Steve Winwood – Spanish
(James Rod Edit)
Boy genius has never been a more apt phrase than when applied to Stephen Lawrence Winwood of Birmingham. At the age of six he could already play a tune by ear after only hearing it once; not yet a teen when older brother Mervyn (aka Muff) brought him into his trad-jazz band.
“We needed a piano player,” Muff told Sylvie Simmons. “So I brought Steve along. He was only 11, but he played everything perfectly. They stood with their mouths open. Because he was under-age, we had to get him long trousers to make him look older, and even then we’d sneak him in through the pub kitchens. He’d play hidden behind the piano so nobody would know.” By the time he was 12, Steve Winwood already written his first song, ‘It Hurts Me So’, recorded by Spencer Davis Group for their debut album.
Although songwriter Jackie Edwards was brought in by manager Chris Blackwell to help the band (he wrote their breakthrough ‘Keep On Running’), Winwood provided their two big US hits, ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ and ‘I’m A Man’.
‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ was a high octane British R&B record that was built around the bassline from Homer Banks’ ‘A Lot Of Love’; Winwood later complained the song was, “the bane of my life because I’ve got to do it all the time”. ‘I’m A Man’, incredibly, written by Winwood while still a teenager was his parting gift to the group, leaving to form Traffic. ‘I’m A Man’, again, had its basis in Stateside music, inspired by Mel Torme’s ‘Comin’ Home Baby’, but delivering one of the great early disco hits, as well as a huge crossover smash.
Winwood left Spencer Davis Group to form Traffic in 1968 and in the early ’70s seemed to lose focus as he made an ill-fated move with Eric Clapton and Blind Faith that yielded one album, before guesting with Stomu Yamashta’s Go (with Klaus Schultze), a brief foray into African music with Third World (not the more well known reggae band), before finally recording his self-titled debut solo album in 1977, although perhaps the most interesting recording from this era is ‘Penultimate Zone’, his dubbed-out reworking of ‘Time Is Running Out’, only released on 12-inch.
It took him three years more to deliver the second, after relocating to Gloucestershire, building his own studio where he recorded, engineered and played everything on Arc Of A Diver. His main collaborator was Will Jennings a former English professor from Texas, whose biggest hit in the 1980s was ‘Up Where We Belong’. Jennings wrote the big hit on the album, ‘While You See A Chance’, as well as ‘Spanish Dancer’.
Arc Of A Diver is one of the starting points of American AOR rock and became a staple on FM radio. While Jennings was over in the UK working on the LP, Winwood invited him to see him perform… at his local church. “When I saw him in the church, I knew everything I needed to”, he told Mojo. “They only held services about once a month, and it was freezing cold because they didn’t put the heating on. But Steve turned out for them every time.”
Winwood’s reluctance to get involved in the recording-touring-recording merry-go-round that characterises much of popular music, has meant someone unafraid to experiment in the studio, where he is happiest. He’s produced some brilliantly off the wall music at times, as well as pop hits (he won two Grammies in 1986 for Record of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance). ‘Spanish Dancer’ typically mixes electronic experimentation with his characteristic ear for a hook, while ‘In The Light Of Day’, almost feels like a more fully realised version of ‘Spanish Dancer’, its gently undulating pulses perfect for Ibizan sunsets as much as stoners listening to Minnesotan FM radio.