While it would be absurd to gloss over Steve Winwood's initial career in The Spencer Davis Group, where he forged ahead with the new Birmingham R&B scene aged 14 (hence his initial moniker of Little Stevie) and while one cannot merely pay lip-service to his achievements in co-founding Traffic and Blind Faith – arguably the first and best of the so-called Super Groups – our attention turns to the 1970s when Stephen Lawrence Winwood (born in 1948) really kicks into his solo career. Having grown somewhat tired of the incessant touring schedule that accompanied Traffic's success, particularly in North America where they were held as rock gods, our man made the well-regarded debut album bearing his name in 1977. Writing alongside Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi, Steve eased into the spotlight with panache, assisted by the likes of Willie Weeks, Rebop and Andy Newmark. If it slipped through the net on release then even more reason for favourable evaluation today. Great songs abound: 'Hold On', the delightful 'Midland Maniac' and the compelling groove of 'Time Is Running Out' retained a foothold in his past and also beckoned the future.
He opened the 1980s with Arc of a Diver: self-played and produced, made at home in his Netherturkdonic Gloucestershire studio. Steve's blue-eyed soul pipes were in full effect here but there was also sophistication and ambitious scope in his writing that set him apart from the herd. Working with American lyricist Will Jennings for the most part, Steve spent months perfecting the likes of the title track (featuring Stanshall's poetry) and the gloriously mournful yet strangely uplifting 'While You See A Chance', itself a monster American hit thanks to a sound quality that presaged the birth of FM Radio. Polished, bursting with subtleties and melodic nuance, Arc of a Diver simply wowed those who fell under the spell. We particularly recommend the Deluxe edition which teams the original with the remaster, plus an instrumental version of 'Night Train' and singles variations. A totally high-class affair.
1982's hit album Talking Back to the Night maintained that standard. Once again Jennings held the pen while Steve played and produced, paying special attention to his newfound obsession with synthesisers and heavily layered vocals. Another modern masterpiece, there are also echoes of nostalgia in the yearning 'Still in the Game' and the closing 'There's A River', both tracks adding weight to the fact that Steve has rich spiritual colours on his palette. The opening song 'Valerie' (written about the legendary songwriter and backing singer Valerie Carter) has long legs – it was heavily sampled by dance/house artist Eric Prydz on his mega hit 'Call on Me', further proof that Winwood's innovations stand the test of time better than most.
Never a man to rush things Winwood wouldn't release Back in the High Life until 1986. As the title suggests he now stepped away from being a one-man operation and embraced the pleasures of a studio full of eager musicians. Amongst the sterling guests here are Joe Walsh, James Taylor, Arif Mardin, Nile Rodgers and Chaka Khan – all letting rip on a set that now sounds definitive.
This multiple Grammy winner (Best Engineered, and Best Pop Male Vocal for 'Higher Love') has sold in millions. The essential song 'Higher Love' was also the Grammy winner for Record of the Year but while Winwood deserved all the accolades the listener won't be so concerned with the gongs as the wrap-around sound of great songs that satisfy the mainstream while sounding warm and personal.
Different timbres abound from the New Orleans flavoured 'Freedom Overspill', co-written by James Hooker and long time accomplice George Fleming, the sumptuously percussive title track to the Stanshall authored 'My Love's Leaving', a ballad of the very highest order.
The following year's Chronicles, a compilation with several remixed favourites including 'Vacant Chair' and the not to be overlooked 'Help Me Angel', was a further success and allows one to take stock of a decade spent crafting wondrous musical stuff but we pick up our tale during Roll With It. Not only did Winwood's fifth solo album top the US charts the title track achieved the same feat in the singles equivalent, spending four weeks beating off all opposition.
Always keen to employ the very best horn sections around, Winwood works here with the Memphis Horns ensemble, specifically Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson on tenor sax, trombone and trumpet. This American sojourn is cut through with choice cuts. He is reunited with old Traffic friend Jim Capaldi for 'Hearts on Fire' and topped the singles chart again thanks to 'Holding On', which followed the title track to the peak of popularity.
The return of Capaldi encouraged a more stripped back approach to infuse Refugees of the Heart (1990). Notable for a production expertise that sees Winwood operating in a class of his own, the stand out cuts here include the Nelson Mandela inspired 'In The Light of Day' and the deeply soul searching 'Another Deal Goes Down'. A reunion with Traffic mates meant that Steve didn't record solo again until 1997's Junction Seven but it was worth the wait. Once again well ahead of the game and ever determined to update his groove, this album marked the end of his relationship with Will Jennings and the beginning of a collaboration with producer Narada Michael Walden. Different names appear in the credits. Lenny Kravitz provides guitar, Des'Ree adds vocals to 'Plenty Lovin'' and Steve's wife Eugenia proves the perfect lyrical foil.
Befitting an artist of his reputation we point you towards to two essential compilations. The Finer Things (1995) is a career spanning 4-CD retrospective that allows the listener to hear where Steve came in with Spencer Davis, how he evolved via Traffic and Blind Faith and emerged with integrity intact as the architect of his own life.
Revolutions – The Very Best of Steve Winwood (2010) is a deluxe box set marvel (also available in edited single disc form) that spans 4-CDs and even more of the man's work. With the added advantage of picking up fifteen years later than its predecessor this box boasts excellent booklet information and the finest sound around. A fitting summary of a career well spent, Revolutions and all the other items in the Steve Winwood canon provide a compelling picture of a singular artist whose name is a byword for quality. The voice, the chops, the songs, the expertise on stage and in studio; this fellow has got the lot.
Back in the High Life is the fourth solo album by English rock musician Steve Winwood. It was a top ten hit on the album charts in the United States, hitting #3, and has sold over five million copies. The single "Higher Love" topped the singles chart and won the Grammy Award for "Record of the Year"; "Back in the High Life Again" (US #13), "The Finer Things" (US #8, the second biggest hit from the album), and "Freedom Overspill" (US #20) were also big hits. This was Winwood's last studio album with Island Records after 20 years with the label. The album also features collaborations in backing vocals, featuring Chaka Khan in "Higher Love", and James Taylor in "Back in the High Life Again".
Back in the High Life received very positive reviews. Timothy White of Rolling Stone magazine glowed that "With Back in the High Life, Steve Winwood has created the first undeniably superb record of an almost decade-long solo career", criticizing only the delay in its release. Karyn Albano, writing for the website "Classic Rock Reviews" went even further, designating it Album of the Year, with the summary description that "the album achieves that elusive goal of combining great songs that will stand the test of time while also catering to the commercial appeal of the day."
Arc of a Diver is the second solo album by singer/multi-instrumentalist Steve Winwood. The album was performed entirely by Winwood. Featuring his first solo hit, "While You See a Chance" (which peaked at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States), this was Winwood's true breakthrough album as a solo artist. It peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200 album chart, establishing him as a commercially viable act. Engineered and Mixed by Steve Winwood at Netherturkdonic Studios, England.
Talking Back to the Night is the third solo album by blue-eyed soul musician Steve Winwood. Released less than two years after the top 3 hit Arc of a Diver, it failed to see as much success as its predecessor, reaching #28 on the Billboard 200. "Valerie" was a minor hit in 1982, but when it was remixed and re-released in 1987 for Chronicles, the newer version of the song became a top 10 hit. The album tracks "Help Me Angel" and "Talking Back to the Night" were also re-recorded for Chronicles. The latter was then released for the first time as a single. Winwood performed all of the instruments on this album.
When discussing Steve Winwood’s solo albums the first one that’s usually mentioned Is Back in the High Life. That indeed was a huge album for “Stevie” and deserves all the praise it received. The 1986 release peaked at #7 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart and won Grammys for Record of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance along with an engineering award. “Higher Love” was a #1 single.
Arc of a Diver also gets kudos tossed its way. And yes, it’s another good one. As far as hits there was the title cut along with “When You See a Chance,” “Spanish Dancer” and “Night Train.” 82’s Talking Back Through the Night did well on the strength of the hit “Valerie.”
But for me, if I could only take one Steve Winwood album with me to a desert island it would be this self-titled debut from 1977.
I often refer to this album as Steve Winwood’s forgotten album. Not only do not many people have an opinion on it but not many people seem to know about it.
It was eight years after Blind Faith and six yearsafter Traffic’s classic, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, and Winwood was losing his household name status. This effort wouldn’t help as radio hardly supported it which was a mistake. My guess is that the songs weren’t short enough to be considered “radio-friendly.” Only the first track on the album, “Hold On” was shorter than five and half minutes long. The best songs on the album, “Time is Running Out” clocks in at 6:30 and the magnificent “Vacant Chair” is close to seven minutes.
Traffic’s Jim Capaldi co-wrote much of this album along with Winwood and their percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah also makes an appearance. Long time studio aces Andy Newmark was on drums and Willie Weeks, bass.
While Steve Winwood has had albums that sold much better as we’ve acknowledged, we tell you that this one is not to be missed. Go out and get it.
Words: Larry Carta
The Finer Things is a compilation album of recordings by Steve Winwood. It includes songs from his early days with The Spencer Davis Group through Traffic and Blind Faith and into his work during his solo career. Released in 1996.
This 4CD, 63 song set provides extremely thorough coverage of Steve Winwood's career from the early 1960s up to his last Island Records album in 1986, including numerous tracks from his work in such memorable bands as the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith, as well as his later solo recordings. Significant chunks are included from virtually all his Island albums, together with a small taster from his first two Virgin Records albums. (It's a shame that the beautiful ballad 'My love's leaving' wasn't included though.)
This is such a comprehensive account of Winwood's work that it is likely to be of interest only to dedicated fans, but for these it will be a real treat. As well as the superb music there is a beautifully illustrated book with a detailed account of Steve's career and full musician credits for each track. Highly recommended.
Words: Pete Walker
Not the first box set to distill Steve Winwood’s far-reaching career into four discs, 2010’s Revolutions: The Very Best of Steve Winwood does have a leg up on its 1995 predecessor, The Finer Things, by the virtue of covering the 15 years separating the two sets, plus adding a higher dosage of Blind Faith to the mix. Nevertheless, this 58-track box -- with its songs selected by Winwood himself -- shares a whopping 36 cuts with The Finer Things. It’s such a strong overlap that it does suggest that there’s truly a defined Winwood canon, and even though it doesn’t contain the mega-hit “Roll with It,” along with a handful of other notable tunes, Revolutions doesn’t depart from that canon. Instead, it’s a handsome, effective presentation of it, worthwhile for any serious fan who doesn’t have an extensive Winwood collection.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Steve Winwood teams up with producer Narada Michael Walden, and the result is a fine, multi-textured disc. Winwood's calling card has always been his gritty, soulful voice, and he uses it to good effect on tunes like "Spy in the House of Love." The tune opens things up with a bang--it's an up-tempo, funky jam about falling under the influence of that powerful emotion.
The album continues with gospel-tinged ballads ("Angel of Mercy"), well-turned covers (Sly and the Family Stone's "Family Affair), and even a Cuban-inflected piece ("Got to Get Back to My Baby"). On the latter, Winwood employs some top-flight Cuban musicians, including percussionist Walfredo Reyes, and pianist, co-arranger Rebecca Mauleon-Santana. The tune is a real highlight, and defines some welcome new ground for Winwood -- he's come a long way from The Spencer Davis Group and "Gimme Some Lovin' ". All in all, a fine effort from an artist who keeps his musical gift well-tuned and his ear to the ground for new influences.
Refugees of the Heart is the sixth solo album by Steve Winwood, released in 1990. The album contained the hit single, "One and Only Man", which topped the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and saw the return of former Traffic bandmate Jim Capaldi to Winwood's songwriting team. By coincidence, a Traffic reunion followed in 1994. Because of that collaboration, Winwood would not record another solo album until late 1997. Also "I Will Be Here" and "Another Deal Goes Down" were released as singles. Winwood stated about the closing track, “In The Light Of Day”: 'When Will and I wrote the song (..) it was our idea of what Nelson Mandela's dream was, while he was in prison. It was really just a fantasy of ours, but that’s what we based the song on.'
Roll with It is the fifth solo album by blue-eyed soul artist Steve Winwood. It topped the album charts in the United States, and has sold over three million copies. The title cut topped the pop singles and the album rock singles charts with subsequent hit status afforded the album tracks released as subsequent singles: "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do?" and "Holding On". "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do?" had been written by Winwood to be featured in an ad campaign for Michelob which began running on American television on the day of the Roll With It album's US release. Two other tracks from Roll With It: "Hearts on Fire" and "Put on Your Dancing Shoes", also achieved radio airplay.