Traffic might go down in rock history as the best unheralded rock band of the era. As good as they were, releasing multiple studio in the late 60s, early 70s, this eclectic group of musicians never fully reached their potential. That’s not saying they weren’t a great band. For the period there were few other bands playing their style and playing at that level. I’m just saying you have to wonder what music was still in the creative box when Traffic went their separate ways.
Early in 1967 a quartet of musicians jammed for the first time at the Elbow Room in Birmingham, U.K. Keyboardist and singer Steve Winwood, of the Spencer Davis Group, drummer Jim Capaldi, enigmatic guitarist Dave Mason, and woodwinds genius Chris Wood, together founded Traffic immediately after the impromptu jam session.
Their debut album, Mr. Fantasy, released in December of 1967, became a big hit in England but barely blipped the charts in the U.S. By the time Fantasy released, Mason had already left the band in what would become a revolving door for the Traffic guitarist.
He returned a few months later to contribute to the second album, Traffic. Mason’s Feelin’ Alright would become one of Traffic’s most successful hits and was successfully covered by Joe Cocker, Three Dog Night, Grand Funk Railroad, Widespread Panic, The Black Crowes, and many others.
Following the Traffic album creative differences began to unfold as Winwood, Wood, and Capaldi, wanted to take the group in a different direction, opting for more of a folk/blues style rather than their earlier psychedelic/eclectic rock sound, while Mason remained firmly rooted in psychedelic pop.
Traffic’s next album was appropriately titled, Last Exit. Around this same time Steve Winwood abruptly left the band without explanation to the rest of his collaborators. Island Records released Exit as a hodge-podge of studio work still in the vault. Although Mason is pictured on the album cover he actually performed on very little of this album.
“Because of the way I ended the Spencer Davis Group, I saw no reason why I shouldn’t leave Traffic and move on. It seemed to me a normal thing to do.”
— Steve Winwood
After his departure from Traffic, Winwood formed the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith with friend Eric Clapton, former Cream drummer, Ginger Baker, and bassist Ric Grech. As quickly as the group formed to release its iconic self-titled album, Blind Faith went their separate ways after only six months.
Winwood went in the studio to record a solo album reportedly to be titled, Mad Shadows. With only two tracks in the can Winwood longed for the creative companionship of his former bandmates. He recruited Capaldi and Wood to assist. The session turned into a Traffic reunion and their most commercially successful release to date —John Barleycorn Must Die. The album launched in July of 1970 without Dave Mason.
As did most of their sessions, Barleycorn featured heavy influences from jazz and blues, but the version of the traditional English folk tune “John Barleycorn” showed strong roots in folk baroque and electric folk music.
That same year Traffic began expanding its lineup with former Derek and the Dominos drummer Jim Gordon and percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah. Dave Mason also returned in 1971 for his third and a short, final stint with the group.
After Mason’s final departure Traffic released its fifth studio album, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. The album reached the top ten in the U.S. but failed to chart in the U.K.
John Barleycorn is my favorite of all the Traffic albums with Low Spark coming in a close second.
It took nearly another two years for another Traffic album to hit the streets. Shootout at the Fantasy Factory was released in February of 1973. In general, Shootout received an abundance of critical reviews from Rolling Stone, Billboard, and many others, but still managed to achieve six on the album charts.
The following year Traffic released their (thought to be) final album, When The Eagle Flies. The release became another Top Ten album in the US (#9), and moderately successful in the UK (#31).
A subsequent tour of the USA, while successful in terms of ticket sales, took its toll on the band. At the Chicago show Winwood left the stage in the middle of the performance and did not return. The next day he left the tour without telling a soul. The band was left waiting for him prior to that evening’s performance. Feeling Winwood had been integral to Traffic’s music, the remaining members opted not to continue the band without him. And that was the end of Traffic.
“Rosko Gee and I were the only ones in anything like normal shape.
Steve was having recurrent problems with the peritonitis,
and Chris’ body was suffering from chemical warfare.”
— Jim Capaldi on the Eagle Flies tour
Steve Winwood embarked on a solo career. Chris Wood died in 1983, from pneumonia.
Fast-forward to 1994. The remaining members of Traffic regrouped to do a summer tour with The Grateful Dead. Later that same year Winwood and Capaldi released Far From Home, roughly 20 years after what was thought to be Traffic’s final album. The release reached #33 on the US Billboard charts.
Traffic was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on 15 March 2004.
Tentative plans for another Traffic project were cut short by Jim Capaldi’s death at age 60 in January 2005, ending the songwriting partnership with Winwood that had fueled Traffic from its beginning.
Traffic music continues to get extensive air play on album rock stations and satellite radio. Their music lives on in a new generation of artist pointing to the inspirational style of this great rock band.