By the time the smash hit Arc of a Diver arrived on Dec. 31, 1980, Steve Winwood was more famous than he was relevant.

A rock star at 16 with the Spencer Davis Group in the mid-'60s, he went on form Traffic in 1967 and the supergroup Blind Faith with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in 1969. Along the way, every one of his Davis Group albums reached the U.K. Top 10, Blind Faith's lone release quickly sold a million copies, and Traffic scored three gold albums and a platinum disc through 1974's When the Eagle Flies.

Winwood went solo thereafter, and that's when his fortunes seemed to irrevocably turn. He struggled to find a new direction. An initial stab at solo work, 1977's introspective Steve Winwood, reached No. 22 in the U.S., but failed to chart at all elsewhere. Who could have guessed that he'd emerge three years later with Arc of a Diver? Driven along by a Top 10 hit in the soaring (and seemingly autobiographical) "While You See a Chance," the album sold a million copies – saving Winwood's flagging career.

"It came at a pretty good time for me," Winwood told the Chicago Tribune in 1986, "because had that not been successful, I'd have to think very carefully about what I was doing. I wouldn't have given up my musical career, but I would have thought about going into production, rather than pursue a career as a recording artist myself."

A move to the countryside of Gloucestershire, some 60 miles northwest of London, provided plenty of cover as Winwood tried to make his way. "I'd had enough of this album, tour, album, tour," Winwood told Rolling Stone in 1988. "It was like I was on a treadmill and there was no way of getting off. I just had to say, 'That's it with Traffic; no way can I do that anymore.'"

Listen to Steve Winwood Perform 'Arc of a Diver'

Winwood appeared on the occasional session with the likes of George Harrison and Marianne Faithfull, but otherwise he lived a hermit's life inside his farmhouse. Unbeknownst to many, was busy recording, and – unlike Steve Winwood, which featured well-known former bandmates and studio aces like Willie Weeks and Andy Newmark, as well as his former Traffic band mate Jim Capaldi – he did so completely alone this time.

That meant converting a studio space, then laying down all of the tracks, a process that took most of those three years. "Basically," he told the Associated Press with a chuckle in 1981, "I thought it was going to be cheap, easy and quick – and it was expensive, hard and slow, as it turned out. I didn't really expect that, quite."

In fact, Winwood was smart to wait. His D.I.Y. approach meant relying more than ever on the emerging keyboard technology of the day, synchronizing Winwood's album perfectly with the New Wave zeitgeist. It was like the previous era of struggle had never happened. Well, for every one else, that is.

"Because Arc was successful," Winwood told People in 1982, "it gives the impression I've been cruising along nicely since 1967. That's an illusion. I strove through the '70s to get my head above water. [...] It was a make-or-break situation. If it hadn't been for Arc of a Diver, I might be a taxi driver."

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