The history of rock is replete with songs whose lyrics have not been accurately understood, often because the chorus seems cheerier than the verses. The best example in modern times may be Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The U.S.A.," but on earlier one is the much-covered "Feelin' Alright," a title that properly should be rendered with a question mark at the end. Dave Mason wrote it while on vacation in Greece in March 1968. Three months had passed since his departure from Traffic, largely due to a dispute with its reluctant leader, Steve Winwood, and you can't help thinking that, as Mason composed the first two verses, he was thinking about that. There was painful confession in lines like, "Imprisoned by the way it could have been" and "I've got to leave before I start to scream," in the first verse and angry accusation in the second verse's, "Well, boy, you sure took me for one big ride" and "Gotta stop believin' in all your lies." And as catchy as the chorus might be, its message, divorced from the sing-along music, is clear: "You're feelin' alright? I'm not feelin' that good, myself."
There has been no dearth of compilations of the music of Dave Mason. But the Ultimate Collection is the first Dave Mason retrospective to select from his Island Records catalog as a member of Traffic, as well as Blue Thumb, Columbia and a late association with MCA. It's the only album on which you'll find the original recordings of "Feelin' Alright," "Only You Know And I Know" and "We Just Disagree."
Dave Mason has had a difficult career, difficult enough to have discouraged a less determined man and to have defeated a less talented one. It was always Mason's musical ability, as a writer of classic songs and a performer able to attract a loyal following, that kept him afloat. "In his career," writes Bill DeYoung in the definitive biographical article "We Just Disagree: The Story Of Dave Mason" (Goldmine magazine, February 16, 1996), "Mason made one bad business move after another, picking the wrong managers, signing the wrong contracts. He had the usual problems with drugs and alcohol, and with relationships with lovers, and band members, but at the end of the day, as always, it was the music that mattered."
He was, at least, lucky to have been born when and where he was, in Worcester, England, on May 10, 1944. Mason's generation of British musicians would have unanticipated access to international stages as it decisively altered the course of popular music. A fat, introverted child, he retreated to his bedroom and, by his early teens, had taught himself to play the guitar. By the early '60s, he was in his first band, the Jaguars. He didn't sing at this point, but the group sometimes added vocalists, one of them being Jim Capaldi, who joined with the guitarist to form a new group, the Hellions, in 1964. Like the Beatles before them, the Hellions got a job at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, that summer. There they encountered another group from the British midlands, Birmingham's Spencer Davis Group, featuring Steve Winwood.
Back in England, the Hellions earned a record contract that resulted in three unsuccessful singles. Mason quit, intending to study music formally and then move to the U.S., but he spent a lot of time gigging with local groups and even served for a couple of months as the Spencer Davis Group's road manager. He also joined Deep Feeling, a band put together by Capaldi after the demise of the Hellions.
The Spencer Davis Group finally became a major success in 1966. But Winwood, the band's focal point, had tired of being a pop star and of taking a back seat to Davis, and he left in April 1967. With Mason, Capaldi, and reed player Chris Wood, he then formed Traffic. In the communal fashion of the times, Traffic was to be a leaderless band with all its members contributing equally. "Actually, it's not a group, just some friends and a get together," Winwood told Melody Maker.
They cut a single, Winwood and Capaldi's "Paper Sun," which was released on Island Records in May and hit #5 in the U.K. in July. With that, they retired to a cottage in Berkshire to, in the nomenclature of the time, "get it together," i.e., get to know each other, rehearse and write music.
Mason was an outsider from the beginning. Despite the cover story, he knew that Traffic was getting the attention it did because of Winwood, and he began to contribute his own material as a counterbalance. But he was not interested in working it up during rehearsals; rather, he would show up with a song already written. The first of these. its lyrics based on a dream, was "Hole In My Shoe," released as Traffic's second single in August. It peaked at #2 in England in October, and with its success, the writing was on the wall: Winwood may have wanted no one to be the leader in Traffic, but he certainly wasn't going to have someone other than himself writing and singing lead on a big hit single. There was a British tour in the fall, and in December came the debut album, Mr. Fantasy. Simultaneous with its release was the word that Dave Mason was no longer a member of Traffic. "Dave was never part of the group like Chris, Steve and I were," Capaldi told Disc magazine. "He was part of the group's music but that's all he was interested in."
Mason cut a solo single, "Little Woman," released in February 1968. The B-side was "Just For You," which featured Winwood, Capaldi and Wood, and which later would be released as the lead-off track on the posthumous Traffic album Last Exit. Then Mason went on vacation to Greece. When he returned, Traffic was struggling to write new material for its second album, suddenly, their prolific ex-guitarist didn't seem like such a bad guy. For his part, Mason seems to have been willing to let bygones be bygones: You can't help thinking that maybe he wrote the third verse of "Feelin' Alright," which, with lines like, "Don't get too lost in all I say" and "But that was then and now it's today," seems to contradict the first two, after rejoining the band.
Traffic was released in October 1968, prefaced by the single "Feelin' Alright." But again, having benefited from his songwriting and performing, Traffic was ready to cut Mason loose, and did so at the start of a U.S. tour. "In the end," Mason told DeYoung, "it was basically a fact of Steve Winwood and Jim calling me to a meeting one day and saying, 'We just don't want you in the band. We don't like your music, we don't like what you do, so we really don't want you in the band anymore.' And that's why it ended, basically." Traffic reached the Top Ten in the U.K. and the Top 20 in the U.S. The most played track on radio was Mason's catchy "You Can All Join In." The remaining members were not about to release it as a single, but European record companies were free to do so, and European import singles of the song sold well in Britain. Traffic survived Mason's departure by only a couple of months, breaking up at the end of the year.
In May 1969, Joe Cocker released his With A Littie Help From My Friends album; its lead-off track was the grammatically improved "Feeling [sic] Alright." Released as a single become a minor chart hit in the U.S., beginning an avalanche of covers throughout the early '70s; Mongo Santamaria charted with a version, as did Grand Funk Railroad, and Cocker's became a Top 40 hit upon re-release in 1972.
Mason moved to Los Angeles, where he signed to Blue Thumb, and he began cutting his debut solo album, co-producing it with Tommy LiPuma. "When we got together, and he played me most of the stuff from the album, the material was just ridiculous," LiPuma told DeYoung, meaning ridiculously good. "He had just bought a 12-string, and he was really in love with it. The songs were just so strong, forget it. You had to be deaf not to hear it."
The first result of the sessions was a single, "World In Changes," released in April 1970, followed by the full album, Alone Together, in June. The album reached the Top 25, stayed in the charts six months, and went gold, while a second single, "Only You Know And I Know," become a Top 40 hit. (The song was revived by Delaney & Bonnie in 1971 and hit the Top 40 again.) You might expect that Mason would be out on the road promoting the album during the summer of 1970, but he wasn't. His next career step always seems puzzling, but it shouldn't. One of his earliest friends in Los Angeles was Mama Cass Elliot. In the late '60s and early 70s, L.A. seemed to be full of pop-rock musicians who had fought for supremacy in a popular group and lost, and who now were looking for other possibilities. Crosby, Stills and Nash was just such an association of the disaffected, and they had succeeded. Mason and Elliot fit the pattern, and in the summer of 1970, they formed a duo, which they launched with a performance at the Hollywood Bowl in September.
That the teaming didn't work may have had less to do with musical affinities than with record company machinations. CSN had been careful to work out such matters in advance, but Mason was signed to Blue Thumb and Elliot was on Dunhill/ABC; the two labels agreed that the Mason/Elliot LPs would go through Blue Thumb and the singles through Dunhill/ABC, but it was an uneasy alliance and, in fact, neither label put any promotional effort behind the duo. In November, Blue Thumb released the one-off Mason single "Satin Red And Black Velvet Woman," a minor chart entry finally reissued here, while Dunhill/ABC was issuing the debut Mason/Elliot single "Good Times Are Coming." Another Mason single, "Waitin' On You," appeared in January 1971, followed by another Mason/Elliot effort, "Too Much Truth, Too Much Love," in February and, finally, the album Dave Mason And Cass Elliot, in March. It was too many releases, too little marketing, though a listen to the one Mason/Elliot track salvaged here, "Walk To The Point," demonstrates that the pairing was much more felicitous than subsequent commentaries would suggest.
Nevertheless, the duo broke up, and Mason, in a surprising move, hooked up with a new configuration of Traffic that played colleges in the U.K. during the summer of 1971. He only did six shows with them, but that was enough to cull a live album, Welcome To The Canteen, from, and it was released in September. From it, we hear a live version of the Alone Together song "Sad And Deep As You" that is actually performed by only Mason, on guitar and vocals, Chris Wood on flute and percussionist Reebop.
Mason now got down to work on the long-awaited follow-up to Alone Together, which he conceived as a double-LP, half new studio songs, half old favorites recorded live. As Blue Thumb's most successful recording artist, he asked to renegotiate his contract, a common occurrence. When Blue Thumb demurred, he stopped work on the album, sued the label, and took the multi-track tapes he had recorded so far from the studio. Blue Thumb still had two-track copies of the material, however, and LiPuma mastered from them to create the single LP Headkeeper, released in February 1972. The lead-off track was Mason's remake of the Mason/Elliot song "To Be Free," which was released as a single and is included here along with "In My Mind" and the title track.
Mason denounced the album as a "bootleg," which didn't help its sales prospects. As the dispute continued, Blue Thumb culled another album from the tapes, releasing Dave Mason Is Alive! in the spring of 1973. By then, Mason had been forced into bankruptcy, which freed him of his Blue Thumb contract, and he signed to Columbia Records.
Though the Columbia deal rescued him, the advance went to pay his debts and he was forced to stay on the road to live, meanwhile owing the label two albums a year, a demanding assignment for an artist known for performing his own compositions, who now had to write them in spare moments in hotel rooms. Critics have noted the fall-off in quality during the Columbia era, and Mason has admitted to it, but cited the restrictions under which he operated. Certainly, the most consistent of the Columbia albums was the first, It's Like You Never Left, from which we hear the lead-off track, and Mason's debut Columbia single, "Baby...Please."
The Columbia albums sold moderately well, and Mason became a major concert attraction during the 1970s. Finally, he peaked with Let It Flow, released in April 1977, which featured "We Just Disagree," written by Mason's second guitarist and harmony singer Jim Krueger; it became a Top 20 hit in the fall, followed by a mid-chart hit with Mason's own "Let It Go, Let It Flow."
Mason's brand of melodic mainstream rock had fallen from favor by the start of the '80s, when his Columbia contract expired. He stayed on the road, often appearing just with Krueger and playing his songs with two voice and two acoustic guitars. "Music stopped being fun," he later said. "I didn't even pick up a guitar for a year. I stopped writing. I had my bouts with drugs and alcohol like many of us, and I really needed to get away to see what I wanted in life." Finally, he cut the album Some Assembly Required, which was released by Maze Records of Canada in 1987, then hooked up with the Voyager label, distributed by MCA, for Two Hearts, released at the end of the same year. On the title track, included here, Steve Winwood is heard singing backup vocals, though the two were not physically reunited in the studio. Mason continued to perform, suffering a great blow when Krueger died in 1993. Shortly after, he joined a new lineup of Fleetwood Mac. The group toured, then recorded Time, released in 1995, which included two songs co-written by Mason.
Dave Mason's career remains one of the great what-ifs of pop music history - what if Traffic had somehow accommodated both his and Winwood's talents, what if he had followed up Alone Together with another strong album, what if he'd had the time to craft his Columbia albums better. But those speculations do not diminish the performances heard here, nor the songs, several of which have become standards as well as hits. Never before has a compilation presented on one disc the breadth of Mason's accomplishments, which are now revealed to be on a par with those of any majar rocker of his generation.
- William Ruhlmann
New York City
DIGITALLY MASTERED @ Universal Music Studios East, Edison, NJ
THANKS to Bruce Resnikoff, John Austin, Chris Butler, Joy Cain, Pattie Chirico, Jim Dobbe, Richie Gallo, Rickie Goodman, Kathy Hale, Araxie Khanzadian, Lisa Labo, Dave Mason, Andy McKaie, Meire Murakami, Sujata Murthy, Ken Patrick, Jim Phillips, Mike Ragogna, Michael Rosenberg, Jim Saliby, Glen Sanatar, Rhonda Shields, Brandon Squar, John Strother & Rose Landauer at Penguin Recording & UMVD Sales
"You Can All Join In", "Feelin' Alright" & "Sad And Deep As You" courtesy of Island Records, Inc.
"Only You Know And I Know", "Can't Stop Worrying, Can't Stop Loving", "Shouldn't Have Took More Than You Gave", "World In Changes", "Just A Song", "Look At You Look At Me", "Walk To The Point", "Satin Red And Black Velvet Woman ", "To Be Free", "In My Mind" & "Headkeeper" courtesy of Blue Thumb Records, Inc.
"Baby... Please", "We Just Disagree" & "Let It Go, Let It Flow" under license from Sony Music Special Products, a division of Sony Music, a group of Sony Music Entertainment Inc.
"We Just Disagree" & "Let It Go, Let It Flow" Produced by Dave Mason for Mystic, Inc. & Ron Nevison for Gadget Productions, Inc.
"Two Hearts" courtesy of MCA Records, Inc.
Graham Nash appears courtesy of Atlantic Recording Corp.
Steve Winwood appears courtesy of Virgin Records Ltd.
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