In 2005, Dave Mason was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Traffic. Interestingly, a lot of fans know Mason primarily from his solo work — songs like “We Just Disagree” and “Only You Know And I Know.” Despite writing many of the band’s early hits, Mason’s time in Traffic was brief. He left before their 1967 debut was released and returned briefly a year later, long enough to lend the indelible “Feelin’ Alright” to the band’s second album.
Mason performed live with them only a handful of times, including one memorable night in Communist Budapest in front of 7,000 screaming young fans. Traffic did just two U.S. shows with him in the lineup. He did a short tour with band co-founder Jim Capaldi in 1997; the drummer died in 2005. He remains estranged from front man Steve Winwood. The two haven’t shared a stage in over 40 years, including the Rock Hall ceremony, where Mason was conspicuously absent.
But the singer/guitarist has fond memories of his first band, and a tour devoted to its music dubbed Dave Mason’s Traffic Jam will stop in New England for a pair of dates later in the month. Mason spoke with the Hippo from his home in California.
What made you decide to launch Traffic Jam?
Well … whatever didn’t work out, I was there for the whole spawning. It’s the thing that kind of kicked me into a different level of making music. I’ve been thinking about it for five or six years — of going back and revisiting some of these songs. Not just for my life but for the audience. Unfortunately, I can’t pretend to go out there with Traffic, so it’s Dave Mason’s Traffic Jam.
What Traffic songs are you looking forward to playing?
Whether it is my songs or Traffic stuff, I essentially picked songs that were fun to do. There are certain songs that I did not pick because I don’t want to be stuck doing them every year. I am going to do stuff like “Rock and Roll Stew” and “Medicated Goo” and of course “40,000 Headmen” and “Pearly Queen.”
You played with Jimi Hendrix on the session that produced “All Along the Watchtower.” Describe how the arrangement of that came about.
I wish I could; I was just there. … I left Traffic after the first album partly because I was so young and it happened so quick that I couldn’t deal with it. At the time, there was a rift going on with Noel Redding and Jimi, and there was a discussion about me joining on bass in the Experience. But as to what goes on in his mind when he did it, I don’t really have much insight into the way that went. That is what he heard. … He was pretty amazing.
Your solo sessions were often star-studded — Michael Jackson sang on one of your tracks. How did that happen?
He was cutting Thriller … in the same building and I had a song called “Save Me” that I needed someone to sing a high part on. I knew Michael was over there. I thought, ‘You know what, he could sing high. I’ll go and ask him.’ They were on a break and standing at the control room. I said, ‘Michael, we are in the next room doing a song, and I don’t know if you’re up for it but I’d love you to sing a high part.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You know, when I was 12 years old, I did this Diana Ross special, and we finished up on the show by singing ‘Feelin’ Alright.’ So yeah, absolutely, I would love to.’
That’s a song with legs. When you wrote it, did you sense it would stand out the way it has?
If I knew, I would have written a whole bunch more! The reason that song did what it did was because of Joe Cocker; that’s who I have to thank. Without his version, it would not have stood the test of time. I didn’t write it like that. … It’s one of those songs that’s timeless and very adaptable.
You’ve expressed hope that Traffic Jam will be the basis for others to participate – can you talk about that?
There are a few things going around like that. Maybe we could get a contemporary artist involved, have it become the basis for a revue. It’s open there to do it if anyone is interested – otherwise, I will just do Dave.
Is it true that you got involved in the second Traffic album after they hit a dead end and you bumped into each other in New York City?
They had five tracks already done, and they didn’t have any more material. I said, ‘Well I’ve got five songs here, guys - what do you want to do?’ They said, ‘OK, let’s cut it.’ That is what happened.
Finally, is your situation with Steve Winwood still the same?
Well, as I tell everybody, you have to ask Steve Winwood. It is too bad; it’s a shame. I think a lot of people would love to experience the two of us actually doing Traffic. We’re the two people left.
As seen in the January 9th, 2014 issue of The Hippo