How do you approach the catalogue of an artist active over many decades in several different outfits who has a substantial solo output to boot? That’s the question I’ve been pondering, on and off, since a blogmate expressed interest in reading a little about the career of one of the great rock singers, Steve Winwood. It’s a fascinating history that spans most of the major movements of popular music in the 60s, 70s and 80s and is remarkable both for the diversity of musical styles and the unity achieved via the constant of Steve Winwood’s voice.
Young Stevie was a veteran musician long before he was old enough to get into pubs or drive a car. At fifteen he was playing in the Muff Woody Jazz Band with his older brother. That’s where he met Spencer Davis who was keen to invite both brothers to join his eponymous group. They did so, with the youngest member contributing lead guitar, lead vocals, organ, piano, and harmonica. There is a hint of the teenager’s precocious talent right there, in 1963.
In 2009 a live album of Winwood and Eric Clapton marked some forty-six years in the business. That’s career longevity in anyone’s language.
If you were setting up a Steve Winwood section in your very own record shop, you could do it with the following sub-sections:
Spencer Davis Group
But that might be a tad daunting for the casual listener, for whom compilations are an obvious starting place.
First up is the chunky 1972 United Artists double LP; twenty-one tracks outlining the work with Spencer Davis (eight tracks), early Traffic (the essentials well covered in six songs), Blind Faith (just ‘Sea of Joy’) and reformed Traffic (three). The curious vinyl-addict could do a lot worse than this collection (if they can find it).
The Island compilation Keep On Running (1991) has seventeen songs, with less Spencer Davis and less mid-period (and no later) Traffic. A couple of tracks from the first solo album (1977’s self-titled disc) are welcome, as is the fabulous African collaboration ‘Happy vibes’. But the choice of ‘Well alright’ (a cover version) from the Blind Faith album is odd and later Traffic is not well-served.
Island were back in the compilation business with a vengeance in 1995 with the 4CD set The Finer Things. As you would expect from such a set, all bases are covered adequately. A couple of rarities are thrown into the mix —the most interesting being two songs from the 1969 Hyde Park performance of Blind Faith— and though Winwood aficionados might quibble about some of the choices (three tracks from When the Eagle Flies? Really?) it is an excellent document of a rich and varied career, one bound together by the truly marvellous voice and versatile instrumental skills of Mr Winwood. You see, it’s not just the singing. Winwood’s guitar has always been under-valued ; perhaps because of his association with Eric Clapton, but he is thoughtful and has his own voice. On keyboards, Winwood’s strength is organ, and his playing is subtle and excellent in these varying contexts. Indeed, so well-respected was Winwood’s organ work that he was regularly invited to play with other artists, leading to credits that cover everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Christine McVie.
When, in 2010, Island decided to once again compile Steve Winwood’s music, they once again opted for a four CD set. A fourth disc of ‘Rarities’ of various value means that the officially released music is reduced to three discs, resulting in less coverage or some areas than the ’95 box. With typical record company guile, a single CD version of the comp was also released with two (non-rare) songs not on the 4CD version. How do the minds of these people work?
If you are an album orientated person, the whole compilation idea is slightly distasteful. If an artist is worth having, they’re worth having on original albums. Right? Well, mostly. I’ve never been tempted to collect the original Spencer Davis Group albums (of which there were three during Winwood’s tenure). The 1967 compilation that was released after his departure has met my needs adequately so I’ve never been tempted to pay big bucks for patchy ‘coming of age’ LPs. As a result I cannot offer much in the way of deep cuts from the original SDG.
According to rock legend, Traffic were the first band to rent a cottage in the English countryside and go bush to get their collective musical heads together whilst getting off their collective faces. Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason, and Chris Wood decamped to rural Berkshire and forged a sound that included pop, psychedelic, jazz and R&B influences. How you feel about this first phase of Traffic will probably depend on how you feel about music from the multi-hued 1966—1969 period generally. I consider the first two albums (Mr Fantasy and Traffic) most enjoyable and interesting, though not without ‘of their times’ songs (like ‘Berkshire poppies’). It is tempting to skip Last Exit —the final album before Dave Mason split and the band temporally dissolved— due to the unremarkable live second side that screams ‘filler’ over a concert-sized PA. But then you miss the sublime ‘Shanghai Noodle Factory’, surely one of Winwood’s finest vocal performances. It’s tricky, but if pushed, I’d say get Mr Fantasy —preferably the Island Remasters version that includes both the original UK and the quite different US release— and take it from there. If that album feels enough of a paisley 60s trip for ya, move on.
You probably know the next bit. Our man formed a quartet with guitar demigod Eric Clapton and drumming curmudgeon Ginger Baker, both fresh from a curdled Cream, and recruited ex-Family bass player Rick Grech. They made one uneven but significant album, Blind Faith, and split up. A personal piece on Blind Faith was an early post at Vinyl Connection; find it here. For all its smattering of low points (Ginger’s interminable drum solo on ‘Do what you like’, for instance), the album is historically important and musically worthwhile. ‘Had to cry today’ and ‘Can’t find my way home’ both utilise the band’s talents superbly to deliver yearning, moving songs. In a way the paradox of the Blind Faith album is that although I would only award it 3 ½ stars, I’d rate it essential for anyone serious about the story of rock.
After the ‘supergroup’ imploded, Winwood joined Ginger for his first Airforce project before returning to the studio in 1970 to work on his first solo album. Perhaps feeling less than all right after all that band activity, Steve invited Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood to all join in and presto! a new Traffic album was born.
And that is where our story of the High Heeled Boys will resume.