Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 17, 2019
Steve Winwood is having a moment. His Grammy-winning “Higher Love,” a No. 1 hit in 1986, has gone to No. 1 again, this time in a recording by Whitney Houston from 1990 and recently rereleased. Another version, performed by the Ndlovu Youth Choir, was awarded Judge’s Choice on America’s Got Talent last month and has almost 3 million views on YouTube.
It’s a great song, especially the original Winwood version with his incredibly powerful high tenor voice, complex arrangements, joyful melodies and harmonies and the exuberant, ecstatic coda.
Is there is a more brilliant musician who enjoys less fanfare and recognition? Probably not. Few people appreciate the enormity of Mr. Winwood’s amazing talent or the scope of his career. He has sold 50 million records and won numerous awards, from Grammy and Jammy honors to BMI Icon for his “enduring contributions to the music industry.” In 2008 he received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music, where he told students that at the age of 15 he was kicked out of a Birmingham, England, conservatory for moonlighting with a chart-topping rhythm & blues band.
Nowadays Mr. Winwood, 71, says he is “semi-retired.” Modest and self-effacing, he makes no effort to chase fame or stir up notoriety. His low profile plus the eclectic nature of his work—an amalgam of rock, jazz, blues, R&B, classical and more—keep people from appreciating what a treasure his music represents and what a unique figure in the history of music he is: Bach by way of Birmingham.
So let me introduce you. His first band leader said he “sang like Ray Charles and played piano like Oscar Peterson.” At age 17 he knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts. At 19 he formed Traffic, which was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. At 20 he joined Jimi Hendrix in recording the monster blues jam “Voodoo Chile” and at 21 he and Eric Clapton formed Blind Faith, one of the first supergroups. His mid-’80s pop albums sold in the millions. His ’90s work was darker and more complex yet. And who, now in his sixth decade as a recording artist and still performing live, has produced two 21st century album masterpieces: About Time and Nine Lives.
But don’t take my word for it, There are hundreds of YouTube clips to discover: the great vocals on “Crossroads” with Eric Clapton; the rollicking “Gimme Some Lovin” and “I’m a Man” from his teen years; the wonderfully buoyant “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring” and the Gothic terror of “40,000 Headmen,” both chamber-music-like gems; as well as the brilliant symphonic song suite “Glad-Freedom Rider-Empty Pages” from Traffic. There are the powerful solo acoustic guitar versions of “Can’t Find My Way Home” and “John Barleycorn Must Die” and the effervescent classics like “Shining Song” and “The Finer Things” and the dark power of “Night Train” and “Here Comes a Man” from his middle period and the most recent and astonishingly mature compositions like “Different Light” and “Take It to the Final Hour” from the last two decades.
And the solos! Listen to his great keyboard playing on Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” and Blind Faith’s cover of “Well Alright,” and his ecstatically swinging overdubbed bass, acoustic guitar and Hammond B3 organ on “Shanghai Noodle Factory.” There’s the scorching guitar on “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and those oh-so-tasty licks on “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” (with his fabulous piano accompaniment) and “Rock and Roll Stew” and the sinuous vibes on “In the Light of Day” and devotional synth on “While You See a Chance.” Hear the sweet mandolin playing on “Back in the High Life Again” and the jazzy yet Bach-like Hammond B3 on “Take It to the Final Hour” and “Domingo Morning.” And those brilliant vocals on everything he has ever recorded.
Steve Winwood’s current moment is a good time to discover his unique musical legacy, a hidden treasure.