The ever-youthful Steve Winwood, born on May 12, 1948, is in our spotlight as we celebrate the great vocalist, keyboard player, writer and producer with our In 20 Songs playlist.
A mere 20 selections can of course barely do justice to an extraordinary half-century and more at the forefront of the music scene, both in Britain and around the world. We trust it serves as a sampler of his staple hits and key album tracks from which to explore further his unique career.
We start with the teenage Stevie in 1965, on vocals and organ with the Spencer Davis Group. The group had formed in Birmingham when he was barely 15, and he often had trouble gaining admission to the group’s own gigs because of his tender years. But there was nothing green about his performances on “Every Little Bit Hurts,” their cover of Brenda Holloway’s Motown tearjerker of the year before, or their breakthrough UK No.1 “Keep On Running.”
Winwood added further to the group’s catalog of distinctive hits with the irresistibly high-octane “Gimme Some Lovin’’’ and “I’m A Man.” But before that, he took time for the first of his countless splinter groups, side projects and collaborations that have always informed his approach. In 1966, he joined forces with Eric Clapton for his short-lived Powerhouse “supergroup” of blues aficionados. It also included Jack Bruce, fellow SDG member Pete York, Paul Jones and Ben Palmer.
When Steve called time on his tenure with Davis, he immediately found a rich new vein of creativity. With experimental album rock coming ever further to the fore, Traffic (also featuring his longtime friend Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason and Chris Wood) became instant tastemakers.
The band could turn their hands to pop radio-friendly hit singles such as “Paper Sun” and to the innovative, alternative style of pieces such as “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” Then came another switch, as Steve segued from his first era with Traffic into another supergroup setting with Blind Faith.
Reuniting here with Clapton in a dynamic line-up with Ginger Baker and Ric Grech, the band released a landmark self-titled album in the summer of 1969 which sadly proved to be their sole release. But it lives on in the memory of millions of admirers with its combination of rock, folk, blues and rock’n’roll styles, on such songs as Winwood’s opening “Had To Cry Today” and “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
Winwood then returned to Traffic for some more fruitful years, represented here by the John Barleycorn Must Die and The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys albums. After the group disbanded in 1974, Steve detoured again to work with, among others, Japanese composer Stomu Yamashta, on the 1976 album Go.
The fact that Winwood delayed his official debut as a solo artist until as late as 1977 was testament to the notion that he has always placed musical validity far above personal celebrity. That self-titled Island Records album, which contained “Time Is Running Out,” tested the waters for the later triumphs of Arc Of A Diver and Talking Back To The Night, and on to the multi-million-selling, MTV-friendly years of Back In The High Life and Roll With It.
More recent years have seen Winwood continue his prolific work rate, both on studio and on stage. We end our playlist with another fine Winwood-Clapton collaboration, “Dirty City,” from Steve’s 2008 album Nine Lives. 2017 brought the excellent double album Greatest Hits Live, a fitting reminder of his catalog, his stirring ability to bring it to life on stage, and the fact that there are more great things to come from him.