Traffic began life as an almost quaint psychedelic band but ended up as one of the most inventive and most fondly remembered jazzy rock bands Britain has ever produced.
Winwood joined Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason and Chris Woods from the highly successful Spencer Davis Group. Coming out of the heavily industrial city of Birmingham, they soon decided to ‘get it together in the country’ as was de rigeur at the time
Their first single was a big hit. ‘Paper Sun’ was a quintessential dose of English acid, full of Mason’s sitar and lots of freaky phasing in production. They followed this with a bigger hit ‘Hole in My Shoe’ which is quite possibly one of the most stoned records ever to be a hit in the UK.
Their first album, Mr. Fantasy, showed them stretching out a bit more. In truth, they were all serious musos. Being a singles band suddenly seemed a tad frivolous. A top ten record in UK, it broke the 100 in America also.
During the making of the follow up album Mason left, but then was coaxed back and wrote ‘Feelin' Alright’ which became a classic late 60’s tune. Traffic was a great record and the band went out on tour to promote it but just after the start of the tour, they sacked Mason. At the end of the tour Winwood announced the end of Traffic.
He played on sessions with Hendrix, who was secretly desperate to form a group with Winwood who was widely seen as the best white soul singer on earth. Last Exit was a record company cut-and-shunt effort of left-over material and live tracks.
Winwood went off to form Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, but by July 1970 there was another Traffic album.
This time it was a trio of Winwood, Wood and Capaldi. The trippiness was gone. In its place was a more self assured jazzy rock. John Barleycorn Must Die featured great songs like ‘Glad’ and ‘Freedom Rider’ with its inventive sax hook. It was the most popular Traffic album to date.
After the live Welcome to the Canteen, which featured Mason on some cuts, they released Low Spark of High Heeled Boys in December 1972. To Britain’s shame it didn’t chart, but hit 7 in USA. Every bit the equal of John Barleycorn, the title track was a superb piece.
Its follow up Shoot out at the Fantasy Factory did even better in the States and just as bad in the UK. Once again it showed Winwood’s talent for a great vocal on tracks such as ‘Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired.’
The live album On the Road from this period, with Muscle Shoals session greats David Hood, Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett, gathers together much of the best of their 70’s material. On the Road was a stunning document of a sizzling live band on top form.
When the Eagle Flies was their final album. Although another top 10 in America, it’s often ignored by fans, however, it was still a fine record and suggested Winwood and Co. were far from a spent force.
Capaldi had a big solo hit with ‘Love Hurts’ in the UK, Winwood worked with Stomu Yamashta on his Go projects, then embarked on a lucrative solo career with two gently brilliant albums Steve Winwood and Arc of a Diver and the less interesting but much bigger selling Back in the High Life Again.
In 1994 Capaldi and Winwood got back together. Woods sadly died of liver failure. And 20 years after their previous album they released Far From Home and toured the States but the tour was not a success and neither was the record.
It would be hard to find anyone of a certain age who does not recall Traffic without smiling. They were impossible to dislike and when on top form, made some of the most original music of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Winwood will tour this year with The Funk Brothers. Traffic was inducted to the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in March of 2004.