Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy
Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell. This week and next, I’ll be examining the careers of two multi-talented singer/songwriters whose musical arcs briefly overlapped in the ’60s and then went in different directions through the ’70s and ’80s and beyond. This week in Part One, we’ll take a look at the amazing Steve Winwood. Next week in Part Two, we’ll explore the interesting path taken by the great Dave Mason.
Summer 1969. Over the previous six months, I had become a huge fan of Cream, the British blues power trio featuring guitarist Eric Clapton, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce. The group had already disbanded, but that didn’t stop me from immersing myself in their albums. As a budding guitarist myself, I idolized Clapton and was eager to find out what he was going to do next.
By August, the record stores were touting a new album by a new “supergroup” called Blind Faith, comprised of Clapton and Baker with a keyboardist/singer named Steve Winwood, and bassist Ric Grech. I bought the LP immediately and, while I was at first disappointed by the absence of the firepower Cream had been known for, I was particularly taken by the vocals of this guy Winwood. Haunting and beautiful, soaring and bluesy, his voice was a revelation to me, as was the fact that he’d been in not one but two successful groups previously, even though he was then only 21.
I am sheepish to admit that, at that time, I knew almost nothing of Traffic, the band Winwood had put together in 1967. It took another couple of years before I truly became familiar with the group through their albums in the early ’70s, and longer still to appreciate the fine work from the first three Traffic albums, or his contributions to the Spencer Davis Group before that, while still just a teenager.
Winwood, a product of Birmingham, England, had been something of a boy wonder, learning piano early and developing his voice as he absorbed many different types of music. “I was a chorister in the High Anglican Church,” he said in a 2017 interview with Classic Rock, a British music magazine. “That music got under my skin somehow. Then along came skiffle and early rock ‘n roll and Buddy Holly. And later on came Ray Charles, who had a big influence on me and introduced me to this crossover from bebop and jazz into rock and R&B. I was so engrossed with learning all these different types of music, and trying to play them all, and realizing that being on stage was just part of it. It didn’t occur to me that there was anything I should shy away from.”
Winwood and older brother Muff joined forces and started playing Birmingham clubs as the Muff Wood Band, attracting the attention of local legend Spencer Davis, who signed them up for his Spencer Davis Group in 1963. Clapton, in his 2007 autobiography, recalls hearing Winwood for the first time. “He was only 15,” he recalled. “If you closed your eyes, you’d swear it was Ray Charles up there. He was like a much older man in a boy’s skin.”
The band signed to Island Records and ended up scoring back-to-back #1 R&B-flavored hits in the UK in 1965 and 1966: “Keep On Running” and “Somebody Help Me.” They took it up another notch when Winwood wrote “Gimme Some Lovin’,” featuring his Hammond organ, which gave them instant notoriety in the US by reaching #7. They sustained their momentum with the follow-up, “I’m a Man,” another Winwood original that peaked at #10 in the US. His outstanding vocals and organ dominated the group’s sound, and gave him the confidence to think about branching out.
Interestingly, Cream was just forming around that time, and Clapton was keen on asking Winwood to join, but Baker and Bruce stood firm on wanting the trio format. “There was a lack of synchronization at the time,” said Winwood, “and I guess the offer to be a part of Cream never came through. I certainly would’ve taken the job.” The mind reels at the thought of how different Cream would’ve sounded with Winwood in the fold…
But instead, Winwood met drummer Jim Capaldi, guitarist Dave Mason and flute/sax man Chris Wood at jam sessions at a favorite Birmingham club and found them to be suitable ingredients for a new sound he was searching for — a sort of organic merging of folk, jazz, rock and blues. Winwood left Spencer Davis, and the foursome, who chose the name Traffic while waiting to cross the street one day, rented a cottage in a rural village to see what musical ideas might materialize.
The music that came out of those sessions turned a lot of heads. First came Winwood’s infectious single, “Paper Sun,” followed soon after by Mason’s trippy “Hole in My Shoe.” Both songs reached the Top Five in the UK. The debut LP, “Mr. Fantasy,” which peaked at #16, was dominated by songs written by Winwood (music) and Capaldi (lyrics), including “Heaven Is In Your Mind,” “No Face, No Name, No Number” and the anthemic “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” There was an alluring stew of soulful blues, strange psychedelia and blues rock. (In the US, the time apparently wasn’t right yet for Traffic; the album stalled at #88 and the singles went nowhere.)
Mason, who was inexplicably spooked by the early immediate success in England, chose to leave, although he would return in time for sessions for the next LP, titled simply “Traffic.” The Capaldi/Winwood axis came up with great tracks like “Pearly Queen” and “40,000 Headmen,” and Mason brought well-crafted songs like “You Can All Join In” and perhaps his most famous tune, “Feelin’ Alright?” which ended up being covered by dozens of artists over the years, most notably Joe Cocker, whose definitive rendition reached the Top 40 in the US.
But Mason then split again — as his lyric states, “Seems I’ve got to have a change in scene…” — so Traffic soldiered on as a trio, expanding their touring to include their first visit to the US. Live recordings from those shows were used to augment several stray studio tracks like “Medicated Goo” and “Shanghai Noodle Factory” to produce a third Traffic LP, “Last Exit,” which sounded decidedly inferior to the first two.
At that point, Winwood concluded he needed a change as well and pulled the plug on Traffic — for now. He accepted Clapton’s overture to at last pool their talents to see what might come of it. They squirreled away in the same rural Berkshire cottage, jamming and trying out new song ideas. Baker heard about this and showed up too, and Winwood called his friend Ric Grech to join them on bass and violin, and Blind Faith was born.
The media hype surrounding the band doomed them from the get-go. “Blind Faith was pretty murky, really,” Winwood remembers. “That didn’t really work out quite as well as Eric and I had intended. I don’t think there was any one reason for that, but Eric didn’t want to carry on doing what he’d been doing with Cream. We were both looking for something else. The music that we started off doing was acoustic and jangly. It had a sort of folk element to it, which is not something that goes down too well in the arena rock environment. We had pressures from the business to start recording before we were ready, and we were suddenly playing big places. Neither of us were into that. We were starting to lose interest at different points and were drifting apart.”
The album reached #1 in the US and the UK, but after the tour, the group parted ways. But as we will see, the world hadn’t heard the last of the Winwood/Clapton collaboration.
Winwood thought the time was ripe for his first solo LP, and he began writing and recording songs for it. As sessions continued, though, he found himself missing input from Wood and Capaldi, particularly Wood’s flute and sax, so he invited them to participate. It became obvious that this was now going to become another Traffic album, and so it was: “John Barleycorn Must Die,” released in the summer of 1970, would become the highest charting Traffic LP in the US, peaking at #5. FM rock stations played it relentlessly, especially the jazzy instrumental “Glad,” the sax-driven rocker “Freedom Rider” and the more accessible “Empty Pages.”
Late in 1971 came what many people (including me) feel is Traffic’s finest moment, the captivating “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” LP. The mesmerizing, 12-minute title track is still a classic rock favorite, and “Many a Mile to Freedom” and “Hidden Treasure” show the group still in command of their original semi-trippy sound. Two other tracks — “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” and “Rock and Roll Stew” — offered Traffic doing straightforward rock, with Capaldi handling lead vocals.
Winwood had been suffering occasional bouts of peritonitis (inflammation of the abdomen), which affected his stage performances and his interest in music in general, so after two rather uneven albums (1973’s “Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory” and 1974’s “When the Eagle Flies”) and another live LP, Traffic called it quits.
“In the mid-to-late Seventies,” he said, “I dropped out a little from the rock’n’roll world. I made a conscious effort to do a lot of sessions and work as a sideman, to try to learn how other people were putting music together. Then later on, of course, punk emerged. I found that tricky, because punk rock was almost a reaction against what I’d been doing. It was difficult for me to grasp that, so I suppose I sort of went underground a little.”
Winwood finally released his first solo album in late 1977, with help from a variety of session men, and reaction was decidedly mixed. It had its moments, like the mid-tempo “Vacant Chair” and “Time is Running Out” with its galloping rhythm, but it wasn’t the killer album everyone had been anticipating.
Instead, that album came in late 1980, when “Arc of a Diver” kickstarted his solo career big time. He teamed up with Texan songwriter Will Jennings, who provided lyrics for a batch of great songs like “Second Hand Woman,” “Night Train” and the melodic title song. It was truly a one-man tour de force, with Winwood playing all the instruments himself. The leadoff track, “While You See a Chance,” peaked at #7 in the US, beginning his decade-long commercial success here, and the album reached #3. A retrospective review on AllMusic gushed, “Utterly unencumbered by the baggage of his long years in the music business, Winwood reinvented himself as a completely contemporary artist on this outstanding album.”
I never quite understood why the 1982 follow-up LP, “Talking Back to the Night,” didn’t equal its predecessor’s success, at least in the US, where it stalled at #28. Songs like “Big Girls Walk Away,” “Help Me Angel” and the amazing title song deserved more attention, as did “Valerie,” which did finally reach #9 five years after initial release when it was remixed and included on Winwood’s “Chronicles” collection.
A period of soul-searching and a divorce resulted in a move to New York, where he teamed up with some marquis players like Nile Rodgers, Joe Walsh, Chaka Khan and James Taylor and veteran producer Russ Titelman to make the outstanding, award-winning “Back in the High Life” album. Three hit singles — “The Finer Things,” “Back in the High Life Again” and the Grammy winner “Higher Love” — helped put the album at #3 in 1986. I loved this album for its crisp production and satisfying songs.
He concluded his commercial period in 1988 with his only #1 album, “Roll With It,” and another trio of Top Ten singles: “Roll With It” (strongly reminiscent of Junior Walker’s ’60s hit “Shotgun”), “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do” and “Holding On.”
By this point, I was starting to tire of him because of overexposure, and apparently I wasn’t alone, for his sales and popularity (and, consequently, his recorded output) dropped off dramatically in the ’90s and beyond. I continued to buy his stuff — 1990’s “Refugees of the Heart,” 1997’s “Junction Seven” and 2003’s “About Time” — but rarely played them.
It was big news in some circles when Winwood announced a Traffic reunion in 1994, although it didn’t include Mason nor Grech or Baah, and Wood had passed away in 1983. So it was pretty much just Winwood and Capaldi who collaborated on the excellent “Far From Home” album, which reached the Top 30 in both the US and the UK. Some said it sounded like another Winwood solo album, and while it’s true that the majority of tracks wouldn’t have been out of place on “Roll With It,” at least two — “Here Comes a Man” and the superb “Far From Home” — recall the “Low Spark” era of Traffic.
Winwood asked Clapton in 2008 to play a solo on the track “Dirty City” from his final solo LP to date, “Nine Lives,” and it’s a beauty. Other songs also received airplay, like the beautiful “Fly” and “Secrets,” which helped send the album to #12 (although that kind of rating doesn’t have the same clout or meaning in the age of downstreaming).
That small project brought the two veterans together in a much larger way in 2009 for “Live From Madison Square Garden,” where Clapton and Winwood offered a dizzying set list of songs from Cream, Traffic, Blind Faith and several of their solo albums. That live album was so well received that the duo went on world tour for a year.
Today, at age 72, Winwood still performs periodically and had planned a tour with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (wow!) this year that was cancelled like every other tour because of the coronavirus. As a 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee with Traffic, and ranked #33 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, Winwood’s stature in the business is secure.