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Winwood played on a number of hits in the '60s and '70s as a session musician and as a member of Traffic, The Spencer Davis Group and Blind Faith. In the '80s, he established himself as a solo artist with songs he wrote with Will Jennings, who put lyrics to Winwood's music. The first album they worked on was Arc Of A Diver in 1981, followed by Talking Back To The Night in 1982 and finally Back In The High Life. Jennings told us:
"We wrote those songs in the fall of '84, and it was a long spell before he got in the studio in New York. We had 'Higher Love' and several other songs, including 'The Finer Things.' And then it was toward the end of my stay over there and we still needed some other songs. I had 'Back in the High Life Again' in this book that I carry with me of titles. I pulled that out and I suddenly found the rest of the song, and I wrote that in about 30 minutes, and left it with Steve to put a melody to. So this is in '84. And then I went back to California, and it was a year, I guess, before he went in the studio, sometime in '85. I called one day and talked to Russ Titelman who was producing the album. They were doing it in New York. I asked him how it was going, and he said, 'Oh it's going great.' He said 'Higher Love' came out great and 'The Finer Things.' I asked him how 'Back In The High Life' would come out. There was this little pause, and he said, 'Steve hasn't shown me that song.' So turns out that Steve had not written the music to it yet and he at that time was going through a divorce. And because of the divorce, his wife got everything in the house, this big house in England. So he came up from London and went out to this house, which he still lives in and he had for years before he was married, and everything was gone, except there was a mandolin over in the corner of the living room. It was winter and it was dreary. He went over and picked up the mandolin, and he already had the words in his head, and that's when he wrote the melody. He went back and not only cut a big hit which still is played so much today, but it was the title track of the album. And if I hadn't asked about it, it would have just gone by, so that's one that was saved at the last minute."
Jennings has written lyrics for Eric Clapton, Roy Orbison, Peter Wolf, Jimmy Buffett, B.B. King and many others. Says Jennings, "You just need to get the feel of what they want to do, where they're coming from and what their life has been. The soulfulness comes into writing the truth of the singer. If you're writing with or particularly for a singer, you try to get inside them." (Check out our interview with Will Jennings
When listening closely and carefully, at the end of the song, after Steve Winwood sings, "High life," you can hear singer/songwriter James Taylor sing the line, "Back in the high life." Taylor isn't the only famous singer to appear on the Back In The High Life
album: Chaka Khan sang on "Higher Love
." (thanks, Annabelle - Eugene, OR)
Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum
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Mike Watt of the Minutemen tells the story of the song that became an Indie Rock touchstone. It's also the story of what Mike calls "The Movement."