The Number Ones

August 30, 1986

The Number Ones: Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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There’s a certain form of music that I’ll always think of, fairly or not, as white man’s overbite music. White man’s overbite music isn’t exactly a genre, though it has plenty of overlap with beer-commercial blues-rock. Instead, white man’s overbite music is more of a vibe. It’s good-time music for squares with money — music for office Christmas parties and for weddings where the main course is plasticy, thin-sliced heat-lamp ham. It’s music made to play on overhead speakers at Infiniti dealerships, music that upper-level State Department employees put on their Spotify playlists, music that plays just before the commercial break on Morning Joe. For reasons that don’t even necessarily have much to do with the music itself, I have nothing but coldness in my heart for white man’s overbite music.

Plenty of great musicians have made white man’s overbite music. Bob Dylan and Neil Young have cranked out entire records of it, though only when both guys were at their respective ’80s nadirs. Dire Straits and Genesis have made some really good records that I still consider to be white man’s overbite music. The patron saint of white man’s overbite music is Eric Clapton. Since Cream broke up, that guy’s made basically nothing but white man’s overbite music. Even Clapton’s tearjerking ballads are white man’s overbite music. (His anti-lockdown protest song is definitely white man’s overbite music.) But the clearest example of white man’s overbite music might be “Higher Love,” the song that a onetime Clapton bandmate took to #1 in the late summer of 1986.

Maybe it’s just that Steve Winwood looked the part. When Winwood scored his first chart-topper, he was 38 years old, and he was the very image of yuppified boomer-pop stardom: Handsomely gaunt face, elegantly layered mullet, expensive-looking suit, honeyed bray of a voice. The “Higher Love” video is a quick-cut montage of Winwood and Chaka Khan dancing, in both color and black-and-white. MTV played the hell out of the “Higher Love” video and nominated it for a bunch of VMAs, and yet “Higher Love” is a VH1 video, not an MTV video. (VH1 had launched at the beginning of 1985. Everytime I flipped over to the channel in the ’80s or ’90s, it seemed to be playing something that looked, sounded, and moved exactly like the “Higher Love” video.)

By the time “Higher Love” hit, Winwood would’ve been a familiar face. “Higher Love” landed at #1 more than 20 years after Winwood had first appeared on the Hot 100. Steve Winwood came from the grimy English city of Birmingham, and his father worked in an iron foundry and also played part-time in a local trad-jazz group. A young Winwood had started playing piano at the age of four, and he quickly mastered other instruments, as well. By eight years old, Winwood was playing in a band with his father and his older brother Muff — hiding behind a piano so that people in the bars wouldn’t know how egregiously underage he was.

As a teenager, Steve and Muff played together in Muff’s Muff Woody Jazz Band. Spencer Davis, a local teacher and R&B super-fan, recruited Steve and Muff to join a new group he was putting together. Steve was 14 when he joined the band that would come to be known as the Spencer Davis Group. (Steve was the band’s singer and star attraction. But Steve didn’t like doing interviews, and Davis did, so they named the band after Davis.) Chris Blackwell signed the Spencer Davis Group to his newly-founded Island label, and the band released their first single a few days after Steve turned 16.

On those Spencer Davis Group singles, the young Steve Winwood is already doing his best to howl and moan like a Black American blues singer. It makes for some impressive pantomime, but it’s still pantomime, and it only rarely transcends its influences the way that the Rolling Stones so often did. The Spencer Davis Group were part of the blues-purist wing of the British Invasion, but they were more beat-driven and less noodley than many of their peers. The band’s 1965 single “Keep On Running,” a cover of a Jackie Edwards song, became their first UK chart-topper; it was also their first entry on the Hot 100, where it peaked at #76. Later on, the Spencer Davis Group made the US top 10 twice, with 1966’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” and 1967’s “I’m A Man,” two songs that Steve Winwood co-wrote. (“Gimme Some Lovin'” peaked at #7. It’s a 6. “I’m A Man” peaked at #10. It’s a 9.)

Soon after those singles hit, Steve Winwood got sick of singing American-style R&B, and he and Muff both left the Spencer Davis Group in 1967. Muff became a record exec and a producer, making records with Dire Straits and Sparks and signing artists like Sade, the Psychedelic Furs, and previous Number Ones artist Paul Young. Steve, meanwhile, formed the jazzy and vaguely psychedelic blues-rock band Traffic, who sold a lot of albums but who were never much of a pop-chart presence. Traffic’s highest-charting Hot 100 single was a nine-minute live version of “Gimme Some Lovin'” from 1971; it peaked at #68. I’ve always found Traffic to be easy-to-ignore boomer-bait, but the “Dear Mr. Fantasy” needledrop in Avengers: Endgame was cool.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Winwood made himself a part of the British rock establishment. Along with Traffic, he also played in the short-lived Eric Clapton-led supergroup Blind Faith and in its equally short-lived offshoot, Ginger Baker’s Air Force. He also played organ on the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Voodoo Chile” in 1968. Traffic broke up in 1974, and Winwood reemerged with his self-titled solo debut three years later. As a solo artist in the ’80s, Winwood, already a multi-instrumentalist, adapted to a synth-heavy landscape more gracefully than some of his ’60s-rocker peers. On a couple of ’80s solo albums, Winwood pulled the Stevie Wonder/Paul McCartney trick of playing every instrument himself. In 1981, Winwood made it to #7 with “While You See A Chance,” his first American top-10 hit since his Spencer Davis Group days. (It’s a 3.)

By the time he recorded the 1986 album Back In The High Life, Winwood was making a concerted effort to become a full-on mainstream pop star rather than a blues-rock journeyman. Winwood recruited a manager who’d worked with Michael Jackson and Madonna, and he moved to New York. Where he’d previously worked in seclusion, Winwood brought in Russ Titelman, a producer who’d worked with Randy Newman and with Rufus And Chaka Khan. And Winwood also recruited a whole lot of famous people to sing and play on the album: James Taylor, James Ingram, Joe Walsh. He made a push.

“Higher Love” is absolutely the sound of someone making a push. It’s Steve Winwood’s version of a dance-pop song — a streamlined, uptempo track that could, at least theoretically, get played in a nightclub somewhere without clearing out the entire floor. “Higher Love” still sounds, to my ears, like a sleepy blues-rock song, but maybe that’s only because my brain has trained itself to switch off when it hears Winwood’s voice. Other than that voice, though, “Higher Love” is a track built around tumbling, booming drum sounds and big, bright, expensive synth blips. It’s fully locked into the big ’80s production aesthetic, and it’s got some energy to it.

The group of musicians who worked on “Higher Love” is just ridiculous. The most prominent is Chaka Khan, who howls out the euphoric backing vocals and who handily outsings Winwood himself. The middle-aged white English blues-rockers of the mid-’80s just loved singing with Khan. Earlier in 1986, Khan’s record label prevented her from singing on Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love,” even though she’d already recorded her vocals for the track; Palmer had to remove her voice from the song’s master. I don’t know what changed between “Addicted To Love” and “Higher Love,” but Khan’s “Higher Love” vocals are fully intact, and she’s also in the video. Khan doesn’t get a feature credit on the song or anything, but she makes her presence known, and there’s no way “Higher Love” would’ve hit the way it did without her. (As a lead artist, Khan’s highest-charting single is her 1984 version of Prince’s “I Feel For You,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 9.)

Even beyond Khan, though, there’s way too much talent involved in “Higher Love.” Nile Rodgers, the Chic leader and hitmaking producer, plays rhythm guitar; he’s in the video, too. Eddie Martinez, the session guitarist who’d famously shredded all over Run-DMC’s “Rock Box,” plays lead. The dance-pop specialist David Frank, who’d collaborated with Phil Collins on “Sussudio,” is the party responsible for the chintzy synth-horns. (Frank was the non-singing half of the duo the System, and their highest-charting single, 1987’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove,” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.) Chaka Khan also brought in her drummer John Robinson, a former Rufus member who’s also played with people like George Benson and Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. At the end of the song, Robinson played a busy, syncopated break. Winwood and Titelman liked that bit so much that they used it as the song’s intro.

But all this talent is there to serve a pretty flimsy song. Winwood co-wrote “Higher Love” with a regular collaborator, the lyricist and “Up Where We Belong” co-writer Will Jennings. (Jennings’ work will appear in this column again.) Jennings has said that his “Higher Love” lyrics are “a modern hymn” about longing for transcendence. “Higher Love” could be a song about God, though songs about God don’t usually have lines about lighting up the night with your soul on fire or making the sun shine from pure desire. Plenty of actual gospel songs have lyrics that seem horny for God, so we probably shouldn’t dock Winwood any points for making a fake gospel song that carries some of those same implications.

Really, though, “Higher Love” is more vamp than song. It hits its chorus again and again, running it into the ground, and it doesn’t exactly reward the efforts of people like Chaka Khan and Nile Rodgers. The song does pull off the feat of making a ’60s blues-rock guy like Winwood sound contemporary from a mid-’80s perspective, and that’s some kind of accomplishment. But honestly, it’s also one of the reasons I don’t like the song. In Winwood’s pseudo-anguished yawp of a voice, I hear the far-off rumble of adult-contempo moaners like Michael Bolton, who will eventually come to infect this column. If “Higher Love” helped make the ’80s pop mainstream amenable to that kind of voice and delivery, that’s something we should hold against the song.

Sitting down to write about “Higher Love,” I’m a little surprised at how fast and dancey and energetic the song is — how the drums carom in every direction, how the synths sparkle. But even with all those things going for it, “Higher Love” is still a deeply average track from a gifted-but-affected singer. There’s no real inventiveness to the song, no sense of play. For Winwood, it’s a big and successful leap into contemporary sounds, and yet it still sounds so rote, so canned and lifeless. The song isn’t bad, exactly, but I can’t bring myself to like it.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter what I think. “Higher Love” did its job, and it effectively turned Steve Winwood back into a pop star. Winwood will appear in this column again before pop music pries itself free of the white man’s overbite.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1990, Whitney Houston recorded a cover of “Higher Love” with “How Will I Know” producer Narada Michael Walden. That version of “Higher Love” went mostly unheard — only coming out as a bonus track on the Japanese edition of Houston’s album I’m Your Baby Tonight. Here’s that version:

Last year, the Norwegian tropical house producer Kygo remixed Houston’s version of “Higher Love,” and that remix came out as a Kygo/Houston collaboration. The Kygo/Houston version of “Higher Love” became a global smash. In the UK, for instance, that take on “Higher Love” peaked at #2. (Winwood’s original “Higher Love” only made it to #13 in his homeland.) In the US, the Kygo/Houston “Higher Love” peaked at #63. Here’s its horny, aerobics-centric video:

(In the US, Kygo’s highest-charting single, the 2017 Selena Gomez collab “It Ain’t Me,” peaked at #10. It’s an 8. Whitney Houston has been in this column before, and she’ll be in it again.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Higher Love” cover that a 13-year-old, pre-Jonas Brothers Nick Jonas, then professionally known as Nicholas, released in 2005:

(As a solo artist, Nick Jonas’ highest-charting single is 2014’s “Jealous,” which peaked at #7. It’s a 6. Nick Jonas will eventually appear in this column as one of the Jonas Brothers.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Higher Love” soundtracking a classic spin-class scene from a 2008 episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2011, the Irish singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow recorded a spectral “Higher Love” version that’s since turned up in a few TV commercials. Here’s McMorrow’s take on the song:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Earlier this year, on the One World: Together At Home charity special, Keith Urban got together with two Keith Urban clones to cover “Higher Love.” Here’s that faintly unsettling spectacle:

(Keith Urban’s highest-charting single, 2009’s “Kiss A Girl,” peaked at 16.)

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