A hybrid of rock, R&B, jazz, and English folk, Traffic was a band with so many starts and stops their name seemed more than appropriate. The group was originally formed in 1967 by keyboardist, guitarist, and singer Steve Winwood; guitarist and singer Dave Mason; saxophone and flute player Chris Wood; and drummer and singer Jim Capaldi. Mason left the group in 1968 only to rejoin a few months later. Then they disbanded in 1969, when Winwood left to form Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Rick Grech. Following one album and one American tour, Blind Faith ended, with Winwood going on to serve time in Ginger Baker’s Airforce. Then, for four years beginning in 1970, Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood formed the nucleus of Traffic while other members, including Mason, would come and go. Twenty years later, in 1994, Winwood and Capaldi joined forces again under the Traffic moniker for an album and tour.
In early 1967, not long after The Spencer Davis Group had two big hits in a row, “Gimme Some Lovin” and “I’m A Man,” the band’s keyboard player and vocalist, Steve
Members include Steve Winwood (born May 12, 1948, Birmingham, England), vocals, keyboards, guitar; Jim Capaldi (bom August 24, 1944, Evesham, Worcestershire, England), drums, vocals; Chris Wood, (died July 12, 1983), reeds, woodwinds; Dave Mason (born May 10, 1945, Worcestershire, England), vocals, guitar, 1967-68, 1971; Rick Grech, bass, 1971; Jim Gordon, drums, 1971; Reebop Kwaku Baah, percussion, 1971-73; David Hood, bass, 1972-73; Roger Hawkins, drums, 1972-73; Rosco Gee, bass, 1973-74, 1994.
Formed in 1967 in Birmingham, England; released first single, “Paper Sun,” May 1967; released first album, Mr. Fantasy, December 1967; disbanded January 1969; Winwood went on to play with Eric Clapton in Blind Faith, 1969; Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood reformed as a trio for John Barleycorn Must Die, 1970; released The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, 1971; various personnel changes, 1971-74; disbanded, 1974; Winwood and Capaldi recorded Far from Home and toured under the Traffic name, 1994.
Winwood, decided he’d had enough. The formulaic R&B/pop band had become too restricting for the 18 year-old musician and he’d recently met and began jamming with a band called Deep Feeling at The Elbow Room in Birmingham, England. Led by drummer Jim Capaldi, Deep Feeling would play its normal set and then other musicians, including Winwood, Chris Wood, and Spencer Davis Group roadie/guitarist Dave Mason, would gather for a freeform jam. “It was the end of my Spencer Davis Group days,” Winwood told Rolling Stone’s Jonathon Cott in 1969, “and we all used to go to this drinking-gambling club where Jim used to play, and like we used to get up and play with him and jam. And we just got together.”
The quartet dubbed themselves Traffic and hid away in a cottage amidst the fields of wheat, barley, and poppies of the Berkshire section of England to write their first album. “When Jim, Dave, Chris Wood, and I went up to the Berkshire cottage in 1967 to start Traffic,” Winwood told Timothy White in his anthology Rock Lives, “it was the result of a lot of enthusiastic planning and time spent playing together informally. What came out of those talks and things was a desire on the part of the four of us to make a uniquely British form of rock and roll… while breaking new ground artistically.” For his part, Capaldi recalled that not everything they came up with was that great, in fact, some of it was way off the mark. “But,” he told White,” I sometimes look back and feel that we were an experimental group that went out into the natural wilds just to hammer it all out. Back then, all the rock music was anchored to the city life. The factthatthe four of us…went back to the country to abandon the urban distractions and get into the music set a definite trend.” Soon the band emerged from their secluded rehearsal space with afunky mixture of jazz, folk, and psychedelic R&B to beg in record ing their first album, Mr. Fantasy, at London’s Olympic Studios.
Months before the album was out, Island Records, their record company in England, released two singles in the UK. The first single, “Paper Sun,” released in May of 1967, reached number five on the UK charts and the song, “Hole In My Shoe” was scheduled for release the following September. Written by Dave Mason, “Hole In My Shoe,” was a catchy pop song the rest of the band hated. The record company, however, smelling commèreial success, wanted to release it as a single against the strong and vocal desires of Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood. “It was a so silly and poppy and commercial, Capaldi told Chris Welch, author of Winwood’s biography, Roll with It.” It had nothing to do with Traffic at all…. Me, Chris, and Steve stuck together as a nucleus and the song caused a big rift within the band. We never played it live, ever.” Winwood echoed Capaldi’s sentiments about the song telling Welch, “It didn’t really represent us at all, although in England it’s what we’re known for. Not so in America! The Americans have never heard “Hole In My Shoe.” The song was released in September and reached number two on the UK charts.
In December of 1967 the debut album, Mr. Fantasy, was finally released and with the emergence of FM radio in America and their willingness to play long album cuts like the classic “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” the album provided an ideal soundtrack to the free wheelin’, often drug-induced spirit of the late sixties. “It became one of the strongest things Traffic ever played,” Capaldi told Welch. “It broke new ground, influenced people. It had R&B and yet it was different. I remember hearing it on the radio and I knew it was a classic… that whole first album.” In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone’s Jim Carroll, Chris Wood remembered the Mr. Fantasy album fondly. “You don’t really know whether something is good until six months or a year later, but on Fantasy, well…‘Mr. Fantasy’ of course, and ‘Coloured Rain,’ ‘Paper Sun,’ and ‘Heaven is in Your Mind.’ It was kind of our first expression, that album.”
One month after the album’s release, in January of 1968, Mason left the band, still reeling over the episode involving “Hole In My Shoe.” In the end it seemed that Mason was too individualistic and protective about his songs while the others felt it was important to work together in order to get the “Traffic sound.” Winwood reminisced about the conflicting work ethic to Welch: “[Mason] would come up and say, ‘Right here’s my song. Now you do this and you do that. And this is the way it’s gonna be, because it’s my song.’ Well, the rest of us, we never worked that way…. But it became Dave writing songs his way, and the rest of us writing songs another way. It was inevitable that Dave wouldn’t agree with the way we wrote songs.”
So Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood carried on as a trio and began to tour America. While in New York in May of 1968—where Winwood and Wood guested on Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” from his Electric Ladyland LP —the group met up with Mason and he joined them for the rest of the tour. “During the first tour of the States we were going through a bad state,” Winwood confessed to Cott in 1969, “mainly because we only had about a couple of weeks before we went to the States as a trio and a lot of the numbers we were doing weren’t actually written for a trio. We needed somebody else in the group and then Dave appears in New York.”
Following the tour, the group returned to England to record their second album. Titled simply Traffic, it was released in October 1968 and featured now classic Traffic tunes such as “Feelin’ Alright,” “40,000 Headmen,” and “Pearly Queen.” “Traffic is a group that excels at everything except getting it together,” Jann Wenner wrote in his review of the album for Rolling Stone. “This has been evident not only from the drawn out personnel and touring problems they have had, but also from their records—excruciatingly good in terms of real music—but frustratingly plagued with a severe case of what could only be called ‘loose-endism.’” Wenner went on to bemoan the fact that listeners might not ever really hear or see what the band is capable of. “They’ll break up first,” he predicted. He was right. Following the release of the album, Mason left again, pretty much for the same reasons as the first time, and in January of 1969, the rest of the group disbanded as well. The following May, their record company released Last Exit, a hodgepodge of unreleased songs and live performances and then a Best of Traffic LP in October.
Any hopes of Traffic immediately reforming were dashed when Winwood started Blind Faith with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, who’d just broken up Cream, and bassist Rick Grech. The first “supergroup” of the era, the band recorded a self-titled LP that was well received and embarked on a U.S. tour that wasn’t. While the crowds were somewhat interested in what Blind Faith had to say, they were much more responsive to old Cream and Traffic songs and that’s what Blind Faith ended up playing, thus losing their identity and enthusiasm. The group disbanded after the tour and Winwood went on to play with Ginger Baker’s Airforce but didn’t find that fulfilling either. For their part, Capaldi, Mason, and Wood had a short lived group with friend (Wynder K.) Frog, and Mason began recording a solo album, 1970’s Alone Together, for the Blue Thumb label.
In 1970 Winwood began work on a own solo album that was to be called Mad Shadows. During recording he summoned Capaldi and Wood to the studio and it turned into the Traffic album, John Barleycorn Must Die. Released in April of that year, it’s considered one of Traffic’s classic recordings but, at the time, Rolling Stone’s Jon Carroll couldn’t shroud his disappointment. “Perhaps part of the problem,” Carroll admitted, “is my high expectations of any Traffic album.” Still, Carroll confessed, “This is a good album of rock and roll music featuring the best rock and roll woodwind player anywhere and one of the best singers, and maybe the trio is still just getting together again, feeling each other out.” A month earlier, in a Rolling Stone profile of the band, Carroll proclaimed Traffic as “arguably one of the two or three best rock and roll bands in existence.”
Following the release of the album, the trio embarked on a tour only to realize they needed more musicians to recreate the effect of their albums on stage. To that end, they recruited bassist Rick Grech, who had played with Winwood in Blind Faith; drummer Jim Gordon, who had worked with Clapton in his Derek And The Dominoes project, and whose presence freed up Capaldi to sing without being tied to the drum kit; percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah; and for six shows in1971, Dave Mason. This version of the band is documented in the luke-warm live album, Welcome To The Canteen, released in September of 1971. Between performances the band, minus Dave Mason, were in the studio recording what would be their most critically and commercially successful album, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, released just two months after Canteen.
David Lubin of Rolling Stone credits Winwood for his meticulous job as Low Spark’s producer. “His work with the tracks in every case produced an integration of sounds which left nothing either crowded or isolated,” Lubin wrote. “Although he is not up to his highest form as a composer, as musicians he and Traffic have never played better.” Of particular interest to Lubin, as well as listeners, was the album’s title track, a jazz-influenced rock epic that clocked in at over 12 minutes. “It’s a sensuous black jazz piece except for the rock counter-theme, (characteristically Traffic-sounding),” Lubin described, “which comes in with the refrain of every chorus. Each member of the group lays down a track or tracks which could in parts stand alone.” Following the American tour to support the album, however, the then twenty-five year old Winwood developed peritonitis, the result of undiagnosed appendicitis. The potentially fatal disease sent Winwood a message that it was time to slow down, so Traffic was sidelined once again until he recovered.
The band then set off for Jamaica to record their next album, this time with the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section of bassist David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins in place of Grech and Gordon. The result, 1973’s Shootout at the Fantasy Factory, received mixed reviews, not surprising following such a landmark recording as The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. This version of the band is also featured on another lukewarm live album, On the Road, released the same year. Traffic’s concerts had in fact become luke-warm experiences themselves, some rising to the occasion brilliantly, others just phoned-in performances of Traffic favorites. Capaldi and Wood had taken to drinking too much before performances and Winwood would often appear joyless throughout the entire show. By the end of 1973 Hood, Hawkins, and Reebop were gone and with Jamaican bassist Rosco Gee, the band recorded When the Eagle Flies, released in September of 1974.
Generally regarded as a bleak and somber album, When the Eagle Flies, was nonetheless recommended by Rolling Stone’s Ken Emerson who asserted that Traffic was moving away from “the loose, interminable nodding-out riffing with which it has dawdled for the past couple of years” and heading towards “sharply defined and relatively concise songs.” Winwood, in reflecting on the album to White in Rock Lives, said, “It doesn’t seem like a Traffic record very much, does it? The whole record is very doomy, and I suppose it’s the way we saw both Traffic and the music of the era going.” Less than a month before the album’s release, Traffic played what was to be its last concert for twenty years at the Reading Festival in England. Though there was never any formal announcement, Traffic just came to a halt. “I’d had enough of this album, tour, album, tour,” Winwood confessed to Rolling Stone in 1988.” It was like I was on a treadmill and there was no way of getting off. I just had to say, ‘That’s it with Traffic; no way can I do that anymore.’”
So the nucleus of Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood split and went their own ways in 1974. Capaldi recorded a few solo albums, though none came close to matching those of the Traffic era; Wood died of a liver ailment in 1983 following years of drinking and drug abuse; and Winwood went on to meteoric solo success in the 1980s with hugely successful pop albums such as 1980’s Arc of a Diver, the Grammy-award winning Back in the Highlife in 1986, and 1988’s Roll with It. Winwood, however, fell back into the trap of playing the kind of saccharine-laced pop he accused the Spencer Davis Group of playing when he left that band. His antidote in 1967 was to form Traffic; the answer in 1994, he felt, was to reform Traffic. “My own solo work had gotten a little pasteurized,” he confessed to Jeff Gordinier of Entertainment Weekly. “Traffic put a little bacteria back into it. By bacteria, I mean a certain looseness, nonconformity, freedom.”
With Wood gone, however, and Dave Mason recording and touring with the umpteenth version of Fleetwood Mac, that left just Winwood and Capaldi to get Traffic moving again. They began with the album, Far from Home, and carried through with a world tour that included Woodstock ’94. Reviews of both the album and tour were decidedly mixed. J.D. Considine of Rolling Stone suggested the album “easily suited the soulful spirit and jazzy groove of Mr. Fantasy or The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, “but conceded, “what passes for melody on most of the songs is generic and forgettable.” Parke Puterbaugh of Stereo Review concurred, stating that while pleasant, Winwood and Capaldi “coast along on autopilot, providing comfortable background music that packs little of the emotional shiver of which the duo is capable.” Deborah Frost of Entertainment Weekly, however, took out both guns and blasted the twosome for the “fairly crass attempt to jump-start two stalled solo careers and exploit a legendary brand name in the process.”
Whether or not the 1994 version of Traffic is truly the last one is unknown, but it seems without the presence of Wood, the band misses a vital ingredient. Winwood himself said as much in Welch’s biography: “Jim and I could play and sing, but Chris gave the band it’s character. Traffic must belong…to Chris Wood. He was more responsible for the sound than anyone else.” And it was the sound of Traffic, after all, which gave the band such a distinct voice during the late 60s and early 70s. “We’d listen to different kinds of music,” Winwood recalled to Rolling Stone in 1988. “Classical, folk, jazz, all kinds of ethnic music, country music, early rock, blues, and the only thing we calculated was to try in some way to incorporate all of them. We were trying to get ourselves a sound which was purely Traffic and couldn’t be mistaken for anybody else.”
Mr. Fantasy, United Artist, 1967.
Traffic, United Artists, 1968.
Last Exit, United Artists, 1969.
The Best of Traffic, United Artists, 1969.
John Barleycorn Must Die, United Artists, 1970.
Welcome to the Canteen, United Artists, 1971.
The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, Island, 1971.
Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory, Island, 1973.
On the Road, Island, 1973.
Where the Eagle Flies, lsland, 1974.
Smiling Phases, Island, 1991.
Far from Home, Virgin, 1994.
Welch, Chris, and Steve Winwood, Roll with It, Perigree Books, 1990.
White, Timothy, Rock Lives, Henry Holt & Co., 1990.
Entertainment Weekly, May 6, 1994, p. 65.
Rotting Sterne, January 4, 1969, p. 28; May 3, 1969, p. 17; August 6, 1970, p. 26; September 3, 1970, p. 42; June 20, 1972, p. 48; November 7, 1974, p.62; December 1, 1988, p. 46; June 16, 1994, p. 108; October 25, 1994, p. 46.
Stereo Review, July 1994, p. 86.
traf·fic / ˈtrafik/ • n. 1. vehicles moving on a road or public highway: a stream of heavy traffic. ∎ a large number of such vehicles: we were caught in traffic on the expressway. ∎ the movement of other forms of transportation or of pedestrians: managing the air traffic was a mammoth task. ∎ the transportation of goods or passengers: the increased use of railroads for goods traffic. ∎ the messages or signals transmitted through a communications system: data traffic between remote workstations.2. the action of dealing or trading in something illegal: the traffic in stolen cattle.3. archaic dealings or communication between people.• v. (-ficked, -fick·ing) [intr.] deal or trade in something illegal: the government will vigorously pursue individuals who traffic in drugs.DERIVATIVES: traf·fick·er n.traf·fic·less adj.
merchandise transported from place to place; the movement of vehicles; lumber; trash; rubbish, 1628; the rabble.
Examples : traffic of faculties, 1633; of honour, 1702; of omnibuses, cabs, carriages, and carts, 1886.