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Teen prodigy to Traffic and beyond: The rollercoaster career of Steve Winwood

The ever-restless Steve Winwood looks back over a glittering career and reveals his unexpected new direction

In his 2007 memoir, Eric Clapton vividly recalls hearing Steve Winwood for the first time. The guitarist was in the early flush of his career playing in The Yardbirds when he encountered the Spencer Davis Group in clubland in 1963. Winwood, SDG’s precocious singer/organist, may have been just 15 but, Clapton notes: “If you closed your eyes you would swear it was Ray Charles. Musically he was like an old man in a boy’s skin.”

Bob Dylan was gripped by a Spencer Davis Group gig three years later, midway through his UK tour. Afterwards, as seen on the Eat The Document film, an open-mouthed Dylan asks of Davis: “How’d he learn to sing like that?” To which Davis, appearing lost for an answer, merely replies: “Well, since the day we found him.”

Steve Winwood always seemed fully formed from the start. He was still in his teens when he quit the Spencer Davis Group and formed Traffic in 1967, leaving behind a trail of huge-selling hits, among them Keep On Running, Gimme Some Lovin’ and the somewhat ironically titled I’m A Man.

At 21 he was in Blind Faith, the band that came to embody the late-60s ideal of the mercurial supergroup. Winwood was so much in demand as a musical ally – helping out Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, George Harrison, Leon Russell, Muddy Waters, Joe Cocker and Howlin’ Wolf, to name but a few – that he was an industry veteran by the time he finally got around to a solo career in the latter half of the 70s.

“I came into music from a slightly different direction than some of my contemporaries,” he tells Classic Rock today. “I started off playing with my dad, learning thirties and forties dance music and American classics, which wasn’t particularly easy stuff. And I was a chorister in the High Anglican church. That music got under my skin somehow. Then along came skiffle and early rock’n’roll and Buddy Holly. And later on came Ray Charles, who introduced me to this crossover from bebop and jazz into rock and R&B. I was so engrossed with learning all these different kinds of music, and trying to play them all, that being on stage was just part of it. It didn’t occur to me that there was anything I should shy away from.”

If there’s one prime directive in all of Winwood’s work, it’s an inclusive approach to music making; there’s very little that’s off limits to his imagination. “With Traffic we made a conscious decision that we would try to incorporate a lot more elements – folk, jazz, ethnic music and even bits of classical music and different forms,” he explains. “I’d probably say that I’ve been trying to do that ever since.”

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