A man as abundantly skilled as Steve Winwood is likely to be underrated because we’ve largely taken his extraordinary gifts pretty much for granted since 1966. It’s time to put an end to this. The word “sprezzatura” is an Italian term that conjures the elusive art of making the difficult look easy. Winwood is the living definition of sprezzatura.
He lifted off professionally at 16 as the breakout vocalist of The Spencer Davis Group, writing and performing the iconic “Gimme Some Lovin.” Later, he joined two other wildly impactful bands of the era: Traffic (with Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason, and Chris Wood) and Blind Faith (a short-lived supergroup with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Ric Grech).
Then the 1980s hit. Winwood went solo, grew a memorable mullet, and joined the MTV generation with a slew of hits and videos that represented the very finest of the decade. He remained in angelic tenor voice. He played multiple instruments, exuded a quiet charisma, and wrote memorable tunes that still hold up.
Below are some key examples of his work, an admittedly tiny list. One can’t go wrong if you dive deeper; there’s absolutely no chaff in the Winwood musical wheat.
Gimme Some Lovin’ (1966) – The Spencer Davis Group
It’s hard to believe that Winwood wrote this iconic piece with his Spencer Davis Group bandmates in a half-hour burst of mojo, but his brother (and bassist) Muff Winwood confirms it. It was an instant hit on their album Gimme Some Lovin’ and remains an exultant 1960s masterpiece. Its opening riff, a delicious wail on a Hammond organ played by “Little Stevie,” as the teen was known at that point, is one of the most recognized in rock history.
Can’t Find My Way Home (1969) – Blind Faith
Blind Faith was the first acknowledged “supergroup” – a collaboration of Winwood, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Ric Grech. Alas, they only dropped one album, but it was flawless. “Can’t Find My Way Home” is filled with plaintive sweetness and poignant aspects of the human condition. Winwood’s vocals, with their perfect pitch, are stellar.
Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (1971) – Traffic
From the album of the same name and co-written with bandmate Jim Capaldi, “Low Spark” is a 12-minute opus of mystery. It may be a homage to actor Michael J. Pollard, with whom Capaldi was collaborating on another project. He described the meaning of the “low spark” in question as “…the high-spirited, the strong undercurrent at the street level.” With its undeniable drug allusions, it became an anthem of the counterculture of the time. (“The percentage you’re paying is too high-priced/while you’re living beyond your means.”) Winwood’s soaring vocals and innovative percussion take us on a wild ride to another dimension.
While You See a Chance (1980)
The start of the 1980s was a time when Winwood went solo. This hit single (#7 in 1981 on the Billboard charts) from his seminal album Arc of a Diver was an apt backdrop for his vocals and keyboards. It’s an achingly melodic ode to living in the day and taking chances for one’s own betterment. The video was an endearingly awkward attempt to embrace the video format, with its puzzling array of pyramids.
Higher Love (1986)
Arguably one of the most glorious tracks of the ‘80s. Co-written with songwriter Will Jennings, “Higher Love” was the first released single from Winwood’s fourth solo output, Back in the High Life. It’s pure joy from its hypnotic opening drum fill to the end, where Chaka Khan takes us out. “Higher Love” celebrates the pursuit of agape, the unconditional love we’re all seeking. With lyrics like “I could light the night up with my soul on fire/I could make the sun shine from pure desire,” “Higher Love” is filled with optimism and beauty. The video is a confection for the eyes with its arresting visuals, sexy dancers, and the stunning collaboration of Winwood and Khan.
The Finer Things (1986)
Another entry from Back in the High Life (also co-written with Will Jennings), “The Finer Things” contains Winwood’s trademark lyricism and lushness, spirit & synthesizer. James Ingram and Dan Hartman provide sterling background vocals on this ode to what’s truly meaningful in life.
Roll With It (1988)
“Roll With It” (co-written with Jennings) is an infectious slice of down and dirty soul, with a feel-good message to stay positive and create your own good luck. Winwood shows his impressive vocal range as he goes a little artfully rough while still hitting the high notes with precision. The video is an exquisitely shot performance of Winwood and his band playing in a pub with dancing patrons and arresting close-ups, all done through a sepia lens.
Photo: Getty Images
PS — While we’re on the topic of Rock History, you might enjoy our YouTube series of daily one-minute nuggets of memorable moments…