Haven’t seen you in a while, how’ve you been?

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell. Last week, I examined the career of the amazing Steve Winwood, a co-founder of the British band Traffic who also had a successful solo career. This week, we’ll explore the altogether different career path taken by another co-founder of Traffic, the great Dave Mason.

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If it’s true that a song may become popular because its lyrics hit a nerve with the music-listening public, then Dave Mason’s hit single “We Just Disagree” is certainly an example of striking a familiar chord. Whether you’re married or just dating, when you feel you’re no longer compatible, you throw in the towel, hopefully amicably. Consider these lyrics: “So let’s leave it alone, ’cause we can’t see eye to eye, /There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy, /There’s only you and me, and we just disagree…”

Mason in 1977

It was Mason’s highest peak on the pop charts, reaching #12.

He’s a talented songwriter, guitarist and singer, but his commercial successes have been few and far between. He has (or at least had) a loyal fan base, and for a while he was a huge draw on the concert circuit. I count myself among his biggest fans, having seen him in concert nine times between 1975 and 2014, and owning most of his recorded output. I can’t help but feel that Mason would have been a bigger star if not for a few mistakes he made along his musical path.

Born in 1946, Mason was one of those British kids who, in an attempt to find something to relieve the boredom and hardship of post-war life in England, discovered music. Like John Lennon, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend and others in the same time and environment, Mason found Elvis, Buddy Holly and early rock and roll, and the blues, all American-born genres that excited him, energized him.

He was only 15 when, after learning to play guitar, he joined his first band The Jaguars, and then The Hellions, playing clubs in his native Worcester as well as Birmingham and eventually the rock club mecca of Hamburg, Germany, just as The Beatles had done. Drummer/singer Jim Capaldi was also in The Hellions, and among the bands they performed with was The Spencer Davis Group, which featured the astounding vocals and organ of Steve Winwood.

Mason and Winwood in front; Capaldi and Wood in back, 1967

Sometimes Mason and Capaldi would jam with Winwood after shows, bringing in sax and flute player Chris Wood from another band. The foursome found that they enjoyed the music they were making, giving Winwood the reason he needed to leave Spencer Davis and form his own group, which they named Traffic (after waiting to cross a busy street one day, as the story goes).

The music that resulted from the group’s retreat to a quiet cottage in the Berkshires was a fascinating amalgam of folk, jazz, rock and psychedelic pop, using everything from Mellotron and sitar to flute and fuzz guitar. Winwood teamed up with lyricist Capaldi to write half the tracks while Mason contributed his own songs, and although that diversity was key to the band’s appeal, it also caused an internal tension that was never really resolved.

The infectious Winwood-Capaldi tune “Paper Sun” was a Top Five hit in the UK, and Mason’s quirky “Hole in My Shoe” just missed #1 there. Winwood, who preferred the give and take of jamming to produce a song, made no bones about not liking Mason’s songs much. “‘Hole in My Shoe’ was a trite little song that didn’t mean anything,” said Winwood years later. Mason said he felt like the odd man out, and shortly after Traffic’s debut album, “Mr. Fantasy,” was released (a Top Ten success in England), Mason left the group and headed to Los Angeles to explore musical possibilities there.

“I was young, and the early fame freaked me out a bit,” said Mason. “The other guys had a chemistry and a lifestyle I wasn’t really a part of, so I impulsively decided to try going solo. I hung around London for a while, then moved out to L.A.”

Hendrix and Mason, 1968

During that period, he befriended Jimi Hendrix and ended up contributing to his “Electric Ladyland” LP, playing acoustic 12-string on “All Along the Watchtower,” a song that would become a staple in Mason’s repertoire. He also was invited to add sitar to The Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.”

Now a three-piece, Traffic toured the U.S. in 1968, ending up in New York where they recorded their follow-up album, entitled simply “Traffic.” Mason came to the conclusion that he may have been rash in leaving, and reunited with the band for those recording sessions. Most important, he brought with him a song that would end up a bonafide rock classic over the years. Some say “Feelin’ Alright?” expresses Mason’s ambivalence about his time with Traffic (“Seems I’ve got have a change in scene…”), but he denies this. “It’s just a song about a girl. It’s just another relationship gone bad.”

Still, the uneasy vibes between Mason and the others remained. Winwood felt Traffic was his band and bristled when Mason’s songs upstaged his. Mason got the message and left again, although it turns out it didn’t much matter. Winwood also moved on, choosing to collaborate with guitarist Eric Clapton in the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith in 1969.

Mason returned to L.A., where he’d been making friends with many in the red-hot music climate there. He found himself hanging out with the likes of Stephen Stills, Leon Russell, Gram Parsons, Mama Cass Elliot, Delaney and Bonnie and others, and often performed on their albums (credited and uncredited). He and Cass Elliot recorded a fairly decent album together in 1969, with Mason writing the majority of material and Elliot offering up her fine harmonies, but it would be another two years before it was released to a lukewarm reception. (You’d be well advised to listen to “Walk to the Point,” “Too Much Truth, Too Much Love” and “Pleasing You” to hear the best moments.)

Cass Elliot, Ned Doheny (top) and Mason, 1970

By early 1970, Mason had compiled a group of eight or ten strong songs, and Mason pitched demos to a few companies. Bob Krasnow and Tommy LiPuma, who would become industry moguls running Warners and Elektra years later, were just starting out their label, Blue Thumb Records, and when they heard the demos, they were eager to sign Mason. “The songs were so strong, you had to be deaf not to hear it. He was such a great player and songwriter.”

Mason’s “Alone Together,” 1970

They offered the budget to bring in a stellar cast of players for the sessions: Jim Gordon and Carl Radle from Delaney and Bonnie’s band, Leon Russell on keyboards, singers Bonnie Bramlett and Rita Coolidge, and LiPuma himself co-producing with Mason. The result was the superbly titled “Alone Together” (solo but with plenty of help), easily Mason’s best and most consistent LP. Critics loved it, and it peaked at an impressive #22 on the US charts.

Mason’s songs were deeply melodic, and his distinctive 12-string guitar and husky, soulful vocals shone especially brightly on “World in Changes,” “Sad and Deep as You” and the infectious leadoff track, “Only You and I Know.” It had a disappointing showing as the single, stalling at #42 in the U.S., but when Delaney and Bonnie covered it the next year, it reached #22 and turned a lot of heads.

Although he was a minstrel at heart, Mason also played a mean electric guitar, demonstrated most clearly on “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave” and especially “Look at You, Look at Me,” where his solo in the final minutes will have you picking your jaw up off the floor.

It was at this point that Mason made a fateful decision to play hardball with his record company. He insisted on making a double album, half studio and half live. He wanted a better contract too, and even went so far as to abscond with master tapes of the sessions in progress. Blue Thumb didn’t take it well.

“Mason wanted out because Columbia was offering him a deal,” said LiPuma. “The album sold well, and he was becoming an arena-rock draw on the road. But instead of negotiating, he took our tapes, which we saw as blackmail.” What Mason didn’t know is LiPuma had a back-up set of masters, and with them, he cobbled together “Headkeeper,” an album made without Mason’s approval that included four new but demo-like studio tracks and five live songs performed at L.A.’s Troubadour in 1972.

Mason in 1972

Because Mason was unhappy with the unfinished tracks, and he hadn’t approved the album’s song selection, mixing or cover art, he declared it “little more than a bootleg” and urged fans to avoid it. It wasn’t bad, but it could’ve been much better (it could only muster #50 on U.S. charts). It was an ill-advised turn of events that hurt his career momentum.

He couldn’t record elsewhere until the business mess could be resolved, so he went out on the road — a lot. Almost non-stop. It made him a lot of money and became a way of life for him. Columbia did sign him a year later and bought out the Blue Thumb contract, and their mostly amicable relationship lasted throughout the 1970s.

“It’s Like You Never Left,” 1973

The Columbia debut, 1973’s “It’s Like You Never Left,” sold reasonably well and was a favorite with Mason fans. It has a reworked, superior version of “Headkeeper,” an irresistible instrumental jam called “Sidetracked” and a lovely ballad called “The Lonely One” that features Stevie Wonder’s incomparable harmonica.

Mason’s solid covers of “Watchtower” and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” highlight his 1974 album, “Dave Mason,” temporarily hiding the fact that there seemed to be a growing sameness about his own songs, which carried over onto his substandard 1975 release “Split Coconut.” Still, there were always a few tracks that showed Mason hadn’t lost his touch (“Give Me a Reason Why” and “You Can Lose It”), and both of these albums went gold. As Peter Frampton’s juggernaut “Frampton Comes Alive!” soared up the charts in 1976, Columbia rushed out a lookalike package for Mason’s “Certified Live” double album, which was pretty damn good, but sales were flat.

“Let It Flow,” 1977

Mason needed the one thing he’d never had yet — a hit single. That came with his guitar compatriot Jim Krueger’s great song “We Just Disagree.” The recording was crisp and polished, as it was for the excellent “Let It Flow” album it came from. FM radio was good to Mason in 1977, putting “So High,” “Mystic Traveler” and “Let It Go, Let It Flow” in heavy rotation, as “We Just Disagree” reached #12 on the Top 40. One more gold album came in 1978, “Mariposa de Oro,” which sounds like a lesser sequel to “Let It Flow” — gorgeous production but only a few strong songs (“So Good to Be Home,” “Warm Desire” and a cover of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”).

There are those who say Mason should have cut back on his touring to focus more on honing his songwriting chops, and they may have a case. By 1980’s dud “Old Crest on a New Wave,” the jig was up. His songs had become uninspired and repetitive, and his attempt at disco funk on “Save Me” (with Michael Jackson on harmonies) was, at best, a failed experiment. Columbia dropped him, and he spent the Eighties and Nineties in relative obscurity.

I almost don’t want to mention his short stint in Fleetwood Mac in 1995 for the miserable “Time” album, mentioned on a few “Worst Albums of the 1990s” lists. Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were gone, and Christine McVie, who had quit touring, was on the sessions only as a favor to the label, so it was a radically different lineup with Mason, rockabilly guitarist Billy Burnette and Southern soul singer Bekka Bramlett, daughter of Delaney and Bonnie. A good time was not had by all.

“26 Letters, 12 Notes,” 2008

It wouldn’t be until 2008 when Mason released “26 Letters, 12 Notes” on a Sony subsidiary label. No one noticed (I admit it went under my radar too), but when I first heard it during my research this past week, I was thrilled by the quality of songs and production. The blues groove of “Good 2 U,” the inventive melodic lines of “How Do I Get to Heaven” and “Passing Thru the Flame, the pretty acoustic/electric instrumental “El Toro” — these rank up there with Mason’s best work, I’m delighted to say.

Mason was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 as part of Traffic. Chris Wood had died in 1983, but Mason, Winwood and Capaldi all attended and seemed to get along well, participating in the end-of-evening jam of “Feelin’ Alright” with Keith Richards, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, The Temptations and ZZ Top.

Over the past 15-20 years, Mason has remained active performing periodically, and had a tour planned for this year until COVID wiped that off the books. Just for fun this year, he convened a virtual band online called Dave Mason and The Quarantines that included Sammy Hagar, Michael McDonald, Mick Fleetwood, and Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston and John McFee of The Doobie Brothers to cut a new version of “Feelin’ Alright” that’s well worth a listen.

Mason is most active in philanthropies, including Little Kids Rock, a non-profit that promotes music education for disadvantaged children; YogaBlue, which promotes yoga as a therapy for those in substance abuse recovery; and Rock Our Vets, which provides food and clothing and access to computers for homeless veterans.

Mason in 2014

I saw Mason in 2014 at a members-only private show at the Grammy Museum in L.A., and while he played only 40 minutes, he didn’t disappoint. His voice and guitar skills were still mighty impressive.

No one can say whether things might have turned out better if he hadn’t temporarily lost his momentum and, seemingly, his songwriting muse. Regardless, I believe his artistry surely deserves more attention than it has received. With profile pieces like this one, and the Spotify playlist below, I hope I can contribute to a Dave Mason revival of sorts.

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Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell. This week and next, I’ll be examining the careers of two multi-talented singer/songwriters whose musical arcs briefly overlapped in the ’60s and then went in different directions through the ’70s and ’80s and beyond. This week in Part One, we’ll take a look at the amazing Steve Winwood. Next week in Part Two, we’ll explore the interesting path taken by the great Dave Mason.

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Summer 1969. Over the previous six months, I had become a huge fan of Cream, the British blues power trio featuring guitarist Eric Clapton, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce. The group had already disbanded, but that didn’t stop me from immersing myself in their albums. As a budding guitarist myself, I idolized Clapton and was eager to find out what he was going to do next.

By August, the record stores were touting a new album by a new “supergroup” called Blind Faith, comprised of Clapton and Baker with a keyboardist/singer named Steve Winwood, and bassist Ric Grech. I bought the LP immediately and, while I was at first disappointed by the absence of firepower Cream had been known for, I was particularly taken by the vocals of this guy Winwood. Haunting and beautiful, soaring and bluesy, his voice was a revelation to me, as was the fact that he’d been in not one but two successful groups previously, even though he was then only 21.

I am sheepish to admit that, at that time, I knew almost nothing of Traffic, the band Winwood had put together in 1967. It took another couple of years before I truly became familiar with the group through their albums in the early ’70s, and longer still to appreciate the fine work from the first three Traffic albums, or his contributions to the Spencer Davis Group before that, while still just a teenager.

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Winwood, a product of Birmingham, England, had been something of a boy wonder, learning piano early and developing his voice as he absorbed many different types of music. “I was a chorister in the High Anglican Church,” he said in a 2017 interview with Classic Rock, a British music magazine. “That music got under my skin somehow. Then along came skiffle and early rock ‘n roll and Buddy Holly. And later on came Ray Charles, who had a big influence on me and introduced me to this crossover from bebop and jazz into rock and R&B. I was so engrossed with learning all these different types of music, and trying to play them all, and realizing that being on stage was just part of it. It didn’t occur to me that there was anything I should shy away from.”

Spencer Davis Group, with Winwood at far right

Nevertheless, both Winwood brothers joined up and became key cogs in the Spencer Davis Group. Clapton, in his 2007 autobiography, recalls hearing Winwood for the first time in 1963. “He was only 15,” he recalled. “If you closed your eyes, you’d swear it was Ray Charles up there. He was like a much older man in a boy’s skin.”

By 1965, the group was making a huge splash, first on the British charts with the #1 R&B-flavored singles “Keep On Running” and “Somebody Help Me,” and then in the US in 1966 with the Top Ten hits “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man,” both written by Winwood. His outstanding vocals and organ dominated the group’s sound, and gave him the confidence to think about branching out.

Interestingly, Cream was just forming at that time, and Clapton was keen on asking Winwood to join, but Baker and Bruce stood firm on wanting the trio format. “There was a lack of synchronization at the time,” said Winwood, “and I guess the offer to be a part of Cream never came through. I certainly would’ve taken the job.” The mind reels at the thought of how different Cream would’ve sounded with Winwood in the fold…

Traffic in 1967. Dave Mason and Winwood in front, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood in back

The music that came out of those sessions turned a lot of heads. First came Winwood’s infectious single, “Paper Sun,” followed soon after by Mason’s trippy “Hole in My Shoe.” Both songs reached the Top Five in the UK. The debut LP, “Mr. Fantasy,” which peaked at #16, was dominated by songs written by Winwood (music) and Capaldi (lyrics), including “Heaven Is In Your Mind,” “No Face, No Name, No Number” and the anthemic “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” There was an alluring stew of soulful blues, strange psychedelia and blues rock. (In the US, the time apparently wasn’t right yet for Traffic; the album stalled at #88 and the singles went nowhere.)

Mason, spooked by the early immediate success in England, chose to leave, although he would return in time for sessions for the next LP, titled simply “Traffic.” The Capaldi/Winwood axis came up with great tracks like “Pearly Queen” and “40,000 Headmen,” and Mason brought well-crafted songs like “You Can All Join In” and perhaps his most famous tune, “Feelin’ Alright?” which ended up being covered by dozens of artists over the years, most notably Joe Cocker, whose definitive rendition reached the Top 40 in the US.

But Mason then split again — as his lyric states, “Seems I’ve got to have a change in scene…” — so Traffic soldiered on as a trio, expanding their touring to include their first visit to the US. Live recordings from those shows were used to augment several stray studio tracks like “Medicated Goo” and “Shanghai Noodle Factory” to produce a third Traffic LP, “Last Exit,” which sounded decidedly inferior to the first two.

At that point, Winwood concluded he needed a change as well and pulled the plug on Traffic — for now. He accepted Clapton’s overture to at last pool their talents to see what might come of it. They squirreled away in the same rural Berkshire cottage, jamming and trying out new song ideas. Baker heard about this and showed up too, and Winwood called his friend Ric Grech to join them on bass and violin, and Blind Faith was born.

Winwood, Ric Grech, Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton

The media hype surrounding the band doomed them from the get-go. “Blind Faith was pretty murky, really,” Winwood remembers. “That didn’t really work out quite as well as Eric and I had intended. I don’t think there was any one reason for that, but Eric didn’t want to carry on doing what he’d been doing with Cream. We were both looking for something else. The music that we started off doing was acoustic and jangly. It had a sort of folk element to it, which is not something that goes down too well in the arena rock environment. We had pressures from the business to start recording before we were ready, and we were suddenly playing big places. Neither of us were into that. We were starting to lose interest at different points and were drifting apart.”

The album reached #1 in the US and the UK, but after the tour, the group parted ways. But as we will see, the world hadn’t heard the last of the Winwood/Clapton collaboration.

Winwood thought the time was ripe for his first solo LP, and he began writing and recording songs for it. As sessions continued, though, he found himself missing input from Wood and Capaldi, particularly Wood’s flute and sax, so he invited them to participate. It became obvious that this was now going to become another Traffic album, and so it was: “John Barleycorn Must Die,” released in the summer of 1970, would become the highest charting Traffic LP in the US, peaking at #5. FM rock stations played it relentlessly, especially the jazzy instrumental “Glad,” the sax-driven rocker “Freedom Rider” and the more accessible “Empty Pages.”

Incredibly, Mason returned yet again (briefly) as part of a US tour, recordings from which comprised the so-so live album “Welcome to the Canteen.” Traffic’s lineup expanded at that point to include Grech on bass,

 

Traffic in 1971, from left: Wood, Grech, Gordon, Baah, Capaldi, Winwood

second drummer Jim Gordon (formerly with Derek and the Dominos) and Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah, which accentuated their tendency toward unusual rhythms and longer jams.

Late in 1971 came what many people (including me) feel is Traffic’s finest moment, the captivating “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” LP. The mesmerizing, 12-minute title track is still a classic rock favorite, and “Many a Mile to Freedom” and “Hidden Treasure” show the group still in command of their original semi-trippy sound. Two other tracks — “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” and “Rock and Roll Stew” — offered Traffic doing straightforward rock, with Capaldi handling lead vocals.

Winwood had been suffering occasional bouts of peritonitis (inflammation of the abdomen), which affected his stage performances and his interest in music in general, so after two rather uneven albums (1973’s “Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory” and 1974’s “When the Eagle Flies”) and another live LP, Traffic called it quits.

“In the mid-to-late Seventies,” he said, “I dropped out a little from the rock’n’roll world. I made a conscious effort to do a lot of sessions and work as a sideman, to try to learn how other people were putting music together. Then later on, of course, punk emerged. I found that tricky, because punk rock was almost a reaction against what I’d been doing. It was difficult for me to grasp that, so I suppose I sort of went underground a little.”

Winwood finally released his first solo album in late 1977, with help from a variety of session men, and reaction was decidedly mixed. It had its moments, like the mid-tempo “Vacant Chair” and “Time is Running Out” with its galloping rhythm, but it wasn’t the killer album everyone had been anticipating.

Instead, that album came in late 1981, when “Arc of a Diver” kickstarted his solo career big time. He teamed up with Texan songwriter Will Jennings to provide lyrics for a batch of great songs like “Second Hand Woman,” “Night Train” and the melodic title song. It was truly a one-man tour de force, with Winwood playing all the instruments himself. The leadoff track, “While You See a Chance,” peaked at #7 in the US, beginning his decade-long commercial success here, and the album reached #3. A retrospective review on AllMusic gushed, “Utterly unencumbered by the baggage of his long years in the music business, Winwood reinvented himself as a completely contemporary artist on this outstanding album.”

I never quite understood why the 1982 follow-up LP, “Talking Back to the Night,” didn’t equal its predecessor’s success, at least in the US, where it stalled at #28. Songs like “Big Girls Walk Away,” “Help Me Angel” and the amazing title song deserved more attention, as did “Valerie,” which did finally reach #9 five years after initial release when it was remixed and included on Winwood’s “Chronicles” collection.

A period of soul-searching and a divorce resulted in a move to New York, where he teamed up with some marquis players like Nile Rodgers, Joe Walsh, Chaka Khan and James Taylor and veteran producer Russ Titelman to make the outstanding, award-winning “Back in the High Life” album. Three hit singles — “The Finer Things,” “Back in the High Life Again” and the Grammy winner “Higher Love” — helped put the album at #3 in 1986. I loved this album for its crisp production and satisfying songs.

He concluded his commercial period in 1988 with his only #1 album, “Roll With It,” and another trio of Top Ten singles: “Roll With It” (strongly reminiscent of Junior Walker’s ’60s hit “Shotgun”), “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do” and “Holding On.”

By this point, I was starting to tire of him because of overexposure, and apparently I wasn’t alone, for his sales and popularity (and, consequently, his recorded output) dropped off dramatically in the ’90s and beyond. I continued to buy his stuff — 1990’s “Refugees of the Heart,” 1997’s “Junction Seven” and 2003’s “About Time” — but rarely played them.

It was big news in some circles when Winwood announced a Traffic reunion in 1994, although it didn’t include Mason nor Grech or Baah, and Wood had passed away in 1983. So it was pretty much just Winwood and Capaldi who collaborated on the excellent “Far From Home” album, which reached the Top 30 in both the US and the UK. Some said it sounded like another Winwood solo album, and while it’s true that the majority of tracks wouldn’t have been out of place on “Roll With It,” at least two — “Here Comes a Man” and the superb “Far From Home” — recall the “Low Spark” era of Traffic.

Winwood asked Clapton in 2008 to play a solo on the track “Dirty City” from his final solo LP to date, “Nine Lives,” and it’s a beauty. Other songs also received airplay, like the beautiful “Fly” and “Secrets,” which helped send the album to #12 (although that kind of rating doesn’t have the same clout or meaning in the age of downstreaming).

That small project brought the two veterans together in a much larger way in 2009 for “Live From Madison Square Garden,” where Clapton and Winwood offered a dizzying set list of songs from Cream, Traffic, Blind Faith and both of their solo albums. That live album was so well received that the duo went on world tour for a year.

Today, at age 72, Winwood still performs periodically and had planned a tour with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (wow!) this year that was cancelled like every other tour because of the coronavirus. As a 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee with Traffic, and ranked #33 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, Winwood’s stature in the business is secure.

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