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Off the Beaten Tracks: Traffic Report

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WHEN Steve Winwood first played piano in pubs and clubs, his bandmates made sure he faced away from the audience at all times. This was so the punters wouldn’t realise he was only eight years old and not allowed on licensed premises.

By his early teens, he was playing the Hammond organ and guitar behind blues giants including Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley when they visited Birmingham during their solo UK tours, which relied on local musicians to provide the backing. At 14 he was in a successful pop band, at 16 he sang on a chart-topping single and by 21 he was a member of one of the first supergroups. Talk about an early developer!

Stephen Lawrence Winwood was born on May 12, 1948, in Handsworth. His father Lawrence was a foundryman and part-time musician, playing saxophone and clarinet. Steve began playing piano at four, with drums and guitar following soon afterwards. By 1956 he, dad and bass-playing elder brother Muff, nicknamed innocently after the children’s TV character Muffin the Mule, were regular members of the Ron Atkinson Band (no relation to the former football manager and pundit noted for expressions including:

They’ve picked their heads up off the ground, and they now have a lot to carry on their shoulders.

Well, either side could win it, or it could be a draw.

And ‘I never comment on referees and I’m not going to break the habit of a lifetime for that prat.’)

I digress.

When Steve was in his third year at Great Barr comprehensive school, he and Muff, then aged 19, were invited by the guitarist Spencer Davis to join his band. They and drummer Pete York formed the Rhythm and Blues Quartette, which later became the Spencer Davis Group, performing around the Birmingham area with Steve on vocals emulating his hero Ray Charles. Quite how many times he was late for school after his nocturnal exertions is not on record, although teachers later recalled a conscientious pupil who was good at maths.

In 1964 the band was signed to the fledgling Island Records by founder Chris Blackwell but released singles on Fontana because of its superior distribution system. By the end of 1965 the SDG was celebrating its first number one record, Keep On Running, followed by further hits Gimme Some Lovin’ and I’m a Man. 

In 1966, while still with the group, Winwood collaborated with a certain blues guitarist in a project called Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse, featuring Paul Jones on harmonica, Pete York on drums and Jack Bruce on bass. Clapton would later form Cream with Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. Only three songs were recorded before the Powerhouse ran out of steam – these appeared on the Elektra compilation album What’s Shakin’ and included Crossroads, the Robert Johnson number and nothing to do with the flimsy Midlands soap opera motel infested by the likes of Amy Turtle, Benny and Miss Diane.

This reminds me that during the Falklands War, British soldiers referred to islanders as Bennies because they all wore woolly hats similar to that sported by the Crossroads handyman played by actor Paul Henry. The locals objected to this because they felt it implied they were slow-witted, like Benny, so the squaddies were ordered not to use the term any more. Their response was to call the Falklanders Stills (because they were Still Bennies). Which leads somewhat tenuously to the fact that more Benedictine is consumed in the Burnley area than anywhere else on the planet. This stems from the Great War, when soldiers from the East Lancashire Regiment stationed in northern France acquired a taste for the sweet liqueur with a dash of hot water to fight the chill in the trenches. The mixture is known to its Lancastrian fans as a Benny and ’ot. Burnley Miners’ Club is said to be Benedictine’s best customer in the world, its 600 thirsty members getting through 1,000 bottles a year. And Turf Moor, home of beloved Burnley FC, is the only ground anywhere in the land to serve Benny and ’ot to supporters, who dispatch 30 bottles every home match.

Now where was I? Oh yes, the following year Winwood quit the Spencer Davis Group. At a Birmingham club called The Elbow Room he took part in a jam session with guitarist Dave Mason, drummer Jim Capaldi and saxophonist-flautist Chris Wood. They blended so well that they instantly decided to form a band. They repaired to a rented farmhouse on the Berkshire Downs after signing up to Island Records, which took on Winwood’s brother Muff as an A & R man whose duties included getting Nick Drake out of bed in time for gigs.

The group was named Traffic by Capaldi after the four were held up waiting to cross a busy street. Released in May 1967, their debut single Paper Sun was a big hit, reaching No 5 in the UK. Written by Winwood, it featured his vocals and a sitar riff courtesy of Mason. I bought an ex-jukebox copy (remember them, with the black plastic inserts in the middle?) for two bob and played it to death on our little Dansette.

The follow-up, Mason’s Hole in My Shoe,  did even better, hitting the No 2 spot although the rest of the band disliked its trippy, psychedelic vibe, preferring a more jazz- and blues-based approach. Seventeen years later Neil, the hippie character played by Nigel Planer in the BBC comedy series The Young Ones, was a fan of the song and released his own version. Again it went to No 2. Traffic’s third Top Ten hit of the year was Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, title song of a very-much-of-its-time comedy film.

Just before Christmas came the band’s first album, Mr FantasyRolling Stone magazine’s reviewer was ecstatic. He said Winwood’s voice had ‘matured, acquired new depth and new reaches, a more individual feeling and a greater range in both style and tones’. My favourite tracks are No Face, No Name, No Number, the guitar workout Dear Mr Fantasy and the only song to feature the sitar, (chiz chiz) Utterly Simple

Shortly after the album’s release Mason was on his bike, citing the ‘musical differences’ which had arisen over Hole in My Shoe. He produced the first Family album, Music in a Doll’s House, while the remaining trio went on tour (Traffic Lite?), but was invited to return in May 1968 to contribute to their eponymous second LP.

The opening song, You Can All Join In, provided the title track of the first Island sampler LP available at the budget price of 14s 6d (72p). Apart from Traffic, acts showcased from Island’s impressive roster included Free, Jethro Tull, John Martyn, Spooky Tooth and Fairport Convention. Chris Blackwell was in no doubt why so many leading acts gravitated towards his label. He said Steve Winwood ‘was really the cornerstone of Island Records. He’s a musical genius and because he was with Island all the other talent really wanted to be with us’.

My favourite track on Traffic, by a mile, has to be the lovely Forty Thousand Headmen, which though it sounds like a Mason fantasy was written by Winwood and Capaldi. Mason’s Feelin’ Alright? was a minor hit for the band but proved more successful when recorded by Joe Cocker for his 1969 debut LP With a Little Help From My Friends. Other artists to release it include Three Dog Night, Lulu, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Jackson 5, Isaac Hayes and Paul Weller.

Mason left again before the release of Traffic’s third album, Last Exit. This was a ragbag of single A-sides and B-sides plus two tracks recorded live at the Fillmore West by the touring trio, Feelin’ Good and Blind Man

During 1968, Winwood and Wood spent a lot of time with Jimi Hendrix, contributing to his double album Electric Ladyland. Notably Winwood played bass and organ on the 15-minute slow blues jam Voodoo Chile.

In 1969, Winwood decided his band had reached a T-junction and called a halt. But was that the end of the road for Traffic? Tune in next week for a further bulletin.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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