One of the founding members of Traffic, Steve Winwood (keyboards/singer-songwriter), once became a member of the Spencer Davis Group in 1963 when he was only 15 years old. Together with his brother Muff as well as Pete York and Spencer Davis, the Spencer Davis Group became really successful, placing transatlantic hit songs such as “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m A Man.”
When Winwood left the Spencer Davis Group in 1967, that’s also the year where he formed Traffic. Guitarist/singer Dave Mason and drummer/singer-songwriter Jim Capaldi (both of whom had played in the Hellions and Deep Feeling) as well as sax/winds player Chris Wood (formerly of Locomotive) were also the band’s founding members. Together, they lived in a Berkshire country cottage, where they also began writing songs.
The rise of Traffic
The band first signed to Island, which also used to be the label of the Spencer Davis Group. Traffic released their debut single “Paper Sun,” written by Capaldi and Winwood. It went to #5 on the UK singles chart and was only a minor hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. The Dave Mason-penned single “Hole in My Shoe” was even a bigger smash, peaking at #2 on the UK singles chart.
Despite the success of “Hole in My Shoe,” Winwood was otherwise not quite happy with the way things were going in the band. He, along with Capaldi and Wood, wished a different direction in the band — more folk and blues-based rock orientation. Mason preferred psychedelic rock, and it was no surprise that he was seen as the odd one out by his band mates. Besides artistic differences, Mason also felt ill at ease by his band mates’ lifestyle.
Traffic released their third single “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” (the title song of the 1967 UK film) in late 1967; it was to be their third UK top ten hit at #8. Around the same time of that singles’ release, Traffic also issued their debut LP Mr. Fantasy. The album shot to #8 on the UK album chart, and #88 on the US Billboard 200. By the time Mr. Fantasy came out, Mason had left the band.
However, in 1968 Mason returned through his band mates’ reconciliation with him. He stayed long enough to contribute quite considerably for the band’s eponymous second album. Traffic contained a Mason composition “Feelin’ Alright,” which would be later popularized by Joe Cocker and Three Dog Night.
After the start of the band’s tour to support their second album, the three men dismissed Mason. And following the end of that tour, Winwood decided to quit, signaling the end of Traffic in early 1969. Despite Winwood’s departure and the supposed end of Traffic, the LP Traffic peaked at #9 in UK, #17 in the US.
Following the dissolution of Traffic, Winwood moved on and founded a supergroup called Blind Faith, which consisted of himself, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech. Meanwhile, Mason joined Capaldi and Wood, along with Wynder K. Frog to form the also-short-lived project Wooden Frog.
Although he severed his ties with Traffic, Winwood was still contractually obliged to Island to come up with two more albums. And so, Winwood began to work on what was supposed to be his solo album until he brought in Wood and Capaldi to collaborate with him. The result was another Traffic effort, John Barleycorn Must Diewhich was released in the summer of 1970. That album became another hit for Traffic, reaching #11 on the UK, and even higher in the US at #5. It sold over half a million copies and was given a gold disc.
John Barleycorn Must Die yielded a US minor hit single “Empty Pages” (#74 pop), but the album was to become Traffic’s most successful outing yet. Kicking off their extensive touring, Traffic decided to augment its lineup. Grech was added into the Traffic lineup as its bassist, plus Derek and the Dominoes’ drummer Jim Gordon and Ghanian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah. Mason, who by then was a star in his own right, also joined Traffic in their few UK dates. Their live sets were recorded and put together into one album called Welcome to the Canteen which came out in September 1971. With that live album, the band finally finished their obligations to Island. Welcome to the Canteen failed to make a dent in the UK, but on the US Billboard 200 it went to #26.
The band inked another contract with Island. Traffic released a new album The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, which went to #7 in the US but it was otherwise nowhere in sight on the UK chart. Despite another successful achievement, problems rocked within the band. Grech and Gordon left Traffic in late 1971, while Winwood was struggling with his condition called peritonitis. His illness put Traffic into a hiatus.
While Traffic was inactive for a while, Capaldi took the opportunity to record his debut album Oh How We Danced, which was released in 1972. It was a sizable hit on the Billboard 200.
With Winwood eventually having recovered from his illness, Traffic was once again active, along with new members Roger Hawkins (drums) and David Hood (bass). They released a new album Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory in early 1973. Although it received lukewarm critical reviews, it nevertheless became a US Top Ten hit. The album also featured seasoned session musicians from the famed Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama. Traffic embarked on a world tour, which was eventually chronicled into a live album On the Road. Following the end of the tour, Kwaku Baah left the band. Wood, on the other hand, was struggling with his drug and depression problems.
Split, and reformation; Wood and Capaldi’s death
In 1974, Traffic released their final album When the Eagle Files before quietly splitting up. A combination of exhaustion from their long tour, members’ departures and personal problems might have contributed to its break-up.
The two prominent former Traffic members, Capaldi and Winwood, went on to their own solo careers with varying degrees of success. In 1983, Wood died of pneumonia (or some sources say liver failure).
In 1994, Winwood and Capaldi reunited. Working together again as Traffic, they released what would be their last album Far From Home, in 1994. It debuted at #29 in the UK and #33 in the US. Capaldi died in January 2005, thus effectively ending the band.
Traffic, with its founding members – Winwood, Capaldi, Wood and Mason – was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.