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Article

Dave Mason

Dave Mason

Words by Elsa Hill
9 months ago

Guitarist / singer-songwriter Dave Mason is one of the most enduring, and perhaps most undervalued artists to emerge from the remarkably productive ‘Brum Beat’ scene centred around England’s ‘Second City’, Birmingham, in the Midlands, in the early sixties.  

Born David Thomas Mason on May 10th, 1946, in Worcester, one of his first bands of note was The Jaguars, a quartet that comprised Michael Mann (guitar), Dennis Morgan (bass guitar), Roger Moss (drums), with Mason taking lead guitar and vocals.  The band was heavily under the influential thrall of The Shadows, with a set that largely featured instrumental numbers.  However, they were somewhat prescient in that they financed their own limited edition single, which they sold at shows and by word of mouth (this was well over a decade before the ‘indie label’ boom was kicked off by Stiff Records in 1976).  By 1964, Mason had joined the line-up of another Worcester band, The Hellions, which featured Jim Capaldi on drums and vocals, and guitarist Gordon Jackson.  After a protracted trawl for a bass guitarist, they successfully recruited Dave Meredith from the Evesham band The Cherokees in that role.  Dave Mason completed the line up in 1964, and the band developed a solid reputation for their live act.

The Hellions turned professional and accepted an engagement at the famous Star Club in Hamburg, Germany in August of 1964 as backing group to Walsall singer Tanya Day (Day was a minor celebrity at the time after her appearance on the popular TV show "Thank Your Lucky Stars").  The working conditions at the Star club were gruelling, but the hard work paid off, and the band became a much tighter unit due to the long hours of performing.  Hamburg was the crucible in which many of the top bands of the sixties forged their musical reputations, of course, and The Hellions were no exception.

Sharing the same hotel as the Hellions were fellow Midlanders The Spencer Davis Group, whose young vocalist Stevie Winwood, found much in common musically with Jim Capaldi and Dave Mason – they would, of course, go on to form Traffic, but that was still some way off in the future.

Following their return from Germany, the Hamburg-hardened Hellions found themselves in considerable demand, not only for their own headline bookings, but also being hired to provide backing to visiting celebrities such as Adam Faith and Dave Berry.  By the end of 1964, the group had made the right connections to secure them a residency at the trendy Whisky-A-Go-Go Club in London.

While performing there, The Hellions were seen by visiting American record producer Kim Fowley and songwriter Jackie De Shannon (soon to be the girlfriend of then Yardbirds guitarist, Jimmy Page) who had penned ‘When You Walk In The Room’, a top three UK hit for The Searchers.  Jackie was impressed enough by the group to offer them a song to record and helped to arrange a contract for the Hellions with Piccadilly Records, a subsidiary of the Pye Records label, back then one of the biggest UK labels.

The Hellions first single, entitled 'Daydreaming Of You', composed by De Shannon, was produced by Kim Fowley, who would later produce another crew of Midlands hopefuls, The ‘N Betweens (later to become Slade).  With a lead vocal by Capaldi, the Hellions record was certainly radio-friendly and had an American west coast feel, but neither it, nor two following underrated singles recorded by the band in 1965 managed to reach the charts.  Another Hellions composition, ‘Shades of Blue’, was recorded by the bands’ label-mates The Rockin’ Berries on their first album.  According to Mason, this was the first song he ever wrote with Jim Capaldi.

Though chart success proved elusive, The Hellion's work schedule remained busy and they soon went on a UK tour to back the notorious American vocalist P.J. Proby.  The line-up was increased to a quintet with the addition of John "Poli" Palmer (born May 26, 1943 in Worcester), who joined the band on drums later in the year, which allowed Capaldi more freedom to front the band as their lead vocalist.

By 1966, with business expenses mounting, The Hellions moved back to Worcester, but the local music scene had changed while the group were away in London.  Their record company issued a final Hellions single entitled 'Hallelujah' but under the group name of The Revolution (the band did not find out about this until after the single's release).

By this time, Dave Mason had left to play guitar with a few other local groups while earning extra money working as a roadie for The Spencer Davis Group.  Undaunted, Jim Capaldi brought guitarist Luther Grosvenor (born 23 December, 1949 in Evesham) formerly from a group called The Wavelengths into the line-up and the bands name was changed to Deep Feeling. By 1967, the British music scene had moved on radically from the Beat Boom.  The growing sense of ‘Rock’ music – as opposed to ‘Pop’ music (the singles chart, essentially) cleaving apart led to bands seeking a more demanding form of music above the simpler fare of the singles chart.  Out of this, Traffic was born – the first line-up featured Jim Capaldi (back on drums), Stevie Winwood (Lead vocals, keyboards), Chris Wood (saxes / flute), and, of course, Dave Mason.  They originally convened for improvised jamming on stage at a hip club called The Elbow Room on Aston High Street next door to the old Hippodrome theatre in Birmingham. It was there where the idea for Traffic was formed. Steve Winwood recalled; "We all used to go to this drinking/gambling club where Jim used to play, and like we used to get up and play with him and jam. And we just got together."

With Dave Mason and Jim Capaldi eager to form a new band with Steve Winwood, Chris Wood also agreed to join the partnership.  Dave Mason later admitted; "Everyone realized that we were going to get a certain amount of success because Steve was in the band."

The band were the original act who was ‘Getting it together in the country’, living communally in an isolated, supposedly haunted cottage near the village of Aston Tirrold, in Berkshire.  The first Traffic single, a Winwood/ Capaldi composition called ‘Paper Sun’, was a UK Top five hit, memorably embellished by Mason’s sitar lines.  As splendidly evocative of the ‘Flower Power’ era as the Procol Harum smash, ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, the follow-up was even more so - ‘Hole In My Shoe’.  

Composed and sung by Dave Mason, the song was supposedly inspired by a dream Dave had at the cottage (although certain substances he was taking may have also played a part) and the recording featured Steve's innovative use of the mellotron.  Dave again played sitar on this track that also included a spoken word segment by six year old Francine Heimann, who was the step daughter of Chris Blackwell.

‘Hole In My Shoe’ became one of the most memorable songs of British Psychedelia.  The single also established Dave Mason as a major songwriting talent with the record reaching Number three in the British charts.  Years later, a version of Hole In My Shoe was recorded by ‘Neil’ (the actor Nigel Planer) from the hit BBC TV comedy show The Young Ones, with the song again making the top ten. However, the success of ‘Shoe’ brought with it some problems.  It was the first song Mason ever wrote and, although it was a big hit, he realised he needed to work on writing so he left Traffic after the first album.  He returned briefly, but by the time the band’s second long player, simply titled Traffic, was in the shops, Mason was already out of the band.  He headed for America.

Mason moved to Los Angeles, where he took on the lead guitar slot with Delaney & Bonnie (Bramlett), the soulful southern-tinged duo that would hold sway over fellow gunslinger Eric Clapton, as well.  Mason got there first, and the married Bramletts, whose first tour with Mason was as opening act for Winwood and Clapton’s Blind Faith, would soon take Mason’s ‘Only You Know and I Know’ to the charts in the States.  Mason also played on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.  When Clapton, during sessions for All Things Must Pass, stole the group’s rhythm section for Derek and the Dominos, he initially pulled Mason – back in England for the second brief Traffic reunion – in, too.

Being the first second guitarist of the Dominos – breaking in, with a studio date and one live gig, the shoes that Duane Allman would fill – would alone guarantee Mason his place in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, but that’s just a start.

Post-D&D, in 1970, Mason teamed with Mamas and the Papas vocalist Cass Elliott as a duo, releasing an obscure eponymous album the following year.  It’s a hidden gem.  In addition to this, he was briefly involved with Wooden Frog, essentially an ill-fated Winwood-less Traffic and with proggish British rockers Family, (who featured ex Hellion Poli Palmer on keyboards).  

Based in the US, Mason has continued touring and recording, collaborating with the likes of Harrison, the Stones, Paul McCartney, Stephen Stills, Phoebe Snow and many more, but this has, as a result, lowered his visibility in his native UK.

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