Monday, July 23, 2012

White Boys CAN Control It!: In Praise of Steve Winwood

Soul Men: (from left) Eric Burdon, John Mayall, Jimi Hendrix and Winwood (plus one, Carl Wayne of The Move)
"White people don't have soul."

Whoever launched that urban, suburban and country myth and spread it around the world, possibly deterring would-be blue-eyed soul singers everywhere, must have forgotten to forward the memo to the UK.

More than any other country in the world -- even the United States, birthplace of soul music, which began as negro spirituals during the slavery era, before blossoming into gospel, blues, jazz, R&B and later rap and hip hop -- the UK has a long, rich tradition of blue-eyed soul, thanks to some of the most soulful white folks ever to grab a mike and let 'er rip: Dusty Springfield, Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon, Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, Elton John, Robert Palmer, Boy George, George Michael, Paul Young, Annie Lennox, Alison Moyet, Lisa Stansfield, Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, 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, now 64, probably gets the least play today, despite his impressive pedigree. Along with being a member of three seminal bands of the '60 and early '70s (the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith), he had huge solo hits (including the No. 1 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 and Nicks.

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 "Higher Love," the slick pop hit on which much of his mid-to-late '80s success was based. 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.

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, he already had enough lived-in emotion in his house of soul to blow 23-year-old Chris Brown's away. Can you believe he was the same age then that Justin Bieber is now?


Some 14 years later, at age 32, he scored his first solo success with the No. 7 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 it: 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 in the motherland.

"You know white boys can't control it," Boy George declared the following year on a track on Culture Club's Kissing to Be Clever album. Surely he wasn't singing about Steve Winwood.

5 Steve Winwood Definitions of Soulful

"While You See a Chance" (from 1980's Arc of a Diver)


"Spanish Dancer" (from Arc of a Dancer)


"Freedom Overspill" (from 1986's Back in the High Life)


"My Love's Leavin'" (from Back in the High Life)


"Roll with It" (from 1988's Roll with It)

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