Revised January 2016Jim Capaldi drums, percussion, vocals
This multi-talented and influential West Midlands group gained international success in the late 1960s and early 1970s, particularly in the USA where they attracted a large following. In Britain, they are remembered mostly for some memorable and ground-breaking singles and albums that scored high chart placings.
Traffic was formed when young Steve Winwood (then still popularly known as "Stevie"), who was the focal point of the successful chart-topping Spencer Davis Group, decided to move beyond the restrictions of that group and form his own band consisting of other Birmingham area musicians. Jim Capaldi and Dave Mason had played together in a Worcester beat group known as 'The Hellions' during the early 1960s. Jim Capaldi had continued with The Hellions who were re-named Deep Feeling after Dave Mason's departure and to help pay the rent, Dave worked as a roadie for the Spencer Davis Group.
Art student and flute/saxophone player Chris Wood was born in Harborne, Birmingham on 24 June 1944. He grew up living at Corngreaves Hall in Cradley Heath along with his sister Stephanie who later made stage clothes for the Spencer Davis Group. Chris had been a member of Jim Simpson's jazz-styled band Locomotive and previous to that, had played in 'Sounds Of Blue' who later became Chicken Shack and included Christine McVie (later of Fleetwood Mac) in their line-up.
The four musicians would get together for improvised jamming on stage at a hip club called 'The Elbow Room' on Aston High Street next door to the old Hippodrome in Birmingham. It was there where the idea for Traffic was formed. With Dave Mason and Jim Capaldi eager to form a band with Steve Winwood, he agreed to join the partnership along with Chris Wood and so the four retreated to an isolated (and reportedly haunted) cottage in Aston Tirrold, Berkshire in order to write and rehearse new material. "We lived on cheese sandwiches and tins of rice pudding" said Steve. The cottage was to become a place of legend as regular visitors included famous musicians such as Eric Burdon, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton as well as Trevor Burton (of The Move) amongst many others.
The new line-up was named 'Traffic' (an action that prompted an obscure south London band called 'Traffic Jam' to re-name themselves 'Status Quo'). Reportedly, it was Jim Capaldi who came up with the name Traffic after an evening watching cars clog the street following a show at the movie theatre. The group was given full financial backing by Island Records boss Chris Blackwell who intended to promote the band to help the launch of Island Records as a major act label.
With the publicity surrounding Steve Winwood's involvement, the group was assured at least initial success. Traffic's first single titled 'Paper Sun' and credited to all four members was released in the summer of 1967. With production by Jimmy Miller and composed by Steve Winwood with Jim Capaldi supplying the captivating lyrics, the song was just right for the times and featured an Indian sitar played prominently by Dave Mason. The single reached Number 5 in the charts and brought the group to the forefront of the British psychedelic or "flower power" movement that was sweeping the country at the time.
The next Traffic single was even more adventurous and was composed and sung by Dave Mason. The song was supposedly inspired by a dream Dave had at the cottage (although certain substances he was taking may have also played a part) and the recording featured his innovative use of the Mellotron. 'Hole In My Shoe' became one of the most memorable songs of the 1960s U.K. psychedelic scene and captured the atmosphere of 1967 with similar impact as The Pink Floyd's 'See Emily Play'. The single also established Dave Mason as a major songwriting talent with the record reaching Number 3 in the British charts (years later, a version of Hole In My Shoe was recorded by Neil from the hit BBC TV comedy show 'The Young Ones' with the song again making the top ten).
By November 1967, a third Traffic single entitled 'Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush' had been released and was used as the title track of a British teen sex comedy/drama film based on a Hunter Davies novel. The soundtrack also included songs recorded by Steve Winwood's previous band The Spencer Davis Group. Traffic's live shows at this time included a lot of on-stage jamming and extended solos by the individual members - something quite unusual in Britain for a pop group in those days and an indication of things to come. Jim Capaldi would later describe their performances as "organized chaos".
December of 1967 saw the release of Traffic's acclaimed first album entitled 'Mr Fantasy' which showcased the individual talents of the members and proved that Dave Mason, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood were more than just a backing band for Steve Winwood. The album's title track composed by Winwood and Capaldi would become a standard covered by countless other bands to this day. The LP also showed Dave Mason writing as a separate entity and indicated a clash of songwriting styles with his melodic and commercial compositions contrasting alongside the more progressive jazz-influenced songs of the other group members.
Possibly spurred by the success of Hole In My Shoe, Dave Mason left the group in December, supposedly to begin a solo career, only to rejoin the line-up in May of 1968. Traffic then recorded another successful self-titled album, to which Mason contributed the classic song 'Feelin' Alright', a composition that became much covered by other artists. Traffic also participated in the recording of the influential Jimi Hendrix Experience album 'Electric Ladyland' in addition to playing on former Deep Feeling guitarist Gordon Jackson's solo album. Despite this along with well received touring of the UK, Europe and the USA, Dave Mason left again in October of 1968 and a few months later, an exhausted Steve Winwood (then still only 20 years old) also decided to leave.
Fearing the worst, Island Records issued a 'new' Traffic album titled Last Exit made up of leftover recordings, B-sides, and some assorted live material. A compilation entitled The Best Of Traffic was also released. Meanwhile, Steve Winwood re-energized following a lengthy break, teamed up with legendary guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker (of the recently disbanded 'Cream') and along with bass player Rick Grech (of 'Family'), formed the much publicized and short lived "supergroup" Blind Faith.
Dave Mason re-joined Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood who then enlisted keyboardist Mick Weaver to form a line-up called 'Wooden Frog' but following an aborted recording session, Chris Blackwell decided not to support them without Steve Winwood's involvement and they split by March 1969. Following the demise of Blind Faith, Steve Winwood temporarily joined Ginger Baker's new band 'Air Force' who along with Rick Grech and Chris Wood had also included Birmingham musicians Trevor Burton (see The Move) and former Moody Blues front-man Denny Laine.
In January 1970, Steve Winwood started work on a long-awaited solo album and was later joined in the recording studio by Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood. The resulting sessions were so successful that Traffic was re-formed minus Dave Mason and the album produced from the recordings entitled 'John Barleycorn Must Die' was issued as a group effort. The title track was their own arrangement of a traditional English folk song introduced to the band by Chris Wood. The album was critically acclaimed and became a big seller.
After enlisting top session players to the line-up including bassist Rick Grech from Blind Faith, drummer Jim Gordon of Derek and The Dominos, and Ghanian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah, Traffic toured both the UK and the USA where their live recording of 'Gimme Some Loving' (originally recorded by Steve Winwood's old band The Spencer Davis Group) made the charts. Dave Mason joined Traffic on-stage for several of these performances.
Rick Grech and Jim Gordon left to be replaced by the famous American 'Muscle Shoals' rhythm section of Roger Hawkins (drums) and David Hood (bass). An excellent high-quality video exists of this Traffic line-up performing at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1972. Further Traffic albums were recorded in the 1970s and were big sellers, particularly in America where the group had a large following.
Despite a successful Traffic world tour and live album, Hawkins, Hood, and Kwaku Baah left the line-up and Rosko Gee joined on bass guitar. During more touring of the USA in 1974, Steve Winwood became ill resulting in cancellation of further shows and the band decided to take an extended break to work on solo projects. It was the last time Steve, Jim, and Chris played together as a group.
Dave Mason had moved permanently to the USA by the early 1970s and established a successful career there which apart from making best selling albums, included collaborations with Mamas & Papas singer Cass Elliot. Despite battles with drugs and alcohol, he scored a big US hit single in 1977 with the song 'We Just Disagree'. Dave continues to record and tour in America although he remains almost unknown in his native Britain where he's remembered mainly for his contributions as part of Traffic.
Chris Wood unfortunately developed a reliance on alcohol and drugs which may have later contributed to liver disease. Though outwardly jovial, he was to suffer from depression after the tragic death of his young wife and other close friends. On July 12, 1983 following emergency admittance to a Birmingham hospital, Chris Wood died from pneumonia at the age of only 39. He was working on tracks for a solo album that was eventually issued posthumously more than 20 years after his death.
Jim Capaldi recorded his first solo album in 1974 and scored a top five hit in Britain in October of 1975 with 'Love Hurts'. He has appeared on recordings by many other well known performers and has made several best-selling albums. His 1983 hit record titled 'That's Love' was recorded with Steve Winwood. Jim continued to collaborate occasionally with his former bandmate which included a partial Traffic re-union album and tour in 1994. One of Jim's last public appearances was at George Harrison's tribute concert in 2002. Jim Capaldi passed away on January 28, 2005 after a battle with cancer (see Brumbeat feature Jim Capaldi 1944-2005).
Steve Winwood worked with other well known musicians throughout the 1970s including another "supergroup" called 'Go' (who included Stomu Yamashta, Michael Shrieve, and Al Di Meola) before embarking on a predictably successful solo career. His 1986 album Back In The High Life received a Grammy Award for Album of the Year in the USA while hit singles such as 'While You See A Chance' along with 'Valerie' and 'Higher Love' have scored high chart placings in many countries. Although Steve Winwood has not enjoyed such a high profile in recent years, he remains a major talent on the world music scene and continues to record and perform today in between spending time at his farm in Oxfordshire.
Perhaps Traffic's greatest achievement was the successful integration of third-world rhythms with western rock, folk and jazz which made them true pioneers of what became known as "World Music". Traffic were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2004.
Copyright © John R Woodhouse
Sources: 'The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock' 1982; 'Back In The High Life - a biography of Steve Winwood' by Alan Clayson 1988; 'Record Collector Magazine' and 'Midland Beat' various issues.
A new book from Genesis Publications titled 'Mr Fantasy - The Lyrics of Jim Capaldi' will be available in June 2012. For more information about this book on the life of Jim Capaldi, visit the Genesis Publications web site at: www.genesis-publications.com/book/mr-fantasy/deluxe
(highest UK chart position in brackets)
To read an interview with Dave Mason, click HERE
Some official Traffic related websites are listed below:
Jim Capaldi: www.jimcapaldi.com
Dave Mason: www.davemasonmusic.com
Steve Winwood: www.stevewinwood.com
Chris Wood: www.lunarmusic.co.uk