Steve Winwood will be joining Eric Clapton at the Crossroads Guitar Festival this weekend at Toyota Park in suburban Bridgeview, Ill., aiming to reprise his terrific performance on that same stage in 2007.
It marks the resumption of one of the ‘60s most promising musical partnerships, a partnership that Clapton feels was undone prematurely by his decision to walk away from Blind Faith in 1969.
Winwood and Clapton were friends during the British rock heyday of the ‘60s, including a studio collaboration in 1966 as Powerhouse, before forming Blind Faith with ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech. Winwood was only 21, yet already a seasoned rock veteran with stints in the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic. Clapton was 24, and coming off the break-up of Cream. Both musicians were looking for a fresh start and an opportunity to do some lower-key music, but those plans were quickly undone when the “supergroup” was booked for a stadium tour that left the musicians demoralized.
Clapton walked away and he and Winwood went on to hugely successful solo careers. They wouldn’t reconnect musically until 2007, following up with a successful tour in 2009.
In an interview, Winwood recounts his early days with Clapton and the long road to playing again with his old running mate:
What got you back together with Clapton at Crossroads in 2007?
It was not one of those corporate ideas, which happened all too often in our career. Since we’d worked together in the ‘60s in Blind Faith, our paths crossed from time to time, but we had drifted apart. Then Eric asked me to do the 2007 Crossroads, and then we also did another charity event just prior to that in England, one of those things that highlights rural issues. I live in a rural area in England, so that issue was close to my heart, and Eric was involved in that too. At that event, he played with my band and there was a great difference between working with him now and the ‘60s. Back then he didn’t want to sing when I played with him, and he didn’t want to or wasn’t able to be a bandleader. Now he’s a great singer and a great bandleader, and it makes it more fun and interesting for me. We talk about how the band is working, we work on things where we sing together, the way our voices go together, so it’s a considerable step beyond where we were then.
One thing that a lot of people at Crossroads 2007 didn’t realize is what a fine guitar player you are. Your solo on “Dear Mr. Fantasy” was a real highlight. Yet people still associate you mostly with keyboards and the Hammond organ. Did you learn guitar alongside keyboards when you were growing up?
I actually started to play piano early on. In the ‘50s if you played piano in bands, you’d be in a club — though they were really pubs — and they had notoriously bad pianos. Early on I just got tired of trying to play those old pianos, so I started to play guitar. My brother Muff, who is five years older than me, used to play guitar and I’d borrow his. Of course, I started to get together with my contemporaries, Eric included, who got intensively interested in the blues music filtering over from across the Atlantic, Chicago in particular. We found this to be the likes of something we’d never heard, and we just got obsessed with it and playing like these blues guitarists we were hearing.
You backed up some of those blues artists when they came over to England in the mid-‘60s, right?
Yes, quite a few of them: John Lee Hooker, T Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Champion Jack Dupree. They’d use local pick-up bands when they came over to England because they couldn’t afford to fly over their own bands. I played mainly guitar — we’re talking about the early to mid-‘60s. It wasn’t until 1966, ‘67 that I got hold of a Hammond organ, which changed things considerably for me. It was a big breakthrough for me. Finally I could play a keyboard and not be stuck behind an old pub piano. The piano wasn’t the ideal rock ‘n’ roll instrument — though people like Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino did just fine with it — but the Hammond organ was.
Was it nerve-racking backing those blues musicians you idolized at shows?
In many ways it was very overwhelming for a teenage kid like me from Birmingham. Looking back, though, I realize it must’ve been quite overwhelming for these artists coming over as well. Although they were veterans of blues, they hadn’t really played outside their sphere of juke joints and Chicago clubs, really. For them to come to Europe was quite a big step. It must have been overwhelming for them as it was for me. It was wonderful to play with them. Some were helpful, some not. Some talkative, some weren’t. I definitely remember Memphis Slim really helping me with my guitar playing. Many of these guys who were reticent, like Sonny Boy Williamson and John Lee Hooker, I think it was perhaps they were just so used to the same guys playing with them, they didn’t really know what the guys playing with them should be doing. I don’t think they were deliberately unhelpful, they just didn’t know what to say to us. It’s amazing the chemistry, the level of playing you heard on those blues records. Now I’ve listened to and learned from many of these people who backed up these people like Phil Upchurch, these great players on many of the Chess and Vee Jay recordings. And for us — Eric and I have spoken about this many times in recent years — in those days you’d listen to those records and it was just as important to know the musicians who played on the record as the man singing or the name on the record. It was important for us enthusiasts and devotees to know who were accompanying these giant figures. We all knew that Hubert Sumlin was the guitarist on Howlin’ Wolf records, even though he was not mentioned on the sleeve notes. We knew their names, and we studied what they played.
How did you get together with Clapton for the Powerhouse session in 1966?
We were quite friendly by then. Eric’s a couple years older, and at our age now that means nothing, but when I was 16 and he was 18, 19, it was a big difference. I just moved from Birmingham to London and I lived in lodgings in the suburbs, and Eric had a wonderful bohemian flat in a cool part of the city, so I’d go and hang out with him. He took me under his wing in many respects. He introduced me to his friends, and we’d play and talk about records. The whole conversation revolved around music. When we met, he was playing with the Yardbirds and then John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and I was in the Spencer Davis Group. In those days we’d play on the same bill a lot. If we weren’t we’d see each other traveling between the clubs we all used to play at. The Powerhouse was put together by (producer) Joe Boyd, I think it was some sort of sampler for a new label. Eric was there, and I sang. We recorded a bunch of songs in a day. In those days we would make records in a day, entire albums in a day. We’d do side one before lunch, break, and then do side two.
Clapton says he wanted to play with you again in part because he felt that he let everyone down by leaving Blind Faith and that the music deserved to be heard again. What’s your take on that?
Eric takes a lot of this on himself. The band sort of fell apart a bit. Eric may be a bit hard on himself in saying he walked away. It was drifting apart anyway. The record we did was good. It stands the test of time. It was a great thing we put together. The problem arose when we went on the road and the pressure came from several areas. One was from the business side of it, where the idea of a large amount of money being made was incentive to put us in certain kinds of (oversized) places to play. The record we made with Blind Faith was slightly more on the mellow side than things had been with Cream. There was a certain mellowness, which didn’t go down as well with audiences who hadn’t heard that music then. Now you might say “Can’t Find My Way Home” or “Presence of the Lord” are classic rock songs, but at that point in 1969 nobody had heard them before. The audience wanted to hear heavy arena rock, and they got this slightly tinkling folkie stuff — which didn’t always work in an arena. Eric was probably going through some changes, where he didn’t particularly know what he wanted to do, and so was I. All those things added up. It was an inevitability that it didn’t go further. But it’s great now to revisit that material because it’s held up pretty well over 40 years.
You also backed up another Crossroads guitarist, B.B. King, when he came to England to record in the ‘70s. What do you recall about that session?
A fantastic recording session. I hope you’re not going to ask me what record. Oh, wait, it was “B.B. King in London” (1971). B.B. could not have been nicer, just an absolute gentleman, very personable, modest. He was a great blues musician, but he made us feel at ease, like peers. One thing I vividly remember with his guitar playing, it didn’t matter what chords the musicians put underneath him, he made it sound great — and different. He had a certain way of transcending the chord changes, putting in his own things. Some of the blues musicians, the more rustic ones, are known for adding bars and beats here and there. But B.B. wasn’t like that. He was a great musician, but he still very much had his own style, his own way of voicing things. It was clear even then why he was so revered.