Born 12 May 1948, Birmingham, 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 multi-instrumentalist father in the Ron Atkinson Band at the age
of eight, soon after he mastered drums and piano. Raised on a diet of big-band and
Dixieland jazz, the young Steve Winwood was introduced to the world of rock'n'roll by his
uncle, before kicking off his career with the The Muff Woody Jazz Band. In the early 60s,
they gained a fanatical following in the Midlands, and broadened their repertoire to
include R&B covers. In 1963 the band shared a bill with guitarist Spencer Davis, and later
that year the brothers helped him form the pioneering 60s R&B band, The Spencer Davis Group, in which Stevie's precociously white soul
vocals on such hits as "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm A Man" (which he also co-wrote) and
keyboard prowess featured prominently. The multi-talented Winwood first achieved 'star'
status as a member of this group. His strident voice and full sounding Hammond organ
emitted one of the mid-60's most distinctive pop sounds. By 1967 Winwood had played with
many blues artists of the time, including John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, "Champion"
Jack Dupree, T-Bone Walker, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters, BB King, Howling Wolf, and Hammond
organ on Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child." The Spencer Davis 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 he 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 Remi Kabaka and Abduli Amso's Aiye-Keta, 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: 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 Live From Paris. He also appeared on stage with the Fania All Stars playing percussion and guitar.
Steve Winwood was released in 1977, just as punk was making its mark on Britain, and although the album's opening track, "Vacant Chair", boasted a memorably sparse arrangement, many felt he had tried too hard to re-create his late 60s triumphs. Winwood himself was disappointed with the final results, and the album 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 Gloucestershire 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. A critical and commercial success, especially in the US where it went platinum, it laid the groundwork for his increasingly high-profile 80s output. 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; Winwood recruited top session stalwarts like Joe Walsh, Nile Rodgers, James Taylor and Chaka Khan, in a return to ensemble recording. The change in approach paid off - the album spawned three hits, including the superb disco/soul "Higher Love" which topped the US charts in August 1986, and became his biggest British hit since Traffic's "Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush" in 1967. Back In The High Life was deservedly Winwood's biggest-selling solo album, and he found himself in the unexpected position of publicizing his work through promotional videos and TV appearances. He won two Grammy awards in 1987 - Best Contemporary Pop Vocal Performance (Male) and Record of the Year.
The same year, an attractive offer from Virgin meant that a hastily compiled retrospective LP was his swansong for Island. With a solo catalogue of just four albums, Chronicles (1987) was a premature and incomplete compilation. Still, a re-recorded version of "Valerie" became a belated hit single, five years after its inclusion on Talking Back To The Night. His 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.
Branson was delighted to have Steve Winwood on board at Virgin, and was doubtless even more so when Roll With It (1988) emerged. A re-invention of R&B glories from his Spencer Davis Group era, Roll With It also revisited psychedelic elements from Winwood's Traffic days. It repeated its predecessor's success, and its title track topped the American charts for a month. The album completed a full circle. Winwood was back singing his heart out with 60s inspired soul/pop. His co-writer once again was the talented 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". That year Refugees Of The Heart became his least successful album (but BobbieG's favorite!), 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 Davey Spillane's album A Place Among The Stones, singing "Forever Frozen" and later that year sang the theme song "Reach For The Light" from the animated movie Balto.
Winwood returned to the record racks with Junction Seven (Virgin 1997) and trod the promotional trail - for example, appearing at a ghastly star-studded spectacular held at Wembley alongside Rod Stewart, Jon Bon Jovi and a stableful of other AOR dinosaurs - for the rest of the year. The album smoulders along in a gently-psychedelic way without ever really bursting into flames. Winwood's voice shows him as startled by the world as ever, even when working through superficially-unchallenging material like the latin-tinged "Got To Get Back To My Baby" or sweating his stuff to the funkier "Just Wanna Have Some Fun". Standout track though is his reappraisal of Sly and the Family Stone's "Family Affair" which he treats like a rare and fragile relic.
Throughout the summer of 1998, Winwood toured Europe with the band Latin Crossings, composed of himself, Arturo Sandoval, and Tito Puente. It is to be hoped that recordings will soon surface. In the autumn of that year, Winwood ended his relationship with Virgin records and with his long-time manager; the new manager is Mick Newton, based in London, but no word yet on a new label. He is planning a short tour for the autumn of 1999.
Compiled from CD-Now and The Rough Guide.
Page created July 14, 1999.
Last updated July 14, 1999.