By Mike Zwerin
PARIS, 9 March
2004Three 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."
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
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
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
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.