Feature: Mojo 1997
Johnny Black, Mojo, May 1997
It was not until 1993, 30 years after he first heard Ray Charles sing, that Steve Winwood met his lifelong idol. Winwood happened to be in Barcelona, where Brother Ray was playing a gig.
He was soon chatting to the guys in the band, who insisted he must finally meet the great man. "I was thrilled. I went back in his dressing-room and said, Hi, I'm Steve Winwood. He said, 'Oh . . . hi, man. Where's my bag?' Then he started searching for his travelling case. I don't even know if he knew who I was . . ."
Just as today Winwood's name and sound are evoked by, among others, Paul Weller, Ocean Colour Scene and Lenny Kravitz, his profile as a showbiz celebrity has hardly so much as peeped over the parapet even during his biggest hitmaking years. In America his status is assured, but in England, outside the music business and the faithful, folks don't remember him for much except the Spencer Davis Group. Or worse, as he himself ironically notes, after performing 'Gimme Some Lovin'' live, he has smiled indulgently when audience members complimented him on a sterling cover of that old Blues Brothers' song.
The signs for Winwood's current album, Junction 7, are musically auspicious even if its reception is unlikely to threaten the Spice Girls. It was recorded partly at the San Francisco studio of Narada Michael Walden, the Grammy award-winning producer who is also Winwood's latest lyric collaborator.
Walden's previous credits include Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Herbie Hancock and Curtis Mayfield, so the pairing seemed a natural one. Walden and Winwood's apparently opposite temperaments fortuitously complement each other in the studio; Walden knocks out ideas at a frantic pace, while Winwood takes his time to digest them and select the ones he feels sit most happily with his muse. What unites them is a shared love of soul music in all its diversity.
The question remains: where does Winwood's soul come from? He himself acknowledges that his early records were little more than perfect copies of Ray Charles, and that he has never suffered the kind of oppression and poverty associated with the greatest black soul and blues stars. Crystallising the paradox, Winwood is here in New York to hand out gongs, first at the Grammies and then at The Rhythm'n'Blues Foundation Awards ceremony.
Delighted though he is to participate in the Grammies, his affections clearly lie with the smaller, less well-published event, where near-forgotten greats like Van 'Piano Man' Walls, Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown and Phil Upchurch are finally given some long-overdue recognition - not to mention cash.
Chatting with Winwood in his 37th floor suite in the opulently discreet Four Seasons Hotel, he seems the most affable of men, mild of manner and courteous as only the English can be. Even so, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the courtesy, like all forms of good manners, is a barrier. It's a barrier that many cling to when they find mere speech inadequate to communicate exactly what they really feel. Winwood lets his music do his talking.
Stephen Lawrence Winwood was born on May 12, 1948 in Handsworth, Birmingham, but the family soon moved to 70 Atlantic Road, a semi in the suburb of Kingstanding. "I grew up right where Birmingham ended," he recalls. "There were fields with duck ponds out the back. Mum would open the door and say, 'Get out' and we'd be off into the countryside."
Like all the family, Winwood's older brother Mervyn was musical, but even he was impressed, if not a little disturbed, when by the age of six, "Steve'd play Winifred Atwell tunes on our old upright piano. His teacher got annoyed because Steve would pick up anything by ear after hearing it played through once, so he could never get him to read music. Instead of realising what a gift this was, the teacher thought it was a problem."
Mervyn introduced his kid brother to rock'n'roll, via a tape recorder built from scratch by their eccentric uncle Alf, on which he would record nightly broadcasts from Radio Luxemburg and Voice Of America. He and Steve would then listen back to a mix of Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Charlie Mingus, and the Richard boys, Cliff and Little.
Winwood minor was a mustard-keen Cub and frisky communion-wine stealing choirboy at St John's, Perry Barr, when aged eight, he and Mervyn, now nicknamed Muff after the TV puppet Muffin The Mule, started playing in the Ron Atkinson Band alongside their clarinettist/saxophonist dad, Laurie. "We did everything," remembers Muff. "We'd do tents in parks, backing singers and jugglers, weddings, and we played along with these strict tempo dance numbers. Gradually they started letting us do a rock song or two and it grew to a 20 minute spot."
With their 15-watt amp, the Winwoods knocked out instrumental versions of rock hits of the day. Muff soon found his way into a trad jazz band. "We needed a piano player, so I brought Steve along. He was only 11, but he played everything perfectly. They stood with their mouths open. Because he was under-age, we had to get him long trousers to make him look older, and even then we'd sneak him in through the pub kitchens. He'd play hidden behind the piano so nobody would know."
By the time he was 12, Steve had written his first song, 'It Hurts Me So', later recorded by The Spencer Davis Group. He had also encountered the voice that was to change his life - Ray Charles. "Steve's voice was breaking round about the time he got into Ray Charles," observes Muff, "so he was already singing in that style as his voice matured. He just naturally sang like a soul man."
Word of the teen prodigy soon spread across Birmingham to local folk-blues performer Spencer Davis. "I had been gigging, just me, my guitar and a harmonica on a wire rack, and I was offered a regular Monday night residency at the Golden Eagle in Hill Street. I didn't have enough material, but if I could get a group together, we could do it. I was told about this kid in the Muff Woody Jazz Band. I walked into this pub room and I was totally blown away. Steve was playing piano like Oscar Peterson, then did a version of 'One Mint Julep' on a melodica, like Ray Charles. I didn't even hear him sing, but I immediately went up and asked if he wanted to play with me."
By April '63, they had become The Spencer Davis Rhythm'n'Blues Quartet. "We were making about 30 quid a night between us - not bad, especially if we did two gigs a night on Saturday," muses Winwood. "The average wage then was about £20 a week, so this was good money." Inevitably, though, there were repercussions. "I got kicked out of school. The headmaster stood up in assembly and said, 'Somebody's been burning the candle at both ends and I won't have it."'
On October 27, 1963, at one of the Sunday Rhythm'n'Blues Nights in The Place, Stoke-On-Trent, Winwood encountered his first Hammond B3 organ and, naturally, couldn't keep his hands off it. Something in the instrument's gritty, swirling attack was irresistible to the 15-year-old and, as he raised his voice over that sound, one of rock's defining duos was born.
As their fame spread, the band realised that they had unwittingly become part of a major national movement, the British blues boom. Enter Chris Blackwell. Distantly related to the Crosse & Blackwell of soup fame, Chris grew up in Jamaica; after leaving Harrow, he dabbled in accountancy and property before finding success as a music business entrepreneur by scoring his first Number 1 record in Jamaica with 'Little Sheila' by Laurel Aitken in 1960.
Two years later he was back in London and, with a $5,000 loan, set up Island Records to import Jamaican hits for sale to the growing West Indian community, personally delivering records to the stores in the back of a Mini Cooper. After reaping his share of the six million sales of Millie's 'My Boy Lollipop' in 1964, he never looked back.
His prospects improved further on June 1, 1964 when he took Millie to Birmingham to appear on Top Of The Pops. "I'd been told there were two bands in Birmingham I should see. One was Carl Wayne And The Vikings, who later became The Move. They were dressed in suits and very polished. I didn't really like them."
Blackwell moved on to the next club: "When I walked in, Spencer Davis was singing, and I really loved that. Then Steve sang and I couldn't believe it. It was like Ray Charles on helium. Unbelievable."
Winwood: "We auditioned for him in hair-dressing salon. We moved the driers out of the way, and played for him sitting in a chair. I think we did John Lee Hooker's 'Dimples'."
Spencer Davis recalls the day ruefully: "He signed himself on as our record company, our agent, our publisher, everything. If we'd known anything about conflict of interest, we'd have seen trouble brewing right then."
Muff: "Blackwell wanted to call us the Vipers or the Crawling Snakes or some outlandish thing. Spencer was the only one who enjoyed doing interviews, so I pointed out that if we called it the Spencer Davis Group, the rest of us could stay in bed and let him do them."
Lacking the distribution to back a potential national hit single, Blackwell signed the group to Fontana. Winwood remembers the early sessions. "The engineers wore white coats, and they had a bell in the studio. When they were ready to do a take, they'd ring the bell and say, 'Silence in the studio, please. Take one'." By later 1964 they'd released 'Dimples', the first of several flops, but a burgeoning reputation led to a September 1965 UK tour supporting the Stones. Winwood struck up a friendship with Brian Jones. "I stayed round at Brian's place in London and we got on great, playing records and talking music for hours. We'd listen to Otis Redding, The Mar-Keys, all that Stax-Volt stuff. Brian was the first person to play me Junior Walker."
When success came, it arrived in a rush. The following year, 'Keep On Running' deposed 'Day Tripper' at the top of the UK charts, followed by another Number 1, 'Somebody Help Me', the next single, 'When I Come Home', not quite clipping the Top 10.
"All written by Jackie Edwards," notes Winwood, "a great Jamaican songwriter who Blackwell brought to us. He rightly felt that we needed original material, and that mixture of Jackie's West Indian thing and our British thing gave us a unique sound." But it was decided that the time had come to write the next single. Simultaneously, Jimmy Miller was brought in to make the band's sound more palatable to American radio programmers.
The outcome was 'Gimme Some Lovin'', which restored them to the Top 5. Although Winwood later described it as "the bane of my life because I've got to do it all the time", Davis remembers its genesis as a high octane moment. "We used to rehearse at the Marquee in London, and Muff had a bass riff from an old Homer Banks record, 'Whole Lotta Lovin''. I added a G, A and C minor to it, Steve played a Ravel's Bolero kind of thing and said to me to play minors, not majors."
Muff: "Steve had been singing 'gimme some lovin'', just yelling anything, so that became the title. It took about an hour to write, then down the pub for lunch."
Yet Winwood was far from content. He was finding that his greatest pleasure came from after-hours jams with his friends Chris Wood, Dave Mason and Jim Capaldi: "I was playing with this band, Deep Feeling, at the Elbow Room in Birmingham," recalls Capaldi. "Having dropped a large capsule of the stuff courtesy of this rich kid from Bromsgrove, we were starting to do 'acid rock'. Steve started to come and jam with us. He was attracted by this weird new energy that was coming out of our group."
Plans were soon hatched. "We knew we were going to form Traffic," admits Winwood, "and Dave needed some money, so I got him a job as our roadie and we'd go off and practise when we had the time." Devious though he sounds, Capaldi insists that the teenage Winwood was "incredibly naïve. He only really comes to life when he's actually performing. When you hear someone who sings Ray Charles and sound so black, you expect to meet a real character. He's not that way at all. It throws you sideways. Steve was lightweight on the living side of life. He's not on this planet, he's somewhere else. A very aesthetic guy."
Nor is Winwood inclined to disagree with this assessment. "There is a touch of selfishness in being an artist. You have to follow your own ideals. Maybe we should have talked about it, but I was young and impetuous. I lived and breathed music. I was like that guy in High Fidelity. The whole world revolves around your 10 favourite records."
For his part, Spencer Davis had begun to notice something amiss. "I think he felt restricted by us being older and by the music we were playing, but the thing was a divide between those who drank pints and those who smoked dope. And we were pint drinkers." Muff Winwood agrees. "Steve wanted to get involved in the psychedelic thing, so I said, 'If you wanna go, I'll go too', because Blackwell wanted to keep us together."
Meanwhile, the Spencer Davis Group was still functioning. The next smash came in January '67 with 'I'm A Man', constructed around the descending chord sequence in the chorus of Mel Torme's jazz tune 'Comin' Home Baby'. Producer Jimmy Miller provided the lyrics, Hendrix showed Spencer Davis the distinctive E7th guitar chord, and Winwood pulled the rest together.
With the group at the peak of their success, on April 2, 1967 both Winwood brothers quit. "Chris Blackwell told us, which was kind of hard to take," remembers Spencer Davis. "Why couldn't Steve come and tell us himself? And then, once Blackwell had Steve safely out of the group and into Traffic, he lost interest in us. He had what he wanted."
Winwood moved Lock, Stock and Hammond to a former gamekeeper's cottage at Aston Tirrold, Berks. Tucked away in a copse of hazelnut and pine trees, the slate-roofed two storey white stucco-fronted building had no electricity, so a generator was installed so he could practise. "If you lived in London or Birmingham, you couldn't get back from a gig and then play - neighbours would complain about the noise. Out there, we could play whenever we wanted."
Although the others maintained a flat in London's Cromwell Road, they spent much of their time at the cottage. Generous quantities of "apple yoghurt" showed on the weekly shopping list that Winwood's personal assistant John Glover took to London every month. Before long, Winwood's lifeline to Planet Earth was all but severed. These were the years of Winwood's yoghurt haze, a pea souper so dense that his mind's eye can now barely penetrate it.
"Steve was supposed to be best man at my wedding," says Muff, "but he forgot. The roadie dragged him out of bed and he arrived at the wedding in muddy riding boots, jeans and a tank top. He'd forgotten his suit. I've got wedding photographs with Steve wearing the roadie's jacket, which went down to his knees, and the collar done right up so as not to show he isn't wearing a shirt."
Musically, Steve had a specific vision in mind. "The original line-up of Junior Walker And The All-Stars was sax, organ, guitar and drums with no bass. That was the Traffic concept. We were determined to make a uniquely British form of rock'n'roll that incorporated or evoked traditional music." Thus, as the band evolved, the original Junior Walker blueprint was buried beneath newer influences, gleaned in long hours of vinyl spinning, cross-legged on the oriental rug, rolling an apple yoghurt in the glow of a roaring log fire. "Chris was the unsung hero of Traffic then," says Winwood. "He had all these interests he brought to us, like theology, astronomy, bird-watching and burial mounds became enmeshed in the music. He'd play us the Watersons, or Japanese classical music, or the Missa Luba." As a result, feels Winwood, they had no problems with the idea of creating "folk music with a Latin beat and some jazz licks, classical chord structures and an R&B voice."
The door of the cottage, as suggested by Dave Mason's 'House For Everybody', was never shut. Through it came Eric Clapton, Charlotte Rampling, Pete Townshend, Stephen Stills and John Bonham; entire seasons of Men Behaving Badly could be extrapolated from those heady days. There are memories of a pantry containing nothing but peanut butter and bread, and a fridge where dead moths and gnats decorated a solitary bowl of rotting peaches. One afternoon, having burnt every saucepan in a vain attempt at stew, Capaldi was obliged to call in local villagers to help clean them. Not all the locals were quite so helpful.
At other times though, there could be magic; journalist David Dalton savoured one such night. "Eric Burdon's wife Angie arrived with a couple of girls around dusk. The band set up on the patio. The cottage became a screen for a light show with coloured lights, a bubble screen, a liquid light show and the only overhead projector in England at the time, borrowed from Zoot Money's band Dantalian's Chariot. They jammed, with the sound booming out across the valley, until five in the morning when they stopped for sandwiches, bowls of Weetabix and a smoke while we listened to the dawn chorus."
Trouble, however, was already brewing at the cottage. "We all tended to write together," explains Winwood, "but Dave [Mason] would come in with a complete song that he was going to sing and tell us all what he expected us to play. No discussion, like we were his backing group." On release in May '67, Traffic's 'Paper Sun' rose to Number 5 in the British charts, but when Island plumped for Dave Mason's 'Hole In My Shoe' as the next single, Winwood was unimpressed despite a Number 2 chart high. "We never wanted to release 'Hole In My Shoe'," says Winwood tactfully. Capaldi is more concise: "Fucking pop bubblegum."
One evening, Capaldi was doodling in the battered old notebook he kept for potential song lyrics and ideas. "I drew a little character I called Mr Fantasy and next to him, I started to write, Dear Mr Fantasy . . . It was a letter to my cartoon character." Retiring to bed, Capaldi woke later to hear Winwood and Wood playing in the music room. When Capaldi came downstairs he discovered that they had found his drawing and put a melody to his letter.
By the time Traffic's debut album, Mr Fantasy, hit the streets in January 1968, Dave Mason had left the band for the first time, heading for America to work with Delaney & Bonnie and begin a solo career. Getting their heads together on a nearby farm was another Island band, Spooky Tooth, whose drummer Mike Kellie regularly visited Aston Tirrold: "We'd all jam through the night and I'd eventually nod off, but Steve never seemed to sleep. He and I grew up in Birmingham, and we're still friends; in all that time I have never seen him asleep. I'd wake up at 5am in front of the fire, bodies sleeping all round me, and I'd look over and see Steve, still wide awake."
Dave Mason was back in the fold by May, and gone again by August: "It became a communal thing, a lifestyle I didn't want. I wanted to create within that context, but I wanted another life out of it. I had to write on my own. There was a conflict between me and Steve; I think he felt threatened." So perpetually stoned was the band that even what transpired during their first meeting with Bob Dylan, a moonlit sojourn at the Victorian ruin Whitley Court outside Birmingham, is lost to posterity. Capaldi remembers only that it was "a fantastic, palatial place, 60-foot fountains, huge holes in the floor. You'd get stoned and wander round. Steve and I spent the whole night with Dylan, without a clue of what we talked about. We fell asleep and he talked all night."
The eponymous Traffic album, in October 1968, repeated the success of Mr Fantasy but, as the new year opened, history repeated itself when Winwood walked out. "Because of the way I ended the Spencer Davis Group, I saw no reason why I shouldn't leave Traffic and move on. It seemed to me a normal thing to do."
Capaldi was left virtually echoing the words of Spencer Davis. "He never said why. He never said he was splitting. We found out from the manager."
Winwood moved on to the doomed supergroup project Blind Faith while the others hooked up with Wynder K. Frog and soldiered on. A stopgap jumble of B-sides, outtakes and tracks recorded for an aborted third album appeared as Last Exit in May 1969 and, when his brief and disastrous dalliance with Blind Faith ended in February 1970, Winwood went on to Ginger Baker's Airforce, before recording material for what should have been his first solo album, Mad Shadows, with producer Guy Stevens. Although it has acquired Great Lost Album status, Winwood doesn't see it that way. "He had me cutting covers of bizarre things, like 'Great Balls Of Fire', which just wasn't working. So I went to Jim and said, Let's make a Traffic album."
With both their careers in the doldrums, they salvaged whatever they could from Mad Shadows, and by September had transformed it into the next Traffic album, John Barleycorn Must Die. It was a strong start to what should have been a revitalised career but in the flurry of personnel changes and additions that followed, the spirit was diluted. The live set, Welcome To The Canteen (November 1971), was disappointing. Once more, Traffic faced the challenge of pulling themselves back together.
While the band was working on the music for a film project in Titduan, Morocco, actor Michael J. Pollard uttered the phrase "the low spark of high-heeled boys", intended to represent the rebellious spirit of the era's youth. The film never did get made, but Pollard's phrase was written down in Capaldi's book, to resurface in January 1972 as the title of the next Traffic album, produced by Chris Blackwell: "Producing Steve is just walking in the studio and being someone that he can bounce off. That's it, because he's so good."
Muff Winwood retains a particular fondness for this album: "Of everything Steve's done, that title track always seems to me to be the song that's most like him - bizarre, clever, complex, loose, not well formulated, but with a great groove. Depending on my mood, it's my favourite and least favourite track. It kind of sums him up for me." Blackwell noticed that the band still hardly communicated: "If one member was not happy with what another did, they would never really say it."
On tour in the US, Capaldi felt the group coming apart again and has laid much of the blame at Winwood's door. "Steve would walk on-stage and, being the great player he is, he wanted to play. Nothing more. It was all in the head. There wasn't a look or a smile. It got to be so much I couldn't go on." Dave Mason: "Steve knows too much about music. He can't reconcile himself to working in rock'n'roll."
"I wasn't feeling well at all. Doctors told me I had a congested chest and just needed some rest. In fact, I was undergoing a gradual poisoning of my system and my life underwent a big change . . ." Following a bout of appendicitis, Winwood had contracted peritonitis, a life-threatening condition which inflames the tissue surrounding the abdomen.
"When you come that close to death, things come into perspective. Since the age of 15, I had been cushioned as a rock star, with people to pack my bags, book my flights, do my laundry. I wanted to read more, write to people, learn about engineering and record production. I wanted to understand much more about what I had been missing."
Once again Traffic came to a standstill. Winwood remembers himself in that period as "a lost soul", but he began to pull his life back together with a combination of exercise and healthy eating. "From then on, through the '70s, I came to terms with the real world a bit more."
He and Traffic managed three more albums: Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory (which earned them their third gold disc), Traffic On the Road (a meandering live set), and, in September 1974, When The Eagle Flies (a better effort and their fourth US gold disc). Touring that album in the US, Chris Wood was visibly suffering from alcohol problems, and the group disintegrated as Winwood jumped ship yet again. "I'd had enough of this album, tour, album, tour. It was like being on a treadmill with no way to get off." But get off he did.
Returning home to the Gloucestershire manor he'd bought in 1970, Winwood built a 16-track recording facility, Netherturkdonic Studios, and spent the next two years quietly sessioning on albums by George Harrison, John Martyn, the Sutherland Brothers, Sandy Denny and Toots And The Maytals. When not in the studio, he was "getting to know people I'd never known before, like farmers, simple tradesmen and country folk who had no idea who the hell I was."
In the midst of it all, Winwood faced an unwelcome battle. Chris Blackwell, who had been such an integral part of his career, was facing legal action, first from Spencer Davis and then from the Traffic camp. For once, Winwood was righteously angry. "I'd never spoken to a lawyer until then, but I rang up Muff [by then a very successful A&R guru at CBS] and asked him for the name of the toughest lawyer he'd ever come across. When he learned my situation, the lawyer threw his hands up in horror." (The dispute was settled out of court to the financial advantage of the plaintiffs.)
Winwood now embraced the huntin', shootin' and fishin' country lifestyle, with side orders of clay-pigeon shooting, dog training and horse riding. Meanwhile, beyond the gates of Winwood's country retreat, the music world was changing. Punk was the order of the day, and Winwood was now perceived as once of rock's dinosaurs. Nevertheless, Island was demanding more Winwood product and, though disinclined to record under his own name, he bowed to pressure. To complicate the picture, Jim Capaldi had now moved to the tax haven of Brazil, leaving him without a dependable lyricist.
When the introspective solo album Steve Winwood appeared in July 1977 it was, almost inevitably, not well received, and sold poorly. The year that followed brightened briefly on August 31 when he married American divorcee Nicole Weir at Cheltenham Register Office.
Feeling up against it, Winwood decided to produce, engineer, and perform and album on his own, calling on outside help only for lyrics. "I'd sunk nearly all my money into my home studio," he recalls, "so I could work at my own pace. I thought it would be quick, inexpensive and easy but it turned out to be slow, expensive and difficult." Stretching ahead of him, he could visualise a life of drastically reduced circumstances.
It was with some trepidation that Will Jennings drove through Winwood's front gate. A former English professor from East Texas, raised on a similar diet of blues, soul and gospel as Winwood, Jennings had quit teaching to become a lyricist for hire whose credits now include Whitney Houston and Eric Clapton, but whose biggest copyright remains the multi-platinum 'Up Where We Belong'. From what he'd read, he was going to find a burnt-out '60s acid case. "Instead, I was welcomed by an unassuming but obviously together guy."
The following Sunday, a chilly winter morning, Winwood invited Jennings out to see him play. The venue was a tiny church nearby, where no more than a dozen people shivered on hard pews in their overcoats and scarves. The comforting murmurs from the church's little pipe organ that drifted over the congregation were being played by Winwood. "When I saw him in the church, I knew everything I needed to. They only held services about once a month, and it was freezing cold because they didn't put the heating on. But Steve turned out for them every time."
One of the first songs Jennings worked on was 'While You See A Chance', for which he provided a lyric that uncannily mirrored Winwood's mental and spiritual state at the time. "When Steve played me the music it was like looking right into his soul." At last, it seemed, Winwood had found the ideal collaborator, an intuitive writer who worked on empathy. "We didn't talk about what the song was about." Confirms Winwood. "Will just came up with the lyric, and it was right for me, right for him, and right for the song."
Even so, the album was two years in the making. "The record company was almost embarrassed to ask how it was going. I knew that if the album didn't make it, I'd have to sell up, maybe move to a little flat or join a gypsy caravan." Released in January 1981, the single 'While You See A Chance' went Top 10 in America, and the album Arc Of A Diver did the business on both sides of the Atlantic. Winwood's contract with Island and expired, and the success of the album, selling half a million by April, enabled him to renegotiate and retrieve publishing rights to his earlier material. The collaboration with Jennings continued on Talking Back To The Night (August 1982). Among Winwood's finest solo work, 'Valerie' is superficially a love song, but expresses a sentiment increasingly close to Winwood's heart, begging a friend of Jennings' not to destroy herself with drugs.
Although he was financially secure again, Winwood's personal life was in disarray. Not only was his marriage to Nicole floundering, but in April 1983, his manager Andy Cavaliere died of a heart attack. Two months later, Winwood's dearest friend, Chris Wood, died of liver failure in Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, aged 39.
Three fallow years followed until in 1985 he hooked up with a new manager, Ron Weisner, whose other charges had included Michael Jackson and Madonna. Weisner convinced him to leave Gloucestershire and get back to work in New York. If nothing else, it would distance him from him deteriorating relationship with Nicole.
He made the move that July, and fate took a hand when, at no less than a Junior Walker gig in the Lone Star Café, he fell for a pretty Tennessee blonde, Eugenia Crafton. "She was there with some friends and I started chatting with her at a table. Yes, it's wonderful little bar, and Junior serenaded us."
The celebratory album Back In The High Life (1986), with guest spots by Chaka Khan, James Taylor, Nile Rodgers and Joe Walsh, reflected his rising spirits. Ron Weisner, aware of the increasing importance of MTV, convinced Winwood, against his natural inclinations, that a classy video could ensure the success of his next single, 'Higher Love'. The finished video revealed an instrument-free, tastefully besuited Winwood, surrounded by models, and on August 30, 1986 'Higher Love' gave Winwood his first US Number 1. He went on to win Grammies for Best Pop Vocal Performance and Record Of The Year.
Winwood and Nicole divorced in December 1986, and he married Eugenia in New York a month later. The couple moved to a Nashville ranch and Winwood rented a small office on Music Row where he could work with his keyboards, a drum machine and a four-track cassette recorder. Winwood was at an all-time career high just as his Island contract ended in February 1987. Despite the label's best efforts to keep him, Winwood signed to Virgin for an estimated $13m, with a royalty rate of 18 per cent.
In 1988 Roll With It, another Jennings collaboration, went platinum, while its title track spent 4 weeks at US Number 1. It was at this latest pinnacle that things started to go wrong again. Winwood found himself the subject of a lawsuit citing the similarity of 'Roll With It' to Junior Walker's 'Shotgun', while a feeling spread that the man long considered the epitome of musical authenticity was now an increasingly slick entertainment package, in bed with the brewing giant Michelob for both tour sponsorship and use of his single 'Don't You Know What the Night Can Do?' for their TV ad campaign.
Winwood's first album of the '90s, Refugees of the Heart, turned out to be his least successful release to date, but Winwood was more ready to cope with it. His marriage to Eugenia had brought him some much-needed stability, and they had begun to raise a family, living part of the year in Nashville, and part in Gloucestershire.
His brother Muff confirms that he and Steve are closer now than they have ever been, with both their families taking holidays together. "We were in a hotel bar in an Italian ski resort and one of the guys in the bar band recognized Steve and asked him up to play. Next thing, Steve's up there and this guy is giving him the big build-up. The piano was a horrible little thing with all these pre-set rhythms, but Steve immediately programmed it and went straight into the most gorgeous version of 'Georgia on My Mind'. The place went mad, and so he did it again. I thought, Bloody hell, how many rock stars nowadays would do that?"
Winwood and Capaldi's Traffic reunion came to fruition in 1994 with Far From Home, recorded in Woodstock House (no relation) just north of Wicklow in Ireland, whose rural ambience was remarkably similar to the Berkshire cottage. Even then, Chris Blackwell haunted them by virtue of his ownership of the name Traffic, which he refused to allow them to use until they paid handsomely for the privilege. Capaldi was heard ramming the adjectival f-word twixt the component parts of the phrase Island Records.
Nevertheless, Winwood does very nicely thank you, with homes in England and America, platinum discs on the wall, and a bank balance that enables him to work at his own pace. At last he has the autonomy he had fumbled for in the R&B boom, psychedelia's high summer, the '70s retreat, and the New Wave's challenge to his generation. "Punk was anti-music and anti-establishment. I'd been through that anti-establishment thing in the '60s and now I'd suddenly realized the value of being establishment."
And, with a polite smile, his attention wanders off to follow a helicopter flying below the windows of his 37th floor suite.
-- Johnny Black, with thanks to Mick Brown, Jonathan Morrish, Kevin Donovan, Ted Fox, Rob Partridge, Vic Garbarini, Timothy White, Mark Paytress, and Len Tibbits.