SW logo "Coming to America"
Musician, Nov. 1988

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Steve Winwood follows his muse to the New World

"I really love Americans and American musical roots," Steve Winwood offers. "It could be my British need for discipline that makes me admire the American appetite for freedom and passion. I've always been fascinated with the possibilities of drawing all these Southern, Detroit, Caribbean and African grooves together, along with what some people hear as 'Church of England' thing in my keyboards. I don't argue that it isn't spiritual-sounding. I'm a former choirboy, after all, and I've played Sunday organ at this church in Gloucestershire until last June, when I returned from touring to find that the vicar had died. I think my music remains more individual than my influences, but I have to confess" - he pauses of a swallow of sandwich - "that, in fact, I based the original Traffic on Jr. Walker's All-Stars!"

In light of the homage Winwood pays Walker on the title track of Roll With It, his latest LP, the admission surely seems apt, but perhaps a tad exaggerated?

"No! No! Think about it: The original lineup of the All-Stars was sax, organ, guitar, and drums, with no bass - and that was the Traffic concept, although it did get modified over time. Vocally, I've definitely been influenced by the great saxophonists, and Jr. Walker is certainly one of those. I'm a huge fan and I'll go anywhere to catch a performance. I'll never forget the last time I saw him at the Lone Star Cafe in New York City."

He was ripping it up, eh?

"Jr.? Of course - but so was I. This was the night I met my wife Jeannie! [Please see note on spelling below]. She was there with some friends, and me with mine, and I started chatting with her at a table! Yes, it's a wonderful little bar, and Junior serenaded us!"

Although he's dining in London's tony Belgravia section this afternoon, his marriage to Tennessee-bred Eugenia C. has clearly furthered Winwood's Americanization. These days Steve and Jeannie divide their time between a farm [sic] south of Nashville and a manor house in Gloucestershire, England. Back in the High Life (1986), the greatest hits album Chronicles (1987) and the new Roll With It all reflect the growing contentment of Steve Winwood. Coming to America seems to have been a wise move. "Oh, absolutely," he says. "Though I'll always keep our house in England. But there's something about the mix of everything in the States that really grabs me. And of course, Jeannie grabbed me too."

So Jr. Walker practically introduced him to his wife. Who introduced Jr. Walker to Winwood?

"The first person who ever played me any Jr. Walker was Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. When the Spencer Davis Group toured with the Stones in the beginning, I stayed 'round Brian's place in London and we got on great, playing records and talking music for hours. We'd also listen to Otis Redding, the Mar-Keys, all that great Memphis Stax-Volt stuff."

Did he consider settling in Memphis rather than the Nashville area? "Good question. My wife's family is from around Nashville, so that seemed most natural, but I wouldn't have minded being in Memphis at all. They're all just a stone's throw from each other, anyhow. Nashville sounds like light-years away from Muscle Shoals, but it's just a hundred miles down the road. And of course all the people from Muscle Shoals are still in and out of Nashville constantly, while a lot of the Memphis musicians are likewise regulars in Nashville. Sessions are the nicest way to make friends among Nashville musicians. I did one with Mike Lawler, a keyboard and synthesizer whiz who's worked with James Brown and the Allman Brothers, and another with Jo-El Sonnier, the great Cajun zydeco accordionist. I just loved how sociable these people are in the control room."

Has he ever considered hanging out a shingle in Music City, USA? "Oh, I have already! I rent a little office right on Music Row in Nashville, and I go in there with some keyboards, a drum machine, and a little four-track cassette recorder. I got quite a few ideas for the new album down there. The new album seems a definite continuation of the band sound of Back in the High Life, and it's also got that cross of Motown and Stax qualities, but I would argue that this combination, merged with my own Irish, Scottish, and Anglican church borrowings, dates well back to Traffic. Remember that on the 1973 Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory album we had Roger Hawkins and David Hood in the band, and they're Southern fellows who are associated more with Muscle Shoals and the Memphis sound than anything else. But every time I say things about Southern music, people recoil and say, 'He's not gonna make Steve Winwood country and western albums!'" He shrugs his rail shoulders. "Fact is, wherever I do an album, it ends up sounding for better or worse like me, whether it's in Gloucestershire, New York, Jamaica or - maybe someday - Nashville."

To spend five minutes with today's Steve Winwood is to see precisely where the boyish glee of vintage rock stardom has been preserved. He was born on May 12, 1948, in the sooty industrial sprawl of Birmingham, England, and grew up in the suburb of Great Barr. While his father toiled at Hall's Iron Foundry, young Stevie studied Elgar and Vaughan Williams in music classes at Great Barr Comprehensive School. During summers he hiked and camped in Cornwall and Devon with the 236th Perry Barr Boy Scout Troop and then performed with combos he and older brother Mervyn "Muff" Winwood organized in town. Victimized for his forbidden musical leanings, the classically-trained Steve was first expelled from Great Barr Comprehensive (before a school-wide assembly chaired by headmaster Oswald Beynon), and then from the Birmingham and Midland Institute, for the sin of playing rock 'n' roll. Not only did his sax-playing father not punish him for these failings, but Mr Winwood imparted a few worldly tips from his own experience as a moonlighting bandleader, telling his boy how he advertised his own combo as if it was two different outfits, one very expensive and snobbish, the other working-class and cheap. "One way or another," his son says, "they always got work. Pretty shrewd, I thought." Soon Stevie was off gigging in Midlands cabarets from Birmingham to Manchester, keen to absorb the entire musical gamut, from Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters to the fugues of modern German composer Paul Hindemuth.

At 40, Winwood retains the same humility, zestfulness and convoluted conversational zeal that charmed bandleader/Birmingham University instructor Spencer Davis back in 1963. Davis first spied the 14-year-old Ray Charles soundalike during an evening gig of the Muff Woody Jazz Band (headed by Steve's bassist brother) at Birmhingham's Digbeth Civic Hall.

"He was playing piano, an Oscar Peterson-type thing," says Davis. "Then Steve got hold of a melodica like Ray Charles used to play and did a version of 'One Mint Julep'. You know when you hear something that gets down to the bottom of your spine, and you realize you're in the presence of something different? And I didn't hear him sing - he was just playing."

Steve and Muff promptly signed on with the Spencer Davis Rhythm and Blues Quartet, Steve at first restricting himself to guitar. It was an impromptu acquaintance with the house-owned Hammond B-3 at a Stoke-on-Trent club called the Place that moved Winwood to merge his clarion vocals with the rich attack of electronic key-boards. By 1964 the (newly abbreviated) Spencer Davis Group and its soul-belting teenage keyboardist had a No. 1 hit in the UK with Jamaican reggae songwriter Jackie Edwards' "Keep on Running," while the next 2 years saw the release of a pair of global top 10 smashes, "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm a Man".

"Lyrically, 'I'm a Man' was the brainchild of New York producer Jimmy Miller, who had a feeling for the American market," says Spencer Davis, "and Jimi Hendrix showed me the E-7th guitar chord on the track. Steve provided the rest of the American R&B edge with his marvelous vocals and keyboards, and it's funny, because the song had originally been intended for a 'Swinging London' film. 'Gimme Some Lovin'' was also written with an American perspective. We used to rehearse at the Marquee Club in London, and Muff had a bass riff from an old record by Homer Banks [the prolific Stax songwriter] called 'Whole Lotta Lovin''. I hadn't heard that song, but I thought the riff Muff was playing was fantastic. I added a G, A and C-minor to it, Steve played a Ravel's 'Bolero' kind of thing, and Steve said to me, 'Don't play major, play minors.' The English version was a stark, haunting thing, but the American version, which everybody knows best, had backing vocals. It was number 2 in England and the only thing that kept it from number 1 was 'Good Vibrations' by the Beach Boys. Steve and us had just the sound America craved! Pity the Spencer Davis Group never toured the States."

Steve Winwood was not yet 18 when the Spencer Davis Group disbanded - a result of Steve's musical restlessness - and it would be another decade of splashy ensemble work the the Powerhouse, Traffic, Blind Faith, Ginger Baker's Airforce, and Go before Winwood got around to distinguishing himself on his own. Clues to Steve's current stateside allure as a solo performer seem woven into his band-to-band search for a cohesive career identity.

Winwood earned the accolade of "a mate's mate" from friends like Jim Capaldi, who admired his personal loyalty. Capaldi and Winwood's co-authorship of "Hearts on Fire" on Roll With It marks 22 unbroken years of fraternity since the day they converged while buying black American R&B records in Birmingham's Diskery record shop.

Watching Capaldi and Winwood interact one Gloucestershire morning in 1982 while on a break from co-producing Jim's Fierce Heart LP, Steve reveled in his chum's lavishly deprecating Traffic anecdotes. Most centered on the group's folk-rock flights, with "the band recording hundreds of tapes outdoors, many of them filled with birds tweeting wildly in the background to you could scarcely hear what the devil we'd been aiming for!"

For all the good humor, however, Winwood firmly maintains that Traffic's bucolic merger of English folk idioms and American blues-rock was "a very conscious thing; we had a ball as people, but musically we were not merely mucking about."

"Steve has a gleam in his eye for anything he decides to participate in," says producer Russ Titelman, who shared a Record of the Year Grammy for High Life's "Higher Love," "and he can communicate strength even when he's fearful, because he doesn't indulge his weak side."

If there is one qualm observers have with the New Steve Winwood, it's his controversial decision to license certain songs to sell Michelob beer. Winwood's outlook, akin to his "kill only what you'll consume" philosophy as a devotee of game sports: "I'm not offended by people endorsing a product they actually use in their daily lives." While many take issue with this dangerously simplistic perspective, crass commercialism being at least one American influence all compromised rockers will likely regret, Winwood has indeed been a regular imbiber of the suds he helps hawk. Excuse him or don't but there is nothing half-baked about Steve Winwood, whose acute curiosity for life is leavened with a collegial composure worthy of Mr Chips. "I'm a believer in natural law, in the sense of any strong religious outlook," he says, referring to the theory that ethical precepts are fundamental to human nature and discoverable by simple reason. "I was brought up with the belief that you take nothing for granted, that all good fortune is a gift. Sounds austere, eh? And perhaps it is a bit, but I respected my father for his will to balance the hard times with the happy ones. When things go badly, I try to bear up and go on, but it does affect me greatly. And I guess it shows up most in my music. In recent years I've written a lot of songs about death and loss."

Asked about the treasured songs of his solo era, those that spark inner satisfaction as well as reflectiveness, he sits back, absently tracing his lined brow with his fingertip. "Well," he sighs, "let's take a track like 'Vacant Chair'," a ghostly ballad from 1977's Steve Winwood. "That song always needed explaining. It's a song about death, and I wrote it with Viv Stanshall [of the Bonzo Dog Band], and it was a reaction to a wave of deaths of great British and West Indian jazz musicians that had gone on, like Graham Bond and Harold McNair. Graham had drug problems and his body was found under a train. I was very affected by these deaths and this was a way of coping with them. The African lyric in the chorus is a Yoruban chant which means, 'Only the dead weep for the dead.' "

At the time Winwood cut the song, many in the press had pegged him as another music-biz casualty, never guessing that the gaunt, withdrawn pop star had actually been a long-suffering victim of peritonitis, an acute inflammation of the tissue covering the abdominal cavity. "It was a by-product of acute appendicitis from the early 1970's, which itself was no picnic, and I spent absolute years recovering, during which touring and the like were unthinkable."

Accustomed to spending considerable time on his own, Winwood installed a sophisticated home studio in the Gloucestershire house he shared with his first wife Nicole (they were divorced in 1986). His deft solitary composing resulted in both Arc of a Diver (1979) and Talking Back to the Night (1982), which contained a good deal of intensely reflective material.

" 'While You See a Chance' was the first song I wrote with Will Jennings, who's been my chief lyricist. I met him through my publisher at the time, Island Music. I'd said I desperately wanted to somebody to write songs with, and they said, 'Oh, there's this bloke ...' Jennings, a former English professor from East Texas, who's also penned sizable hits for Randy Crawford and the Crusaders ("Street Life") and Whitney Houston ("Didn't We Almost Have It All"), recalls that "when Steve played me the music that became the song 'While You See a Chance', it was like looking right into his soul."

It was a soul so scarred by infirmity, career disappointments and financial woes that he was seriously contemplating quitting rock 'n' roll. "I thought, 'I'm just going to make a record and then I shall settle up financially, and move, if necessary, to a small flat or join a gypsy caravan. I figured I'd continue doing some things that I like doing and enjoy life as best I could in diminished circumstances."

That dire reckoning never arrived, however. Soon after the finished tape for 'While You See a Chance' was delivered to his record company (complete with an ethereal organ intro that was the consequence of other instruments being "inadvertently" erased), the single shot into the top 10 worldwide and transformed Arc of a Diver into a stunning fiscal windfall.

While freed from any further threats to his bank account, Winwood was still not immune to assaults on his spirit. Sick at heart as former Traffic mates Chris Wood and Reebop Kwaku Baah descended into narcotics-related demises, Steve retreated again to his home studio with a mind to create an entire album decrying the rock-and-drugs symbiosis.

"Talking Back to the Night was really an anti-drug album, the whole thing, but not in a very obvious way," he now explains. "The title track started with a poem Will Jennings wrote on the subject, and it spread from there. 'Valerie', for instance, isn't a song remembering this girl I was madly in love with. It's not that at all. It's a plea to a certain girl singer - someone I don't know personally but who Will Jennings had drawn my attention to - not to destroy herself with drugs. The narrator in the song is saying, 'I'm back, and I'm the same person I used to be - so why isn't she?' "

The irony of Talking Back to the Night was that fans felt that Winwood was indeed the same man he'd been on Diver, and they found his home-made sound distinctively stagnant.

"I'm sure you're right," Winwood concedes, sipping the last of an Anglo lager. "I believe there was a production failing on the record; it was under-produced. But I was lucky enough to go back and remix certain of those tracks with Tom Lord Alge for Chronicles. We put certain tweaks of production on 'Valerie' so it'd sound better on the radio."

As we finish lunch, Winwood spells out the obvious, cyclical challenge that was Roll With It: to craft a follow-up record consistent with his last high point. To this end, Will Jennings and Steve spent weeks in September '87 sightseeing, pub-hopping and brainstorming over Steve's latest crop of Gloucestershire demo tapes. The album was recorded at McClear Place Studios in Toronto and U2's Windmill Lane in Dublin. Veteran Titelman was replaced for reasons of strategic revitalization with talented upstart Tom Lord Alge, the engineer on High Life. "He's a superb engineer," says Steve of Lord Alge, "not a slide-rule man, and he has a straightforward New Jersey attitude that kicks me in the pants."

Billy Joel, one of Winwood's best American buddies, has a funny story about the kick he got meeting Steve. Not in 1985, when Winwood played on Joel's The Bridge, not in '83, when he visited sessions for An Innocent Man - but way back in 1967 - when a very nervous Joel knocked on the door of Traffic's New York hotel room. Young Billy was anxiously combing his frizzled hair when Winwood opened the door. "Well, hello then!" said Winwood throwing the door wide, disclosing the presence within of Traffic's Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood. "It is Billy, isn't it? So now, what would you like to interview us about?" "Oh no!" Joel corrected, "I'm not a journalist! I'm a keyboard player in a band, the Hassles. Here in America, we're on the United Artists label, same as you guys!"

"Steve remained the perfect gentleman, hardly concerned either way," says Joel with an affectionate grin, "and he was just content to talk music. He was amazed that the Hassles played 'Mr Fantasy' in concert, and that we had also recorded 'Coloured Rain'. He just sat there, looking sorta thrilled and sorta shocked. 'STEVE, MAN,' I said, 'we love you over here. Honest! You just gotta spend more time in the USA!"

Billy Joel wonders to this day if Winwood noticed how nervous he was at their initial meeting. "Actually," Winwood confesses sheepishly, "there is one small thing that comes back to me from that hotel get-together. Billy didn't expect me to answer the door, and Billy was combing his hair when I suddenly appeared. It startled him, and he left the comb in his hair for the whole time he was in our room talking! I didn't have the heart to divulge this."

"Since he's one of my role models, it's been a thrill to see how much he's grown," says Joel. "I guess you might say Steve has returned and is having a larger effect than ever; but for me he has never gone. Like Keith Emerson with the Nice and Felix Cavaliere with the Rascals, Steve's style has been an immense influence on any kid who ever sat down at a keyboard. But especially Steve - who was as good at piano as he was at organ, and always featured both instruments on record. For my generation, it was considered sorta wimpy to have taken keyboard lessons until the Spencer Davis Group caught fire, and Traffic just confirmed the idea of the guy at the keys being a leader. After 25 years as a professional, any compliment floors Steve, any trace of recognition surprises him, and any little thing he can learn or discover is a source of delight. From him, you get a man's wisdom as well as a boy's love of fun."

Joel's words of affection and praise are conveyed to Winwood before we adjourn our meal for a stroll, and Steve turns a deep crimson, literally hiding behind his lapel.

"Stop!" he pleads. "You're embarrassing me! Billy was even kind enough to invite me to go to Russia with him on his special trip, which I would have loved, but with my marriage, and the new album and setting up home here and in the States, we've been tied up for quite a bit." Hesitant pause. "I've also managed a few non-musical accomplishments, you know."

Such as?

"Well, please don't make too much of this, but I've recently learned to swim while in America. I was born in Birmingham, in the core of the Midlands, which are totally landlocked, but that's no excuse, because Britain is an island. As a kid, my dad had wanted me to follow him into the foundry, and you don't get 'round too many water sports in those places. But anyhow, I got some breast-stroke and side-stroke lessons while I was in New York last, from this fellow who once swam for the British Honduras Olympic swim team. I know - you'd think somebody who did a record called Arc of a Diver could swim, but I was scared stiff. Those who learn all this as a child can never understand the fear that you face as an adult, but I conquered it, and I consider it one of my proudest recent accomplishments. I suppose I always need the spark and inspiration of another person or two to urge me on."

So what's next for rock's country gentleman?

"Next? You mean I have to do more?" He exuberantly stretches his slim frame. "Weeelllll, after the tour for the new album, I'm going to settle in with my new family, and maybe even pay a long-due visit to my relatives back in Birmingham. Then at some point I'll write songs for yet another album."

Is there material left over from all his 1980s studio activity?

"I've got a few unused things in the can, but I don't have a whole store of them like some people. One song I wrote with Viv Stanshall for High Life is titled 'If That Gun's For Real'. It's very funny, a real Percy Sledge-flavored track that you wouldn't believe! I suppose it describes my relationship to a lot of things; how I can be taken completely off-guard by good luck, and how I often reveal myself at odd and - even for me - very unexpected little moments. It's marvelous and confounding, this life," he chuckles, "but I'm learning to adapt."

-- Timothy White

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Note on spelling: In this article, Timothy White consistently misspells Eugenia's nickname 'Genia' as 'Jeannie', which is indeed how it sounds. In the interest of accurate reporting, I have retained the misspellings. Every time you see the word 'Jeannie', please imagine me gritting my teeth while typing. [Back to the article.]

Page created July 17, 1999.
Last updated July 17, 1999.
© 1999 by the author; reproduce only for non-commercial purposes and with full attribution.