Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Feelin’ Alright? This is a classic R&B song from the late 60s. We will start with the original song by Traffic, and then we will review covers from Joe Cocker, and also by Isaac Hayes & the Osmond Brothers.
Traffic and Feelin’ Alright?:
Steve Winwood is one of my favorite British rock musicians. In an earlier blog post, we reviewed his cover of the Rolling Stones’ song Under My Thumb, with the band Blind Faith. In another blog post, we reviewed his song Gimme Some Loving, which he recorded with the Spencer Davis Group. Today we will review his work with the group Traffic.
While still in middle school, Birmingham native Steve Winwood was playing keyboards and guitar for visiting American blues musicians who were touring around Britain. Winwood played for artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley during their U.K. tours.
Just after turning 15, Winwood joined the Spencer Davis Group with his older brother, Muff. There, he rapidly gained a reputation as a precocious blues singer-songwriter. After a couple of years with Spencer Davis Group, Winwood struck out on his own.
In 1967, at the tender age of 18, Steve Winwood was already a veteran in the R&B business. That year, Winwood joined forces with three other Birmingham-based musicians to form the progressive-rock quartet Traffic. These were drummer Jim Capaldi, horn player Chris Wood, and guitarist Dave Mason.
The members of the band purchased a cottage in the Berkshires, not that far from Oxford. There, the group worked on psychedelic-rock albums that they released over the next two years.
Below is a photo of the band Traffic from 1968. As befits a group who were living in a cottage in the Berkshires, they appear to be in the middle of a forest. From L: Jim Capaldi, Stevie Winwood, Chris Wood, Dave Mason.
The idea was that their communal lifestyle would lead to collaborative efforts in which the entire group would participate, roughly equally. For the most part, this seemed to work rather well.
Most of the songwriting was done by Winwood and Capaldi, with Winwood performing the bulk of the lead vocals. Chris Wood contributed some creative saxophone and flute solos.
As this was the late 60s, Traffic
diversified their sound through the use of instruments such as keyboards like the Mellotron and harpsichord, sitar, and various reed instruments, and by incorporating jazz and improvisational techniques in their music.
The group also included electronic effects such as backwards drum tracks into their albums.
Dave Mason was a most interesting character. He had originally been a roadie with Spencer Davis Group, and at the time he was really into psychedelic pop. However, whereas the other three members of Traffic seemed content with their communal/collaborative efforts, this was not Mason’s style.
Dave Mason’s contributions to Traffic were generally compositions that he had completely worked out by himself, and presented to the group as finished efforts. This was the case with the song Feelin’ Alright?, which was written by Mason and on which he sang lead vocals.
The song reviews an extremely dysfunctional relationship. The singer recounts to his former lover that he has “got to stop believin’ in all your lies.”
Seems I’ve got to have a change of scene
Cause every night I have the strangest dream
Imprisoned by the way it couldn’t be
Left here on my own or so it seems
I’ve got to leave before I start to scream
But someone’s locked the door and took the key
[CHORUS] You feelin’ alright?
I’m not feelin’ too good myself
Well, you feelin’ Alright?
I’m not feelin’ too good myself
Well boy you sure took me for one big ride
And even now I sit and wonder why
That when I think of you I start to cry
I just can’t waste my time I must keep dry
Got to stop believin’ in all your lies
Cause there’s too much to do before I die
The song Feelin’ Alright? contains some densely-layered lyrics, and paints a vivid picture of someone trying to regain his equilibrium after his lover took him “for one big ride.”
Here is the audio of Traffic performing Feelin’ Alright?, from their eponymous 1968 album.
The song is performed at a slow, even languid pace. Dave Mason’s vocals are most expressive, and the other three members contribute to the backing vocals. The song is backed up by a piano accompaniment, and Chris Wood contributes a saxophone solo roughly halfway through the song. The final minute provides an extended ending to the tune.
Like many bands in this era, Traffic focused on albums rather than singles. For example, Feelin’ Alright? reached only #123 on the Billboard US charts, and it did not even chart in the UK.
The band was critically acclaimed, and had a cult following, but it had very little success with single records, never once placing a single into the US Top 40. Even the group’s albums such as Mr. Fantasy (1967), Traffic (1968), and John Barleycorn Must Die (1970) did not sell all that many copies.
Dave Mason was an on-again, off-again member of Traffic. For example, Mason left the group in 1967 after they recorded Mr. Fantasy. He then re-joined the band, and appears on roughly half the tracks in their 1968 release Traffic.
Creative differences played a significant role in Mason’s leaving the group. At the time, Mason was more interested in continuing the band’s focus on psychedelic pop, while the remaining members preferred to move towards the folk-rock genre.
This next video is a live performance of Feelin’ Alright? This is at the induction ceremony for the 2004 class into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This is your typical “all-star jam” at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. It features the surviving original members of Traffic – Dave Mason on guitar and lead vocals, Steve Winwood on keyboards, and Jim Capaldi whomping away on the conga drums.
In addition, you can spot fellow 2004 inductees Jackson Browne and ZZ Top. And for good measure, there are presenters Kid Rock, Keith Richards and the Temptations. You can also spot David Letterman’s bandleader Paul Shaffer, who seemed to organize every one of these all-star get-togethers. After the end of the song, the video includes Dave Mason commenting on his induction into the Hall of Fame.
This arrangement of Feelin’ Alright? presents a much more up-tempo R&B song than the original Traffic release. This later version is perfectly suited to an all-star jam, where individual artists simply chime in on the various verses.
As we will see, this particular version of Feelin’ Alright? closely follows Joe Cocker’s cover of the song. Although Feelin’ Alright? was a flop as a single record, it has become a perennial favorite on ‘classic rock’ radio stations. Furthermore, it has by now been recorded by dozens of artists.
Feelin’ Alright? became Dave Mason’s signature song in his solo career. Mason invariably played it like a fast R&B tune, but he would also introduce various jazz-inspired riffs into the song.
After a couple of years in the spotlight, Traffic hit some major congestion. In 1969, Stevie Winwood took a hiatus of roughly a year, when he teamed with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker to form the supergroup Blind Faith.
At the same time, Dave Mason left for a solo career. In 1969, after Blind Faith dissolved, Winwood began working on a solo album, but then added Capaldi and Wood to release the critically-acclaimed album John Barleycorn Must Die in 1970.
In 1971, Dave Mason returned to the group and they released a live album. After Mason’s subsequent departure, Traffic continued for another 4 years, but experienced a number of changes in personnel.
Chris Wood, who had dealt for many years with both drug addiction and depression issues, died of pneumonia in 1983.
In 2004, the original lineup of Traffic (Winwood, Capaldi, Wood and Mason) was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Then in 2005, Jim Capaldi died of stomach cancer.
Steve Winwood continued with a highly successful solo career. For example, his song Higher Love hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1986. In 1988, both his album Roll With It and the title track reached the top of the album and singles pop charts, respectively.
In addition, Winwood appeared in the dismal movie sequel Blues Brothers 2000. In that film he appeared as a member of the fictitious band Louisiana Gator Boys. Interestingly, one of his bandmates was Isaac Hayes, whom we will encounter later in this blog post.
In 2007 Winwood re-united with his old Blind Faith bandmate Eric Clapton at Clapton’s Crossroads Blues Festival. Their new collaboration was sufficiently successful that in 2008, Clapton and Winwood appeared together at Madison Square Garden. The two then toured together in summer 2009.
Dave Mason has had a solid solo career as well. He worked with George Harrison for a while, and he is featured on some of the cuts of Harrison’s album All Things Must Pass.
Mason was initially scheduled to be the second guitarist in Eric Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominos, until he was replaced by Duane Allman. Mason’s biggest solo hit was the 1977 release We Just Disagree, which reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and has become a staple on classic-rock radio stations.
Joe Cocker and Feelin’ Alright?:
Joe Cocker was a British blues musician. He is one of my favorite artists, despite the fact that he recorded relatively few original songs. We first encountered Joe Cocker for his cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper classic A Little Help From My Friends. In a later blog post, we reviewed his cover of Jimmy Cliff’s beautiful ballad Many Rivers to Cross. Then, we discussed his rendition of the Procol Harum song A Whiter Shade of Pale.
So here we will briefly review Joe Cocker’s life and career. In the late 1950s, Cocker was attracted to music by the British skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan, the same artist who inspired the early Beatles.
Cocker then became interested in rock and blues. He had the good sense to pattern his vocal stylings after rockers like Chuck Berry and in particular soul singers like Ray Charles. You can definitely detect the influence of Ray Charles in Cocker’s vocals.
Cocker next worked his way through the British club circuit. Initially, he made little headway until he hooked up with Denny Cordell, the producer for British progressive-rock groups such as Procol Harum and the Moody Blues. With Cordell’s backing, Cocker was able to book larger venues and to work with more talented studio musicians.
Below is a photo of Joe Cocker circa 1970, onstage with a tambourine.
After a couple of minor hits in the UK, Joe Cocker made a big splash with his cover of the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends. This established him as a promising up-and-coming bluesman.
However, Cocker’s career really took off after his performance at Woodstock Festival in August 1969. Cocker was one of the main stars of the Woodstock concert movie, and the exposure he received there propelled him into the spotlight.
Here is Joe Cocker in a live performance of Dave Mason’s Traffic hit Feelin’ Alright? This is from a concert in Cologne in 1992.
Cocker originally performed this song in his appearance at Woodstock in 1969. The tune appears on his 1970 album, Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
As you can see, this is a much more up-tempo version than the original Traffic cut. Cocker performs it as a rollicking R&B anthem. He has a great group of girl backup singers, and a band that features both piano and organ.
There is a peppy piano solo roughly halfway through the song, and throughout the song we have energetic work on conga drums.
It’s really interesting that Feelin’ Alright?, which did not make the Top 40 in any of the releases by Traffic, Joe Cocker, the Jackson 5, or Grand Funk Railroad, nevertheless has become an enduring favorite in many live performances.
As we mentioned, Feelin’ Alright? has become Dave Mason’s signature tune. In addition, it was always one of the most popular songs on Joe Cocker’s playlist.
Once Joe Cocker gained fame through his exposure at Woodstock, he continued to carve out an incredibly successful career as a blues vocalist. Nearly all of his hits were covers of other songs. However, his versions always featured Cocker’s wonderful blues style, and his best songs provided an entirely new take on a classic song.
I particularly recommend Cocker’s versions of The Letter by the Box Tops, Leon Russell’s Delta Lady, and Billy Preston’s You Are So Beautiful. For this last song, Cocker’s cover is so famous that it has completely overshadowed the original.
Joe Cocker died from lung cancer in Dec. 2014.
Isaac Hayes and the Osmond Brothers, and Feelin’ Alright?:
Isaac Hayes was a multi-talented singer-songwriter and producer. He was also an accomplished actor.
During the mid-60s, Hayes was one of the many talented musicians who made Memphis-based Stax Records a soul and R&B powerhouse.
At Stax, Isaac Hayes partnered with David Porter in writing and producing a number of records, both for themselves and for others. In particular, Hayes and Porter wrote the song Soul Man, which became a giant hit for the duo Sam & Dave.
Below is a photo of Isaac Hayes appearing at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
In addition to songwriting and producing, Isaac Hayes was also a talented session musician. For the most part, the group Booker T & the MGs functioned as the Stax house band. However, Hayes would sit in on keyboards on occasions when Booker T Jones was traveling, and Hayes also played on a number of the songs that he produced.
Here is Isaac Hayes, appearing as a guest artist on The Osmonds Movin’ On Special, that aired on TV in Nov. 1974. They sing a cover of Feelin’ Alright?
Well, this is a rather unusual pairing. Isaac Hayes, the writer of the score for the movie Shaft, together with the Osmond Brothers. The man who issued an album titled Black Moses, together with one of the most white-bread pop groups in history.
Below is a photo of the Osmond brothers. Back: Merrill. Center, from L: Wayne, Jay and Alan. Front: Donny.
The Osmonds-Hayes collaboration may be somewhat of a cautionary tale, that a group should not wander too far from its comfort zone. To be sure, the Osmonds were a fine pop group. They were highly professional, they were accomplished musicians, and for the most part they stayed comfortably inside their successful groove.
The Feelin’ Alright? performance features Isaac Hayes on keyboards and Donny on piano, and the two share the lead vocals. Note that the arrangement borrows heavily from Joe Cocker’s rendition of the song, which apparently has become the ‘standard’ version of this R&B classic.
In the latter half of the song, Isaac Hayes switches over to saxophone, and produces a peppy, funky solo.
The four older Osmond brothers – Wayne, Merrill, Alan and Jay – had originally begun as a barbershop quartet. They were a successful combo, particularly after Andy Williams added them to his variety show.
But like the Jackson 5, a youngest brother turned out to be the musical star of the family. When Donny Osmond joined the group in the late 60s, the Osmonds switched their focus from pop standards to rock and roll.
The Osmonds then enjoyed their greatest commercial success. I often thought of the Osmonds, perhaps unfairly, as “Jackson 5 Lite.” This was particularly true since the Osmonds’ first #1 hit was One Bad Apple, a song written by George Jackson and intended for the Jackson 5 until Berry Gordy turned the song down.
In fact, after first hearing One Bad Apple, for the next few years I assumed that it was performed by the Jackson 5. The Osmonds specialized in bouncy, uptempo, hook-filled tunes, much like the early Jackson 5.
Donny and his sister Marie then became pop superstars, both individually and as a duo. Donny’s early solo work featured mainly covers of soft-rock classics such as Steve Lawrence’s Go Away, Little Girl, Paul Anka’s Puppy Love and Johnny Mathis’ The Twelfth of Never.
As the Osmonds were Mormons, they took some pains to retain their squeaky-clean image, while pursuing pop careers. In the 70s, The Osmonds had a Saturday-morning cartoon show, and the mid-70s featured the prime-time Donny and Marie Show.
After long careers in the music business, various of the older Osmond brothers can be found performing in Branson, MO. Donny & Marie generally perform in Vegas nowadays. The family patriarch George Osmond died in 2007, leaving nine children, 55 grandchildren and 48 great-grandchildren.
Now back to the career of Isaac Hayes. He had written the scores for a few movies, but really hit the jackpot in 1972 with the score for the Blaxploitation action movie Shaft. The title song from that movie, featuring the iconic wah-wah guitar lick, went to #1 on the Billboard pop charts and won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Unfortunately, in the mid-70s Isaac Hayes fell into dire financial straits. Stax Records was in serious economic difficulty, and local banks had extended significant loans both to the record company and to individual producers.
Hayes’ efforts to stabilize his income were unsuccessful, and in 1976 he and his wife declared bankruptcy. By the end of 1977,
Hayes had lost his home, much of his personal property, and the rights to all future royalties earned from the music he had written, performed, and produced.
Isaac Hayes was also an accomplished actor. He appeared in several movies, most notably the Keenan Ivory Wayans satire I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and the Mel Brooks parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Hayes also appeared in TV shows such as The Rockford Files, Miami Vice and The A-Team. Perhaps his most famous role was as “Chef” in the potty-mouthed cartoon show South Park.
On South Park, Hayes became an unlikely cult favorite. He parodied the sexual innuendo common in soul music with songs such as Chocolate Salty Balls, which – believe it or not – became a #1 hit in the U.K. This led to the release of a commercially successful album Chef Aid: The South Park Album.
However, Hayes had a falling-out with the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. That duo would regularly create shows that lampooned the practices of various religions. After Stone & Parker aired a show that satirized the practices of Scientology, Hayes, who was a practicing Scientologist, criticized the pair and was eventually released from his contract.
In 2002, Isaac Hayes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In August 2008, Isaac Hayes died of a stroke, just a few days before his 66th birthday.