Dave Mason, who plays Clearwater’s Capitol Theatre Saturday, joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, as a founding member of the band Traffic. So strong was the impact and legacy of that British outfit that Mason was inducted alongside longtime Traffic directors Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi despite the fact that he was only in the band for the 1967 debut album and its followup (Traffic itself continued for decades afterwards).
He wrote their first single, “Hole in My Shoe,” and their most famous early song, “Feelin’ Alright.” So yes, he deserved the induction.
Mason’s career as a solo artist began in 1969, after he’d left England for America and became running buddies with the Southern California musician crowd – Crosby, Stills, Nash et cetera.
His singular talent as a singer, guitarist and song craftsman were introduced to the world with 1970’s Alone Together, a stunning tour de force that led the charge for a string of successful albums through that decade.
Despite only having one significant radio hit – we’ll get to that in a minute – Mason, through sheer force of talent, has been touring pretty much nonstop since those early days. That’s how good those songs are.
He’s the Where’s Waldo of rock ‘n’ roll’s golden age. Mason appears on Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, and once claimed he sang on a Beatles session, for “Across the Universe.” He was part of Delaney and Bonnie’s uber-famous backing band during their 1969 world tour, and subsequently joined his bandmate Eric Clapton’s new group, Derek & the Dominos. He played on the first Dominos single, the Phil Spector-produced “Tell the Truth,” before leaving the band. During this time he played guitar (along with Clapton) on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album. Later in the ‘70s, he added lead guitar to the Graham Nash/David Crosby hit “Immigration Man,” and “Listen to What the Man Said” by Paul McCartney & Wings.
Alone Together. Famously pressed on multicolor vinyl so that every single copy looked different, Mason’s debut, produced by soon-to-be-jazz-legend Tommy LiPuma, doesn’t have one weak song on it. From the extremely well-known (“Only You Know and I Know”) to future in-concert staples (“Look at You Look at Me”), the album’s skillful sonic cocktail of acoustic and electric guitars, piano, backing vocals and bass-and-drums set a standard for singer/songwriter albums.
Dave Mason and Cass Elliot. Mama Cass’ Mamas and Papas had broken up; she was a big part of the hip SoCal music crowd, and she and Mason hit it off. She came in to record backup vocals for his second album, and Mason liked the sound so much that he suggested a full-on duo project. Elliot has just one solo lead vocal, but several of Mason’s songs, “Walk to the Point” and “To Be Free,” are as good as those on Alone Together. This 1971 album is an underappreciated gem.
He’s a bad-ass. While cutting what would turn out to be his second album, Mason attempted to re-negotiate his contract with Blue Thumb Records. Things reached an impasse, and an indignant Mason made off with the master tapes of what had already been recorded for the project. Label boss Bob Krasnow discovered “safety” copies in the studio vault and had the incomplete album released as Headkeeper, without the artist’s knowledge or permission.
Again, the songs are really, really good – “Here We Go Again,” “In My Mind,” “Headkeeper.” At the time, Mason publicly disowned the album and urged his fans not to buy it.
In the book I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews, Mason reflected on this and other serious career bumps. “As for me, if I’d have known better, I’d have done better. It’s all been lessons, and everybody’s got their lessons to learn. I’m trying my best, and I’m certainly trying to learn from my mistakes. But I’d like to thank all the people that f–ked me, because it’s been quite an education.”
It’s Like You Never Left. Emerging from the Headkeeper debacle with a shiny new Columbia Records contract, Mason roared out of his gate with a strong collection of songs like the horn-infused “Misty Morning Stranger,” the punchy rocker “Baby … Please,” and the tender “Lonely One,” which featured Stevie Wonder on harmonica. George Harrison, Graham Nash and others lent their hands (or voices, as it were) too.
Dave Mason (self-titled, 1974). The first studio album to feature Mason’s road band, which included serious L.A. session pros like Michael Finnigan on keyboards and Bob Glaub on bass. Wisconsin singer/guitarist Jim Krueger signed on, too, and he would be Mason’s go-to harmony singer for well over a decade (and write Mason’s most well-known single). This album includes Mason’s studio version of “All Along the Watchtower” …
He out-Bobbed Dylan, and out-Jimi’d Hendrix. In the ‘70s, just about every hard-touring rock ‘n’ roll artist put out a double live album (especially once Frampton Comes Alive made a mint). Mason’s Certified Live (1976) worked well as a post-Traffic career overview; even more importantly, it introduced an incendiary in-concert version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which became a massive must-play on FM radio, and is still heard today.
“We Just Disagree.” Jim Krueger wrote it, it was his pride and joy, and Mason’s doleful vocals (and acoustic 12-string guitar) added just the right touch of melancholy. Released in 1977 as the second single from Let it Go, Let it Flow, it was a Top 15 hit, Mason’s highest-ever chart showing. This writer’s favorite Mason song, “So High (Rock Me Baby and Roll Me Away),” written by Mentor (“Drift Away”) Williams, was on this album as well.
“Save Me.” Michael Jackson was recording Thriller one studio over while Mason was creating his final Columbia record, 1980’s Old Crest on a New Wave. “I needed somebody to sing a high part, and I asked him,” Mason explained in I Need to Know. “He said, ‘Man, I’d love to. When I was seven years old, I did a TV special with Diana Ross and we did ‘Feelin’ Alright?’ So he came in and sang. Paul McCartney was not the first white guy to sing with Michael Jackson.”
Greatest Hits and Best-Ofs. There are numerous Mason anthologies out there, available in vinyl, CD and (in most cases) on streaming services like Spotify. For the most satisfying through-line listening experience, we recommend Long Lost Friend: The Best of Dave Mason, which covers the Columbia years extremely well. The Definitive Collection includes a lot of those tracks, plus “Walk to the Point” and other Blue Thumb essentials. Exemplary out-of-print vinyl you might find in the $1 box: The Best of Dave Mason (Blue Thumb, 1974).
Tickets for Saturday’s concert are here.