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Steve Winwood

Steve Winwood and Traffic : Thirty Years After

By Mike Zwerin


PARIS, 9 March 2004—Three decades after it disbanded, Steve Winwood's band Traffic will be officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York on March 15th. "I'm honored that Traffic is being inducted," Winwood said, "and very grateful to the powers that be for putting them in this prestigious institution."

Winwood was in Paris earlier this month to promote the second coming of his most recent solo album "About Time." His solo career has been thriving. Because he now records for his own label, Wincraft, he was able to release it twice within a year (adding a bonus CD) without considering it a reissue. There was no good justification for this other than that with one thing or another he did not think it had gotten the attention it deserved the first time around. Owning and operating his own label might be one explanation of why he refers to his legendary band in the third person. Modesty might be another.

The night before, in Antwerp, Belgium, Winwood had finished a European tour with the Funk Brothers, survivors of the unsung studio band that constructed and backed up Motown's 1950s and 1960s R&B hits. The current edition of the Funk Brothers includes, as Winwood put it, "guys on stage in wheelchairs, but," he was quick to add, "it was so much fun to sing songs like 'Shotgun' and 'What's Going On?' with them."

Winwood entered his teens playing both guitar and piano in his brother Muff's jazz band in Birmingham, and he took part in the English blues revival led by Alexis Korner and John Mayall that also produced Mick Jagger, Jack Bruce, Paul Jones, Charlie Watts and the others. He surfaced in London at 16 with the Spencer Davis Group and his insistent organ riffs were central to his voice on such mid-sixties chartbusters as "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm A Man."

Although he has sold more records than you can count and has been nominated for too many Grammies to cite (and has won his share), Winwood comes across as a musician more than a pop star. His haircut does not look as though it is unduly important to him, for one thing. For another, he does not find it necessary to change his clothes to go on stage to play music. He played on Jimi Hendrix's recording of "Voodoo Chile" ("the were no chord sheets, no nothing; he just started playing"), he has learned how to construct bass lines between his left hand and the pedals of a Hammond B-3 organ, not easy to do, and he is particularly proud to have played Afro-Cuban music with Tito Puente and Arturo Sandoval.

Winwood was 18 when he formed Traffic in 1967 (he's 55 now). His plaintive high tenor voice attracted immediate attention. It was a trademark sound that took only a few measures to identify and once heard was hard to forget. Such songs as "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," "Colored Rain," "40,000 Headmen" and "(That Good Old Fashioned) Medicated Goo" ("a song about the sixties"), most of them written in collaboration with drummer Jim Capaldi, were smart and wear well. The arrangements included Cuban, Brazilian and Jamaican elements and long jams with modal saxophone improvisations before that sort of thing was generally done. The masterpiece "Dear Mr. Fantasy" ("play us a tune/Something to make us all happy/Do any thing, take us out of this gloom/Sing a song, play guitar/Make it snappy") accompanied a recent National Football League TV commercial, making it one of the few one does not want to mute.

Traffic was an on-and-off-again band that broke up for good in 1974. Sidemen came and went. At one point, Winwood took leave to join Eric Clapton in Blind Faith ("Can't Find My Way Home"), considered the first super-group, with Rick Grech and Ginger Baker. By the time he passed through Ginger Baker's Air Force, the B-3 had become his franchise instrument. He learned how to rebuild one out of necessity because there are moving parts and tubes that get knocked around on the road and they stopped making B-3s years ago.

Winwood, who has B-3s and their bulky but essential Leslie speakers on both sides of the Atlantic, knows his history: "The Hammond organ is a very American instrument. It was invented by a clockmaker named Lawrence Hammond in the 20s. He wanted to build an instrument to replace expensive pipe organs in churches. It had a sound of its own and it could be moved around and it was picked up by black churches and then by jazz musicians like Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff in the fifties."

Good players like Joey de Francesco, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Larry Goldings notwithstanding, the B-3 has mostly been replaced by digital keyboards and synthesizers. People are often heard to say how wonderful it was in the old days when a group as good as Traffic could be popular and to complain that there's no good music any more. Asked if he agreed with them, Winwood replied: "The problem is that there's just a lot more music in general than there used to be so of course there's more rubbish. You have to search harder to find the good stuff. I hear good new music. Technology is changing music drastically today and I think we have to give it time to see how it's going to work itself out."


Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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