After a few all encompassing years as a fully fledged pop star from a tender age in the Spencer Davis Group, Steve Winwood was ready in 1967 to slow the pace down a notch or two and get back to being a musician first and foremost.
At a jamming session one night in The Elbow Room, a club in Aston, Birmingham, Winwood joined guitarist Dave Mason, drummer and vocalist Jim Capaldi and saxophone and flute player Chris Woods. It went so well, the four of them decided to form a band.
Steve Winwood ‘we all used to go to this drinking/gambling club where Jim used to play, and we used to get up and play with him and jam. And we just got together.’
Capaldi and Mason had previously been in a local group called ‘The Hellions’ and Dave Mason had worked as a roadie for the Spencer David Group on occasions. It is said, Capaldi named them Traffic after being one day stuck in well, traffic. They dropped out of city life and instead rented a cottage in rural Berkshire, spending all day writing and then rehearsing the new music they were coming up with.
Island Records boss Chris Blackwell signed them up, thus continuing his working relationship with Winwood from their Spencer Davis days. They then released their debut single ‘Paper Sun’ in May 1967, which went top five in the UK. Next up that August, came the drink, drug and dream inspired ‘Hole in my Shoe’ from the pen of Dave Mason, complete with spoken word section by Blackwell’s step daughter Francine Heimann. This went even higher, landing in the top three. Neil from The Young Ones fame was definitely taking notes…
Then we have ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’ which went on to appear on the soundtrack of the film with the same name.
As debut albums go, ‘Mr Fantasy’ from the December of a very productive year, produced by Jimmy Miller is up there among my all time favourites, with songs like ‘No Face, No Name and No Number’ and ‘Dear Mr Fantasy’ being played to death, the first time I got hold of a copy of the vinyl.
Their second album ‘Traffic’ came nearly a year later. Dave Mason had left and then re-joined the band in that year and I’m glad he came back, because he contributed the standout track ‘Feelin’ Alright’ though in certain company I have frequented, ‘Forty Thousand Headmen’ is hailed as a red wine anthem.
Traffic’s overall sound was now veering towards a folky/blues feel, whilst Mason was more on a Psych pop path. Things came to a head and he was voted out of the band and off he went again. The remaining members toured the US in late 1968, which resulted in the next album ‘Last Exit’ having some of these live recordings incorporated on it.
Steve Winwood was the next one to leave the stage in early 1969. Staggeringly he was still only 20 and by now totally exhausted. However, after a short break, he got going again pretty quickly, going on to form ‘Blind Faith with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, though that all quickly faded after the release of one album, imaginatively called ‘Blind Faith.’
Winwood then began some solo work and brought back in Wood and Capaldi on the project, which in turn rekindled the fire in Traffic and the songs went on to form the big selling album ‘John Barleycorn Must Die.’
The line up then grew in 1971 with Ric Grech coming in on bass, along with Rebop Kwaku Baah on percussion, Jim Gordon on drums and Dave Mason back for his third spell (though true to form, he didn’t stay long.)
They released a live album ‘Welcome to the Canteen’ followed by ‘The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys’ which went top ten in the States, but failed to trouble the charts in the UK, though it went on to achieve a million sales eventually.
The band ground to a halt again in late 1971 with Grech and Gordon leaving and Winwood ill with Peritonitis. Capaldi used the downtime to work on his solo chops.
Eventually a new line up of Wood, Capaldi, Kwaku Baah, new drummer Roger Hawkins, new bass player David Hood (both from the Muscle Shoals studio band) and a fit again Steve Winwood toured the states in early 1972. Their gig at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in the February was captured on film and resulted in a fine hour’s performance of the band in their pomp and in full flow.
A sixth studio album, ‘Shoot Out’ in 1973 again sold well, and they toured around the world in support of it. The double live album ‘On The Road’ saw them back in the UK charts, but Hawkins, Hood, Kwaku Baah left, with original member Chris Wood also taking time out, struggling with drug and depression problems.
To keep it all moving, Capaldi jumped back on the drums and Rosko Gee came in on bass. 1974 saw ‘When The Eagle Flies’ again hit the top ten in the US, but in truth, the band were in bad shape. Winwood was once again in trouble with his peritonitis flaring up again, and he eventually walked off stage in the middle of a gig in Chicago, and immediately left the tour. The band decided to fold there and then, rather than go on without him.
Dave Mason moved permanently to the States and worked with Fleetwood Mac and The Mamas and the Papas among others. Chris Wood sadly died aged 39 in 1983 and that same year also took Rebop Kwaku Baah. Steve Winwood, now well again, would soon embark on a very successful solo career, which is still going strong.
Capaldi, Mason and Winwood undertook a reunion tour in 1994 opening for the Grateful Dead in the US, and Jim and Steve recorded an album ‘Far From Home’ that year. The band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.
Jim Capaldi died of stomach cancer in 2005. A memorial gig titled Dear Mr Fantasy and featuring the solo work of Calpadi, and Traffic, took place at the Roundhouse in Camden in January 2007 with a line up featuring, Pete Townsend, Paul Weller and Steve Winwood among many other performers.
So, a band with a fractured existence for sure, but what a fine body of work they left behind, and one with a legacy that is as highly revered today, as it ever was and that’ll do for me.
The Mumper of SE5
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