Traffic formed in 1967 (after Steve Winwood left The Spencer Davis Group) and were the first act signed to the new Island Records label (label boss Chris Blackwell also served as their manager). The group achieved immediate success with the singles Paper Sun – which hit the Top 5 in June – and Hole In My Shoe, which peaked at #2.
Three weeks after its release, Traffic played their first live show on Sunday 24 September 1967 at London’s Saville Theatre. The band attracted many celebrity fans, and Jimi Hendrix even recruited Winwood, Mason and Wood to play on Electric Ladyland.
All the members of Traffic moved (at the suggestion of Winwood) into a former gamekeeper’s cottage at Aston Tirrold in Berkshire. Hidden away in a copse of hazelnut and pine trees, Sheepcott Farm was a quarter of a mile from the nearest house.
All-night jams took place on a specially-built outdoor stage (pictured below), and when guests such as Pete Townshend, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton and Eric Burdon arrived they would hold parties that lasted for days, complete with late-night trips across the downs in Mason’s jeep.
Friction between Winwood and Mason saw the latter depart from the band in December 1967, even before their debut album, Mr Fantasy, was released. The LP was a hit in the UK album charts, and Traffic embarked on a tour of America as a trio with Winwood doubling up on guitar.
While the attitude was commendable, the results were mixed. “As a trio, they would either be the best band you’d ever seen or, on a bad night, the worst,” reflected Chris Blackwell.
Mason subsequently re-joined Traffic for their self-titled second album in 1968. Recorded in just 10 days by Jimmy Miller, Traffic was proof that all those months of groovy mysticism in Berkshire weren’t wasted.
The band channelled the vibe of Sheepcott Farm straight into their music. Featuring stand-out tracks Feelin’ Alright and You Can All Join In, the album embraced R&B, psychedelia, jazz and folk. For many, it remains their greatest achievement.
Despite the success of the album, old rifts soon re-emerged and Winwood fired Dave Mason and announced he was breaking up the band.
With the future looking bleak, Island released the ominously titled Last Exit at the end of 1969. Steve Winwood then formed Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Rick Grech, but the new band lasted less than a year.
Winwood called up Wood and Capaldi in 1970 to help him on a solo recording project called John Barleycorn Must Die. The album was ultimately released under the Traffic moniker and the band were back in action again (sans Mason) with their most successful album to date.
A certain amount of overdubbing was needed to produce the album. Winwood carried the triple load of lead vocals, guitar and piano, but the inevitably spacey arrangements allowed Winwood and pals to “go places within the music that we had never gone before”.
Their next album, 1971’s The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys came draped in ambiguities. Housed in a ground-breaking cube-effect sleeve, the title was inspired by actor Michael J Pollard who had been carousing with Capaldi in Morocco.
US audiences regarded Traffic as an English Grateful Dead – stoned voyagers seeking out new sounds – and the re-born group began a gruelling touring schedule, occasionally augmented on stage by Rick Grech on bass and violin and Jim Gordon on drums. Muscle Shoals session men David Hood (bass) and Roger Hawkins (drums) played with Traffic in the studio for their 1973 album, Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory.
After Traffic’s return to England following their January 1973 US tour the seven-member band toured Europe and recorded the live On The Road album in Germany. Winwood then pared the band down, keeping Reebop on congas. The changes forced the cancellation of another US tour and inhibited promotion of the now obsolete live album.
Winwood then contracted a serious stomach ailment which confined him to bed for a lengthy period of time while Reebop headed for Ghana and the others retired to a cottage in Wales for a month of jamming and discussion.
When Reebop returned, the band did some recording and decided to add Jamaican Rosko Gee on bass. The five-man Traffic toured Europe again and started touring England, but they lost both money and Reebop. “He just split in Reading”, Winwood explained. “The band was having some outside problems and Reebop was not getting personal fulfilment. You could say the reason behind his going was not musical”.
Touring continued but problems within the band eventually saw Traffic call it a day after their When The Eagle Flies LP (recorded mostly at Winwood’s eight-track home studios).
Winwood pursued a solo career while Capaldi moved to Brazil (he had married a Brazilian woman), delivering the odd hit (notably a cover of The Everly Brothers‘ Love Hurts) in a run of groovy solo albums.
Winwood and Capaldi reunited under the Traffic name in 1994 for a one-off tour and an album of new material (Far From Home). Sadly, Chris Wood did not take part – He had died on 12 July 1983 from alcohol-related liver failure at the age of 39.
Plans for a further reunion were cut short by Capaldi’s death, aged 60, on 28 January 2005.
A celebration for Capaldi – called Dear Mr Fantasy – took place at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, London on Sunday 21 January 2007. Guests included Steve Winwood, Paul Weller, Pete Townshend, Joe Walsh and many more. Dave Mason wasn’t invited to attend.
Vocals, organ, guitar, bass
Guitar, bass, vocals
Reebop Kwaku Baah