Emerging during the late '60s as a white teen soul singer in the Spencer Davis Group, keyboardist and singer Steve Winwood quickly became an eclectic, experimental artist of consequence in Traffic. In preparation for his solo career, Winwood found yet another level of brilliance by exploring his talents as a pure pop songwriter. Those results secured him a number of unforgettable, synth-defined hits during the '80s. Here's a chronological look at the finest '80s songs from singer-songwriter Steve Winwood.
The regal, synth-soaked opening of this early 1981 single lodged itself irreparably into my developing music memory almost as soon as I heard it on pop radio back then. In the years since, the track has retained a haunting, somewhat melancholy brilliance, buoyed by its peppy synth lines but grounded by its lovely, searching lyrics. This Top 10 U.S. pop hit and significant worldwide pop single from Winwood's Arc of a Diver LP must be the place to start for any serious examination of this singer-songwriter's impressive '80s solo career.
classic rock and blue-eyed soul legend. The complex but beautiful melodies perfectly meld this artist's clear sense of hitmaking with an experimental, rock-infused ingenuity that makes use of a wide array of instruments in addition to Winwood's typically dominant keyboards. His vocals are exemplary here, and the song's compelling, guitar-driven groove helps make it a sonic delight on several levels.
Though unsuccessful when released as a stand-alone single in late 1981, this elegiac stunner clearly earns mention as one of Winwood's most singularly affecting early-'80s songs. The track was later tacked on to the end of the singer's 1982 album Talking Back to the Night, but perhaps it's best known from its use during a memorable 1987 episode of Miami Vice during which one of the show's detective characters dies after an undercover sting goes wrong. The track's emotional heft easily carries such a dramatic moment, but it holds up quite well also as another top-notch Winwood deep track.
Another Winwood song that failed to make an immediate mark when first released, 1982's "Valerie" received a belated second life as a Top 10 pop hit in 1987 when released as a remix. In either form, though, the song works incredibly well as a strongly synthesized dance-pop gem. The artist's unmistakable grasp of melody coupled with his one-of-a-kind ethereal vocals manage to quash any residual negative effects from the tune's heavily produced presentation. The lyrics, as always for Winwood, deftly communicate longing: "I'm the same boy I used to be."
I remember encountering this song for the first time on an episode of Late Night with David Letterman during the summer of 1986. Not a great time for me personally, but back then or a quarter-century later this remains a joyful, world music-inflected pop song of the highest order. It's probably suffered a bit as a result of its sheer ubiquitousness over the years, but certainly not as much as it would have if even slightly lesser in quality. The horns, Afro beat and backing vocals from Chaka Khan are all unforgettable parts that make up the distinctive whole.
Though it somehow failed to crack the Billboard Top 10 in early 1987, this song manages to raise the bar on the nearly flawless "Higher Love." Buoyed by the brilliant use of mandolin and a generally arresting, earthy tone that perfectly accompanies the gentle melody, this track communicates a weary sense of yearning that even I recognized as remarkable while barely in my teens. Hopeful yet skeptical of recapturing the magical experiences of the past, Winwood's narrator muses wistfully: "And we'll drink and dance with one hand free and have the world so easily, And oh, we'll be a sight to see..."
Winwood and co-writer Will Jennings must have been in an enviably contemplative place when they wrote this impossibly lovely tune about the importance of making the most of life's limited and precious opportunities. From the opening strains of Winwood's fluid keyboards to the ecstatic transition from the slow, sultry verses into its celebratory chorus, this track captures something seminal about the marvel that is the human condition. Among several other passages, the song's middle bridge sparkles both musically and lyrically: "We go so fast, Why don't we make it last? Life is calling inside you and me. Please take my hand, right where I stand, Won't you come out and dance with me?" Wow.
Despite its unfortunate association with a prominent Michelob beer advertising campaign, this song far outclasses Winwood's second and final No. 1 pop hit, the annoyingly vapid "Roll With It." In general, Winwood possesses a gift for simple but permanent melodies - particularly in the verses of his compositions. This smooth ballad manages to overcome the decade's increasing propensity toward overproduction, allowing its performer's transcendent vocals to shine through just about any level of gloss. "Time to show all your feeling, all the night is revealing," Winwood sings without a hint of sleaze.
10. "Holding On"
Winwood almost surrenders to the baser instincts of the late '80s on this, his final genuinely major hit of his storied, commercially potent solo career. Nevertheless, the quality songwriting resulting from his partnership with Jennings yet again does not disappoint. As a single, this track ended Winwood's string of four adult contemporary chart-toppers within a two-year stretch, but there was always far more to the singer's '80s output than record sales. All in all, this was a pretty solid chapter marker for a rich and varied musical legacy that continues to develop still today.