The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys – A Six-Pack of Traffic

Wikipedia: “Traffic were an English rock band, formed in Birmingham, England in April 1967 by Steve Winwood (lead vocals, keyboard, guitar), Jim Capaldi (drums, percussion), Chris Wood (sax, flute), and Dave Mason (guitar, vocals).

They began as a psychedelic rockĀ group and diversified their sound through the use of instruments such asĀ keyboardsĀ like theĀ MellotronĀ andĀ harpsichord,Ā sitar, and variousĀ reed instruments, and by incorporatingĀ jazzĀ andĀ improvisational techniques in their music.”

When I think back to the ’60s, Traffic is one of the first bands I think of. Not only were they a tight little ensemble, the very addition of sax and flute made them stand apart.

The multi-talented Steve Winwood had been the soulful lead singer for the Spencer Davis Group at age 14. That band was pretty successful with a number of hits, the most well-known of which are “I’m A Man,” and “Gimme Some Lovin'”. (Both co-written by Winwood.)

As per usual in that era, the other guys had all been kicking around in other bands looking for that next big thing. As fate would have it, they met at a now-defunct club in Birmingham called The Elbow Room. (Made it all the way to 2009, didn’t it, love?)

The quartet decided to put a band together and came up with the name Traffic while they were waiting to cross the street. They signed to Island Records and had hits in the UK pretty quickly. Our first knowledge of them here in the States came in early 1968 when they released their debut album Mr. Fantasy*- originally – as Heaven Is In Your Mind.Ā 

Let’s kick this thing off with a tune from their second studio album, 1968’s Traffic. As talented as Dave Mason was (and is) his “flair for pop melody had always been at odds with the others’ jazz ambitions.” So he will come and go and come and go. But in the meantime, here’s his tune I’ve always dug, “Feelin’ Alright.” The lazy vocals just make it. (Yes, I know Cocker covered it.)

Spotify link

Mason had actually left the group after the release of their debut album citing the usual artistic differences. But he came back for Traffic and did a few tunes.

Weirdly, Winwood split in early 1969 with no reason given. He then became part of the supergroup Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Ric Grech. In typical who-gives-a-shit rock star style, the band lasted exactly one album (a good one), a tour, and at least one famous Hyde Park concert. (Famously it was on this tour that Clapton met Delaney and Bonnie and had a much better time with them.)

One of Traffic’s most celebrated albums is John Barleycorn Must Die. Interestingly, it started life as a Winwood solo project. He corralled Wood and Capaldi into it and it then became a Traffic album.

Barleycorn is such a great album it’s hard to know what to choose. But no way on earth am I gonna skip doing “Glad.” This was back in the day when bands could fucking play and could just kick the album off with an instrumental. And a terrific one it is:

Spotify link

From the same album, here’s the Winwood/Capaldi confection, “Empty Pages.”

Found someone who can comfort me, but there are always exceptions
And she’s good at appearing sane, but I just want you to know
She’s the one makes me feel so good, when everything is against me
Picks me up when I’m feeling down, so I’ve got something to show

Spotify link

This album was an FM underground radio hit in the States and put Traffic firmly back on track. In 1971 they released an album called The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. Apparently this odd expression was not motivated by, say, Marc Bolan but by actor Michael J. Pollard.

According to Capaldi: “Before I left Morocco, Pollard wrote in my book ‘The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.’ For me, it summed him up. He had this tremendous rebel attitude. He walked around in his cowboy boots, his leather jacket.Ā  It seemed to sum up all the people of that generation who were just rebels. The ‘Low Spark’, for me, was the spirit, high-spirited. You know, standing on a street corner. The low rider. The ‘Low Spark’ meaning that strong undercurrent at the street level.”

Spotify link

Another tune from High Heeled Boys in some ways doesn’t even sound like Traffic. It’s called “Rock & Roll Stew” and that may be because it’s written by Ric Grech and drummer Jim Gordon. Both Grech and the then-ubiquitous Mr. Gordon played on this album. (If between Delaney and Bonnie, Gordon and Clapton you are starting to make the Derek and the Dominos connection, give yourself a gold star.)

Capaldi on vocals here, some tasty guitar by Winwood:

Spotify link

Let’s end at the beginning with “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” I found this bit of trivia interesting. “The song appears in the Marvel Studios logo sequence ofĀ Avengers: Endgame, and continues to play over the top of some of the opening scenes. Within the context of the film, the lyrics allude toĀ Tony Stark and his arc in the film.” OK.

Spotify link

Capaldi and Wood shuffled off this mortal coil a few years back. Winwood and Mason are still very much active and hoping to tour again.

Traffic were inducted (in 2004) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Dave Matthews. I can see that because of that jazzy sax connection. But I’m surprised it wasn’t by Clapton or one of their other Brit peers.

*Dear Mr. Fantasy was produced by Jimmy Miller who did so much great work with the Stones. And the entire Small Faces sing backing on one track.

A couple of extra bonuses on the Spotify list.

17 thoughts on “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys – A Six-Pack of Traffic

  1. Traffic was absolutely a great band, and your highlights are the tip of the iceberg. As you noted, they followed their own muse in carving a phenomenal musical trail. Roll Right Stones, indeed.

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    1. They certainly did. But what I loved about that era was the absolute freedom and anything goes creative environment. I hope that returns one day. As to “Stones,” forgot about that one.

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  2. I dig all of the tunes you highlighted here. Pretty much any early Steve Winwood gets me excited.

    BTW, yesterday, I was officially informed ā€œmyā€ Steely Dan show featuring special guest Steve Winwood has been rescheduled from early July this year until June 2022.

    While this sucks in a way, itā€™s probably for the better, given how new COVID-19 cases in New Jersey are above the national average and are up 20% or so over just the past few weeks.

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    1. Were you a Traffic fan? I forget. I know CB is a pretty big fan.

      That really sucks about the show. I’ve got Brit Floyd and Roger Waters, both almost certain to be postponed.

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      1. Based on the music I know by Traffic, yep, I definitely dig them!

        I saw Brit Floyd a few years ago and thought they were great. As long as we eventually get to see these postponed gigs, I guess Iā€™m cool.

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  3. “CB is a pretty big fan”. Yes he is. Every cut you posted is staple in my listening. Cool that you thought Wynwood’s guitar was “tasty”. I always liked his sound. Known more for the keyboards the guy could play a lick on the guitar. I have been listening to a bunch of Capaldi’s later solo work. Really like it Just got back into it or I should say discovered it.
    ‘Glad’ is such a great groove and Woods sax just adds to it. Man what a cool tune. A young CB was weened on this stuff. Traffic is kinds where I live in my music. They touch on so much good stuff. Another good piece fella.
    ( We do that cross paths thing again. You mention Delaney and Bonnie. Audioslave’s song ‘Show Me how to Live’ has a cool video. It uses the movie ‘Vanishing Point’ in the video. If you remember the film B&D are playing in the dessert. Audioslave inserts themselves in that spot. Kinds cool huh. After we were commenting about things)

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    1. I didn’t realize Winwood even played guitar till years later. The guy’s a multi-talented nuclear bomb. I heard Capaldi’s solo stuff was good but never really got into it. As to ‘Glad,’ I think I listened to it three times today. I texted my buddy Steve when I was listening to “High Heeled.” That triggered some memories. Big, big Traffic fan, loves ‘Barleycorn.’ I don’t think I ever saw ‘Vanishing Points but I remember it being out long ago. A Spielberg fave.

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      1. SW is a “nuclear bomb” (good one). Capaldi’s early solo is not bad (I think we might have touched on it before) but some of the later I really like. I stumbled onto some Woods solo also and Mason does good stuff.
        Scene in VP our hero comes across this hippie commune in the desert and a band is playing, B&D. It was cool in the day to see it because we didnt have all the easy access to bands we have nowadays. I guess Audioslave liked the film also.
        You were the one who told me about Gordons troubles . Heart breaking. A doc on muscle Shoals they talk about touring with Traffic. Quite funny. Great band Doc.

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        1. Back when ‘Vanishing Point’ was made, everybody was trying to cash in on the hippie demographic or at least, what they thought that crowd wanted to see. I call it the ‘Easy Rider’ effect.

          Yeah, last I heard, Gordon’s alive but won’t be seeing daylight any time soon. His legacy lives on.

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        2. Trends huh? Absolutely. It was a cool scene in the film. Helps when the film maker actually used a live performance by a real band
          Gordon has been showing up for me all over. A friend sent me n old song that he played on ‘My Maria’ by B W Stevenson. Something else that he was on. A surprise..

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        3. Have you ever heard the tune ‘Apache’ by the Incredible Bongo Band? It was some thrown together thing with Gordon on drums. It flopped but rappers later picked up on the drum track and sampled it.

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  4. Perfect timing here, Jim – I’ve just started getting into some Traffic (there’s a Traffic jams line to be used somewhere, innit). They’re a band that had been on my radar a while, but I never really got there, but I finally jumped into John Barleycorn Must Die and it’s exactly what I was hoping for. Next up is Mr Fantasy on account of Dear Mr. Fantasy.

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    1. Yeah, they have a lot of good stuff. They’re always on my radar or playlist somewhere. I like Winwood’s solo stuff too but not quite as much. Did you know that both Chris Wood and Steve Winwood played on Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland?

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      1. I only have Arc of a Diver, but I can’t say I’ve ever spent time with it other than a cursory listen. Maybe I should change that. I didn’t know that about Electric Ladyland… (though something about it sounds familiar) to be honest, my knowledge of that stuff is very limited.

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