Steve Winwood talks Clapton, Traffic and EDM


You could say English rocker Steve Winwood is timeless, or a man of many times.

His “Gimme Some Lovin’” is a mid-’60s party artifact, as indelible as “Louie Louie.” Early ’70s FM radio loved his Traffic masterpiece “John Barleycorn Must Die,” and his MTV hits “Roll With It” and “Higher Love” are about as ’80s as you can get.

Winwood, 66, will play the Fox Theatreon Friday and will present an overview of those eras, though he explains “we do try to rearrange it, so we’re not churning out carbon copies of the old stuff.”

We caught up with him on a phone call from his house in England’s glorious Lake District, where he lives with his Nashville wife, Eugenia Crafton.

Q: “John Barleycorn Must Die” (from 1970) was essentially instrumental jazz. How did you get that played on rock radio?

A: What happened then is Traffic were quite happily playing exactly the music that we wanted to, without paying any attention to what anybody else wanted … and at that same time U.S. radio went from AM to FM, and so the way it seems to work in America is that AM played the Top 40 and FM wanted for some reason to play these long tracks, the 15-minute long jams, with not much talking, and of course that’s exactly what we were doing. We weren’t aiming for that market in any way. We just happened to be there in the right place.

Q: You’ve transformed your music through the years but always managed to find an audience. How did you do it?

A: I supposed the real answer is I don’t know … I’ve always been interested and fascinated by music and still am, and it’s the music that fascinates me, not necessarily the interaction with any sort of audience. That’s a byproduct.

Q: Why are you still touring? Do you still like it?

A: I never actually had a real job. I left home and school at 15. It isn’t very popular, especially when you have children, to try to explain that to them. I’ve been doing that for the past more than 50 years now, so it’s sort of ingrained. I do get something from it.

Q: How can you play guitar on stage with Eric Clapton and not get intimidated? (Winwood performed, fearlessly, with Clapton at Madison Square Garden in 2008.)

A: It is a bit daunting. Eric is very generous in that respect. When he’s playing, he likes other people to play guitar and play guitar solos.

Q: What is “Freedom Rider” about? The lyrics appear to have nothing to do with Freedom Riders. It’s a question that interests us down here.

A: That was Jim Capaldi’s song.

Q: Didn’t you ever ask him?

A: There are many questions that people want to ask Jim Capaldi. Unfortunately (he’s gone). He left his legacy behind. We’ll just have to work it out for ourselves.

Q: Did you think the “Blind Faith” album cover (featuring a topless prepubescent girl) was a bad idea?

A: I had nothing to do with it at all. It is what it is. If someone suggested that that get put out today, I might have something to say about it.

Q: What are you listening to these days?

A: There are two things I’m quite intrigued with at the moment, and they are quite opposite. The first one is what you in America call EDM. There are some elements of EDM I find quite interesting, there’s a form of EDM that comes from Bristol, quite close to where I live, and certain elements have taken off in Brazil as well, and these DJ producers are putting together these collages of sound I find interesting. The other thing I’m interested in at the moment is plainsong, from between the fourth and sixth century. It’s sometimes known as Gregorian chant, but Gregorian chant is actually plainsong. That’s something else I’m interested in. But I won’t be doing any of that on tour.

Q: You were a fan of Ray Charles, but your first meeting didn’t go well.

A: Some people do say “don’t meet your heroes,” and the first time I met Ray Charles, it wasn’t that pleasant of an experience. I said, “Mr. Charles, I’m Steve Winwood” and he said, “Where’s my bag?”

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About the Author

Melissa Ruggieri
Melissa Ruggieri
Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Melissa Ruggieri covers music and entertainment news for the AJC. She remembers when MTV was awesome.