Steve Winwood: “I always felt the need to work with the people with crazy ideas”

The talented Winwood takes us through his work with the Spencer Davis Group, Hendrix, Traffic, Blind Faith and more

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Steve Winwood’s expanding ambitions led to the formation of Traffic with guitarist Dave Mason, drummer and lyricist Jim Capaldi, and multi-instrumentalist Chris Wood. Signed to Island by Chris Blackwell in 1967, the quartet headed out to live and jam in rural isolation in a cottage in Berkshire’s Aston Tirrold. “The main idea was that we wanted to be able to get together and play at all times of day or night, without having complaints from neighbours,” remembers Winwood. “The man who owned the whole estate was one of Chris Blackwell’s schoolfriends, this famous amateur jockey. I think Joe Cocker lived in Blackwell’s cottage, which was just down the lane. But there wasn’t a road to our cottage, and early on we had to get water out of a well.”

“We were young, we didn’t have any encumbrances,” says Dave Mason. “No wives, no kids, so we could just do what we wanted to do. When we moved in that place, there was nothing there, there was no electricity, no running water. People would come down and spend a few days. There was a lot of experimentation going on, let’s put it that way. Both [with drugs] and musically.”

Wood, who passed away in 1983, believed the upstairs of the house was haunted, but neither Winwood or Mason recall seeing anything too out of the ordinary. “It depends how strongly you believe in those sort of things,” says Winwood. “There were a lot of strange, odd substances flying around in those days, which even now I don’t know what they were.”

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In reality, though, Traffic’s country life wasn’t as idyllic as it sounds. “It was four guys in there,” says Winwood, “so it was like a student crash-pad, the sink had dishes with days-old food…” There was also an issue with the band dynamic, which only intensified once Traffic started chalking up hits such as “Hole In My Shoe”; written by Mason, it reached No 2 in late summer ’67.

“Dave very quickly started writing these quite poppy songs,” says Winwood. “But of course we didn’t know how to deal with that, as we didn’t want to be a part of the pop world – Traffic for me was all about mixing jazz, folk, ethnic music, rock, R&B. We wanted to forge our own music, by trying to combine those different elements.

“We all wanted to write together, to write out of jams that we had, but Dave wasn’t interested in that, he wanted to write his own songs, little arrangements in his head – which is fine, but I don’t think it was right for Traffic. Then we’d bring him in, when we could get him to play on something and jam with us like he did in the early days, but he wasn’t quite happy.”

“I was writing pretty much on my own,” says Mason. “I didn’t have any idea what I could or could not do. On a personal level, I don’t think that I got to know Steve Winwood that well. But he was a very musically talented person from a very young age – I obviously appreciated the musical talent he had a great deal.”

Feeling overwhelmed by the sudden success of the group and their 1967 debut, Mr Fantasy, Mason quit the band just after the album’s release. However, a chance meeting at New York’s Record Plant the following year led to Traffic and Mason pooling their songs and recording a light-footed, self-titled second album together. Once again, Mason’s more accessible songs, such as “Feelin’ Alright?”, were picked by Island for release as singles, and he split from the trio of Wood, Capaldi and Winwood for a second time.

“Who cares who writes the hit single?” says Mason. “I don’t give a damn. I didn’t know my songs were gonna be picked that way. I think it rubbed the wrong way [with Winwood], let’s put it that way! I’d rather not go into details, but it wasn’t a choice for me, whether I was with them or not. There’s some really great stuff on that second album, though – ‘40 Thousand Headmen’, ‘Pearly Queen’…”

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“I’m stuck with people,” laments Winwood, “especially in the UK and Europe, who when you say Traffic, they think of ‘Hole In My Shoe’. Thankfully that’s not the case in America.”

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