Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 12 May 1948, Birmingham, UK) Singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter. He became a star in the Spencer Davis Group with his songs, keyboards and an unmistakeable bluesy voice, then formed Traffic, and made one album with supergroup Blind Faith (see those entries). He intended to start a solo career with an album to be called Mad Shadows which became the Traffic LP John Barleycorn Must Die; the two-disc Winwood '71 on United Artists UK was a compilation from all this.

He worked as a session musician for several years on albums by people as diverse as Jim Capaldi (of Traffic), Sandy Denny, the Fania All Stars, George Harrison, John Martyn, Toots and the Maytals, with ex-Bonzo Viv Stanshall on his Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead and Sir Henry At Rawlinson's End, Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta and his ambitious Go group (two LPs charted in USA '76-7, both with Al Di Meola). He made his own debut with Steve Winwood '77 on Island, followed by the hit album Arc Of A Diver '80, songs co-written with Will Jennings, George Fleming and Stanshall, including the top ten hit 'While You See A Chance'. This was self-produced, like the latter-day Traffic work and early work with the Habits (later on Charly compilation Sixties Lost And Found), showing evidence of his greater aptitude in the recording studio than on stage. A mooted collaboration as producer with June Tabor was cancelled when Island foresaw it holding up his next album still further; he sessioned, arguably at the expense of his solo career, on Capaldi's Fierce Heart and on Marianne Faithfull's Broken English, with Julie Covington, and with Stanshall on Teddy Boys Don't Knit.

His own Talking Back To The Night '82 was a top 30 album USA, showing complete mastery of studio tools; he carried on sessioning: on Talk Talk's The Colour Of Spring, Billy Joel's The Bridge, soundtrack for Nathalie Delon's film Ils appellant ça un accident (They Call It An Accident). He re-emerged '86 with his glossiest and most commercial record, the triple-platinum hit Back In The High Life, overproduced perhaps compared to the last one, but loaded with that instantly recognized voice: Quincy Jones and James Taylor were among the contributors; the album reached no. 3 in the USA, copped several Grammy nominations, and included a no. 1 USA hit 'Higher Love' (with Chaka Khan and a strong video), as well as a top 10 'The Finer Things'. He then signed with Virgin for Roll With It '88 and Refugees Of The Heart '90. On Island, Chronicles '87 compiled tracks from his solo career; a four-disc set The Finer Things '95 was another compilation; all 51 tracks with the Spencer Davis Group were issued in a set called Eight Gigs A Week: The Steve Winwood Years '96.

Further albums were Junction 7 '97 and About Time 2003, the latter on his own Wincraft Music label. He toured extensively and sessioned, e.g. on Christina Aguilera's Back to Basics 2006. In February 2008, he joined Eric Clapton for three sold-out nights at New York's Madison Square Garden; and in April his ninth solo album, Nine Lives, came out on Columbia, a one-album deal giving him some independence at a time of upheaval in the music business. On this he used his touring band including Brazilian guitarist José Neto, lyricist on About Time, and drummer Richard Bailey, who as a teen had played drums for Bob Marley, Johnny Nash and Jeff Beck. A new accomplice is ex-New Waver Peter Godwin, who wrote most of the lyrics, with Neto assisting. The material came out of what the band played during jams and sound checks, said Winwood, and the album was loaded with Winwood's usual variety of influences and rhythms, always trying to create something unique. Clapton came to Winwood's studio in rural England to record the solo that drives 'Dirty City', the first single.

In May 2008, as he turned 60, he joined Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers on one of summer's top tours, promising to change his own set list at each show, as well as playing with Petty. He and Clapton had filmed the New York concerts for possible high-definition home video release and were thinking about more collaborations in 2008. Winwood considers himself semi-retired, but admits that that means that he is able to do whatever he wants, and knows how lucky he is.