Jim Capaldi: Traffic’s Reluctant Drum Wonder

Jim Capaldi of Traffic in Modern Drummer MagazineJim Capaldi, best known as drummer, singer, and lyricist with the British band Traffic, was one of the most identifiable and multi-talented musicians to come of age at the tail end of the British Invasion of the mid-’60s. Hooking up with ex–Spencer Davis Group vocalist Steve Winwood, guitarist Dave Mason, and reed player Chris Wood, the drummer helped conceive a unusual band style that encompassed folk, psychedelia, funk, rock, and perhaps most importantly, jazz. Traffic songs like “The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys,” “Glad/Freedom Rider,” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” are utterly unique among the rock canon, and Capaldi was crucial to their successful fusing of rock immediacy and jazz exploration.

Though classic albums like Mr. Fantasy and John Barleycorn Must Die featured Capaldi’s creative and explosive set work, on subsequent Traffic records he would make the rare move out from behind the drums. Ceding the kit to fellow drum geniuses like Jim Gordon, Roger Hawkins, and Walfredo Reyes Jr., Capaldi began to spend more time at the front of the stage, singing songs like the crowd favorites “Rock & Roll Stew” and “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone.”

Jim’s musical successes were far from over when Traffic broke up in 1974 after the under-appreciated When The Eagle Flies. A prolific musician, Capaldi went on to release over a dozen solo discs as a leader, write songs for other bands such as the Eagles’ 1996 reunion hit, “Love Will Keep Us Alive,” collaborate with heavy friends like Bob Marley and Eric Clapton, and win five BMI and ASCAP awards for most-played songs in America. He reformed Traffic with Winwood in 1993, releasing the reunion album Far From Home and touring extensively, including dates with the Grateful Dead and at Woodstock. Advertisement

When MD spoke with Capaldi in 2004, he was looking forward to coming to the States to be inducted into the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall Of Fame with the surviving members of Traffic. (Chris Wood passed away in 1983.) The next few months would see Winwood and Capaldi again discussing a new Traffic project. But soon after, Jim began suffering from the illness that he would eventually succumb to. The last major glimpse rock fans got of the drummer was on the Grammy-winning Concert For George DVD, honoring Capaldi’s long-time friend George Harrison, who Jim had been working with just prior to the Beatle legend’s passing in 2001. Capaldi died of stomach cancer in 2005, at the age of sixty.