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I’m Still Standing: Dave Mason Q&A — Re-Recording ‘Alone Together,’ Keeping Busy in Quarantine & Penning an Autobiography
Rock Cellar’s newest column, I’m Still Standing, continues with our interview with singer-songwriter and guitarist Dave Mason, whose short tenure with Traffic produced the classic “Feelin’ Alright,” a song recorded by Grand Funk Railroad, the Jackson 5, Three Dog Night, Isaac Hayes and most famously, Joe Cocker.
Each month, we’ll visit with a veteran artist that you may not previously have known is still producing vibrant, new music and pursuing other creative projects, when applicable. We’ll talk about the past, sure, but our focus will be the present — and the future. Want more? Check out our recent interviews with Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Steve Hackett of Genesis and Joey Molland of Badfinger.
In 1967 Dave Mason founded Traffic with Steve Winwood, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi. The British band’s debut album that year, Mr. Fantasy, made them international stars. Despite their instant success, Mason left the band after the album was released, then returned for a few months in 1968.
In 1969–1970, Mason toured with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends and in 1970 released Dave Mason & Cass Elliot with the Mamas & the Papas vocalist. Mason’s debut solo album, 1970’s Alone Together, included the fan favorite “Only You Know and I Know.” As a session player, Mason has recorded with rock royalty that includes Jimi Hendrix (acoustic guitar on “All Along the Watchtower”), Paul McCartney (guitar on “Listen to What the Man Said”), the Rolling Stones (shehnai and mellotron on “Street Fighting Man”) and George Harrison (guitar on various tracks of All Things Must Pass).
Although it failed to chart as a single from the 1968 LP Traffic, “Feelin’ Alright?” — with a question mark — became Mason’s signature song after Joe Cocker released his version, as “Feeling Alright,” in 1969. “I owe him a huge debt of gratitude,” says Mason. “He’s the one responsible for all those many, many cover versions and the fact that it’s took on a life of its own, it’s gone on so long. I owe that to Cocker.”
In 1977 Mason had a Top 20 hit with “We Just Disagree,” written by guitarist and bandmate Jim Krueger.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has kept musicians off the concert circuit, Mason and a superstar lineup of friends he named the Quarantines — Mick Fleetwood, Sammy Hagar, and current and former Doobie Brothers Michael McDonald, John McFee, Tom Johnston, John Cowan and Pat Simmons — combined to record “Feelin’ Alright” from remote locations to benefit the charity MusiCares.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alone Together, Mason also recorded a new album, Alone Together … Again. The Nov. 20, 2020 release reimagines all of the songs through the lens of a half-century of performances.
We spoke with Mason from his home in Maui, Hawaii shortly before the album was released.
Rock Cellar: Why did you leave Traffic after the first album, as it was such a success?
Dave Mason: I’m from the heartland of England. I’m from Worcester, 12 miles from the Welsh border. Upper-middle-class family. Zero street smarts or life experiences. So the sudden notoriety more than anything of becoming a popular group was too much for me. That’s literally why I left. It was all too much for me. I’m a young kid going to work. It’s still me, but everybody’s perceiving me in a whole different way that I couldn’t really figure at this point. And that’s why I left. Sounds kind of weird but that’s why. The first time.
The second time of the breakup with Traffic, which had nothing to do with me leaving, that was all to do with nobody wanted me in that band anymore, so there was no point in me staying. And so I figured, I’m going to go where all this music started. Fuck this shit.
Traffic was a great band; I can’t see putting anything somewhat similar together, as good; and nobody really knew me. Traffic was just getting discovered over here. And I just upped a little bag and a guitar and said screw it, I’m gonna go where all this music started and absorb that.
‘Cause America is where it started. Other than real folk music, Appalachian music, which is basically from right out of Europe, all the rest of it, everything else, is all uniquely American music: rock and roll, jazz, blues, gospel. So I wanted to come to the source.
If it wasn’t for all those great blues artists there’d be no Rolling Stones, there’d be no Eric Clapton, there’d be no Jeff Beck, there’d be no me, there’d be no Winwood. It would be something but it wouldn’t be that.
Rock Cellar: You joined Delaney & Bonnie early on after Traffic. Did you find that with Delaney & Bonnie you were able to blend in more with a bigger group?
Dave Mason: I still don’t like standing up there in front of the spotlight. I feel very uncomfortable up there. I’m not a rock star, let’s put it that way. I never wanted to be. I just wanted to write great music, make some money and have fun. And when I was younger, meet girls.
Rock Cellar: Delaney Bramlett had a reputation as being pretty volatile.
Dave Mason: Delaney had an alcohol problem. And he was a nasty alcoholic. He wasn’t a fun alcoholic. He was nasty. So he was a handful at times. But otherwise, he’d churn out a couple of songs a day. And the three of those singing together, him, Bobby Whitlock and Bonnie, just the three of them with a couple of acoustic guitars, was just awesome. It was just something. And that’s how I got introduced to all of that crowd: Carl Radle, Larry Knechtel, a lot of boys from Tulsa. And I was English!
Rock Cellar: Delaney & Bonnie opened some of the shows on the Blind Faith tour.
Dave Mason: Delaney & Bonnie opened a lot of the Blind Faith shows. Of course, that’s where Eric got most of Derek & the Dominos: Delaney’s band.
Rock Cellar: Was it uncomfortable working with Steve Winwood at that time?
Dave Mason: If I had a dollar for everybody that asked, “Do you think we can get Traffic back together?” It’s so screwed up and convoluted and bizarre with him. I’ve never really talked to the guy. I talked to him once in 40 years.
There’s been a number of very weird comments in the papers over the years from him about me. The last one: “I’m working on a new band and we have very different musical tastes.” And I’m looking at it and I’m going, you know what, you’re so full of shit. It’s ridiculous. We all grew up listening to the same shit. Me a little more pop on top of it all. Jazz, blues, gospel, you name it, we were all listening to it.
So for whatever reason, he doesn’t want to play with Dave. He’s taking his ball and he’s going home.
Rock Cellar: Delaney produced Clapton’s first solo album and played a big part on it.
Dave Mason: Oh, everything! Even to the way Eric sang the stuff. He’d phrase it for him. Of course, Eric unfortunately at that point was in one of his “research” phases, let’s put it that way. That’s what I like to say: I did a lot of “research.”
The part about the drugs is public knowledge and he’s made it public knowledge. I was with Derek & the Dominos at the very beginning. I was going to be part of that band. And we did a show together. We all did a show together, one show, at the Hammersmith Odeon.
Rock Cellar: What happened?
Dave Mason: We were all camped out at Eric’s house working on it and we cut three or four things. As it turned out, it went on to be something else and really great. But for me … there wasn’t a lot of stuff getting done. There was a lot of sitting around. And I just eventually got, “You know what, guys, this is not working for me, I gotta go.”
Rock Cellar: You were an accomplished musician when you were asked to play with folks like Hendrix, the Stones, Paul McCartney. Does playing with musicians of that caliber have any effect on what you bring to the sessions?
Dave Mason: I am lucky and fortunate to be there in that position with those kinds of artists. And secondly, I just regard myself as a sideman. So I’m there to basically, play me what you’re doing, do you have something in mind, OK, cool. Just show me the part.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said you had discussions with Hendrix about replacing Noel Redding in the Experience.
Dave Mason: Yeah. Hendrix played pretty much all of the bass on Electric Ladyland. It’s not Noel. Certainly, I know because I was there. He’s on bass on “All Along the Watchtower” and I think a few of them. And some kind of rift was going on, don’t know exactly what. He was a fan of Traffic’s and it was mutual fan kind of stuff. And he was just very cool to hang out with. Pretty much offstage, he was a very quiet guy.
And we would hang out or we’d listen to records or we’d whatever. And he got to the point where we started talking about that, about me taking Noel’s place. Which we were serious about except their management put a stop to it.
Rock Cellar: You’ve posted some music with Cass Elliot on your YouTube channel that you said you hadn’t heard for years. How did that partnership come about?
Dave Mason: Gram Parsons, who I knew when I first came over here, introduced me originally to Delaney & Bonnie and also to Cass. We went up to her house somewhere in the Laurel Canyon days. It turned out there was a couple living there who were really good friends of mine from England. So it’s like, oh, somebody familiar, this is great.
So I would start to go up there a lot to see them and out of that Cass and I became friends. And then that just developed into, if we were sitting around the house and just singing or playing or just goofing around, well, why don’t we cut something? It wasn’t like oh, I’ve got to put this band together. It literally grew out of getting to know somebody and hanging out a lot.
Rock Cellar: Where did the idea to re-record “Feelin’ Alright” come from?
Dave Mason: There was no conscious “When will we re-record ‘Feelin’ Alright’?” That’s not what I was doing. If it hadn’t had been for this lockdown and COVID this would never have happened in the first place, that’s the bizarre part of that. Other artists have been, “You’re all stuck, you need to do some social media stuff, stay in touch with your fans … ” And I was like, what would be cool would be if I could pull a few friends together that actually very much have their own careers and their own cachet, so to speak.
It’s almost like a little supergroup to do something. And then I figured if we’re gonna do it, it may as well be a song that everybody knows. That would be “Feelin’ Alright.” That’s how it came together.
Rock Cellar: How did you choose the other musicians?
Dave Mason: Mick, of course, I’ve known, I was in Fleetwood Mac from ’94 to ’96 and have known him before then. The Doobie Brothers, God, we’ve played shows on and off since the early ’70s so I know those guys. Michael is sort of an association that came from, I’ve had a place in Maui, which is where I am at the moment sitting out this whole thing. Michael is somebody I got to know here through an annual New Year’s Eve event held by [talent manager] Shep Gordon for the Maui Food Bank.
And again with Sammy, I met him at Shep’s house last Christmas. And then he asked me if I would do this charity event that he does every year. I said sure, absolutely. I said, but how about would you do this if I do that? He was like, yeah no problem, I can do that. And that’s how it all came together.
John McFee was hugely instrumental in getting the audio together on this. And then it was sent to everybody individually. Originally it was just me with an acoustic guitar singing. Here’s a rough sketch of the song, guys, I think this would be good if you break the verses up. And then Michael put a piano down which kind of set the mood for the whole damn thing.
Then Mick put drums on it over in Hawaii. Everybody was all over the place. And then we pieced it together. For all intents and purposes everybody is playing and everybody is singing, and that’s their vocal performance you see being filmed. So aside from the fact that we weren’t all in the same room, it’s live on everybody’s part.
Rock Cellar: How did you choose MusiCares as the charity?
Dave Mason: At the point at which I started doing this they were out of money. They had used up all their budget in support of fellow artists. I’ve called on them 23 or 24 times, not for myself but for other musicians of mine, and they’ve been there and covered some expensive health bills for people. So they’re very much there and of course, there are people out there doing shows but basically we’re going to be the last people going back to work. That includes the support crews that go with us, set everything up.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said that “Feelin’ Alright” was not a feel-good song originally. How did you come to write it and what did it mean then?
Dave Mason: The song is, it’s not “feelin’,” it’s “feeling.” “Feeling Alright?” with a question mark. It’s a question. And the answer is, I’m not feeling too good myself, that’s the answer. So that’s what the song is about. It’s just another of those unrequited love songs. One of those thousands of unrequited love songs.
Rock Cellar: When did it become a feel-good song?
Dave Mason: Well, that’s Cocker. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. He’s the one responsible for all those many, many cover versions and the fact that it’s took on a life of its own, it’s gone on so long. I owe that to Cocker.
Rock Cellar: In November you released Alone Together… Again. Who backed you on the album?
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Dave Mason: That’s pretty much just my band. Alvino Bennett, Tony Patler and Johnne Sambataro, with John McFee as a guest on there with banjo. And a girl named Gretchen Rhodes is singing some of the harmonies. Jason Roller is on nylon string guitar on “Sad and Deep as You.”
Rock Cellar: Why did you decide to re-record it?
Dave Mason: I started it five, six years ago. It was really for my own amusement. I really didn’t have any intention of putting it out, I was just doing it for my own amusement. There were a few songs in there, like a version of “Sad and Deep as You,” which we did live at SiriusXM Radio; aside from Jason Roller that I put there on the lead guitar, it’s all live. And it came out so good it was like, oh my goodness, this is better than the original.
And then I did a little more, something like “Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving,” which I think is cool, and then I also did a completely redesigned version of “World in Changes,” which is for want of a better way of putting it, it’s a sort of reggae feel but it’s just very cool. I put this one brand-new version on the CD and the vinyl of this new version of “World in Changes” but I also have a re-done version of how I originally did it, which I’m going to probably offer as just a free download with the album in case the purists and fanatics say, “What happened?”
It’s like, c’mon guys. I wanted to put something in there that was just a little different. You know, here’s the song, this is an interpretation of what I would have done now. Which has made it a little more current to me.
And then “Look at You Look at Me,” other than the long extended playout at the end, has a great piano-organ part with Tony Patler and then my guitar stuff. “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave,” pretty much the same. “Just a Song” came out really good with McFee on banjo and Gretchen on the background vocals. “Waitin’ on You” and “Only You Know and I Know,” it’s the same arrangement as the original. Different ending and of course different guitar solos.
The other thing was at 22, 23, I never considered myself as a singer. Guitar was what I was into. And when you’re 16 and 17 especially, if you get gigs you’ve got to learn whatever the hit tunes of the time were. I sort of taught myself to sing but for me, when you say singers to me, I think of people like Mahalia Jackson and Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke. THOSE are singers.
On those terms I never liked my vocals. And I was very young, I was 22 when I did that. So that was part of it. After being on the road for 50 years, though I’m still not those singers, there’s more miles, more experience, there’s more time in the voices, kind of like a wine that’s been left to sit and is now actually pretty good. So that’s why I did it.
And there’s one other thing that has to do with the actual music and the tracks. When I did the original album it was just me. There wasn’t any Traffic, there was no band, there was no guys I’d been playing with forever. So musicians were brought in, albeit some of the best that were there in LA at the time. There were great session people on that album: Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, just a bunch. But the thing is, if I had had that band and gone out and played shows for a month and then come in and cut that album, it would have a different energy on top of being very cool songs. It would have had that, which is what this has got.
Rock Cellar: You’ve talked about writing your autobiography. How is that going?
Dave Mason: I hate the process, it’s just very lonely, the writing. I have a terrible memory because I’m always looking forward, I guess. But dates, times, places, forget it. And I never kept a diary, which of course when you’re doing something like this, you kick yourself. If only I had kept a diary.
I’m trying to write a book about one person’s life journey. And most of that, in fact all of that, is taking place not on a stage. It’s taking place every day. Just like everybody else. The pants go on one leg at a time just like everybody else. So I’m trying to write a little story about things, personally I’ve been through big highs and bad lows, like a lot of people. So I’m trying to make the book more about that with the music as being sort of the highlights. The party. The lights go on, it’s a party.
I’m trying to piece it together that way than being purely, hey, I’m Dave Mason, I was in this band and this band and that band and this happened. It has to personally connect.
We’re all just doing our best on this little thing spinning around in infinity and everybody’s human and everybody basically goes through the same thing, nothing changes on that level.
But the fact that it doesn’t is great. It gives us something constant at least. There’s a need for change here in this country. It’s like change, come on, please. Here’s a cup for some spare change, OK?
I’m trying to put it on that human level and doing that, of course, then there are things that you have to ask yourself, do you really want to put this down on paper? Do you want to talk about this? It’s been a catharsis.