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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Ever-danceable hit "Roll With It" bridges the 60s, 70s, and 80s

Steve Winwood struck a balance between older R&B and soul and his own era's pop rock on one of his biggest songs.

Merry Christmas, everyone. I hope you've been having a safe and rewarding holiday season.

Talking about music on Christmas is a funny thing, because it's hard to escape the massive quantity of carols and other Christmas-related songs that have become part of the popular holiday conscience. I initially thought about writing on one of those when I decided to keep my Senior Year Soundtrack project going over the winter break, but I ended up not doing so for two reasons. Firstly, Christmas music just doesn't resonate with me like it does a lot of other people. Part of that is likely from being Jewish and thus not celebrating Christmas, and another part of that also likely ties into my second point: the songs are everywhere, and as a result it's hard for me not to get tired of hearing them. This feeling is definitely a side effect of having gone back to work over the break, because my place of work ran a holiday playlist for the entire month, and I worked seven out of eight days before we were closed today for the holiday.

So where does that leave me in selecting a song for today? Well, I thought about the general feeling of happiness and warmth that I hope comes to all people this time of year, as well as me feeling better about myself after happenings which inspired yesterday's more downtrodden selection. The combination of those inspirations led me to one of my favorite feel-good picks of the 80s: Steve Winwood's chart-topper "Roll With It," which combines a message of perseverance with instrumentation that harkens back to Motown and Stax hits from the 60s and 70s.

I'm first and foremost drawn to "Roll With It" by its instrumental sound, which bridges multiple decades in its strength and rhythms. The percussion is undeniably 80s, especially with the decade's signature gated reverb sound on the snare. The forward nature of Winwood's bass guitar and the crisp piano also ground the song in the era of its release. However, other elements of the instrumental call back to the R&B and soul hits from previous decades. The organ gives the tune a 60s to early 70s Motown flair, while the horns are reminiscent of those in the signature Stax Records sound of the same era.

As it turns out, these feelings of older styles are validated by qualities and personnel of "Roll With It." After Winwood's track was released, Motown songwriters Holland–Dozier–Holland were given writing credits because of the similarity of "Roll With It" to Junior Walker & the Allstars' "(I'm a) Road Runner," a song with similar structure as well as a prominent organ line. As for the Stax leaning, Winwood and co-producer Tom Lord-Alge enlisted two members of Stax's renowned backing band, the Memphis Horns, on "Roll With It": Wayne Jackson on trumpet and trombone, and Andrew Love on tenor saxophone. The combination of these influences yields a track that bridges decades as well as styles, all of which I'm fond as a listener, while also never losing sight of Winwood's creative vision. As such, it has elements of past decades without getting bogged down in the past, and it still sounds contemporary for 1988.

The track's vision is informed by its uplifting, soulful leanings, as well as its similarly uplifting message. Winwood's lyrics are simple, advising perseverance through its titular phrase. Sometimes such simplicity irritates me as a listener, but on a song where my focus is largely on complexities elsewhere in the production, lyrics that are easy to sing back as you're moving along to the infectious beat are the right move. It's a creative choice that paid dividends for Winwood and his collaborators, as they topped the Hot 100 for four weeks in 1988 and picked up multiple Grammy nominations.

Given my recent personal struggles and grappling with inner demons, the combination of rhythmic complexity and lyrical simplicity in "Roll With It" was the perfect recipe to get me in the right mood on one of the most beloved days of the year. Hopefully these good feelings are felt by others as well, and hopefully they continue through the rest of the year and into 2022.


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