Mp3 Bio: Steve Winwood

Born in Birmingham, U.K., in 1948, Steve Winwood started playing guitar in his father’s band at just eight years old. Growing up in Birmingham’s rhythm and blues scene, he had plenty of opportunity to network, and by his early teens Winwood was playing in pick-up bands for touring U.S. blues acts no lesser than B.B. King, Memphis Slim, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley. With teeth sufficiently cut by the time he was 15, Winwood and his older brother “Muff” joined a band led by Wales-born Spencer Davis in 1963.

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The Spencer Davis Group, “Gimme Some Lovin’” (download)

A phenomenal success, the Spencer Davis Group is almost exclusively associated with the genre known as “blue-eyed soul” (or: white British kids who play music styles originated by black Americans). They had hit singles on the U.K. charts within two years of forming, and by early 1967, everyone in the U.S. was digging on their music. “Gimme Some Lovin’” has been played everywhere, it seems, by everyone, yet it still forces heads to bob, if not charge for a dance floor, whenever that iconic bass line kicks in. By the time Winwood’s Hammond line rages in, you’re gone—party music hasn’t improved much in the last 40 years. “I’m A Man” is every bit as groovy, a touch darker in tone, and secured Winwood’s place in rock history.

» Download “I’m A Man”

Traffic, “Forty Thousand Headmen” (download)

Somewhat inexplicably, at the height of the Spencer Davis Group’s popularity, Winwood quit and joined up with Chris Wood, Jim Capaldi, and Dave Mason to form a psychedelic act, Traffic, in April 1967. After releasing three albums, mostly featuring headtrip rockers like “Forty Thousand Headmen,” the band broke up after guitarist Mason was fired in the middle of a U.S. tour in early 1969. Later that year, Winwood began working on a solo album which, sans Mason, became another Traffic album, 1970’s John Barleycorn Must Die. Songs like “Empty Pages” recall Winwood’s earliest influences, foreshadowing his next musical move.

» Download “Empty Pages”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Voodoo Chile” (download)

Throughout this period, Winwood had steadily been working on a habit of being the most ubiquitous musician in history: He had guest appearances on Joe Cocker’s With a Little Help From My Friends, Howlin’ Wolf’s The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, and had just previously recorded with Family, post-Yardbirds Jimmy Page, and Toots & the Maytals. Oh, and as a close personal friend of Jimi Hendrix, he contributed organ to “Voodoo Chile,” on 1968’s Electric Ladyland. You have to listen to the whole thing or you won’t really get it!

Blind Faith, “Can’t Find My Way Home” (download)

In August 1969, Winwood, Ric Grech from Family, and former Cream members Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker formed Blind Faith—who many have called the first “supergroup.” A year later, after recording one eponymous album, Blind Faith disbanded when Clapton departed, joining Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. He was never heard from again.

» Download “Well…All Right”

“While You See a Chance” (download)

After resuming duties with Traffic for a few more albums, Winwood made an earnest attempt at a solo career. He parted ways with the rest of the group in 1974, and three years later began releasing solo work, which became increasingly commercially successful. Of course, by then it was practically the ’80s and there were no real instruments to be found anywhere, only synthesizers. According to popular myth, after accidentally erasing the opening drum tracks to “While You See a Chance” from 1980’s Arc of a Diver, Winwood hurried to lay down the now-famous introductory keyboard line. Years later, he won Grammys for Best Male Vocal and Record of the Year for Back in the High Life, which featured number-one hit single “Higher Love” (guest vocals by Chaka Khan!). In Steve’s defense, he’s quoted as saying on his official web site that he was uncomfortable with the role of “showman” producers pushed him into during that period. It’s pretty obvious this is the case when watching the video for 1982’s “Valerie.”

» Download “Higher Love”

C-Rayz Walz, “Dead Buffalos” (download)

Sealing Winwood’s influence is his current popularity. Traffic’s “Forty Thousand Headmen” is sampled on C-Rayz Walz’s “Dead Buffalos” from 2003, and in 2004 Eric Prydz sampled Winwood’s “Valerie” in his incredibly annoying (yet Winwood-approved) “Call on Me,” which spent five weeks at number one on the U.K. charts. In 2006 Winwood himself sang backing vocals, played organ, and co-wrote Christina Aguilera’s “Makes Me Wanna Pray” off of her Back to Basics album, which isn’t a far cry from the kind of soul-infused thump that began his career more than 40 years ago.

» Download “Call on Me”
» Download “Makes Me Wanna Pray”


TMN Editor Erik Bryan is living the dream. He grew up in Florida, but he’s from all over. He likes playing chess, making cocktails, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan

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