Monday, February 25, 2008

Steve Winwood: Man or God?

In his ongoing career, which has thus far spanned four decades, Steve Winwood has built one of the most amazing resumes in rock history. From the Spencer Davis Group, which Winwood joined as a teen, to Traffic and Blind Faith, to sitting in with some of the biggest names in music history (Jimi Hedrix, George Harrison, Muddy Waters, just to name a few), Mr. Winwood has made quite a name for himself. In addition to the many bands of which Winwood has been a part, he is also a multi instrumentalist excelling at guitar and organ as well as various other instruments. In this entry, with the aid of some concert footage and recordings, you will be able to take a little glimpse into the life of a true rock legend.

The Spencer Davis Group:

Steve and his brother Muff joined the Spencer Davis group in 1963, when they decided that they wanted to pursue music full time. Steve was only 15 at the time! Even at such a young age, Steve was recognized as having a gritty and mature soul singing voice in addition to his amazing organ and guitar playing abilities. By 1965, at the age of 17, Winwood had already been featured on various hit records including the smash hit, "Gimme Some Lovin'" (above). The song below, "Dust My Blues," is an adaptation of Elmore James' electric version of the Robert Johnson classic, "Dust My Broom." While the video above features Winwood on organ and vocals, the video below features Winwood on lead guitar. This track also features some great Winwood blues leads, most likely learned while playing in the back up bands for such artists as John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and Howlin Wolf.


Winwood left the Spencer Davis Group in 1967 to form the band Traffic. Although the future members of the band jammed together often at The Elbow Room, in Birmingham, their first official recordings were released in 1967 as the soundtrack to the British feature film "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush." Towards the end of the year, the group was signed to Island Records where they had their first major hit, "Paper Sun." The debut album on which this song was features, "Dear Mr. Fantasy," was only released in the UK. They released one more album, "Traffic," and then broke up in 1968. The group reformed in 1969 and released the album "John Barley Corn Must Die." In 1971, the band picked up a few new members (Jim Gordon on Drums and percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah) and released the live album "Welcome to the Canteen." Traffic would go on to release three other albums (including "The Low Spark of the High Heeled Boys") before their breakup in 1974. Traffic was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. The tracks featured in this segment are taken from a live performance in Santa Monica in 1972. These cuts again show off Winwood's abilities as a multi instrumentalist as he is playing piano on "Low Spark of the High Heeled Boys" (above) and guitar on "John Barleycorn" (below).

Blind Faith:

Blind Faith's beginnings date back to Cream's breakup in 1968. It was at this same time that Traffic broke up for the first time as well. The group began in 1968 merely as a weekly jam with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood in the basement of Clapton's house in Surrey. Clapton was quite pleased with these jams so he and Winwood decided to start a band, but they needed a drummer. As a result, in 1969 they recruited former cream drummer Ginger Baker. Later in 1969, the group added bassist Ric Grech and recorded their only album, "Blind Faith." Soon after, they started touring and were deemed the first big rock and roll super group. After a only a few months on the road and one hit album, the band called it quits. Winwood and Grech went onto reform Traffic, while Clapton sat in with groups such as the Plastic Ono Band and Delaney and Bonnie. The tracks featured in this segment were filmed at Blind Faith's first live gig, a free concert at London's Hyde Park on June 7, 1969. The above track is called "Can't Find My Way Home." Notice how Steve Winwood announces it as a new track. The track below is a cover of The Rolling Stone's "Under My Thumb." This is definitely a version infused with soul. Winwood is featured on Hammond and vocals on both tracks.

Bonus from 1970:

This is a show that the Grateful Dead played at the Fillmore East on November 16, 1970. None other than Steve Winwood sits in with the boys on Pigpen's Hammond beginning with Hard to Handle (Otis Redding) all the way through the end of Not Fade Away. Winwood also does some vocal work on a few of the songs. I hope all of you enjoy this show as much as I do.

Life after Traffic:

Steve Winwood went on to have a lucrative solo career throughout the 1980s and the 1990s and still releases albums today. In fact, Winwood last released an album, "About Time," in 2003. Below is an interview from a Relix Magazine which came out about two years ago. Below that is a some concert footage of Winwood performing the Traffic hit "Dear Mr. Fantasy" in 2003. I am including this just to make sure that everyone knows that Steve can still rock...hard!!! Enjoy.

Here's what Steve has to say:

Next year marks 40 years for you in the music industry. Did you have rock-n-roll fantasies as a kid, that your career was something you envisioned, or has it been unexpected in its success?
I was only interested in music at the time—all kinds of music—and I knew that that as what I wanted to do. My father encouraged me, that if music was something I felt passionate about, and if I wanted to do it, then that was enough reason to do it, even if it wouldn’t serve me well as a career. And I have been very lucky that I have been able to make a living at it since.

What was your role in the release of the recent Traffic DVD, The Last Great Jam? Why this show?
I spent many years carefully listening, watching and helping to edit. I was very involved with the production, from the audio and visual side. There was a lot of synching things up from different shows, and it often needed a musician’s eye. In terms of performance videos, there’s nothing quite like it out there.
Jim and I had an agreement that neither of us would tour without the other as Traffic. We were going to release this DVD with a Traffic tour last year, but Jim got sick and wasn’t able to do the tour. We thought he may recover and continue on with the project, but this was not to be because of his untimely death. Therefore, now Traffic will never be as a band in the future and so I feel this DVD is a fitting legacy for that peculiar band that was Traffic. It is a very special piece.

You opened for the Grateful Dead that tour in Las Vegas and Garcia shows up on the DVD for “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” What was the interaction like with the band?

The band was very welcoming and accommodating and looked after us with a great deal of kindness. Also, the Dead played some Traffic songs in their set, which I think helped in endearing us to their fans. It’s been said that the Dead were somewhat of a hard band to open for because of the dedication of their fans.

When Traffic first formed in 1967, the band retreated to a small cottage in the Berkshire countryside to work on its sound and just play. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that time was like and how Traffic’s sound developed? It seemed that music was at such at an exciting point then, particularly in England with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Pink Floyd.

We went out and rented a cottage, which was in the middle of nowhere, just so we could play music all the time, without disturbing neighbors, etc., which was often the case when trying to do the same in London.
Traffic set out with a specific idea to create music that incorporated many different styles: jazz, folk, rock, blues and many ethnic styles. We set out to combine all of the elements in such a way as to forge a music that was peculiar to ourselves. Having said that, the ‘60s were a great time of social change and there were changes occurring not only in music, but all across the social spectrum.

A number of Traffic’s songs—“Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Low Spark of the High-Heeled Boys” come immediately to mind—have had incredible staying power; that the songs’ strength haven’t diminished over the years. For you, what are key components and/or elements that give songs like those their strength?

The writing we did in the early days was a means of having something that we could jam to, a way of creating. Often, Jim would scribble down some lyrics and then we’d find a way of playing and I’d have these lyrics sitting on top of the organ or in front of the guitar and sing as we were playing. That’s really how the songs came about. We didn't really construct a song with choruses or with verses—writing just became an excuse to play together really, to jam and I think that that is the attraction of many of their songs.
If I knew the key components, every single one of my songs would have staying power, but perhaps honesty and not trying to be something outside the scope of what one is is what gave these songs their strength.

You’ve been in so many different situations—is there a place between sideman and leader, one where all members are leaders? Or, in your opinion, do bands function best with a leader?
Traffic as a trio was definitely a band where all the members were leaders. If a leader is needed, one needs to be there to step into the breech—a kind of management skill.

You’ve played Bonnaroo and were given the Lifetime Achievement award at The Jammys two years ago. What’s your sense of current improv-based rock groups?
Love ‘em—a reaction against over-homogenized pop; a much-needed part of today’s music scene.

One of your biggest influences is Ray Charles. Did you ever get a chance to spend some time with him?
Yes, I did spend some time talking to him—not playing, however. He did say that he liked my music and started singing some bits—I was awestruck.

Though Rick Grech passed away in 1990, there’s a big question looming given the recent Cream reunion: wouldn’t it be appropriate if there were a Blind Faith reunion after?
I don’t think Eric Clapton would want to jump straight into another reunion after Cream, and I think reformations and reunions aren’t always the best idea as sometimes the members have moved on.

You’ve won Grammys, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, played with just about everybody who’s anybody in the music business. Has anything eluded you?
I hope to keep learning about music. It’s a vast subject and a never-ending learning curve. Accolades are very nice, but mostly tend to be industry-driven, and that has never been what I have strived for. I am, however, proud to be recognized for work that reaches people.

Steve Winwood was interviewed by Josh Baron.

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