The Pop Life; Winwood, at 32, a rock traditionalist.
By Robert Palmer
New York Times, January 21, 1981
When Steve Winwood was 16 years old he was a rock star in England, as vocalist, pianist and guitarist with the Spencer Davis Group. When he was 20 he made an impressive American debut with Traffic, one of the finest and most influential progressive rock bands of the 1960's. Traffic rapidly won a large and loyal American following but by 1975, when Mr. Winwood was only 26, he had lived through 12 years on the road and felt he badly needed a rest. So Traffic disbanded, he bought a small farm north of London, and little was heard from him until last week, when his new solo album, ''Arc of a Diver,'' was released by Island Records.
Though he seems to be making a long-delayed comeback with his new album, Mr. Winwood is only 32. Earlier this week he was in New York, staying on Central Park South in a suite that belongs to the president of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, who discovered Mr. Winwood in 1964. A shock of reddish hair, now cut fashionably short, tops a slender figure in jeans and sweater. He could easily pass himself off as a late-blooming graduate student.
When he joined the Spencer Davis Group, the first important rock band to emerge from Birmingham, England, Mr. Winwood was only 15. But he was already a formidable musician who had studied arranging and theory at a Birmingham music school and fallen under the spell of imported American rhythm-and-blues records. ''My older brother, Muff, had this band that played a kind of jazz-blues,'' he explained. ''When he first started playing me records by people like Ray Charles, I was amazed that music like that wasn't better received or better known in England.''
Before long, Mr. Winwood was playing blues and rhythm-and-blues on the piano with his brother and other Birmingham musicians, developing an interest in the guitar, and beginning to sing in a high plaintive voice, with a remarkable natural aptitude for blues inflections. He began recording with the Spencer Davis Group, which also included his brother Muff on bass, in 1964, and the following year the band recorded its first hit single, ''Keep On Running.'' By 1966 and early 1967, when the Davis group's ''Gimme Some Loving'' and ''I'm a Man'' were hits in England and America, Mr. Winwood was its undisputed star. He wrote both songs with the help of other musicians, arranged them, and sang them. He had developed into one of the most convincingly emotive soul and blues vocalists in Britain, and he was still a teen-ager.
Shortly after ''I'm a Man'' became an international hit, the Spencer Davis Group disbanded. Muff Winwood became a record producer; Steve Winwood and three musician friends - the saxophonist Chris Wood, the drummer Jim Capaldi, and the guitarist Dave Mason - established Traffic and retreated to a cottage in England's Berkshires. There they collectively composed the material for the album ''Mr. Fantasy,'' a progressive rock milestone that was issued late in 1967.
By the time Traffic made its first visit to the United States, in 1969, the band's records had attracted a substantial American following. The first stop on the tour was San Francisco, which was then experiencing the high tide of hippiedom - love, flowers, psychedelic drugs. When he was asked whether Traffic became enmeshed in psychedelia as a result, Mr. Winwood laughed a little ruefully. ''Enmeshed?'' he repeated, a bit ruefully. ''We became entrenched. But I suppose our getting so entrenched helped us to get across to those audiences.'' With both band and listeners afloat in a psychedelic haze, Traffic's early American shows tended to be uneven. ''But we were just sort of accepted,'' Mr. Winwood smiled. ''I felt maybe the audiences felt sorry for us because we were trying so hard.''
The years that followed were dizzying in more ways than one. Dave Mason, who wrote and sang Traffic's most commercial material, left, returned, and left again, and in 1969 Traffic disintegrated. Mr. Winwood joined Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker of the recently dissolved Cream and the bassist Rick Grech to form Blind Faith, but after a fine album and a single hectic tour, Blind Faith disbanded, too. By the end of 1970 Traffic had re-formed. There were several more albums, including the superb ''John Barleycorn Must Die,'' and a confusing series of personnel changes, with the three principals remaining while various musicians came and went.
When Traffic disbanded for the last time, in 1975, and Mr. Winwood retired to the British countryside, it was widely assumed that the rock-and-roll life had burned him out, and rock's evolution seemed to be passing him by. During the next five years he made a few appearances playing guitar and keyboards with the fusion group Go and Latin music's Fania All Stars. But mostly he stayed on his farm, which is several hours north of London. For a while he tried working in the fields. ''I liked the sort of mindless physical work,'' he said. ''It helped relieve a lot of tensions. But I made too many mistakes farming; I finally decided I'd made all the mistakes that could be made in music already, so I might as well stick with that.''
Mr. Winwood recorded his new ''Arc of a Diver'' in a home studio he built on the farm, singing and playing all the instruments - keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, and percussion - and writing all the music. For lyrics, he drew on the talents of three associates. Most of the words are by Will Jennings, who has written for the Crusaders, among others, and whose imagery and turns of phrase are rather facile. But ''Arc of a Diver,'' by Viv Stanshall, and ''Dust,'' by George Fleming, are first-rate lyrics, and Mr. Winwood's impressive playing and arranging and utterly distinctive vocals make several of his collaborations with Mr. Jennings, especially the brooding ''Night Train,'' almost as memorable.
The album entered the English best-seller charts earlier this month and has been receiving extensive American air play since its release here last week. As a comeback gambit, it has already proved itself commercially, and Mr. Winwood seems healthy, energetic and ready to capitalize on its success. He is planning to put together a band, make a new record, and tour later this year. But the lush, accessible sound of ''Arc of a Diver'' also makes it abundantly clear that at the ripe old age of 32, Steve Winwood has become a traditionalist, a rock-and-roll conservative.