Last evening, my early-spring session on the deck — augmented by a good (Goose Island, if perhaps past its sell-by date) IPA and a nice single malt (Glen Moray) — started, musically, with an album that, for some reason, undeservedly, I listen to rarely.
Dave Mason’s “Headkeeper” is an LP that I’ve owned since the mid-1970s, and was one of the early efforts in my Continuing Digitization Project. It is an interesting sample of the career of an artist who had a semi-significant impact on The Music.
David Thomas Mason was born 71 years ago this week, in Worcester, U.K. Unlike a lot of the early Makers of The Music, Wikipedia doesn’t have much about his early life, or musical influences.
I’ve always associated Mason with Traffic, the band that he co-founded 50 years ago last month. But he wasn’t all that connected to the group; Traffic disbanded two years after it’s founding, and Mason had bailed after the group’s first LP, “Mr. Fantasy.”
Mason returned for Traffic’s second album, the self-titled 1968 project, but then left again. Then, after a 1969 Traffic compilation LP that didn’t include much of his work, he toured for a short while with the other original members.
This come-and-go pattern exemplified his relationship with the other Traffic co-founders. Steve Winwood said at one point that he, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood often wrote together, but Mason seemed to think that he was the frontman and the others his backing band.
Mason might have had an argument, considering his musical work product. He’s credited as the sole writer, or co-writer, on most of Traffic’s songs, including some of the group’s best known, including “Feelin’ Alright” (also a cover hit for Joe Cocker) and “Hole in My Shoe.”
(“Hole in My Shoe” has that wonderful voice-over — provided by the step-daughter of the owner of Island Records, Traffic’s label — about climbing on the back of an albatross. It presages, seemingly, a plot device in the 1990 Disney movie “The Rescuers Down Under.” Go figure …)
“Headkeeper” includes “Feelin’,” which was also a Billboard Hot 100 single for Mongo Santamaria and Grand Funk Railroad, and the Traffic chestnut “Pearly Queen,” which is credited to Capaldi and Winwood. “Feelin’” was also covered by artists as diverse as Gladys Knight and the Pips, Lou Rawls and Three Dog Night (who covered just about everything).
“Headkeeper” also has a number of other examples of Mason’s songwriting craft, like “Just a Song”: “Don't talk to me of fame and fortune/Don't tell me of the things you've read/Don’t get involved in games of reason/There ain't no reason I could see for you to win.”
Also on the album is “To Be Free”: “Searching for a feeling/Like the movement of the sea/Like a wheel within a wheel/Only man and woman see.” Plus a lot of tasty guitar work, some of it live; one side of the disc is studio, but the other was recorded at the famed Troubadour club in Los Angeles.
Mason’s backstory, between leaving and rejoining Traffic, is also interesting. He was a friend of Jimi Hendrix, who made his breakthrough in the U.K. Hendrix first heard Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” — one of the guitar virtuoso’s signature songs — while with Mason, who played 12-string on that recording.
Mason made an uncredited appearance on the Rolling Stones’ classic album “Beggar’s Banquet,” and toured with Delaney (Bramlett) and Bonnie and Friends, which road show also included former Cream guitarist Eric Clapton and ex-Beatle Goerge Harrison.
Mason appeared on Harrison’s breakthrough album “All Things Must Pass,” and was at one time slated to be a member of Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos project. His solo efforts include “Alone Together,” and the 1977 hit “We Just Disagree” (although that was written by someone else).
Mason briefly was a member of Fleetwood Mac in the mid-1990s, and was supposed to be part of ex-Beatle Ringo Starr’sAll-Starr Band. As recently as 2005, he was still touring regularly; he also was active supporter of music education for children.
Listening to “Headkeeper” the night before prompted me to listen to the two Traffic albums I have in my library, “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” and “John Barleycorn Must Die.” Both were Top 10 LPs in the U.S., and both are very enjoyable.
“John Barleycorn” of course features the title tune, a traditional English folk tune about the vital necessity of adult beverages: “The huntsman he can’t hunt the fox/Nor so loudly to blow his horn/And the tinker he can’t mend kettle nor pot/Without a little barleycorn.”
Neither of those albums involve Mason, but they also showcase the talents of the other original members of Traffic. Capaldi and Winwood, I have mentioned before, and the latter in particular has a significant place in the history of The Music.
Winwood began performing at age eight, in a band that included his father and older brother, but gained fame as the 14-year-old keyboard player and vocalist of the Spencer Davis Group (which also included his brother, Muff), most notably heard on “I’m a Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
Winwood essentially broke up Traffic to form Blind Faith, with Clapton, but that much-hyped supergroup lasted barely a year and one album. But he had a very successful solo career, with a number of FM hits, and continues to tour.
I’ve seen him twice in concert, opening for Santana (2010) and Steely Dan (last year), and he’s a great live performer. He is as always a top-tier keyboardist, but also a pretty good guitar player; he would seem to be capable of being the main attraction, but apparently doesn’t want to be the headliner.
Capaldi, Traffic’s drummer, also had a successful solo career, and wrote songs that were hits for other artists. He passed away in 2005.
But a good trivia question would be, who was the fourth original member of Traffic? That would be Chris Wood, the woodwind player that provided much of the band’s jazz influence, but also occasionally played bass and keyboards.
Wood co-wrote one of Traffic’s better known songs, “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” and also introduced “John Barleycorn” to the other band members. He died in 1983.
All told, Mason, Winwood and Traffic in general probably had more of an impact on The Music than most would give them credit for. The earlier Traffic albums are going to be on my Filling in the Corners list, particularly the group’s self-titled second LP, which features the great song “Forty Thousand Headmen.”