1st August 2021
I wrote a brief piece about Steve Winwood’s album Arc of a Diver quite a while back. On listening to the album again recently I’ve been inspired to re-work the article and re-share some info about a remarkable talent and an album that captures a period of my life that I call ‘The Cape Town Years’ perfectly.
1980’s Arc of a Diver was Winwood’s second solo album, the first, simply titled Steve Winwood released in 1977 hadn’t made much impact and this second album was basically the make-or-break of his solo career.
It’s hard to think of Steve Winwood having a loss of faith in himself. After all, this is the man who joined the Spencer Davis Group at 14-years-old and was a star in his own right at 16, having penned mega-hits such as ‘Keep on Runnin’’, ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ and ‘I’m a Man’. Music lovers with an interest in the ‘60s will know Steve Winwood’s career path well, but for those who don’t we’ll explore a little of his life up to this seminal solo album.
However – all the tracks I have selected for today’s mix come from Arc of the Diver. Why? Because if I had to chart his career in music it would involve too many bands, each of which deserves their own mini-feature. So, to kick us off here’s ‘While You See a Chance’
Stevie (as he was called then) made his stage debut playing with his father and elder brother in the Ron Atkinson Band as an 8-year-old, and gigged regularly thereafter, having to play at the back of the stage with his back to the audience because he was so obviously underage!
While still at school he played the Hammond C-3 on the Birmingham Blues scene, backing artists such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and BB King amongst others. This early exposure to the big names gave the young musician the boost and professionalism that stood him in good stead throughout his career.
After his success with The Spencer Davis Group, Island Records with who they were signed, said that “Winwood was really the cornerstone of Island Records in those years. He is a musical genius and because he was with Island all the other worthwhile talent really wanted to be with Island as well”.
After a brief time with the short-lived Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse outfit, Steve Winwood formed Traffic along with Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason and Chris Wood. Winwood and Capaldi formed a song writing partnership perfectly combining their multi-instrumental l and lyrical skills. This partnership extended beyond the life of Traffic and they worked on each other’s solo albums and various collaborations.
Time for some more music before wrapping up today’s mini-feature. Here’s a favourite of mine, Night Train
How do you follow up on the success that was the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic? Form a Supergroup! That’s exactly what Steve Winwood did. 1969 saw Winwood, Clapton, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech join forces as Blind Faith. Although they only released one album, it is a gem, and the song ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ has become firmly ensconced in musical history.
A little trivia for your interest; Jimi Hendrix brought in Steve Winwood to play the organ for both the Voodoo Chile and Electric Ladyland albums. He also provided vocals and keyboards for critically acclaimed Stomu Yamashita’s concept album, GO.
He retreated from the pressure of touring and recording and went into semi-retirement. Island Records were missing their blue-eyed boy and put pressure on him to start recording again. His self-titled 1977 solo album didn’t make much impact, and Steve Winwood found himself in a position where he was more famous than he was relevant. He was seriously considering giving up performing completely to concentrate on producing at this time.
He decided to give it one last shot. He converted his own studio space and started laying down tracks, playing each instrument himself. He thought that the process would be easy and relatively inexpensive. With today’s digital programs it probably would have been easier, but the limitations of late ‘70s technology turned the album’s creation into an expensive three-year, often frustrating, process.
However, this slow progress played in his favour. While technology evolved to match the sounds in his head, the New-Wave movement of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s blossomed and was the perfect audience for his new adult orientated guitar-driven synth-pop style of music.
In a 1982 interview he said “Because Arc was successful, it gives people the impression I’ve been cruising along nicely since 1967. That’s an illusion. I strove through the ’70s to get my head above water. If it hadn’t been for Arc of a Diver, I might have ended up a taxi driver.”
We are all thrilled that the Arc of the Diver was such a huge success and Steve didn’t end up a cab driver. I know that for me the album embodies the heady days of the early ‘80s Cape Town – but that’s another story! Closing today is the title track from Arc of a Diver.
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Words © Andrew Knapp 2021