ANDREW MALE - Jim Capaldi had history
Look at the cover of Traffic’s 1967’s debut album, “Mr Fantasy”, and study the face in the bottom right corner of the sleeve, starring through the penetralian red glow of that Berkshire gamekeeper’s cottage and off into the mystical middle distance; it’s a face out of the ancient past. The rest of the band still appear as boys, teenagers up to no good while their parents are away for the weekend, but Capaldi, face like a medieval church carving, or a handsome farm ploughwright peering from the sepia murk of some 19th Century daguerrotype, has something of the eternal about him, like he possesses the deep, arcane knowledge of centuries past. You can hear that deep knowledge in the lyrics of such early Traffic tracks as “Dealer” and “40,000 Headmen”, where the characters and fantasies of London’s Summer of Love are reinvested with the imagery and epic romance of English folklore.
I first met Jim Capaldi on a beautiful summer’s morning in September 2001, in the back garden of his Buckinghamshire home, a medieval priory. All famous people, all music heroes, disappoint; but Jim Capaldi didn’t. Our scheduled 45-minute interview ran over into the late afternoon, as a joyously energetic Capaldi entertained with tales of his early pre-Traffic days in Revolution and Deep Feeling, hitching around the country with the Spencer Davis Group, anecdotes peppered with Latin and Soul selections on the kitchen jukebox, and ending with drinks on the lawn as the sun went down.
Born Nicola James Capaldi on August 2, 1944 in Evesham, Worcestershire, Capaldi came from a family of Italian musicians and started playing in local groups from the age of 14, recording for the Pye label with The Hellions before forming R&B outfit Deep Feeling with Dave Mason and tapping into ancient knowledge via a new path of cosmic travelling.
“I took this acid thing about late 65”, he told me, “which I later heard from George Harrison was the same acid him and John took, in a big capsule. It was massive colours. Massive! Johnny Fellows from Bromsgrove (had gone to) the States and come back with this big bag, doling it out. Deep Feeling tried it and we started to do tracks like “Pretty Colours”. We were one foot in the future, ahead of a lot of Birmingham bands. We were already acid rock.”
A fan of The Spencer Davis Group who couldn’t quite believe that the lead singer Steve Winwood was “some white kid from Birmingham”, Capaldi hitched up to the Midlands capital with Dave Mason to see Winwood play The Elbow Room, buzzing on a ten bob hash deal.
“We just sat and watched and it drained out of us it was like, forget it, he was just wicked. Chris Blackwell, Island Records label boss, was telling everyone that he’d seen Steve hanging around with some Italian gangster with drugs. He meant me. Steve’s just seventeen, I was twenty one.”
Winwood was the perfect singer and musician to realize Capaldi’s mystical lyrics. “It was incredible, it was killer”, he told me. “His personality was good. He was very retiring but he felt some sort of security with me and Chris (Wood). I really sweated my beard off to get Traffic moving”.
Their first single, “Paper Sun”, was written by Capaldi “up north in these digs in Newcastle. I woke up at three in the morning, lyric in my head, something about a paper sun in the newspaper, I woke Steve up and we went into this guy’s front room in this little terraced house and we wrote “Paper Sun”. It was digs from the old showbusiness days. Small little terraced house, can’t remember the name. He did soup.”
Capaldi wrote out every lyric like a map for Winwood to follow; “I did have sort of leader role. Someone had to do something. From the first band I ever formed, at fourteen, fifteen, I was always the worrier.”
Following Winwood’s brief, uncomfortable tenure in Blind Faith and the aborted solo album that became Traffic’s “John Barleycorn Must Die”, both came together to record one of the stand-out albums of the early 70s, 1971 “The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys”.
“Musically we had no problems’, says Capaldi, “Giorgio Gomelsky turned me on to Cal Tjader and all the early Latin stuff. We had a high-level awareness, a sense of groove. Steve would always be right behind you.”
Augmented by Muscle Shoals rhythm section Roger Hawkins and Dave Hood, Traffic in 1972 -73 were a world-beating live band but by 1974 they had broken up, with Winwood tired of on-the-road life. “By then I was thirty, thirty one,” Capaldi told me, “I guess I took it in my stride.”
Taking it in his stride pretty much defines Capaldi’s solo years. On his first two solo albums “Oh How We Danced” and “Whale Meat Again”, Capaldi settled into a rough, rolling, funky groove that revealed his ongoing fascination with world music. In 1975 he had a major worldwide hit with his sweet-souled cover of The Everly Brothers / Roy Orbison classic, “Love Hurts” – taken from the warm-hearted, sun-washed 1975 solo album “Short Cut Draw Blood” – and he met Aninha, a Brazilian student and model. They married later that year.
A close friend of Bob Marley and Carlos Santana (he travelled with Bob during the writing of “Catch a Fire”). A gifted songwriter, regular winner of BMI and ASCAP awards, for the most played compositions in America, and, in later years, an active campaigner for the Brazilian street children’s charity Jubilee Action. Capaldi was never one to crow about his talents or achievements, living a quiet life with his family, away from the media trawl. Traffic were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in March 2004 and there were plans to start rehearsing for a reformation tour, but the onset of stomach cancer caused the band to cancel.
Jim Capaldi died too soon, on January 28, 2005, aged just 60, but it was a life lived to the full, by a man always able to see the upside of a down time. “Traffic split in Chicago on the 29 October 1974”, Capaldi told me, late that September afternoon. “Steve had elected to go home without telling us. We got to Knoxville and he’s not there. It was the night of the Ali-Foreman Zaire fight, “The Rumble in the Jungle”, and the place we were suppose to play were meant to show the fight before we played. But there was no Traffic concert and was no fight, and the atmosphere was really ugly. I said to Rosko Gee, our bass player, “It’s over, but I’m certainly not going to miss the fight. The two of us jumped on a little plane for Chattanooga, just in time to make it to an auditorium where they were showing the fight. We all ended up jumping up and down, hugging each other when Ali won, ‘cause Ali is the greatest!’ Then me and Chris Wood went off to Rio on record company money. 1974 will always stand out in my mind, not only because it was sadly the end of Traffic, but also because it was the night of The Ali-Foreman fight. That was it. It was over. But it was a marvelous night.” Jim Capaldi endures.
Other Biographies of Jim
Jim Capaldi, Citizen of the World
Fan’s History & Tribute To Jim Capaldi
ROCK 'N' ROLL HALL OF FAME