bruce along with Manfred Mann harp player Paul Jones and Pete York of the Spencer Davis Group on drums.
Winwood would record the Spencer Davis Group's biggest and most enduring hits - the joyous "Gimme Some Lovin'" (1966), which reached No. 2 in the U.K. and broke into the Top 10 in America, and 1967's "I'm a Man," a churning soul workout that reached No. 10 in the States - before leaving the band in 1967. He had grown tired of the restrictive format of pop music and sought a freer sound that would allow him to exercise some of the improvisational skills he had learned as a jazz player. Winwood found his outlet in Traffic, a quartet featuring drummer-songwriter Jim Capaldi and guitarist Dave Mason that employed a number of influences, including R&B, folk, psychedelia, soul and R&B. After developing their sound in the solitude of a cottage in the Berkshire countryside, Traffic debuted with "Paper Sun" (1967), a rueful acid-pop construction co-written by Winwood and Capaldi that reached No. 5 in England. The group would later adopt a more experimental, jazz-rock-fusion sound, as initially personified by the hazy "Dear Mr. Fantasy" from their debut album, Mr. Fantasy (1967), but conflicts between Winwood and Mason over creative direction led to Traffic's dissolution in 1969. Winwood then reunited with Clapton, himself fresh from the implosion of Cream that same year, for what would become another supergroup, Blind Faith. The lineup, which was filled out by ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech from Family, was immediately greeted by universal enthusiasm by listeners and especially music promoters, who booked Blind Faith for performances before they had recorded any material.
Their eponymous debut album topped both the U.S. and U.K. charts upon its release in the summer of 1969, but Clapton soon grew disillusioned with the idea of being in another group format comprised of all-star players, and left Blind Faith to perform with Delaney & Bonnie, an American act which had opened for the band during its brief tour. Winwood would then follow Baker and Grech into Ginger Baker's Air Force, a sprawling fusion ensemble that also featured Chris Wood from Traffic and Denny Laine, later of Wings. But after playing two dates with the band, Winwood departed to fulfill his obligations to Traffic's old label, Island Records. He soon commenced work on a solo album, tentatively titled Mad Shadows, but after calling in Capaldi and Wood to assist on the sessions, the project turned into the Traffic reunion record John Barleycorn Must Die (1970). It became their highest-charting album in the United States, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. Winwood would then record three more Top 10 albums as leader of Traffic, but the group's second act was plagued with problems, including a revolving lineup of players, Capaldi's emerging success as a solo player, and recurring bouts of peritonitis, all of which eventually forced him to quit the group mid-concert in 1974. He would spend the next few years in semi-retirement, emerging sporadically to lend keyboards to recordings by other Island artists like Robert Palmer and Toots and the Maytals.
In 1977, he released a self-titled solo album, but response was remarkably tepid, despite the presence of former Traffic bandmates Capaldi and Rebop Kwaku Baah. Winwood would spend the next three years crafting a new sound highlighted by extensive use of synthesizers and electronic percussion, which resulted in the Top 5 album Arc of a Diver (1980). Critics praised the effort's contemporary sound, crafted entirely by Winwood, who played all of the instruments on the record and co-wrote all of the songs, including the Top 10 hit "While You See a Chance," with Oscar-winning songwriter Will Jennings, who would serve as his collaborator of choice on subsequent solo efforts. Winwood stumbled briefly with 1982's Talking Back to the Night, which failed to reproduce the success of its predecessor. Its relative failure was a heavy blow to the singer, who was also in the midst of a costly divorce from his first wife, singer Nicole Weir, both of which prompted him to consider retiring as a recording artist. His brother Muff, who had moved into A&R and producing for Island in the years after the collapse of the Spencer Davis Group, convinced him to continue his recording career - a shrewd decision, as his next album, Back in the High Life (1987), was one of the biggest hits of his entire musical career.
Recorded with an all-star lineup of backing musicians, including vocalists James Taylor, Chaka Khan and guitarists Joe Walsh and Nile Rodgers, Back in the High Life not only provided Winwood with his first No. 1 single as a solo artist, the ebullient "Higher Love," but three additional Top 20 singles in the title track and "The Finer Things," as well as a trio of Grammys, including Record of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for "Higher Love." Its unqualified success spurred Winwood to continue in its vein of highly polished pop-rock tracks burnished by touches of light R&B and soul. He scored a Top 10 hit with a remix of "Valerie," a track from Talking Back to the Night featured on his 1987 best-of compilation Chronicles, which also marked the end of his two-decade tenure as an Island Records recording artist. Virgin Records would issue his next solo effort, Roll with It (1988), which gave him the biggest hit of his career with the title track, a No. 1 single on the Billboard 100, adult contemporary and mainstream rock charts, as well as his first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200. However, listeners did not flock to his next solo effort, 1990's Refugees of the Heart, to the same degree as its predecessors, despite the presence of Jim Capaldi on its lead single, "One and Only Man."
This one-off reunion led to a full-fledged Traffic album, Far from Home (1994), which was essentially comprised of Winwood on all instruments and vocals save for Capaldi, who drummed and co-wrote the songs with his former bandmate. The resulting record was a modest success, after which Winwood returned to his solo career. Unfortunately, Junction Seven (1997) was his lowest-selling solo effort since his self-titled debut. Winwood would spend the next six years dabbling in various side projects, including the all-Star Latin Crossings with Tito Puente and Arturo Sandoval. He also parted ways with Virgin to set up his own label, Wincraft, which released About Time (2003), a relatively stripped-down R&B record which received stellar reviews. Winwood then returned to guest work on a variety of recordings, including U.K. rapper Eric Prydz's No. 1 single "Call on Me" (2004), which featured Winwood on re-recorded samples from "Valerie." Three years later, he re-teamed with Clapton for a string of concerts that were recorded on the Top 20 album Live at Madison Square Garden (2009). The guitarist then recorded the single "Dirty City" with Winwood for his 2008 solo album, Nine Lives. The record returned Winwood to the spotlight by reaching No. 12 on the Billboard 200. Solo tours of the U.K. and America, as well as a joint effort with Rod Stewart, took up much of 2012 and 2013.
By Paul Gaita