Jim Capaldi of Traffic: Recalling the band’s early years on “Night Flight”

By on August 2, 2017

Today we’re remembering Jim Capaldi on the anniversary of his birth — he was born Nicola James Capaldi on August 2, 1944, in Evesham, Worcestershire, near Birmingham, England — with a look back at highlights from an interview he did with “Night Flight” in 1983.

In this clip, he talks about why Traffic broke up (more about that below too).

Capaldi was of course a drummer, percussionist, vocalist, songwriter and a founding member of Traffic, as was there from very beginning in 1966 until he left in 1968, and then back again as a key member of the band when they reformed, from 1970 to 1974.

Tracks like “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” “Medicated Goo,” “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” “Glad,” “Freedom Rider,” “Empty Pages” and “John Barleycorn,” among others, made Traffic a staple on FM radio from ’67 to ’74.

Their cogent hybrid of long-winded rock-blues-soul-jazz-folk jams was influenced as by west coast American psychedelic-acid rock bands like the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead as they were by their contemporaries, British organ-powered R&B rock bands, and by adding additional jazz elements of their own, Traffic also proved to be influential to the progressive rock groups that came after them, bands like Yes, Genesis and even progressive jazz artists like Chick Corea.

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Capaldi played in a handful of teen bands in Worcester, like the the Sapphires (circa 1961) and a few years later had formed the Hellions, with Dave Mason on guitar and Gordon Jackson on rhythm guitar.

In August of 1964, English singer Tanya Day took the Hellions with her to the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany as her backing band, and that’s where Capaldi initially met some of the other members of the Spencer Davis Group, who happened to be staying at the same hotel, although, according to this interview, he says the first time he met Steve Winwood was actually in Birmingham, at a record shop:

Back in Worcester, the Hellions backing lots of other singers, namely Adam Faith and Dave Berry. By the end of ’64 they were the resident band at London’s Whisky-A-Go-Go Club, and by 1965, the band had released three singles — working with American producer Kim Fowley — but none of the songs charted.

Later that year John “Poli” Palmer joined the band on drums and Capaldi became their lead vocalist, then the Hellions moved back to Worcester in 1966 , and relaunched themselves in 1967 as the Revolution, releasing a fourth single that also failed to chart. It was at this point that Mason left the band, and Capaldi replaced him with Luther Grosvenor and renamed the band Deep Feeling. They mostly played gigs in the Birmingham area (where Winwood lived — Capaldi lived about thirty miles away), and the surrounding Black Country area where they developed a significant fanbase.

Deep Feeling became the resident band at a popular club in Aston, Birmingham, the Elbow Room, which often featured bigger visiting acts like Jimmy Witherspoon, and Winwood — still with the Spencer Davis Group, already known for their hits like “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m A Man” — would drop by frequently and sometimes sit in with Deep Feeling, who were just then blending their R&B sounds with west coast rock sounds.

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With Palmer also able to add vibes and flute to their repertoire — he later joined the excellent British band Family — Deep Feeling was becoming more and more progressive, which attracted Winwood, who was leaning that way in his own musical preferences.

Capaldi says that he and Winwood shared a love of propulsive organ-led jazz, including artists like Jimmy McGriff, and liked a lot of the British Hammond organ-based R&B bands, and also loved the Doors, and was particularly inspired by Jim Morrison’s lyrics in his own writing.

Another local musician, Chris Wood, from the band Locomotive, would also join in. A lot of musicians in the area would wear clothing designed by Wood’s younger sister, Stephanie, including Winwood and Capaldi.

Read more about Jim Capaldi and Traffic below.

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It wasn’t too much later they all looked around — Capaldi, Wood, Mason and Winwood — and realized that they had something that felt right, and in April 1967, Winwood left the Spencer Davis Group and joined up with Deep Feeling, who changed their name — at Capaldi’s suggestion — to Traffic.

Funny thing was, after they’d played around for a while, they learned another band was also calling themselves Traffic, and a legal battle ensued over who had the rights to the name. Capaldi and his band won, and the other band were forced to change their name, choosing the Status Quo as their moniker.

Soon thereafter, they rented a cottage near the rural village of Aston Tirrold, Berkshire to write and rehearse new music, building a stage in front of the house where normally cars would be parked.

The use of this cottage would prove to be important in the development of the band, allowing them to jam extensively, which allowed the music to open up in all kinds of directions.

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The early days of the band were the best, and the most productive for everyone. Winwood, who had left the Spencer Davis Group because he didn’t want to be known anymore as “the young Ray Charles,” was stretching his wings in the new band, and In addition to getting the chance to play jazzy organ-driven R&B covers, he and Capaldi began writing new songs together, Capaldi handling the lyrics as that wasn’t Winwood’s thing.

Capaldi has remembered during interviews that he would often wake up early in the morning to enjoy the peace and quiet in order to read (he loved e.e. cummings and Dylan Thomas poems) and claims that he actually wrote the lyrics to “Paper Sun” at 4:30 am early one day, having written most of them before Winwood was out of bed.

The song “Dear Mr. Fantasy” came amount from a drawing, however, a doodle Capaldi had done of a little character, Mr. Fantasy, who played a guitar from above, with strings attached to the instrument like it was a marionette. The other guys in the band liked the drawing and worked up a song that was addressed to the doodle, “Dear Mr. Fantasy, play us a tune…”

Dave Mason had also begun writing songs on his own during his time with the band too, and since Capaldi and Winwood were collaborating so frequently, he was often left to write on his own, coming up with great tunes like the psych-pop “Hole In My Shoe.”

During 1967 and ’68, the cottage did not remain quiet and had frequent visitors including Eric Burdon, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Trevor Burton (of The Move), and various members of Led Zeppelin, amongst many others. Joe Cocker had the cottage nearby.

Traffic attracted immediate interest from record labels but quickly signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records label (where Winwood’s elder brother Muff, also a member of the Spencer Davis Group, later became a record producer and executive), and Island practically rush-released their debut single, “Paper Sun” out as soon as they could.

It became a UK hit in mid-1967 (#4 Canada). Their second single, Mason’s “Hole in My Shoe,” was an even bigger hit (#4 Canada), and it became one of their best-known tracks.

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Traffic learned while recording their debut album, Mr. Fantasy, that they were very comfortable in the studio, and since they played every instrument themselves, and had really had the chance to jam uninterrupted at their Berkshire cottage, every track they’d written sounded different. They rarely did any overdubbing, except for the occasional vocal, at a time when many bands were already using the studio technology to reshape their music.

Their late 1967 debut was a huge hit in the UK and in the US underground, reaching #88 on the charts, but that first year also took a toll on the band, living together and having such strange group dynamics.

In fact, Traffic’s eight year history as a band is probably best described as turbulent, with lots of fits and starts, with Mason coming and going frequently as he couldn’t decide if he wanted to be in a band or be a solo artist.

Capaldi (and Winwood) thought the songs they were writing were being overlooked and were upset that Mason’s song was chosen over some others they had written for the second single, and radio stations seemed to be favoring Mason’s tunes and focusing on him instead of the Capaldi/Winwood songs.

Mason, meanwhile, realized it was going to go on this way for awhile, and actually left the band for the first time on December 28, 1967, all just as the band’s sound was really starting to come together.

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When Traffic set out on their first American tour in Spring 1968, they were a trio, and it was a tribute to their talents that they could play such complex music as a trio without a bass player.

Winwood generally played organ or guitar and played bass with his feet on the organ, Capaldi played drums, and Wood played saxophone and flute except when he played organ or bass.

Traffic’s American tour began in San Francisco with two big weekends at the Fillmore and Winterland, headlining shows when most bands on their first US tour might be relegated an an opening support slot, a testament to their drawing power and the fact that their first two albums were being championed by the powerful FM station KMPX-FM in San Francisco, right along with the west coast bands.

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In fact, the Grateful Dead were already huge fans and met Traffic at the airport upon their arrival, and were rumored to have dosed them with Owsley acid immediately On March 14-16, 1968, Traffic headlined at the top of a bill that featured HP Lovecraft, Blue Cheer, Mother Earth and Penny Nichols, and on March 21-23 they were second on a bill that featured Moby Grape/Traffic/Lemon Pipers/Spirit. Traffic even played a free concert in downtown San Francisco during that tour.

When they returned back from the States, Capaldi, Winwood and Mason contributed backing music to a solo album by Gordon Jackson, and sorted out what they were going to do next.

Meanwhile, their self-titled second album, Traffic, an improvement on their first album overall, was an immediate success, propelled by Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright,” a two-chord pop-blues number that has gone on to be a rock standard (although Joe Cocker’s 1969 hit version is likely the definitive version), so Mason — who during his break from the band, recorded tracks for his debut solo album and had produced Family’s album Music In A Doll’s House — returned in May, but it was a short-lived reunion, as he would leave again in October ’68.

Winwood also left Traffic, to form Blind Faith, and the rest reluctantly concluded that the band was probably over.

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Mick Weaver, a proficiently talented Hammond B3-er, was recruited to replace him and the remaining members of Traffic became Mason, Capaldi, Wood and Frog, soon shortened to Wooden Frog. Weaver had provided the “Frog” part of the name because his own band, Wynder K. Frog (spelled Frogg, occasionally) had played with Traffic before, supporting them in September 1967 during their first UK shows, and Capaldi and the band were impressed. Wooden Frog, or just Frog, only lasted until March 1969, recording a few BBC sessions, but breaking up before releasing any formal recordings.

Capaldi, meanwhile, during the same time, continued to appear on albums as a session player and a guest drummer throughout the rest his career. He also wrote songs for other artists, including “Love Will Keep Us Alive” for the Eagles.

In January 1970, Capaldi and Wood joined Winwood in the studio to record Winwood’s solo album, which he’d decided to do after the break-up of Blind Faith in 1969 — they lasted less than a year, recording one album and undertaking one US tour — and the sessions were so fruitful and fun that the three of them reformed Traffic (sans Mason, of course) that Winwood’s solo project recordings would eventually turned into a new Traffic album, John Barleycorn Must Die, their most successful album yet.

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Traffic then toured the UK and the US with an expanded line-up, late in 1970, adding Winwood’s former Blind Faith bandmate Ric Grech on bass. The group further expanded in 1971 with drummer Jim Gordon of Derek and the Dominos and Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah.

The live album, Welcome to the Canteen, was released in September and marked the band’s break with United Artists Records. It did not bear the “Traffic” name on the cover, and instead was credited to the band’s individual members including Mason, who returned for his third and final spell with the band. The album ended with a version of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’,” which became a minor hit.

Following the departure of Mason, Traffic released The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (1971), and the title track of the latter, a cynical treatise on the music industry, would prove to be one of Capaldi’s most famous lyrics. In addition, “Rock and Roll Stew (part 1)”, a rare instance of a Traffic song with Capaldi on lead vocal, was a minor hit in the USA.

This was a Top 10 American album but did not chart in the UK, and by now Capaldi was burnt out on playing the drums, so he switched to percussion, and provided some lead vocals. When he wrote “Low Spark of the High Heeled Boys” he wasn’t even playing drums anymore, but once again, however, personnel problems wracked the band as Grech and Gordon left the band in December 1971.

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In 1972, illness struck the band when Steve Winwood came down with peritonitis, which meant that the rest of the band had some time on their hands, and Capaldi did what was not completely unexpected of him — he recorded his first solo album, Oh! How We Danced, one that would provide him his very own hit single, “It’s All Up To You,” although it didn’t climb into the Top 40 hit in Britain until 1974.

Still, the LP’s moderate chart success wasn’t unexpected, and its respectable showing in the US charts, enabled him to continue to record albums at regular intervals, swinging wide open the doors for a solo career that would come as soon as he was ready to stop playing in Traffic.

As a rule, when drummers who write songs, sing lead and play other instruments make solo albums, they’ve obviously got something more to offer than the drummer who wants to make a solo album but hasn’t really led a band before, and having a group of session players like the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section certainly helped Capaldi too, not to mention great guest performances by bandmates (and former bandmates) Dave Mason, Steve Winwood and Chris Wood, plus Paul Kossoff of the band Free.

Oh! How We Danced — released in February 1972 — would probably appeal to fans of Eric Clapton’s debut and Harry Nilsson’s catalog.

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The new lineup (Winwood, Capaldi, Wood, Kwaku Baah, Hawkins, Hood) toured America in early 1972 to promote the LP, and their concert at the Santa Monica Civic on February 21, 1972, was filmed and is now thought to be the only extended live footage of the group (it was later released on home video and DVD).

Traffic’s sixth studio album, Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory, released in 1973, didn’t sell as well as the previous albums, and the subsequent world tour (from which the double live album was recorded and later released) proved to be hard on the band.  There were more personnel changes — bassist Rosko Gee replaced David Hood, and Hawkins and Kwaku Baah would depart at the end of the world tour too.

In the end, Capaldi eventually he got behind the kit again, and they went back to being a four-piece again, just like they were at the beginning, with sax, organ and drums (Steve Winwood would play bass pedals on the organ with his feet, just like Ray Manzarek of the Doors and others did).

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Traffic onstage in 1973, before the major switch in personnel. Capaldi is in the middle of the five musicians in this photo, somewhat obscured in the background.

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When The Eagle Flies, released in 1974, was yet another Top Ten album in the USA, and moderately successful in the UK, but it was all proving to be too much for the band, and Winwood would actually leave their next U.S. tour without telling anyone he was finished (they were waiting for him at the venue for that night’s scheduled performance but their show in Chicago the night before would prove to be Traffic’s last).

When Traffic finally disbanded in 1974, for good, Capaldi felt they’d buried it quietly, and respectfully, and he tossed his own metaphorical handful of dirt on his band and walked away, and after awhile he says he didn’t even feel connected to his past.

It was simply the last thing he’d done because he was always moving forward. They’d recorded eleven albums during their career before they’d called it a day, and it’s still a catalog of great songs to be admired.

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Capaldi got married in 1975, to a Brazilian woman he’d almost met a year earlier, Aninhna, who had tickets to see Traffic in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1974, before Steve Winwood fell ill in the States and had to leave the tour. Capaldi, who was looking forward to going to South America with the band, decided to head down to Brazil anyway, and did, with bandmate Chris Wood and manager Chris Blackwell. Capaldi spent three months there and fell in love with the culture.

A year later, in the summer of ’75, when Aninhna and a few of her friends (one of whom knew someone in the band) went to a party at the house where Capaldi was living, they met and fell in love, and were married within six months.

Even as they all went their separate ways, achieving differing levels of success with solo careers, it wasn’t always happy news for the other members of the band. Chris Wood, in particular, continued to have increasing problems with drug use and depression, and the touring was taking its toll on him too, and no doubt he continued to suffer from depression as the deaths of two close friends took its toll: Free’s Paul Kossoff died from heroin-related heart problems on March 19, 1976), followed by Wood’s estranged wife Jeanette, from whom he had separated, who died in 1980, at the age of 30, after a seizure.

Wood was profoundly affected by her death and his own health deteriorated rapidly after the death of his former bandmate and close friend, percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah (who died in January 1983, of a cerebral hemorrhage during a performance in Sweden). Capaldi dedicated his 1983 solo album Fierce Heart to the memory Kwaku Baah. Chris Wood died in July 1983, while working on a solo album that was to be titled Vulcan. He’d suffered from pneumonia and was hospitalized in Birmingham, and that was the ultimate cause of death.

All the still living members of Traffic’s most recent lineup reunited in 1994 for a one-off tour, after a fan left a voice mail message at Bob Weir’s (of the Grateful Dead hotel in Chicago during the 1992 “Scaring the Children” tour, and suggested it would be cool if Traffic toured with the (then Grateful) Dead. Traffic opened for The Grateful Dead during their summer tour.

Winwood and Capaldi recorded and released a new Traffic studio album, 1994’s Far from Home with no involvement from the other members. The album was dedicated to longtime friend and former bandmate Chris Wood, and the central figure on its front cover is a stick figure of a man playing flute. It broke the top 40 in both the UK and USA. The Last Great Traffic Jam, a double live album and DVD released in 2005, documents the band’s 1994 reunion tour.

Here, Capaldi talks about touring with Joe Cocker:

Jim Capaldi died on January 28, 2005.

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We’re going to pause here, and we’ll have more from Capaldi again, as there’s much more to this interview he did for “Night Flight.” Until then, enjoy this last bit, where Capaldi can’t quite remember what to say for a “Night Flight” promo:

Excellent photos of Capaldi and Traffic can be found here.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • infidelphia

    nice historical summary of a brilliant group of superb but sadly
    underrated musicians.