This week’s Free Ride* muses on the songs of the rock and roll Hall of Famer Steve Winwood, who turns 64 today. Steve, or back then Stevie, was a choirboy in Birmingham, England’s St. John’s church, where he first started sneaking over to the organ to discover one of his many musical passions. By the time he was 16, he had been kicked out of school and was a fixture in the Birmingham blues scene, playing Hammond organ in clubs and in the studio with many of the greats who ventured through – John Lee Hooker, BB King, Howling Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry, and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few. His voice, along with his distinctive Hammond playing, became recognizable as he joined the Spencer Davis group and recorded hits like Keep on Runnin’ and lent his songwriting skills to other hits like Gimme Some Lovin’ and I’m a Man. He left Spencer Davis to form Traffic, then joined forces with Eric Clapton to form Blind Faith, and the classic hits kept coming with each iteration. By the mid 70s, he had gained proficiency in guitar and drums to go along with his vocal and Hammond prowess, and launched a solo career as something of a one-man band. For our first example of one of his contributions to the songbook of freedom, we can turn to a song from this solo period. Winwood had left the bluesy sounds to return more to his pop roots with 1980s Arc of a Diver, starting the hit song While You See a Chance with a bit of a cheesy synthesizer line. His voice stayed true, though, and from the first lines you immediately know it’s Steve Winwood singing:
Stand up in a clear blue morning
Until you see what can be
Alone in a cold day dawning
Are you still free, can you be?
When some cold tomorrow finds you
When some sad old dream reminds you
How the endless road unwinds you
While you see a chance take it. . .
For a more classic-rock example, we turn back to one of the great albums of the psychadelic rock era, 1970’s John Barleycorn Must Die from the reunited Traffic, and the song Freedom Rider.
While there are many more examples, I want to conclude with one of Steve Winwood’s more recent collaborations, on Ashley Cleveland’s 2005 project, Men and Angels Say. This collection of blues-tinted old hymns are a return to his earliest roots as a choirboy in St. John’s church, where he first discovered his musical gifts. He contributes the Hammond sound and his voice to a powerful rendition of one of my favorites from my childhood church days, I Need Thee Every Hour. While this doesn’t have the word “free” in the lyrics, it speaks to a freedom from temptation, which Winwood must have called on throughout his career to have avoided many of the pitfalls of his contemporaries.