Dave Mason

by Greg Prato

Perhaps more than anyone else on the planet, Joe Cocker appreciates Dave Mason's talents as a songwriter. After all, it was Mason who penned the song that has gone on to become one of Cocker's trademark tunes, "Feelin' Alright." On his latest release, Future's Past, Mason offers up an album's worth of new versions of his classic songs, plus new material that he has written and performed on tour over the last few years.

Originally rising to prominence as a member of Traffic, Mason has subsequently gone on to cross paths with some of rock's most renowned names, including members of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, as well as Jimi Hendrix (he plays guitar on Hendrix' classic cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," for crying out loud!). And this reaches to the modern day: none other than Graham Nash provided the art for the cover of Mason's latest release.

In this chat with Mason, we discussed Future's Past, his teaming up with these aforementioned rock icons, and the stories behind some of his classic compositions.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's talk about the new album, Future's Past. From what I understand, it's new material and also re-recordings of classic songs.

Dave Mason: That's right. Some of it is re-recordings of classic songs. There's also the Robert Johnson song on there that I arranged called "Come On In My Kitchen." It's a big mix of stuff. There's a song from the Alone Together album, "World In Changes," that I redid, but it's nothing like the original at all. Completely different. And I did a rewrite of "Dear Mr. Fantasy," put a few more chords on it, put some mood.

And then there are three things that I added from a CD I'd done about eight years ago. These were three really cool songs that I put on there because there are a large number of people that haven't heard them.

And then there's one brand new song on there called "That's Freedom."

Songfacts: What made you select these specific older songs to go back and redo?

Mason: I had some great versions of them. They were just cool. "As Sad and As Deep As You," which was basically from a live recording, it was just an incredible mood. To me, it's better than the original recording. I thought they came out so well that it was worth putting something together. There's some great songs, there's some cool tracks, it sounds great. And it was something that I just put together and just said, "Well, we'll see what happens."

I recorded Future's Past because I'm revisiting stuff, sort of trying to time bind, I guess. I don't see them as old songs or new songs - they're just good songs, and good stuff lasts for a long time. That's how I hear things. I don't really "lock" them. When it comes to my rock & roll, I'm going to put on an Eddie Cochran record or a Little Richard record. These are guys that were recording on 2-track, 4-track, and they still sound great. So that's how I view it.

And then there's other stuff I keep working on, some newer stuff that I've got that'll probably be a follow-up. But yeah, I like music. I like all kinds of music. My stuff was never one style, which is a disservice in a way because people can't hang a hat on it. But at the same time, I like the variety.

I start with a song, that's how I start everything. I write in different tempos, and the song suggests a way of doing it. Could be in a country way, could be in a bluesy way, could be done as a ballad or maybe it could be a reggae.

Artists to cover "Feelin' Alright" (sometimes spelled "Feeling Alright") include Three Dog Night, Rare Earth, Lou Rawls, the 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Jackson 5, Maceo Parker, Isaac Hayes, Joe Cocker and Grand Funk Railroad.
There are different ways to interpret the song. A classic example is how I wrote "Feelin' Alright." It's got 48 cover versions. Joe Cocker turned it into "Feelin' Alright." I wrote it as "Not Feelin' Too Good Myself." That's the way I wrote the song.

So interpretation means a whole lot. I like different styles, and that's why it's hard to go as a blues player, as a rock player, as a ballad player. But on the other hand, I get bored with one thing.

Songfacts: You just mentioned the song, "Feelin' Alright." What sticks out about the writing of that song looking back?

Mason: It's just a song about a girl. [Laughs] It's just another relationship gone bad.

Songfacts: As far as the writing of that song, do you remember how it came to you, like, all at once, or was it in bits and pieces?

Mason: I wrote it on a little island called Hydra in Greece. I was trying to write the simplest thing I could come up with, and two chords was it. [Hydra is a good place to write songs: it's where Leonard Cohen wrote "Bird On A Wire."]

In Traffic, Mason was a lone wolf when it came to songwriting. While his bandmates Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood collaborated on their compositions, Mason wrote his songs by himself, including the 1967 track "Hole in My Shoe," which became the group's biggest UK hit, peaking at #2 (it failed to chart in America).

Mason exited the band a year later, but would return for a spell in 1971. He appeared on a total of three studio albums by the band - Mr. Fantasy, Traffic, and Last Exit - as well as the live album, Welcome to the Canteen.

In 1997, Steve Winwood gave his side of the story to Mojo regarding why it didn't work out between the band and Mason. "We all tended to write together, but Dave would come in with a complete song that he was going to sing and tell us all what he expected us to play. No discussion, like we were his backing group."
Songfacts: And then an early standout song of yours is Traffic's "Hole in My Shoe." What do you remember about the writing of that song?

Mason: [Laughing] That's the first song I ever wrote. It was my first attempt at songwriting. I mean, that stuff I did back then, when I listen to it, I cringe and realize I need to work on writing. But writing comes out of living. You have to have something...

Most of those things I did were very "of the time." "Hole in My Shoe," it probably was the beginning of the end as far as the other three guys were concerned for me. Even though it was their biggest hit single.

Songfacts: It's pretty impressive that that's the first song you ever wrote and that it has gone on to become a classic. I don't think there are many people who could say that the first song that they wrote has gone on to become so popular.

Mason: No, probably not.

Songfacts: You mentioned on Future's Past a new track called "That's Freedom." What is that song about?

Mason: It's my comment on the state of the union.

Songfacts: Is there a set way you write your songs, or would you say that you write your songs differently every time?

Mason: To me, different. But I'll start with a hook. It might be something that somebody says in a conversation, and I'll build a song off it. Or it could be something just goofing around on the guitar that starts it on its way. I have no set way of doing it, frankly. I'm not a disciplined writer, like, sit down every day and work at it. I'm more as the muse takes me.

Think "psychedelic rock" (and specifically, American psychedelic rock) and most people would agree that Jimi Hendrix was the undisputed king of the genre. But as it has been explained in many documentaries, books, and articles, Hendrix had to briefly relocate to England in order to get his career truly going.

Hendrix would collaborate with other British musicians besides Mason (who provided twelve string guitar on "All Along the Watchtower" and backing vocals on "Crosstown Traffic") - most obviously the Jimi Hendrix Experience rhythm section of Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, as well as Roy Wood and Trevor Burton (backing vocals on "You Got Me Floatin'"), Graham Nash (foot stamping on "If 6 Was 9"), Brian Jones (percussion on "All Along the Watchtower"), Steve Winwood (organ on "Voodoo Chile"), and Chris Wood (flute on "1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)").

Hendrix was in London when he died. The night before, he was part of a jam session at the club Ronnie Scott's with the band War.
Songfacts: Something I've always found very impressive was that you were part of some of the greatest album recording sessions ever, like Jimi Hendrix' Electric Ladyland. What do you remember about those sessions?

Mason: Oh, god. What was I, 19 years old? 20 years old? It was just great. I mean, it was like, "Yeah, wow, this is cool." The way a lot of that happened was because it was the times and it was the place. In other words, we were in England, and the thing is, everybody finished up in London.

Everybody was using the studios in London, and there weren't many. There were only a few. And there were only a little handful of really good producers. So everybody was using the same studios, the same people. Like Jimmy Miller was brought over to do Traffic and started doing the Stones. It was not unusual for people to drop by each other's sessions.

The Beatles, that introduction came through a girl I was dating who was making some piece of furniture: a couch for Paul McCartney. It was a transparent couch with all the characters from the Sgt. Pepper album in it. So that's how I met McCartney. And through that, it was like, "Oh, you're Traffic? Oh, cool." That's how those things happened.

And Hendrix just happened to be sitting in one of those semi-private clubs in London. He was there one night just sitting alone, and it was like, "Fuck, I'm just going to go over and say hi and talk to him." So I started there, with that. He was a fan of Traffic, and I was lucky enough to actually get to do some things with him and play on one of his significant tracks, with a Bob Dylan song, "All Along the Watchtower." So, yeah. It was fun. It was cool.

Songfacts: As far as the Stones, did that come about because you're friends with Jimmy Miller?

Mason: Actually, I got to know Brian Jones through a girl that dated all three of us: me, Hendrix, and Brian. That's how that happened.

Jim Krueger played off-and-on with Mason for 18 years and wrote what became Mason's biggest hit as a solo artist: "We Just Disagree," which went to #12 in 1977. Krueger also performed with or penned tunes for David Cassidy, Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan, Phoebe Snow, John Prine, and Jennifer Warnes. He passed away in 1993 at age 43.
Songfacts: The song "We Just Disagree," did you have any idea that that song was going to be such a special song upon the first time you heard it?

Mason: I thought it was a great song. Because the guy had been playing with me for 17 years said, "Hey, I wrote this song, I want you to hear it." The first time it was kind of like, "Shit. If I was going to write it, that's what I'd be writing."

And then I did it because I thought it was a great song. An unusual chord arrangement behind it. And it stood up - it was a song that when he sang it to me, it was like, "Yeah, that's the song." Just him and a guitar, which is usually how I judge whether I'm going to do something. If it holds up like that I'll put the rest of the icing on it.

I was going to cut it anyway, but I frankly thought it was too good a song to be a hit. Sounds strange. And it wasn't a huge hit, it got to #12. But it's been around. It's a great song. It's a timeless song.

Songfacts: And then just the last question I have is out of all the artists that have covered "Feelin' Alright," who would you say is your favorite?

Mason: It has to be Cocker.

May 15, 2014. For more Mason, visit davemasonmusic.com.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 6

  • Obbop from UsaI typically prefer studio albums and most live LPs do not sooth my ache for groovy tunes. However, Mason's Certified Live album recorded in 1976 at the Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City, California has such excellent musicianship that to this day I play it regularly.
  • Mr Reality from EarthI love his playing on Graham Nash's "Military Madness" and I can actually sing the first 2 verses of "Sad And Deep As You". And Joe Cocker poured so much grease on "Feeling Alright" that I always wondered what Mason thought of it and if he ever considered using that arrangement to perform it himself.
  • Mark from Oklahoma Back when there were record (CD) stores, I would rate the store by whether or not they had Dave Mason recordings!
  • Anonymous from John W. From Wilmington, North CarolinaI have enjoyed and have been inspired by Dave Mason since the 70’s...Always having outstanding vocals, he writes in a unique fashion, that to me can have a strong rock drive, and softer, meaningful, timeless sound. “Can’t take it when you go”...Sad and Deep...I do an arrangement of Silent Partner..
    Fantastic meaningful songwriter is what Dave Mason is!
  • Kim from Port Orange FloridaI have several of Dave Mason's albums that I bought in the 70's I loved his music back then but really hadn't listened to him in years! I was lucky enough to see him this week in a small auditorium in Flagler Florida, he was so good I haven't stopped talking about him and have been obsessed with him ever since. He is so sadly underrated, and most people don't know who is. I hope he gets the reconnection he very much deserves!
  • Tony G. from New York, UsaTraffic was a cool band and I enjoy Mason's solo stuff. It's a shame that this type of music isn't made anymore.
see more comments

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