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 rock group and diversified their sound through the use of instruments such as keyboards like the Mellotron and harpsichord, sitar, and various reed instruments, and by incorporating jazz and 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.
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.)
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:
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
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. 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.”
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:
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 of Avengers: Endgame, and continues to play over the top of some of the opening scenes. Within the context of the film, the lyrics allude to Tony Stark and his arc in the film.” OK.
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.