How Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life Again” Almost Fell Through the Cracks and Didn’t Get Recorded

Over the latter half of the 1980s, Steve Winwood was a near constant presence on the charts. “Back in the High Life Again” made one of the biggest splashes among that string of hits, but it almost never got made. Even once it was recorded for Winwood’s 1986 album Back in the High Life, it had to wait its turn to get released as the album’s final single.

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“Back in the High Life Again” began as just a song title—one that lyricist Will Jennings jotted down in a notebook. Jennings eventually got around to writing the lyrics for the song, but if not for him following up with Winwood’s co-producer months later, the music might never have been written. Here’s how one of Winwood’s most popular songs went from a music-less set of lyrics to a hit song that is still being enjoyed four decades later.

A Nearly Forgotten Song

Jennings had stashed away the idea of a song called “Back in the High Life Again,” but it wasn’t until late in the process of writing songs for what would become Back in the High Life that he would write the lyrics. He told Songfacts he and Winwood had written several songs for the album, including the eventual singles “Higher Love” and “The Finer Things,” in the fall of 1984. Towards the end of the songwriting sessions at Winwood’s home in England, Jennings wrote lyrics for “Back in the High Life Again.” He left for California, figuring Winwood would write music for the song without him there.

But Winwood moved on and didn’t get back to the song. Fast-forward to sometime in the summer or fall of 1985, and Winwood is working with co-producer Russ Titelman on Back in the High Life in New York. Jennings called Titelman for an update on the album, and the producer gave him a positive report. When Jennings asked how “Back in the High Life Again” was going, he said Titelman paused and then replied, “Steve hasn’t shown me that song.”

Titelman asked Winwood about the tune, which he had apparently overlooked, on multiple occasions. Winwood did not get around to writing music for “Back in the High Life Again” until he returned to his home in England while he was in the midst of a divorce from his first wife, Nicole Weir. One of the few items that remained in the house was a mandolin, so when Winwood was ready to write music for “Back in the High Life Again,” he did so on that instrument.

Winwood Was (Almost) a One-Man Band

According to Titelman, when Winwood finally played the song for him, it was on a piano in Studio C at Power Station in New York. In a correspondence with music journalist Bob Lefsetz, Titelman described that initial rendition as being in an “upbeat Ska meets ‘Willie and the Hand Jive’ style.” Winwood worked with drum programmer Jimmy Bralower over the ensuing weekend on the slower arrangement that would wind up on the album, including the looped conga pattern that runs throughout the song.

As big and lush as the final recording of “Back in the High Life Again” is, most of it is played by the supremely talented Winwood, who performs on mandolin, piano, synths, Moog bass and, of course, vocals. Two star musicians completed the production, as JR Robinson (Michael Jackson, The Pointer Sisters, USA for Africa) handled the drums, while James Taylor provided backing vocals.

The Impact of “Back in the High Life Again”

Island Records didn’t make it a priority to release “Back in the High Life Again” as a single, waiting until after they put out three commercial singles plus the promotional single “Split Decision,” before giving the title track its moment. It had already received heavy airplay on rock stations during the fall of 1986 before finally debuting on the Hot 100 in May 1997. It would spend 21 on Billboard’s flagship pop chart, topping out at No. 13. “Back in the High Life Again” would also spend three weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart, and make it to No. 19 on their Mainstream Rock chart. Its August 1987 peak on the Hot 100 came nearly a year after the lead single “Higher Love” topped the chart, extending the popularity of Back in the High Life. The album spent 86 weeks on the Billboard 200.

Back in the High Life merely matched the peak position of Winwood’s 1980 album Arc of a Diver, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard 200, but it would go on to become his best-selling album. It received Triple Platinum certification in January 1988. Back in the High Life also won the 1987 Grammy Award for Best Engineered Non-Classical Album. It was nominated for the 1988 Grammy Award for Record of the Year, but lost out to Paul Simon’s Graceland.

Warren Zevon covered “Back in the High Life Again” on his 2000 album Life’ll Kill Ya and released it as the album’s third single. Winwood’s original version was featured in episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Joan of Arcadia.

Though “Back in the High Life Again” missed out on being a Top-10 pop hit, it has solidified its legacy as one of Winwood’s most popular songs. Out of all of the songs in his catalog, only “Higher Love,” “Valerie,” and “While You See a Chance” have been streamed more often on Spotify. For this, we have Jennings to thank. The upbeat lyrics he wrote are an important part of its appeal. Even more importantly, his repeated nudging of Titelman led to Winwood actually finishing and recording the song.

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Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images

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