I was deeply gratified to see Traffic inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this week.
Among the most listenable rock-based groups to ever record, Traffic – with a core of uber-talented singer/songwriter/keyboardist/guitarist Steve Winwood, singer/lyricist/drummer Jim Capaldi, singer/songwriter/guitarist Dave Mason and Chris Wood on tasty woodwinds – emerged at the tail end of the British Invasion as a psychedelic pop-rock group before evolving into the first group that we would recognize today as a “jam band.” They also brought in deep Anglo-folk roots into the groovy stew of extended improvs and sturdy rock beats.
I talked with Steve Winwood’s brother Muff, who has had a long career as a producer and record exec in England after playing with his younger brother Steve in the Spencer Davis Group in the ’60s.
“My brother was amazing; he could just play any instrument when he was a tiny little child. It was really weird. I would look at him and say, ‘How can I compete?’ I finally gave up on playing in ’67 because I didn’t want to feel second to him, though I’m incredibly proud of him,” Winwood says.
“Anyway, we started in our father’s band doing weddings and bar mitzvahs in the mid-’50s. Steve was a small child in short pants. Then I formed a New Orleans-style jazz band; I played banjo and guitar, and Steve played honky tonk piano.
“When Steve was about 13 [’61], he was listening to Ray Charles and his voice started to change. He just started singing in this great R&B voice, and he’s had it ever since. A local folksinger named Spencer Davis came and sang with our jazz band; we realized we all liked R&B and blues, so we formed a band with Steve singing like Ray Charles and Spencer singing like Leadbelly.
“Pretty soon we were filling the clubs in Birmingham, and Chris Blackwell came along and became our manager and got us a record deal. We had two big hits, ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ and ‘I’m a Man,’ and then we split up,” says Winwood.
Steve left the Spencer Davis Group in ’67 to form Traffic, and Muff accepted an invitation to join Chris Blackwell’s new Island Records in A&R.
I love Traffic probably more than is reasonable and am so inclined to ramble on, but all of their greatest songs can be found on the exceptional 2-CD collection Smiling Phases:
The early, psychedelic Brit-pop era is represented by the buzzing sitar exoticism of “Paper Sun,” the melodic and rhythmic complexity of “Heaven Is In Your Mind,” the space groove classic “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” and Dave Mason’s primary contribution to the group “Feelin’ Alright” (all from ’68). ’69 saw the beguiling folk-and-flute of “40,000 Headmen,” and the bouncy soul groove, undeniable melody, and good humor of “Medicated Goo.”
Disc 2 is even more consistent than disc 1 as the group reformed in ’70 (sans Mason, but with Rich Grech on bass and soon thereafter Rebop Kwaku Baah on percussion and Jim Gordon on drums) after Winwood’s brief stint in Blind Faith. The group stretched out the groove and added more jazzy improvisational elements to their sound.
Highlights include the great swinging New Orleans-style instrumental “Glad,” the Anglo-folk standard “John Barleycorn,” and soaring “Empty Pages” (with outstanding electric piano solo from Winwood). “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” (the ’71 title track of their most popular album in the U.S.) achieves a moody trance-like state that is as profound as it is enigmatic and extended. “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone,” Capaldi’s most appealing contribution to the group as songwriter and lead vocalist, also benefits from an incisive, aggressive lead guitar by Winwood. Capaldi also sings Grech and Gordon’s terrific, funky “Rock and Roll Stew.”
Traffic’s last moment of greatness came on “Walking In the Wind” (from When the Eagle Flies, ’74), grounded by a relentless thumping bass figure (by Rosko Gee), Winwood’s cool organ, and set free by an expansive, archetypal Winwoodian chorus. No Winwood or Capaldi solo effort, though much of it fine work, ever touched me as deeply or in the same places as Traffic. I miss them dearly, but at least I have the music.
The Finer Things box set provides an excellent overview of Winwood’s entire career, including Spencer Davis, Traffic, Blind Faith, and solo. I like Capaldi’s Whale Meat Again best of his solo efforts, but I haven’t heard them all.