White Boys CAN Control It! In Praise of Steve Winwood on His 70th birthday
Let’s re-evaluate the great singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and his contribution to rock and soul.
Is soul solely and strictly a black thing?
Whoever launched the urban, suburban, and country myth that soul equals the sound of blackness and spread it around the world, possibly deterring would-be blue-eyed soul singers everywhere, must have forgotten to forward the memo to the United Kingdom.
More than any other nation on earth — even the United States, aka the birthplace of soul — the UK has a long, rich tradition of white singers with rhythm and the blues.
Soul music’s roots sprouted from the seeds of the negro spirituals sung by slaves on plantations in the U.S. South. Maybe the white slave owners weren’t listening, because it’s the UK that went on to produce some of the most soulful white folks ever to show some emotion at the microphone: Adele, Alison Moyet, Amy Winehouse, Annie Lennox, Boy George, Dusty Springfield, Elton John, Eric Burdon, Eric Clapton, George Michael, Joe Cocker, Lisa Stansfield, Mick Jagger, Paul Carrack, Paul Young, Robert Palmer, Robert Plant, Rod Stewart, Van Morrison, and of course, the incomparable Steve Winwood.
Of all the great rock & roll masters of the ’60s who were still alive and kicking in the ’80s, Winwood, who will turn 70 on May 12, probably gets the least play today, despite his considerable pedigree. Along with being a member of three seminal bands of the ’60s and early ’70s (The Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and Blind Faith), he had huge solo hits (including the number-one Billboard Hot 100 singles “Higher Love” and “Roll With It”), platinum albums, Grammy Awards, and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a member of Traffic).
But even at his late-’80s commercial peak, Winwood always seemed to be overshadowed by two other Stevies: Wonder, who turns 68 the day after Winwood’s birthday, and Nicks, who’ll be hitting 70 exactly two weeks after Winwood. Now I’d like to call for a re-evaluation of the great singer-songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist and his contribution to rock and soul, which might be underestimated due to the pop-slickness of “Higher Love,” the hit that kicked off his mid-to-late ’80s commercial peak.
Strip away the glossy production, however, and what you’ve got are two of the greatest musical instruments ever: the voice of Chaka Khan (providing backing vocals) and, in the forefront, Winwood, who easily keeps up with one of the greatest soul songstresses to ever open her mouth.
Although many hadn’t even heard of Winwood before “Higher Love” made his voice a household sound, he’d already been kicking around forever by that point. It’s hard to believe that he was still a teenager when he sang lead on The Spencer Davis Group’s two 1966/67 Top 10 U.S. hits, “I’m a Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
At 18, his house of soul already sounded more lived-in than Justin Timberlake’s. And can you believe the voice behind those two classics was a half-decade younger than Justin Bieber is now?
Some 14 years later, at age 32, Winwood scored his first solo success with the number-seven Billboard Hot 100 single “While You See a Chance.” When I first saw the video on Casey Kasem’s Saturdays-at-noon TV countdown show America’s Top 10, I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears: He wasn’t a middle-aged black man but a young, clean-cut white guy who looked like he should have been conducting transactions at the local bank, or teaching Algebra.
This was the new face of soul? A white singer who was born not in the U.S.A., but on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in the land of royalty and reserve.
“You know white boys can’t control it,” Boy George declared the following year on a track on Kissing to Be Clever, Culture Club’s debut album. Surely he wasn’t singing about Steve Winwood.
Steve Winwood’s Definition of Soulful: The ’80s
“While You See a Chance” (from 1980’s Arc of a Diver) Well, before the emergence of Annie Lennox, Winwood was giving synth-pop life.
“Spanish Dancer” (from Arc of a Dancer) There’s nothing even remotely exotic or danceable about it, but with Winwood singing, who cares?
“Freedom Overspill” (from 1986’s Back in the High Life) “I will not be defined,” Winwood seems to be saying with this Top 20 hit that encompasses so many genres (rock, pop, Stax soul, R&B, synth pop, etc.) but belongs to none.
“My Love’s Leavin’” (from Back in the High Life) As with much of his work during the period, an over-reliance on synthesizers renders it hopelessly ’80s. Still, the hurt in Winwood’s vocals, possibly his best of the decade, is timeless.
“Roll with It” (from 1988’s Roll with It) Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby, and Winwood’s Stax soul revival two decades after its peak sounded just as authentic as the real thing, baby.