May 122020

They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s big day with cover tributes to his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!

Steve Winwood turns 72 today, so we have quite a few candles to light. The multi-instrumentalist singer and songwriter has had so many different incarnations that surveying his career makes you dizzy. It’s not just that Winwood tried his hand at different genres, it’s that he helped define those genres. These things can happen when a gifted artist jumps in on the action early —Winwood was famous for his music by the age of 16—and then keeps evolving in ways that matter. Add to that some serious staying power, and you have an impressive career–one that is still going strong six decades in.

In fact, last year may have been Winwood’s best ever, in a funny way. DJ-producer Kygo remixed Whitney Houston’s cover of Winwood’s “Higher Love,” and released it digitally; the song now has about 350,000,000 hits on Spotify alone. More about that song later, but for now just imagine that a small number of Kygo’s followers are asking themselves, “Who wrote this?” What will they find, and like, once they go down the Winwood rabbit hole?

Some might favor Winwood’s early R&B-based material (performed in The Spencer Davis Group). True soul music. Others might go for the psychedelic period that followed (performed with Traffic). Then again, some people like the Winwood of Blind Faith, the short-lived supergroup, and discount what came before or after. What came after (skipping over a few weird side projects in the mid-to-late ’70s) was Steve Winwood the solo artist. His new sound seemed more polished, synthesized, and processed than before. By the mid-1980s, his songs may have drifted far from his soul music roots, but Winwood had entered his most fertile period in terms of mass appeal and Grammy recognition.

Winwood is also an ace session player, and has recorded with the giants of his lifetime, including Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf; he’s jammed with Koko Taylor, Jerry Garcia, Tom Petty, and Prince, and that’s only naming the stars that Winwood has outlasted.

Winwood still performs, and still has something to say. He is posting new music over at his website, and bragging on his daughter Lilly’s blossoming musical career. May he continue posting and playing for many more years to come.

The Spencer Davis Group – Nobody Know You When You’re Down and Out (Bessie Smith cover)

At birthday parties we pass around the old photos, right? Here’s Winwood at 15, clearly visible under a few layers of pancake make-up. He’s leading the Spencer Davis Group on a 1923 blues written by Jimmy Cox and made famous by Bessie Smith. The lip sync isn’t well-timed, but the song itself is solid soul, and you wonder if it’s Ray Charles doing the actual vocals or the kid at the keyboard. Winwood was that good at that age. Teen-aged Winwood wrote and sang all the Spencer Davis Group’s hits, including “I’m A Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin’.” Despite Winwood doing all the work, the band named themselves for the rhythm guitarist. No wonder Winwood soon moved on.

Crosby, Stills & Nash – Dear Mr Fantasy (Traffic cover)

Winwood’s next big step was to form Traffic with a few new friends. Growing beyond the American R&B influence, Winwood dove into psychedelia with songs like “Dear Mr Fantasy” from Traffic’s 1967 debut. Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia both liked to play this song in concert. Less well known is the version that Stephen Stills and Graham Nash recorded in 1980. They even added some verses to Jim Capaldi’s original lyrics. Their rendition then sat on the shelf for a decade before appearing on a Crosby, Stills & Nash album in 1991. Stills burns it up on guitar—he may have been listening to Hendrix more than Traffic (although Traffic shredded pretty well too).

Sheryl Crow with Trombone Shorty and others – Can’t Find My Way Home (Blind Faith cover)

If Winwood was looking for a home after Traffic, his next stop, Blind Faith, didn’t hold the key for long. The supergroup included two-thirds of Cream–Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker–but it recorded just one album and toured only once before disbanding. And yet Blind Faith brought forth some of Winwood’s most classic songs. The highlight was “Can’t Find My Way Home,” which doesn’t seem to get old despite half a century of popularity.

The song is sometimes mistaken to be Clapton’s, but it was all Winwood, and there’s no mistaking his soulful voice on the original. So many good covers exist: Bonnie Raitt with Lowell George, Alison Krauss with Jerry Douglas, and Rachael Price with Chris Thile—all deliver gorgeous if down-the-middle takes on it. More inventive is the bass-led version from jazzman Chuck Deardorf —see last year’s post on this cover. Today, the spotlight turns to Sheryl Crow’s live performance of it—because Trombone Shorty. He brings a taste of upbeat New Orleans-style energy to counter the song’s descending runs and sober mood.

Warren Zevon – Back in the High Life Again (Steve Winwood cover)

This is Winwood’s 1986 hit, the title track of his best-selling album. Here it gets revisited in 2000 by Warren Zevon. Zevon shows that there’s a plain-spoken ballad under the original’s production-heavy gloss. He doesn’t need to change the melody or the key or much else, he just sings it with a different tone, from a heartfelt place that is authentically his, not Winwood’s. This comes from a time in Zevon’s life when intimations of mortality were weighing on him (it’s from the album Life’ll Kill Ya). Perhaps he doubted his career could resurge in the way Winwood’s had. The album did meet with success, but just three years after this recording the world lost Warren Zevon to cancer at age 56.

Kygo and Whitney Houston – Higher Love (Steve Winwood cover)

Staying with the year 1986, Winwood scored his first #1 hit and a couple of Grammys wins for “Higher Love.” (Good move to have Houston’s friend Chaka Khan on harmony vocals.) But 30-odd years later the song went higher still. Last year the Norwegian DJ and producer Kygo released a dance remix of Whitney Houston’s 1990 cover of “Higher Love.” It thumped its way onto every dance club across the globe and the number of streams and downloads is in the stratosphere.

Officially, the label has attributed the song to “Kygo X Whitney Houston,” which pretty much reflects the complicated or hybrid nature of this piece.

Houston’s management downplayed her Winwood cover at the time, relegating it to the Japanese edition of her third album as a bonus track. Maybe that was a misstep. But her estate’s current team (with Houston’s sister Pam at the helm) opted to collaborate with Kygo, and that’s a genius move. If the goal was to kick-start a reassessment of Houston’s work, mission accomplished. Kygo’s re-figuring of the song shows off his craft, but also reveals respect for Houston’s performance: It’s not exploitative or schlocky like certain other posthumous-release projects we could name. Kygo makes it new by reminding how timeless it was to begin with.

As for Winwood, it must feel good to see his mid-career work become a house hit, and a new generation of fans embracing his work—even if few of them know that it’s his song they are dancing to.

Steve Winwood and Chaka Khan – Family Affair (Sly & the Family Stone cover)

Let’s end in the way we began, with Winwood covering another artist, this time three decades deep into his career.

The 1990s saw Winwood teeing up fewer hits, but still taking risks and stretching out. He returned to his soul roots after years of exploring other flavors of music, and tackled Sly Stone’s “Family Affair” in 1996. Just like a teen-aged Winwood proved he could sing in Ray Charles’ league, so Winwood proved equal to the depth of Stone’s funk classic even though he’s pushing 50 here. In this live version, you can enjoy how effortlessly Winwood delivers his part, and how beautifully Chaka Khan takes up the second verse to sustain the energy. The righteous rewrite of the song’s ending is not to miss either. And yes that’s old friend James Taylor on stage, not exactly giving off a funk vibe.

Click here to listen to more Steve Winwood covers.

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  One Response to “They Say It’s Your Birthday: Steve Winwood”

Comments (1)
  1. The Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr cover of “Higher Love” is so much better than it has any right to be:

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