“We were very lucky, I think, that we were playing at a time when the world was changing. In ’64, it was like the eggshell was just starting to crack…” Up from his Cotswolds farm (“It’s sheep country”) for the day, the gentlemanly Steve Winwood takes Uncut on a tour of his remarkable 60-year career. From the Spencer Davis Group prodigy to Traffic and Blind Faith, via memorable encounters with Hendrix and Viv Stanshall, he tells Tom Pinnock how he kept it together through some of the most momentous passages of rock history…
Originally published in Uncut’s October 2017 issue
“I was playing with Eric Clapton at his house when we were trying to get our music together,” remembers Steve Winwood, “and Ginger Baker just showed up at the door. I thought, ‘Great, we’ll have someone who’ll play drums with us.’ But I didn’t quite realise that Eric had a much different, more extensive relationship with Ginger on the back of Cream. Ginger has a specific personality… and um, I think Eric had issues with the way he was playing. It was a complicated old band, Blind Faith…
“I always felt a need to work with the people with crazy, vibrant ideas,” Winwood adds later. “I needed those wild ideas, otherwise my music would be too tame. But they needed me as much as I needed them – I had to tame their ideas…”
Unlike many of the musicians he’s collaborated with, Steve Winwood is something of a survivor. Indeed, he’s managed to pack the work of a few lifetimes into his seven decades years – from jazz bootcamp as a child, and teenage adoration as an R&B star with The Spencer Davis Group, to heralding the psychedelic revolution with Traffic, enduring the trials of a “complex” supergroup with Blind Faith, and then huge popularity as a solo artist and MTV mainstay. Then there’s the piles of albums he’s played on as a guest, records by John Martyn, George Harrison, Van Morrison, Talk Talk, Paul Weller, Joe Cocker, Jimi Hendrix and more.
“Jimi came across as a bit of a wildman,” he says. “But all that early grounding in music is what made his music great. That’s probably why he wanted me to play on ‘Voodoo Chile’, maybe he recognised that I’d been through a similar sort of thing as him.”
Winwood’s own work is showcased on his latest release, Greatest Hits Live, a double set in which the singer, guitarist and organist and his band perform songs from across his career, infusing their R&B, soul, folk-rock and psychedelia with subtle influences from funk, Caribbean and South American music.
“The album definitely is a homage to all the bands I’ve played with,” Winwood explains. “For the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve tried to reinvent a lot of the old stuff, give them different treatments. The basic setup of the band is a take on the old jazz organ trio, which was organ, guitar and drums, but with added percussion and a horn player.”
“He’s been through so many phases of popular music,” says Winwood’s guitarist of 17 years, José Neto. “All the changes and transitions, so it’s an amazing learning experience for anyone that works with him. He’s quite a remarkable musician.”
“It’s not fair someone should have all that talent,” laughs Traffic engineer Terry Brown. “Steve’s singing is phenomenal, and his feel, it’s just in his DNA, there’s no doubt. It always seemed effortless.”
“This live album may well be a sort of punctuation mark,” Winwood says, considering his first release in eight years. “Not a full stop, more a punctuation mark at the end of playing live so intensively.”