I’m not the biggest Winwood fan, owning only a couple of Spencer Davis 45s where he was a guitarist and lead singer. He was always renowned for his talents on a wide range of stringed instruments and keyboards but through his long and varied career what always got me was his voice. It’s a tenor (thank you Wiki) but not a very smooth one, especially when he was young. Sometimes reminiscent of Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson or Bobby Hatfield with a bit of a natural vibrato.He got started early. In his early teens he was playing in house bands for touring artists like Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. He joined the Spencer Davis in 1963 when he was a Bierberish 14. Their first hit single, at least in the U.K., was Keep On Running in 1965 which brilliantly shows off his 17 year-old voice.
It sounds like a tricky one to sing well with, as we laymen put it, lots of ups, downs and high notes. Like the note he hits at the end of the second line “Keep on hiding”. Easily botchable. But the kid pulls it off. The band had several more hits, their most popular being Gimme Some Lovin’ and I’m A Man, both written by Winwood.
In 1967 he left the band to join Traffic. Here it gets confusing. Traffic recorded some Sgt. Pepperish psychedelic songs like Paper Sun and Hole in My Shoe. They disbanded a year later and Winwood formed the legendary Blind Faith along with Clapton, Ginger Baker and Rick Grech. Here’s a clip from their first concert – an outdoor one in Hyde Park in front of 100,000 fans. Winwood sings and plays the keyboard and Clapton throws in a laid-back but pretty solo.
That was from June 1969 and I’ll bet that at least one of the camera staff couldn’t find their way home. It was quite the year for Hyde Park concerts with the Stones doing their Brian Jones memorial a month later (on a bill that also featured King Crimson!). Blind Faith didn’t even last a year, Traffic was re-formed and re-disbanded and you should check out his Wiki page for peregrinations up to 1980. Now as a solo artist he had a major hit with While You See a Chance.
This certainly has that 80s synth sound; like much else quite a ways away from the 60s. But the 80s were his most successful period with hits like Valerie and the very popular Higher Love. And he still had that fine, and now much smoother, voice.
Winwood continued touring and recording with a variety of artists throughout the 90s and the ought’s. Highlights included another Traffic reunion, a performance at Clapton’s 2007 Crossroads Festival and a subsequent series of concerts with Clapton at Madison Square Gardens. Still going strong in 2010, here is Winwood on Letterman doing Gimme Some Lovin’. At 62 his voice had lost only a little.
All in all Winwood has had a remarkable career – a central member of a few influential bands, the composer of several enduring hits and a variety of musical talents that enhanced everything he touched. He’s in the R&R Hall of Fame as a member of Traffic.