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We Brits love to pile accolades on people who really haven't achieved very much. Robbie Williams getting an award for "Outstanding Contribution to British Music" at the Brits brought out the truculent old git in me - being aware as I was that the award was more for record sales than anything else. Previous winners of this award include the Spice Girls and Bob Geldof - I rest my case.
If you want to find a Brit who truly deserves to win an award for his incredible contribution to British Music then you should look in the direction of Steve Winwood, a man who is an incredibly gifted singer, keyboard player, guitarist and songwriter. Winwood has gone from being a precociously gifted teenage pop star to an experimental acid rocker to mainstream pop star to one of the grand daddy's of classic rock. That he's never had a sniff of a Brit is a national disgrace in my opinion.
Winwood's musical pedigree is impeccable - albeit not always commercially successful. However he has been a member of three influential groups, has won Grammys and has performed with the crème de la crème of rock performers with his distinctive keyboard style.
His biggest commercial success has been in the US, and most younger listeners probably only are aware of anything he's ever done from "Call on Me", the Eric Prydz dance track which heavily samples Winwood's song "Valerie". Winwood so liked this track that he famously re-recorded the vocals for it.
~~The History of Steve~~
Steve Winwood was born in Birmingham in 1948 and at the age of 14 he and his elder brother Muff had joined the Spencer Davis Group, and Winwood was on his way to stardom. The band had their first number one hit in 1966, when young Steve (or Stevie as he was known then) was just 17 years old.
Steve also played organ onstage with some of the biggest names in blues when they performed in Birmingham - when he was still at school he played with such legends as BB King, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker.
Following some major success with the Spencer Davis Group, including hits in the US, Steve left to form Traffic with fellow Brummies Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason and Chris Wood.
This venture marked a sharp change in direction for Winwood - out went the commercial blue eyed soul and blues he'd been performing and writing in the Spencer Davis Group...in came psychedelic rock. Traffic achieved some commercial success however because the music they were producing was very much in vogue at the time - and of course much of it was very, very good.
Winwood left Traffic in 1969 to form the first supergroup - Blind Faith - which also featured Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech - and changed direction slightly to the blues rock genre.
Blind Faith was a short lived project however as Clapton had discovered the music of Delaney & Bonnie and wanted to work with them, so Winwood found himself back with Traffic in the early 70s.
That decade was to prove a fallow period for him - especially after the advent of punk. He released his first solo album in 1977 to limited success, but his 1980 follow up "Ac of a Diver" gave him his first hit solo single with "While You See a Chance". The song garnered lots of airplay here in the UK but it was in the US it became a top ten hit - and this was the portent for how Winwood's solo career would end up - fair to middling UK success but huge success across the pond.
Winwood still records and performs - most recently he has been touring with Eric Clapton - and he truly is a musician's musician. Over the years he has played on many tracks, including "A Little Help From My Friends" by Joe Cocker, "Voodoo Chile" by Jimi Hendrix, and performed on albums by artists as diverse as Paul Weller, John Martyn, Marianne Faithfull, Talk Talk, Christina Aguilera and Billy Joel. A little like the unmistakeable stamp Stevie Wonder puts on his harmonium playing, Winwood's keyboard playing is equally easily identifiable - his playing has an instantly recognisable quality about it - especially when he gets his hands on a Hammond organ.
His biggest success as a songwriter has been in conjunction with Will Jennings, but he also wrote with Vivian Stanshall regularly too.
This is the single CD release of "Revolutions" and at this juncture I have to point out there is also a box set available - this 4 CD set chronicles Winwood's entire career in great detail. However times are tight chez rosebud so I decided just to pick up the single CD release which features 16 tracks which are presumed to be the "best" of Winwood's career.
I like how the track listing has been selected - everything is done by artist - so the album starts with four Spencer Davis Group tracks before going on to four Traffic tracks. There is one Blind Faith track before we get six solo tracks and the album rounds off with a single Winwood recorded with Eric Clapton in 2008.
If you want an introduction to Winwood, this is a great place to start - but also if you have enjoyed much of the music he has produced over the years and want the best stuff on one CD, then this is also a good buy.
Winwood has an incredibly expressive and soulful voice - it is just as effective on blues influenced songs and the pop music he recorded as it is on the more subversive music he recorded with Traffic and Blind Faith.
***The Spencer Davis Group***
Winwood's greatest commercial success in the UK was as a member of this group, achieving his only UK number one singles with them - for some considerable time. The Spencer Davis Group were hugely influential but of the four tracks included here it's the two that didn't get to number one which are undoubtedly the best.
The album kicks off with classic 60s pop tune "Keep on Running" a song which you still hear pretty regularly today, almost 45 years after it was first released. There is no denying this is a great pop song and Winwood's voice on this is brilliant - you would be hard pushed to guess he was 17 when he recorded it - there's a maturity about it which is beyond his years.
The guitar and bass on this is thumping and really captures the essence of what the song is about.
"Keep on Running" was penned by Jamaican songwriter Jackie Edwards, and he also wrote the follow up "Somebody Help Me", which was also a UK number one. This song is far weaker however - it sounds far more dated than its predecessor and also reveals its roots in the Caribbean with a faux reggae sound. It doesn't help that the song opens with the words "when I was just a little boy of 17" - the age Winwood was when he recorded the vocals.
Both these tracks lack Winwood's keyboards and while "Keep on Running" is strong enough without them, "Somebody Help Me" is only really saved by Winwood's voice.
Once we get to hear young Winwood on the Hammond organ however, the true genius of his work with the Spencer Davis Group is revealed. "Give Me Some Lovin" is an absolute classic, from the low key bass intro which gives way to Winwood's impeccable keyboard skills. This song has passed into pop culture history, featuring as it did in the classic comedy film "The Blues Brothers" but I have yet to hear anyone perform the song with the wild abandon you hear in Winwood's keyboards and vocals.
Winwood co-wrote this song with his brother and Spencer Davis, and also the final Spencer Davis Group song on the album, "I'm a Man" - another out and out rhythm and blues song sung with deep emotion and true soul by Winwood. This track was co-written with producer Jimmy Miller who was to continue working with Winwood when he moved on to form Traffic and this is yet another song to feature his incredible Hammond organ playing.
Chicago covered this song in 1970 but their version doesn't capture the raw angst of the 1967 original. Just a year before Winwood sounded a bit gauche vocally on "Somebody Help Me" but on "I'm a Man" he has come of age and you believe him when he sings this song.
The production on both songs deserves a mention - particularly on "Give Me Some Lovin" - the song has been recorded to give the impression that it's been recorded live - there are some "crowd" voices deep down in the mix which add to the general feeling of rawness on the song. Similarly on "I'm a Man", Miller makes excellent use of percussion high up in the mix to keep the pounding beat moving on the arrangement.
Both these songs are fast moving, short and to my mind anyway always over far too soon. Both also never fail to make me want to dance wildly around the room so frantic is the beat on both.
The first Traffic song on "Revolutions" is "Forty Thousand Headmen" and the pace changes almost immediately - this is mellow and features a predominantly acoustic sound along with Chris Woods' haunting flute as Winwood sings over it. Lyrically the song is sung from the point of view of someone who seems to have almost biblical qualities as he walks safe from harm except from the headmen mentioned in the title. The song has a dreamy quality too.
"Paper Sun" was one of Traffic's biggest hits (only Dave Mason's "Hole in My Shoe" did better in the UK), reaching number 5 in 1967. The song has a lovely jangly sitar introduction with the sitar continuing to play a memorable riff as Winwood sings. The harmonies are good on this midtempo song. It's the sitar that is the real star of the show however - it really gives the song a distinctive sound which marks it as a product of the summer of love.
The acid rock continues with "No Face No Name No Number" which is slow and has a beautiful harpsichord and sitar sound. There is a bizarre quality to this which is definitely reminiscent of a trip of some sort - the song has highs and lows with a section which starts to wander into the realm of nightmares.
"Dear Mr Fantasy" rounds off the Traffic section and it's probably the strongest song chosen - certainly Winwood's vocals are particularly good on this, and he can also be heard on the organ and playing harmonium. The real star of the show here is the guitar playing of Dave Mason which is emotive and effective.
There's a clip of Traffic playing this in 1972 on YouTube and a long haired Winwood looks decidedly high as he sings - although it's hard to know if it's the music that's making him this way or some other substance.
The four Traffic tracks are excellent examples of a band who were pushing boundaries in music over 40 years ago and when listened to beside the more commercial Spencer Davis Group material help the listener to see the huge musical development Winwood made as he went from one band to another, experimenting with sounds as he went. Winwood also arranged all these tracks and did a fine job of it too, instinctively capturing the sound of an era in them. Jimmy Miller's production deserves a mention too however - he really captures the essence of what Traffic were about on these songs.
Winwood left Traffic temporarily in 1969 to form one of the first so-called "supergroups" - Blind Faith - with Ric Grech, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton.
This was a short lived project which was supposed to offer a respite from the huge commercial success Clapton had experienced with Cream but which just turned into more of the same when the band toured due to their own limited repertoire as Blind Faith meaning Cream songs would inevitably turn up on the set list.
"Can't Find My Way Home" is another mellow song with a high pitched vocal from Winwood which at times veers a little too closely to screechy but is just reigned in by him. The guitar playing by Clapton is exquisite on this song and while I must admit it's not really the sort of music I really like, the relaxing calm pace and Clapton's guitar make it an ultimately worthwhile listen.
Winwood performed with Traffic up until 1975, and released his debut solo album in 1977. This was a minor hit for him but yielded no hit singles.
In 1980 he released his second solo album, "Arc of a Diver" and this is when I first encountered the work of the man, through the single "While You See a Chance".
This is a return to Winwood the keyboard player and singer first and foremost - and Winwood was perfectly placed to take advantage of the synthesiser sound which was becoming incredibly popular at the start of the new decade.
The album also marked the start of Winwood collaborating with Will Jennings on songwriting, although it also features the wonderful title track with lyrics written by Vivian Stanshell, which is sadly missing from "Revolutions".
"While You See a Chance" is joyous - it is uplifting, melodic and sung from the heart with real soul. The lyrics tell you to seize the moment and make what you can of it before it's too late. The synthesiser sounds a little dated now but in 1980 this song was perfect for the time. The song is pure positivity for me - it's like the musical equivalent of a Prozac tablet - if I am feeling low about something this song always lifts my spirits due to the sheer joie de vivre contained within.
The song was only a minor UK hit but reached number 3 in the US, and this was to be the benchmark for the rest of his career - fairly low chart placings here but huge success in the US, where he is still far more popular to this day.
Winwood's next synth pop offering was "Valerie" in 1982 - although it didn't achieve more mainstream success until 1987 courtesy of a remix. The original version is included here, which is a relief to me as I found the remix drowned out Winwood's vocals a bit too much and while it's probably better for the dancefloor it's loses much of Winwood's skill on the keyboards too as they are moved down the mix.
I love the lyrics on this song - Will Jennings manages to capture a little poetry within, especially the line "so cool, she was like jazz on a summer's day" which evokes a strong and indelible image in one's mind.
Of course most people today will probably only be familiar with that "call on me" chorus from Eric Prydz dance hit and I would also imagine that copious use of the old Moog will make this sound rather dated to those who loved the new version. It is to Winwood's credit however that he was happy to re-record vocals for Prydz in a genre he had never entered before and managed to chalk up another UK number one single as a result. I am glad it's the original version included here however - it definitely suits my middle aged tastes more.
"Spanish Guitar 2010" is a rerecorded version of the song which featured on "Arc of a Diver". This is wonderful - the vocals have a great come on quality to them but the guitar is superb. There's a hint of organ playing on here too which although quite low down in the mix is a nice touch. Winwood's arrangement and production on this track is superb.
Winwood's most commercially successful period was between 1986 and 1987 - he achieved two number one singles in the US then and even managed to achieve a modicum of mainstream success here too.
In 1986 he released the album "Back in the High Life" , and breaking away from producing his solo work himself, he brought in Russ Titleman to help him. This resulted in a change of sound as Winwood moved away from the synth pop he had been producing himself into a more mature adult AOR sound.
As a result these songs have stood the test of time a little better, with "Higher Love" in particular still sounding superb. This is another uplifting song from Winwood, and features him harmonising superbly with Chaka Khan on the chorus. The bridge is a bit dated these days but when Khan sings over the instrumental the song just goes berserk with her and Winwood jamming soulfully as the song reaches an end. Not many people can sing with Chaka Khan and hold their own, but Winwood manages superbly on this wonderful pop song.
"Back in the High Life Again" features more muted backing vocals from James Taylor. This is a far slower song but just as uplifting. The fiddle features here prominently as does a lovely acoustic guitar. Winwood plays keyboards here on a much more muted synthesiser but it's the fiddle and guitar which echo his voice as he sings. My only criticism of this song is I would love to have heard the vocals slightly higher up in the mix as the harmonies Winwood sings with Taylor are just wonderful.
Winwood notched up another US number one in 1987 with "Roll With It", which has a chorus you will struggle to get out of your head. This song makes heavy use of prominent horn section to give it a retro faux Motown sound on the music and Winwood's vocals are particularly soulful here and the organ makes a comeback here too. Once again the whole sound is incredibly uplifting and guaranteed to get your toes tapping on a song which gives a nod back to Winwood's work with the Spencer Davis Group through the organ but takes on a new dimension from the trumpets.
The album ends with Winwood's 2008 collaboration with Eric Clapton, "Dirty City". The song is a long one and is a veritable treat if you are a fan of Clapton's guitar playing and Winwood's skills on the keyboard and his wonderful vocals too. The song is very low key with a soft blues rock sound. It's a slow burner of a song - when I first heard this song back in 2008 I was a bit unsure about it - for me the most interesting thing on first listen was Winwood's voice.
However give it a few goes and then you will really appreciate the musicianship here the strength of the song. Much as I love Winwood, the star of the show here is Clapton's guitar playing which blends wonderfully with Winwood's organ playing and of course his vocals. Not the sort of song that will change the world but one which is just pure class on every level.
I would urge those of you who have only taken a passing interest in Steve Winwood to consider buying this as an introduction to his work - certainly his most accessible work is included here, with the exception of the sublime "Arc of a Diver".
Winwood is the kind of man who tends to keep out of the limelight and let his music speak for himself and on this album you can hear just how talented he is. He is, I believe, one of the best male vocalists to come from these shores, never mind his unquestionable talent as an instrumentalist and songwriter.
Listening to this album has been a joyous experience for me as I have been reminded once again of one of the most underrated yet incredibly gifted musicians we have and I can only hope that someone at the Brits notices this huge gap in their history and recognise him sometime soon for his talent, vision, ability to experiment and his songwriting skills.
Either that or throw the man an honour of some sort please - he's the sort of national treasure that makes me proud to be British. If you are unfamiliar with his music I would urge you to check him out - he's a musical genius.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Keep On Running - The Spencer Davis Group
2 Somebody Help Me - The Spencer Davis Group
3 Gimme Some Lovin' - The Spencer Davis Group
4 I'm A Man - The Spencer Davis Group
5 Forty Thousand Headmen - Traffic
6 Paper Sun - Traffic
7 No Face, No Name, No Number - Traffic
8 Dear Mr. Fantasy - Traffic
9 Can't Find My Way Home - Blind Faith
10 While You See A Chance - Steve Winwood
11 Valerie - Steve Winwood
12 Spanish Dancer - Steve Winwood
13 Higher Love - Steve Winwood
14 Back In The High Life Again - Steve Winwood
15 Roll With It - Steve Winwood
16 Dirty City - Steve Winwood