Steve Winwood Biography

Stephen Lawrence Winwood, 12 May 1948, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England. Steve and his older brother Muff Winwood were born into a family with parents who encouraged musical evenings at their home. Steve was playing guitar with Muff and their father in the Ron Atkinson Band at the age of eight, soon after he mastered drums and piano. The multi-talented Winwood first achieved ‘star’ status as a member of the pioneering 60s R&B band, the Spencer Davis Group. His strident voice and full sounding Hammond Organ emitted one of the mid-60’s most distinctive pop sounds. The group had a successful run of major hits in the UK and USA until their musical horizons became too limited for the musically ambitious Steve. In 1965, Winwood had previously recorded the UK turntable soul hit ‘Incense’ under the name of the Anglos, written by Stevie Anglo. This gave fuel to rumours of his imminent departure. It was not until 1967 that he left and went on to form Traffic, a seminal band in the development of progressive popular music. The short-lived ‘supergroup’ Blind Faith briefly interrupted Traffic’s flow. 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.

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.

During the last week of 1980 the majestic Arc Of A Diver was released to an unsuspecting public. With his former songwriting partner Jim Capaldi now living in Brazil, Winwood had been working on lyrics supplied to him by Vivian Stanshall, George Fleming and Will Jennings. The album was an unqualified and unexpected triumph, particularly in the USA where it went platinum. The stirring single ‘While You See A Chance’ saw him back in the charts. He followed with the hastily put together (by Winwood standards) Talking Back To The Night, which became another success. Winwood, however was not altogether happy with the record 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). 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.

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. Both were enormous successes, being a double chart-topper in the USA. The album completed a full circle. 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’. 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. Far From Home sounded more like a Winwood solo album than any Traffic project, but those who love any conglomeration that has Winwood involved were not disappointed. 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’. 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.

Winwood is a great survivor and a dedicated musician, and he still retains one of the greatest voices of the rock era.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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