"The Steve Winwood AutoDiscography":
Trouser Press, May, 1981
Steve Winwood's work defies pigeon-holing; his distinctive "blue-eyed soul" vocals grace an impressive blend of rock, soul, jazz and folk. He's responsible for a wealth of classic material, but Winwood's career could be viewed as a succession of projects shouldered with the albatross of over-expectation.
As a child prodigy (he was in his mid-teens) with the Spencer Davis Group, Winwood handled not only vocals and lead guitar, but also the organ which distinguished the band's sound. He left the group in 1967, after a string of hits, to form traffic, and he and his new mates found themselves under pressure to come across with the goods.
Two years later, after the first of Traffic's many splits, Winwood joined guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker (fresh from the demise of Cream), and with ex-Family bassist/violinist Rick Grech formed the ill-fated Blind Faith. The original "supergroup" was hard put from the start to live up to its advance billing. Though its album went gold, the group succumbed to stress in a matter of months.
Winwood then attempted a solo album, to be called Mad Shadows, but after only a short time in the studio reformed Traffic for the rest of the sessions; the result was John Barleycorn Must Die. Traffic continued to experience strains and misunderstandings from within and without, and a hiatus in 1974 became permanent, assisted by drummer/lyricist/vocalist Jim Capaldi's burgeoning solo ambitions.
Winwood re-emerged briefly with a solo album in 1977, and the following year decided to build a recording studio on his farm. Upon its completion he meticulously assembled his latest LP, for which he did everything save writing lyrics and some engineering. Despite expectations, he's determined to defer touring until he can put together a band and cut another LP; if he takes his good time about it, no one will know what to expect.
The Spencer Davis Group
[The group's LPs appeared in the US on United Artists, although in the UK it was an Island act, as Winwood has always been (aside from Blind Faith). The first two UA albums, Gimme Some Lovin' and I'm a Man, were titled after the group's two US Top 10 hits and drew upon their first British LPs - Their First Album, Second Album, and Autumn '66 and some singles. The current US edition of the greatest hits LP is representative of the band.]
We first played together in 1963, so it was over a year before we went into the studio. Around 1960 an interest in the blues records sprung up; they were like rarities at the time. It was a new music to people. British blues bands were diffused from either folk or jazz groups. Blues and rhythm and blues records were hard to get ahold of; I suppose, looking back, that it was a kind of elite thing, you know - always great discussions about this record or that record with people who knew what you were talking about. The Spencer Davis Group was formed just to present that kind of music.
We used to copy, do the things straight off. Later on more original stuff was done, but at first we just did traditional songs or other people's tunes. We started out doing a lot of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, but we came up after the emergence of the Stones and things, and felt we had to have a different angle. We felt, then, that we had to do more blues, but also more soul and poppy music. So out first three singles were a John Lee Hooker song, "Dimples", "I Can't Stand It" by the Soul Sisters, and "Every Little Bit Hurts", the Brenda Holloway tune.
It was mainly Spencer Davis, my brother [bassist Mervyn "Muff" Winwood] and, well, me, who decided what direction we went in - and, to a lesser extent, Pete York, the drummer. He's come from jazz bands, while Spencer used to do kind of folk stuff, and Muff and I ... I don't know what direction we came from, really! I mean, in a way I was being led, I was also keen on the music, you know, "Anything! I'll do it! Where's the stage?" kind of thing. But the record company or the producers didn't push us, really; we were always discussing and deciding. From the word "go" we were on the road. That was where the experience was: the feedback, what audiences were reacting better to, not what sounds best on a record. For a long time recording was like a sideline to me.
After recording for a bit I began to think, "We're not doing all these tunes as well as the originals. What is it, why?" We had to get out of that; sooner or later people were going to hear the originals anyway. That was the idea behind the Jackie Edwards songs, which we did considerably differently from the first versions, in order to carve out an identity for ourselves. That was the first step.
The second step was writing our own sons. The first one was "It Hurts Me So", but the first one which wasn't so derivative of traditional things, and which was successful, was "Gimme Some Lovin'". Although arranging came easy to me, I wasn't a natural writer; I had to work at it.
Both sides of my family played one thing or another, and there were all these instruments around the house. We were encouraged to play at an early age, and I started out mainly playing keyboards. I picked up guitar from my brother. I'd always felt I was a keyboard player, but it was awkward because in the early days that meant you were a piano player and had to put up with all these bad pianos. That made me want to play organ. I kept up on guitar because guitar playing was going through a metamorphosis in those days, and I wanted to be a part of that too.
I think, though, that my choice of instrument on each song was very whimsical, like "Oh, I think I'll do 'Gimme Some Lovin'' on the organ." Of course, if anybody said, "No, no no, you should play it on guitar", well - at that age, 16 years old, nobody can tell you anything. I'd have said, "I wanna play it on the bloody organ or not at all."
That was our first US hit, and was produced by Jimmy Miller. I don't really know why he started working with us [in late 1966]. That wasn't my role in the band; it wasn't really my business to know! It sounds ridiculous now, but things were like that in those days. You were told you were going to make a record and you were excited about it. you didn't say, "Hmm, I wonder what studio or engineer I'm going to use." I presume Chris Blackwell wanted us to develop our own style a little bit further. Miller did help us to write "I'm a Man" too.
Although I felt the Spencer Davis Group was creating something of their own, I still thought they didn't have enough of an identity. They were still too involved in the blues and in covering other people's songs. It wasn't enough for me. In that respect I was probably completely wrong, but that's neither here nor there.
I wanted to put together a group that encompassed more. I was starting to listen to other kinds of music, and my fanaticism for blues and rhythm and blues was changing. Folk, rock 'n' roll , classical - I wanted to incorporate all of those in what I was writing. I also wanted to work with people more my own age.
I'd known the guys in Traffic while I was still in the Spencer Davis Group. Dave Mason worked for us as a roadie; I'd got him the job. While he was a roadie, a couple of times towards the end, he came up on the side of the stage and jammed on guitar with us. That didn't go down very will with the others. He'd been playing in a band with drummer Jim Capaldi called the Hellions. There were a few bands we went around with then; Jess Roden was in one, Ariel Bender [Luther Grosvenor] was in another. Sax/flute player Chris Wood and I would go to clubs where these bands used to play. Wood was playing in a jazz band; he was very aware that jazz musicians were taking themselves too seriously. They were too stodgy, and he was slightly eccentric.
The others in the Spencer Davis group, and managers and such, said I was mad to leave. But Chris, Jim, Dave, and I had discussed the group we were going to form. I knew - I don't know that they knew, but they soon realized - that it was going to be difficult because the Spencer Davis Group was getting big, had even had American hits. I was made very aware that there were going to be problems, that we had to come up with something that was quite good. But we'd discussed and jammed and planned even while I was in the Spencer Davis Group, and we thought we knew what would come out of it. We wanted to collaborate on everything we wrote, and it wouldn't be simply blues or rock 'n' roll; we were listening to folk and classical and country, and we'd make a conscious effort to maneuver among these things and come up with something that was our one.
Of course those jams had nothing to do with folk or classical, and we didn't really know what was going to happen, although we thought we did. We were living in a basement in London, and couldn't play because people would complain, so we moved about an hour out of London to this cottage in Berkshire where we could play all the time. It was doomed to fail: four blokes not even out of their teens shoved together, living in squalor.
As a marketing angle, somebody decided this was "getting it together in the country." At the time, I didn't know about that; I didn't really care either. But we realized we'd made our bed and now had to lie in it; we had to work hard and rehearse something that really was "together."
It wasn't easy, especially the writing. The first person to object was Dave Mason. That's why he left Traffic; he said, "Look, fuck that, I'm not going to write with you. Here's my song, play this, and I'm gonna sing it." He didn't like collaboration, and we didn't like the way he presented his songs. [In the US, the first Traffic album cover was changed to remove all signs of Mason's presence except for his writing credits.]
True, it was 1967 and here we were with basically keyboards, sax, and drums, but we didn't care how it struck anybody. Nobody really minded switching instruments around, either. Dave didn't; that wasn't the bone of contention with him. On "Mr Fantasy" I played guitar, Dave bass, and Chris organ. "Heaven Is In Your Mind" was one of the last tracks we cut for the album. Dave hadn't shown up for that session and we'd done everything else. When he came we said, "Okay, last attempt to collaborate, put the guitar on." I distinctly remember thinking of that as the time at which he left the band.
We came to the States and did gigs as a three-piece. It was difficult. We were natural arrangers - that came easy; it was playing that was hard. I had to use bass pedals a lot, and it was hard for me to sing at the same time. Chris got stuck with a lot of stuff: bass, organ, and one a couple of numbers Chris had to play bass parts and organ parts, both on the organ. But we did it, and I can't really believe the success we had. We were supported by audiences who got behind us, I guess, because we actually had the sheer guts to try this stuff!
Dave Mason had already come to the States after leaving us, and he saw us when we got to the Whisky in LA. He played with us and came back to England. He'd started writing things like "Feeling Alright" that were much more related to that we were doing than "Hole in My Shoe". The second album worked out pretty well but then he left again, for the same reasons as far as I can remember.
Last Exit was one side of tracks we'd done over and above the limit for the second album, and the other side was trio stuff, live tracks from the States tour. It was definitely thrown together. It was hard to continue as a trio and it was hard to get someone else in, too. If we had added someone we wouldn't have been able to do "Hole in My Shoe", which had been some kind of a hit - I don't know what kind, but it was - and "Feeling Alright", which people had covered and was definitely identified as a Traffic number. So we just scraped together an album, put it out and called it a day.
As soon as word got out that Blind Faith might be getting together, there was all this shouting about a "supergroup". All these preparations went on behind our backs. We were just rehearsing, sitting around and writing a few tunes, and suddenly preparations were being made for this "supergroup"'s world tour!
I didn't choose the name Blind Faith, but maybe the group should have been named Good Faith, because that's how it was formed - in good faith. Traffic wasn't nearly as big as Cream, who were monstrously huge, but Cream had broken up, and here and now was this group. We were starting from scratch, a new band.
Traffic was an exception in that the first thing we did was the right thing. That was partly luck, but we'd also planned and plotted and took time to work on it. Blind Faith started like any group starts. It usually takes a band an album or two to find its footing, but with Blind Faith, the expectation from the audiences and business for the first album and the first tour was so great that we knew we couldn't live up to it, at that time with that particular material.
It didn't seem like there was any way out, to have a chance to work on that. We were swept off our feet with a tour there, and a tour there ... The only way to continue was just to stick it out indefinitely, and I don't any of us could do that. Certainly Eric and I couldn't.
John Barleycorn Must Die
I decided to make a solo LP, but after a short while made it a Traffic LP because I felt I couldn't really do anything on my own. I hadn't planned to play everything on it anyway. I worked on two numbers, "Every Mother's Son" and "Stranger to Himself", and almost straightaway I brought Jim in to write and then to play. After we completed those two numbers I figured it was time to bring Wood in, we'll make it a Traffic LP.
Guy Stevens produced those first two tracks. I'd known him for a long time; he'd been with Island all the way back to the Spencer Davis Group days, but I think he was looking for something else from me. He suggested I record "Great Balls of Fire" or something like that; I guess he wanted me to be a real rock 'n' roller. Not such a bad idea for right now, but it didn't go down too well with me at the time. After those two tracks, Chris Blackwell worked with us.
We picked "Barleycorn" because it was the kind of tune we could play as a three-piece live, and because it was a traditional song. From the beginning we'd always meant to maintain a balance with other kinds of music.
Welcome to the Canteen
Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
I started to enlarge the group, as it was just too difficult as a trio. We got Rick Grech in on bass, and Reebop [Kwaku Baah, congas and percussion]. Mason showed up; he had just written a couple of songs, and it was "Let's have a bash".
At the time rock was taking itself too seriously, I think, and Canteen was probably a reaction to that. Blind Faith cured me of that, because everyone took us so much more seriously than we wanted to be taken. I might've been a bit full of myself, but I don't think I took myself seriously - not since then, anyway.
Mason didn't stay long, but I did want to expand the group. Jim wanted to sing; he was writing more complete songs and I think he felt he couldn't play drums and sing as well as he wanted.
So we got Jim Gordon in to play drums. We went into the studio fairly soon after adding Grech, Gordon, and Reebop.
We stuck to our principle of drawing on a cross-section of different kinds of music, but by then it seemed the longer you work at collaborating on writing, the harder it is to do. You have to compromise and let people do their own thing, so the teamwork mainly came in arranging. The additional three people had quite a good effect on that.
Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory
After Low Spark I got peritonitis - no, we broke up the band temporarily and then I got peritonitis. Jim and Rick were in the band on a temporary basis - well, nobody knew whether it was temporary or permanent, we just played it by ear. They went off to do their own things, and then Chris, Jim, Reebop and I went to work with the Muscle Shoals people. First, we were with bassist David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins, then with Barry Beckett on keyboards. Jimmy Johnson was our engineer, and also played guitar.
No doubt about it, those sessions were among the greatest influences on my life. They're great people, great musicians. It might not have been the greatest thing for Traffic, or at least Traffic as everyone knew it, unfortunately; a lot of people came up to me and said they didn't like the sounds, or that we'd used these established American session musicians - too slick or whatever. But to me it was fantastic. I'm not saying the album was, because we were having difficulty getting the right material together, but it was no fault of the Muscle Shoals people.
On the Road
When the Eagle Flies
[Island Records' US branch, which took over from United Artists in releasing Traffic records after Canteen, thought it judicious to take the best of this two-record set and release it as a single disc.]
This is more representative of the feeling I got playing off the Muscle Shoals people. Not lyrically - "Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired" doesn't reflect on the Muscle Shoals people at all, but on how we felt before working with them. When you're performing you want people to identify with what you're doing; you're acting, taking a role, spinning a story.
The Muscle Shoals thing had to be temporary, but was great fun while it lasted. Afterwards we got in Rosko Gee [bass player from Anglo-funksters Gonzales]. Reebop had gotten fired for being so outrageous. Not crazier than he had always been, but on tour [summer of '74, before Eagle was cut] he insisted on going onstage and singing - and he can't sing! And nobody could understand what he was singing, either! It was good fun a few times, but ... Once he fell asleep onstage - during the first number! I don't know if anybody else onstage noticed. I finished the song, and then mentioned to a roadie to take him offstage.
Eagle, being quieter than usual, reflected our mood at the time. We'd been through so much, just so many changes. Somebody said to me the other day that when someone gets married and divorced four times, maybe it's them that's wrong. Maybe it was just too much for us to bear.
That was the first time I wrote with Viv Stanshall. I'd known him from the Bonzos during Traffic's early days, but Jim knew him better than I did. Jim had even worked with the Bonzo Dog Band a couple of times while I was with Blind Faith. He did some gigs, including the Isle of Wight concert, leaving their regular drummer, Legs Larry Smith, free to loon about onstage. Jim played with a lot of people. He'd never learnt to play drums; he did everything by feel, not learning.
Anyway, I got to know Viv; he throws out ideas at an incredible rate, and we sit and bounce ideas back and forth. Our first real result was on Eagle: "Dream Gerrard".
There were a lot of funny things happening in rock at that time. It was a strange time for me to release a first solo album, and I was a bit unsure of myself. I guess I finally did what I'd started out to do when I began cutting Barleycorn - a solo album - but it didn't come off too well, owing to the sate of the music business and that I wasn't used to working on my own.
But some of it is good, though. I think the track I wrote with Viv, "Vacant Chair", stands up well. Guitarist Junior Marvin is on that. (Not the guy who did "Police and Thieves"; that's Junior Murvin.) He's from New York; I think he played with Dave Mason, and he's a friend of Chris Wood's as well. [Marvin also was involved in the Go project.]
Arc of a Diver
On my first solo album, I did "Midland Maniac" all by myself. [The rhythm section on the rest of Steve Winwood was Willie Weeks and Andy Newmark.] I think it came out, well, just okay, but you can't really do multi-tracking unless you are constantly in the studio. You have to live in the studio. For Arc of a Diver I built a studio where I live. It's fairly amateurish - 16-track, antique mixing board - but I felt I could do my own album if I had the time and facilities.
The only problem now is writing, which is coming slower for me. I want to write with as many people as possible, form new writing relationships. I worked with Viv on "Arc", but the rest of the songs were written with Will Jennings and George Flemming. Jennings is from Texas, lives in LA but worked a lot in Nashville too. He wrote for Dobie Gray, Randy Crawford and Joe Sample of the Crusaders. Flemming never wrote a song in his life till now, though he is a writer.
The album may have a soul feel, but it wasn't a conscious effort to make that kind of album, or revive any old soul style. I don't agree with "retro rock". Actually, I suppose I do, but not for me.
[Steve Winwood has been involved in several musical projects over the years. Besides playing on the albums of friends Jim Capaldi and Viv Stanshall, he drifted into Ginger Baker's Airforce very briefly after Blind Faith ("I'd said I'd do a couple of gigs for Ginger and ..."), took part in an African music album (Aiye-Keta) and guested with the Fania All-Stars (salsa, hombre). He also worked on Go, an album and one-shot live show with Stomu Yamashta, Klaus Schulze, and Mike Shrieve, among others.
The most legendary of these - and arguably the most exciting - was his appearance as "Steve Anglo" in Eric Clapton's Powerhouse, whose three tracks were featured on a 1966 Elektra sampler, What's Shakin', alongside the Lovin' Spoonful, Butterfield Blues Band and others.]
When I was going around with the Spencer Davis group, there were only a handful of groups playing blues and rhythm and blues; Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, John Mayall, Them with Van Morrison, the Animals. The Stones were around but they were more of a pop group then. They all played the same clubs, and at university gigs sometimes they'd all be on. You used to get to know all these bands that were knocking around, and I used to play with Eric, sit in at one time or another.
To this day I'm not sure whether it was producer Joe Boyd or Eric who put the Powerhouse session together. Eric himself called me to ask if I wanted to play a session. There was Paul Jones [of Manfred Mann, on harmonica], Pete York from Spencer Davis Group on drums, Jack Bruce and a pianist called Ben Palmer - he's a farmer! A sculptor too, in fact. I haven't seen him in five years. He's a friend of Eric's; that's what made me think Eric set it up.
-- as told to Jim Green