Steve Winwood: From Mr. Fantasy to Mr. Entertainment - Rolling Stone
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Steve Winwood: From Mr. Fantasy to Mr. Entertainment

Rolling with the “Higher Love” musician

Steve WinwoodSteve Winwood

Steve Winwood performing at Fiddler's Green, Denver, July 7th, 1988.

Brian Brainerd/The Denver Post/Getty

” ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ ” is obviously the bane of my life in some ways, because I’ve got to do it all the time,” says Steve Winwood, relaxing in an outlandish Las Vegas hotel room. “But now you actually have a lot more people who have heard ‘Higher Love’ than ‘Gimme Some Lovin’.’ Or, often, people have heard ‘Gimme Some Lovin” and don’t know it’s me. That happens a lot. They say, ‘Why are you covering that Blues Brothers song?’

Characteristically, Winwood – as obliging a bloke as you’ll find – isn’t disturbed that people sometimes fail to associate him with the best-known song of his career, a song that has been a dance-floor burner since he co-wrote and sang it as a teenage prodigy with the Spencer Davis Group in 1966. Perversely, he almost seems to enjoy the lack of recognition.

Warming to his subject, Winwood – who is wearing khaki shorts, a Johnny Clegg and Savuka T-shirt, white sneakers and sweat socks – takes a pull from a bottle of Perrier and tells a story about Tom Lord Alge, who co-engineered Winwood’s 1986 smash Back in the High Life and co-produced his latest album, Roll with It. “We were working for quite some time, and something came up, and we talked about ‘I’m a Man,’ ” Winwood says, referring to the Spencer Davis Group’s other legendary hit, which he also co-wrote and sang. “And Tom said, ‘You don’t mean “I’m a man, yes I am….” ‘ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘You wrote that?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ You know, he just really didn’t know.”

At this point Winwood, who has a day off in Las Vegas, where he’s performing at Caesars Amphitheater, can afford to take such slights in his stride. At forty, he is more successful than ever, on the strength of the massive sales of Back in the High Life and Roll with It. Not that he had been a slouch before.

After bursting on the scene with Spencer Davis, Winwood formed Traffic, one of the most adventurous bands of the Sixties and Seventies, in 1967. He separated from Traffic in 1969 to form Blind Faith, with Eric Clapton, bassist Rick Grech and Cream drummer Ginger Baker. In 1980 his solo career took off for the first time with the platinum Arc of a Diver, a virtuoso studio performance on which Winwood wrote all the music and played every instrument on every track.

Winwood’s youthfully innocent good looks, his disarming manner and his refusal to wear his stature on his sleeve can make for surprises. An offhand, let’s-get-settled question like. “When was the last time you were in Las Vegas?” elicits an equally casual answer: “Nineteen years ago, on the Blind Faith tour. I went to see Elvis on his comeback tour. He was amazing.”

Still, the Las Vegas setting, the impossible kitsch of his Caesars Palace hotel room (the parlor of the suite is a nightmare vision of yellow, brown and mustard tones, with a wild floral pattern on the walls), the mention of Elvis and even Winwood’s distance from his celebrated past create a certain uneasiness. The scene is haunted by a remark Winwood made three weeks before on a brutally hot Sunday afternoon in Chicago, during one of the first stops on his tour.

In a far more subdued suite at the Omni Ambassador East, Winwood explained how three years earlier, after the relative failure of his album Talking Back to the Night, he had “decided to embrace the fact of being an entertainer.” Straightforward as it may seem, the remark sounded strange coming from a man whose exquisite musicianship, outstanding voice and expansive musical vision had long set the standard of integrity.

“This is probably a recent thing that I’ve realized, about music being entertainment,” he said, his voice hoarse from the previous night’s show. “I had a choice to go a couple of ways. If I was to say, ‘Well, I’m a musician, I’m not an entertainer,’ then I have no business going onstage with lights and trying to look … I should be in the back doing the music, and somebody else should be out front.

“So you have the choice. You have to decide which way to go. I thought about it long and seriously, and I thought that if I sing songs to people, you can’t deny it, you’re an entertainer. It’s not just ‘I’m entertaining them’ but ‘I am actually an entertainer.’ “

This decision obviously had enormous commercial benefits. Both Back in the High Life and Roll with It are fine records that have yielded hit after hit. Onstage, Winwood no longer finds an instrument to play on every song. Although he seems uncomfortable at times, he dons fashionable duds and tackles the frontman’s role with determination – and the crowds at his sold-out shows love it.

But it’s hard to escape the feeling that Winwood isn’t challenging himself, that his Eighties work isn’t charged with the passion he displayed early on. “Really, your question is about the value of art in the marketplace,” Winwood says in response to this observation. “That’s a tricky question. It’s got to be a balance, and it’s hard to get the balance right every time. I spent a lot of years doing stuff where people said, ‘That’s fantastic,’ but nobody bought it. That also is a bad situation, because what are you achieving? You do want to be heard – unless you’re trying to create some elitist thing.”

Some of the moves Winwood has made to get his music heard have also raised tricky questions. His sponsorship deal with Michelob – which seems to have included writing “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do?” for a TV commercial –has made him a symbol of artistic compromise to many people, including some of his former admirers. So if his fans see him as a different man from the one who co-wrote and sang “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man,” perhaps, in a certain sense, they’re right.

The controversy surrounding steve Winwood is all the more problematic because his is one of the most extraordinary careers in contemporary pop music. Though he is only forty, that career extends back over twenty-five years.

Steve Winwood was born on May 12th, 1948, in a suburb of Birmingham, England. His father, a manager in a local foundry, played saxophone and clarinet in semiprofessional bands, and his mother, Winwood says, “was always singing. She didn’t play an instrument, but she would be able to naturally harmonize.” At six Winwood began to take music lessons, primarily on piano, and at nine he began guitar lessons.

When he was barely a teenager, Winwood started to develop his own musical ideas. Through his parents and their families, he learned about parlor music and the big bands. His brother Muff, who was five years older, taught him about blues, jazz and rock & roll. At thirteen, he was admitted on a part-time basis to music college, where he studied piano.

“All the time my brother had these school bands, which were like jazz bands,” Winwood says, running his hand through his reddish-brown hair, “and I would play with them. We’d have the odd gig at the local church hall or something while I was still at music college. I happened to say to my tutor that I quite liked to play jazz and rock & roll. That was it. He said, ‘Well, listen, if you’re learning this, you’ve got to forget that. You can’t do both.’

“So, I figured if I couldn’t do both,” Winwood says, with a gleam in his eye, “I knew which one I wanted to do, and it wasn’t the one he was teaching me.”

Winwood was only fifteen when he was discovered by Spencer Davis, who was teaching languages by day and playing in Birmingham clubs by night. Davis was looking to form a blues band; a musician friend suggested that he check out the Muff Woody Jazz Band.

“Muff played guitar in a sort of jazz style, like Wes Montgomery,” Davis says. “Steve was playing piano in the style of Oscar Peterson – at that age! So I walked in on that, and I was totally blown away. Immediately I wanted Steve in the band.”

Winwood was elated, but he couldn’t get around on his own because he was too young to drive. Muff offered to switch to bass guitar and to drive Stevie, as he was then known, to the gigs. Davis drafted Pete York as drummer, and the Spencer Davis Group was born.

Propelled by the enormous interest in blues and R&B at that time in England, the Spencer Davis Group took off. At sixteen, Winwood was a star. “Steve was such a rich asset,” Davis says, “because even at that age – his voice. When he sang, he was able to copy Jimmy Reed and that style of singing. I thought, ‘Where the hell is this voice coming from? From a diminutive guy like this, at that age, how can he do it?’ But he did it.”

At the height of the group’s popularity, however, Winwood began to find its focus restrictive, and he quit. “I got tired of just copying blues records,” he says. “I wanted to explore other avenues of music.”

Winwood had begun to spend more and more time with players closer to his own age, like Dave Mason, a roadie for the Spencer Davis Group, and Jim Capaldi, the lead singer in a Birmingham band called Deep Feeling. In 1967, Winwood, Mason, Capaldi and Chris Wood, another Birmingham musician, formed Traffic, with the express purpose of opening up some new musical territory. To begin defining their new direction, Traffic moved to a cottage in the English countryside. It was the Summer of Love, and life at Traffic’s communal cottage was dominated by psychedelics and music – a mood perfectly captured on the band’s dreamy debut album, Mr. Fantasy.

“We’d listen to different kinds of music – classical, folk, jazz, all kinds of ethnic music, country music, early rock, blues,” Winwood says, “and the only thing we calculated was to try in some way to incorporate all of them. We were trying to get ourselves a sound which was purely Traffic and couldn’t be mistaken for anybody else.”

Mason, whose taste tended more toward wistful pop, left and rejoined the group several times, often leaving chaos in his wake. After the band released its second album, Traffic, in 1968, Winwood split and formed Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, who had recently left Cream.

The album Blind Faith, released in 1969, features three splendid Winwood tracks – “Had to Cry Today,” “Can’t Find My Way Home” and “Sea of Joy.” But the album’s virtues were quickly forgotten when the group’s American tour – one of the first arena tours in rock history – deteriorated into an oppressive mix of greed and pandering.

“After we’d created an identity for this new band – which wasn’t Cream and wasn’t Traffic – with the record, when we got out onstage, we didn’t have the strength of will to maintain that,” Winwood says. “To start with, a large amount of people who went to the shows wanted to hear Cream. So a couple of times we gave it to them, and of course they loved it.

“That was it then. It’s like an alcoholic having a drink. And then, of course, we did that every night, and it was so easy, because that’s pleasing the crowd. Both Eric and I got unhappy, and we didn’t have the strength to say, ‘No, this is not right,’ and pull it all back together.”

Blind Faith disintegrated shortly after the tour, and Winwood did a brief stint with Ginger Baker’s Air Force. He then began work on Mad Shadows, the solo album that eventually turned into Traffic’s folk-inspired 1970 masterpiece, John Barleycorn Must Die.

Although the re-formed Traffic was successful, it soon became something of a musical revolving door, with Mason and a host of other players coming and going. Winwood’s will to persist with the band suffered a devastating blow in 1972, when, after the release of the band’s most popular record, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, in 1971, he developed peritonitis as the result of an appendicitis attack. The potentially fatal disease caused him to reexamine his life.

“That was the first time I had anything like that happen, and it had a big effect,” Winwood says. “I was about twenty-five years old, which often is a period where people go through a change. I did what they tell me rock stars do now; I started exercising, eating the right food. I stopped just living for tomorrow.

“From then on, through the Seventies, I came to terms with the real world a bit more. You know, traveling with a rock band, there’s a certain unreality about it. You don’t know where you are, what day of the week it is. People book your plane flights, pack your bag, do your laundry. If you do that from when you’re fifteen, it’s very unreal.”

After Traffic released When the Eagle Flies and completed its 1974 tour, Winwood left the band for good. “I’d had enough of this album, tour, album, tour,” Winwood says. “It was like I was on a treadmill and there was no way of getting off. I just had to say, ‘That’s it with Traffic; no way can I do that anymore.'” At that point Winwood retreated to his rural home in Gloucestershire, in an attempt, as he puts it, “to bring discipline to an undisciplined life.”

“I started deliberately mixing with people who had nothing to do with music or any of the arts,” he says. “You know, there was an idea in the Sixties that people who complied to rules, or who went to work at nine and came home at five and wore suits, that they were wrong. I suddenly began to realize ‘What’s wrong with working from nine till five? That’s great.’ And I started to do that myself a bit then.”

This period of personal regeneration coincided with some of Winwood’s most far-ranging musical experiments. In the mid-Seventies he played and recorded with the Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta, the salsa-driven Fania All-Stars and a number of African musicians – anticipating some of the major trends of progressive Eighties music. He also recorded Steve Winwood, his first solo album. Introspective and lyrical, the album stands up admirably more than a decade after it came out.

At the time, however, the record bombed. Nineteen seventy-seven – the year the Sex Pistols fired the shot heard round the world – was not the best time for a Sixties luminary to release such a refined album. Consequently, Winwood’s memories of punk are harsh.

“It was against everything that I had been or was to that point,” he says bluntly. “It was against music, too. It was antiestablishment. They were really just advanced hippies. I’d been through that antiestablishment thing in the late Sixties, and during the Seventies I suddenly realized the value of being establishment.”

Though Winwood virtually disowns the record today – “I only did it because the record company wanted some product from me” – the failure of Steve Winwood provoked a crisis for him. His tenure with Traffic had ground him down, but his years off the road had made him something of a forgotten man. His experimental records had never reached much of an audience, and his solo album entered a musical and social culture that seemed to have no place for him or his increasingly conservative values. As a result, he seriously considered giving up his career as a recording artist.

“I think because of the experiences I was having through the early Seventies, I was almost preparing myself unknowingly for that, to go into some other area,” he says. “I wasn’t desperate, I don’t think, but I was definitely ready to do whatever was necessary.”

Winwood decided to give recording one last try. To do so, paradoxically, he burrowed deeper into himself, holing up in the sixteen-track studio in his home in Gloucestershire. Over the next three years, he wrote, played and produced all of the music for Arc of a Diver. “I knew ‘Okay, I’ve got one shot left, and I’ve got to make it count,'” he says. “At the point of Arc of a Diver, I wanted to give it everything, and if that wasn’t successful, that would be it. But I had to make sure I was giving everything. And I certainly did — there was nobody else on the record!”

Arc of a Diver‘s first single, “While You See a Chance,” soared into the Top Ten in early 1981. The album’s slick electronic sheen, however, suggested a commercial intent that many of the singer’s longtime fans had a hard time dealing with. It didn’t help that “While You See a Chance” was written with Will Jennings, a professional lyricist from Los Angeles. Though Winwood had rarely written his own lyrics, he’d always worked with friends and musicians like Jim Capaldi and Jimmy Miller, who co-wrote “I’m a Man” and produced the Spencer Davis albums, the first two Traffic albums and Blind Faith.

Winwood, however, says that he values Jennings’s workaday approach to songwriting – “I learned about discipline from Will,” he says – and their collaboration continues to this day. Together they wrote all the songs on Talking Back to the Night and the vast majority on Back in the High Life and Roll with It. Winwood also cites Jennings’s uncanny ability to express Winwood’s emotions, using “While You See a Chance” – which captures Winwood’s optimism as he was attempting to get his career back on track – as an example. “We didn’t talk about what the song was about,” Winwood says. “He just came up with this lyric, and it was right for me, right for him and right for the song.”

Winwood’s exhilaration with Arc of a Diver‘s success was short-lived. He’d always disliked touring, so he didn’t go on the road, and videos had not yet come along to provide artists with another means of staying in the public eye. So Talking Back to the Night – another one-man show – failed to find a substantial audience when it was released, in 1982. By that point Winwood was thirty-four and wondering what the future held for him.

Enter Mr. Entertainment.

I made a conscious effort three years ago to start working with musicians and producers and engineers,” Steve Winwood says. “I got a manager. I obviously did those things consciously. I have to say that those people are directly or indirectly responsible for my success now. There’s no denying it.”

Manager Ron Weisner describes his relationship with Winwood as a “nurturing situation.” Weisner, who has worked with Michael Jackson, Madonna and Rick Springfield, among other artists, met Winwood about three years ago. Winwood was looking for a manager. The only person to play that role for him in the past had been Chris Blackwell, who also happened to own Winwood’s label, Island Records, and the company that published Winwood’s music. “It’s a real conflict of interest going on there,” Winwood says. “I needed to get out of that situation.”

“I’ve always been a fan of Steve’s,” Weisner says. But when Weisner first started working with Winwood, his friends in the business weren’t impressed. “Everybody said to me, ‘What, are you fuckin’ crazy? I mean, why? This guy is washed up, he hasn’t had hits, he’s old news. Forget it.’ “

Winwood had already begun working on Back in the High Life, and Weisner was determined that the record not be another homemade job. The first step was suggesting that Winwood record in London. “As soon as he agreed to that,” Weisner says, “I said, ‘Well, forget London. Maybe you should go to New York.’ “

New York not only provided access to the numerous guest artists who turned up on Back in the High Life – including Chaka Khan, Nile Rodgers, James Taylor and Joe Walsh – it also got Winwood away from a troubling personal situation. His marriage to his wife Nicole had begun to sour; he would eventually divorce her and marry Eugenia Crafton, a Nashville native whom he would meet at a Jr. Walker show in New York in 1986.

Russ Titelman was called in to produce High Life with Winwood. With all this activity, it’s easy to read the album’s title track as an expression of Winwood’s hope for what it would accomplish. But he says the song is more an expression of the moment.

” ‘Back in the High Life’ was not written to predict what I would be doing but because of what I actually was doing,” he says. “You know, I was living in New York. I was going out. I was playing with people onstage. I’d go down to people’s sessions.

“I knew that Back in the High Life was going to be my last album on my contract, and I had thought for a long time about going into production and stuff. I finally decided ‘No, I might as well pursue my career as a solo artist and put everything into it.’ I guess I probably had never put everything into it, because I’d always felt that I was above being an entertainer.”

Videos were the next step. Winwood had always been a shy – but extremely appealing – performer. Good-looking and intense, he seemed insistent on letting his hair-raising skill as a keyboardist, guitarist and singer take precedence over personality. So veteran Winwood watchers were stunned when the “Higher Love” video showed a chicly attired Steve cavorting with models and – could this be true? – not playing an instrument.

“I’ve been a very strong believer in quality video,” Weisner says. “You know, I represented Michael Jackson – I was involved in ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Beat It.’ I kept telling Steve, ‘Look, what we have to do is translate what you do best musicwise to visuals.’

“I found in the past that there are certain artists who are very talented writers who don’t come across in video. You look at, like, a Dan Fogelberg, who I think is a brilliantly talented guy but doesn’t come across visually. I’ve always tried to put Steve in an environment that is presentable and believable. You know, I haven’t shot him out of a cannon.”

The stage show to support High Life – Winwood’s first full-scale tour in over a decade – proceeded along the same lines. Winwood stepped out from behind his keyboard and … entertained. Weisner says, “I said, ‘Steve, I mean, when I saw you in the past, I never knew if you had legs,’ because you would never see him up. He would be very laid-back and timid.”

Audiences have responded to the new Steve Winwood, on both the High Life and the Roll with It tours. During an uneven performance at Poplar Creek Music Theater, outside Chicago, in July and a far better show at Radio City Music Hall, in New York, five weeks later, the crowds were equally ecstatic. Winwood, however, still doesn’t seem entirely at ease with the flashier character running around onstage.

“Actually, the place where I feel most comfortable and most naturally at home is in the recording studio,” Winwood says the day after the Poplar Creek show. “I have to work at being onstage. I’m not a natural at performing, although there is a way to learn to be a natural, if you know what I mean.

“I work, and I take instruction, direction, from as many people as I can in order to learn how to work onstage. Whereas in the studio I have no problem. I don’t need anybody to show me what to do. I can quite happily see myself doing that for the rest of my life. But I couldn’t see myself going onstage, traveling from city to city for the rest of my life. No way.”

Roll with It was Winwood’s first album for Virgin Records, which signed him to a multimillion-dollar three-album contract that even Weisner describes as “insane.” “I felt that Warners did a phenomenal job [distributing Back in the High Life]”, the manager says. “But it kept going back and forth with the numbers, and finally you had to be a little retarded not to look toward the Virgin side.”

Although it was recorded in Toronto and Dublin, Roll with It has a distinctly American feel, partly because of the time Winwood has spent in Nashville since marrying Crafton. “I’ve been learning about the history of R&B,” he says. “A lot of the people from Memphis and Muscle Shoals are all in Nashville now, and I’ve been meeting them.” In fact, the Memphis Horns, a staple of the great Stax-Volt hits of the Sixties, play on the album, which recalls the style of R&B that Winwood used to play with Spencer Davis.

Shortly after the single “Roll with It” began climbing the charts this summer, a Michelob television commercial featuring “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do?” started appearing. The song had been licensed to Michelob before Roll with It was released, so some assert that Winwood and Jennings had written the song for Michelob’s campaign, “The Night Belongs to Michelob.” Neither man denies the charge, though Weisner insists that the song was written before the deal with Michelob was struck.

“There are two aspects to this,” Winwood says defensively. “The first one is whether the music that I’m doing is worse because they’re involved in it. Are they paying me to write or to record something that’s of inferior quality?

“I mean, I wrote a seven-minute song. Okay, they used fifty seconds of it, Fine. The edits were theirs, although I approved them. I wrote a seven-minute song. It had the word ‘night’ in it, but so have other songs I’ve done. They knew that. There’s no way that their involvement made me present a lower-quality product. There’s no way. The second thing, which has obviously been thrown around, is how rock & roll stood against the establishment. Well, rock & roll has always been sold by major record companies.

“The thing I want to do as a musician is to reach more people with my music. If they can use part of it on a commercial, then I’m reaching potentially more people. The fact that it’s on TV and in commercials – music is entertainment. That’s the way I see it: music is entertainment, and commercials can be entertaining. So I’m happy with it.”

So is Michelob. Winwood appeared at press conferences with representatives of the company, acted in the commercials, permitted large Michelob banners to be prominently displayed at his shows and in every way seemed content to allow his credibility as an artist, built up over twenty-five years, to be used to sell a product.

I‘m happier than I’ve ever been, and I have a family, which is, like, fantastic,” Winwood says, beaming. “It’s wonderful. But aside from that, careerwise, I would never have believed someone who told me ten years ago I was going to have my biggest record ever when I was forty.”

The mood is definitely upbeat in the Winwood camp these days. Winwood and Genia – a lovely blonde with a strong Southern accent – have one young child, and another is very much on the way. They split their time between Gloucestershire and a large farm near Nashville. “We’ll be in the States for when the baby’s due, which is the end of November,” Winwood says. “Basically our home is in England, and we haven’t been there for a while, but obviously it will take a few weeks before we can travel with the baby.”

At the moment, Winwood, Genia and Nobby Clarke, Winwood’s longtime road manager, are perusing the Las Vegas papers to find a show to see that night. It won’t be Elvis’s comeback tour – in fact, the leading contender at the moment seems to be The Magic of David Copperfield – but then that’s not the only thing that’s changed over the years. “I think as you get older,” Winwood says, “you kind of get less radical and a bit more philosophical about things.”  

As for the future, Winwood has two more albums left for Virgin, but the next one is not due for release until the spring of 1990. And once this tour is over, he’s under no obligation to go out on the road again, though he allows that “I’m enjoying it more than I ever have, so maybe I can do a bit more of that next year.” Production work is also a possibility.

Now that he’s back in the high life, will Steve Winwood dare to do more than just roll with it? “Goodness knows what the next album will be like,” he says, shaking his head. “I mean, maybe it will get very radical. I don’t know yet.” 

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