b. Birmingham, England May 12, 1948
Steve Winwood is one of those rarest of individuals to whom music is as natural as breathing. Even early on, there was no doubt the Steve was something special. He learned very early on to play both piano and guitar, demonstrating a natural ability rarely found in those his age. A bit of a troublesome child, Steve was kicked out of school by the age of 15, but had earned a name for himself playing piano and singing in and around his hometown of Birmingham, England. In 1963, when Steve was 16, his brother Muff signed on as the bass player for the Spencer Davis Group, a band formed by a local teacher. Steve tagged along and became the group's organist and sometime lead-vocalist. His talents can be heard prominently on Gimme Some Lovin' and I'm A Man, both big hits for the band and both songs he co-wrote. The Spencer Davis Group was gaining a reputation as one of the best R&B groups around and particular attention was being paid to their young keyboard player. By the time he was 18, Winwood was being hailed as a musical genius and one of the rising stars of the music world.
At the height of their success, Steve left the band and moved to Berkshire where he would found the legendary band Traffic. The lineup consisted of Jim Capaldi and Dave Mason who were members of a progressive group named Deep Feeling and Chris Wood, who Winwood met through Wood's sister. With Capaldi on drums, Mason on guitar, Wood on flute and sax and Steve at the helm, Traffic would produce some of the most innovative music of their day. The listening public, aware of Windwood's work with the Spencer Davis Group had high expectations of this newest venture. Mr. Fantasy, their first album, was released in 1967 and had such hits as the psychedelic Paper Sun and Dave Mason's Hole In My Shoe. This song, despite its commercial success was the first sign of problems within the band. Mason's style conflicted noticeably with the rest of the band and the others felt that his style was not representative of the group. Mason left the group in 1968 after finishing work on their self-titled second album. This album included Mason's Feelin' Alright? which would later become a hit for Joe Cocker.
After releasing one more album with Traffic, Winwood took the opportunity to join rock's first supergroup, Blind Faith. Eric Clapton, then famous for his work with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Rick Grech completed the lineup. The released only one album, but fielded such superb songs as In The Presence of the Lord and Can't Find My Way Home. The group only lasted very briefly, however, and after a short U.S. tour, broke up. Winwood had little focus at this point and decided to begin work on a solo album. When he hit a snag or two along the way, it seemed only natural to call on his old friends Chris and Jim from Traffic and, soon enough, they had re-formed.
An absolute essential to any record collection, Winwood's solo album evolved into what is inarguably Traffic's best work, John Barleycorn Must Die. This album featured the 7 minute instrumental romp Glad, two superb original songs in Freedom Rider and Empty Pages and Winwood's arrangement of the traditional ballad of John Barleycorn. The album threw aside the band's old hints of psychedelia and relied heavily on Wood's sax and flute as well as Winwood's inspired vocal performances. The album became a Billboard top 5 hit and marked the height of Traffic's success.
Traffic stayed together for another 5 years, after a few fluctuations in their lineup. Dave Mason rejoined briefly and they picked up Rick Grech from Steve's days with Blind Faith, Jim Gordon of Derek & the Dominos and their third percussionist, Reebop Kwaku Baah (he just came up on stage one night, jammed and joined the band). They released four more studio albums and one live album, all of which enjoyed some commercial success and, in 1975, decided to go their separate ways.
Steve laid low for a while, worn out from years of traveling and recording, and ailing from peritonitis. He reappeared at the Rainbow Concert, playing with Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and some members of Traffic. He also collaborated for a time with Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashita on Go, releasing one studio and one live album before disbanding. He quietly released his self-titled solo album in 1977 and two others over the next 5 years, both of which featured Winwood singing and playing every note on the whole album.
In 1986, Steve released Back In the High Life, his fourth solo album and came out of his relative seclusion. The album was a huge success, netting Steve the Grammies for Best Vocal Performance and Record of the Year. The album included such hits as Higher Love and Back In the High Life, selling over three million copies. In 1988 and 1990, Winwood released two more solo albums, but they were not up to his usual standards. In 1994, Traffic reformed to for a world tour and the release of a new album, Far From Home. This tour would see them play at Woodstock '94 and with the Grateful Dead on their final U.S. stadium tour.
Winwood has since released one more solo album, Junction 7, in 1997 and recorded with Tito Puente before his Puente's in 2000 under the name Latin Crossings. Their work has not, as of yet, been released. Winwood's career is one of rock and roll's most talented and successful performers. His paths have crossed those of innumerable other stars, from contributing to Billy Joel's 1986 album, The Bridge, to playing organ on Jimmy Hendrix's Voodoo Child. While many child prodigies do not, sadly, live up to their potential, Winwood has proven time and time again that he has earned his place in Rock history.
Spencer Davis Group
Album sleeve for Feelin' Alright: The Very Best of Traffic