The most prolific classic rock musician you probably never heard of is Dave Mason, a founding member of the English group Traffic and the writer of one of the most iconic rock anthems ever recorded: Feeling Alright.
By Michael Booth
Photo Courtesy of Dan Mason
That one song, and a few more, has kept Mason touring for most of the last 60 years. It has been recorded by dozens of artists ranging from Joe Cocker to the Jackson Five, from Gladys Night and the Pips to the Black Crowes. During the pandemic Mason even got some classic rock artists to record the song via Zoom, including Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac fame, Sammy Hagar from Van Halen, Michael McDonald and several members of the Doobie Brothers. Check it out on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xd56ap_aa4k
“Everybody was locked away and I felt that it might be fun to try and put something together. I’ve been friends with Michael McDonald, Sammy Hagar and The Doobie Brothers for a long time,” said Mason, talking recently from his home in northern Nevada. “Everybody was all scattered all over the place. They did their thing separately and then it was all sort of pieced together. Came out way, way better than I expected.”
Mason wrote the celebrated song when he was only 19 years old and on vacation on a Greek island. Although it is upbeat and has a memorable hook line, the song is not about feeling good. It is the opposite. When he sings, “Feeling alright,” the very next line is “not feeling too good myself.” Some say he wrote it after breaking up with his girlfriend, but another story is he was trying to come to a decision whether to stay in the band Traffic. He would not confirm or deny either story.
He called me one weekday morning to casually chat. He was promoting both a tour and an upcoming book release. As a writer, I was interested in his approach to writing because he has penned dozens of songs during his career, yet when we talked recently, he blew me off about writing being a process.
“There is no process. I write on whatever is around: paper, envelopes, napkins. I can go for months without writing anything. I just write what comes into my head.”
He moved to the U.S. in the late 60s because, he told me, the tax in Great Britain was getting to be “95 percent.” He settled in the rustic and funky California town of Ojai before moving to his current home near Lake Tahoe. Apparently, Mason chose the location because it does not charge a state income tax. Surprisingly, he is still listed as a Resident Alien who has never applyed for citizenship.
When we talked ,Mason was preparing, at age 76, to once again hit the road on a 17-city tour, which included two performances in Atlanta. These tour dates will push his total of live performances to nearly 1,500 since he began as a teenager in England fronting a group called The Jaguars.
When asked why, in his golden years, he would want to submit to a tiring tour of mostly small venues. “What am I supposed to do? Sit around the house?” he said with a guffaw.
Mason also said that making money in the music industry today is nearly impossible without touring.
“Putting new music out these days is an exercise in futility because of the way they’re distributed. Well, there is no distribution except over the Internet. A big part of our income has disappeared,” he said. “I mean Pandora or Spotify; they don’t pay the correct mechanical royalties. If they did, they wouldn’t exist.”
So, like a host of Boomer musicians, Mason packs his bags and a bunch of his classic rock songs and hits the road to feed a collection of old hippies, grannies and grandpas hungering for those nostalgic moments from their musical history.
His set list is almost all songs first recorded before 1977, heavy on his Traffic songs and from his first solo album, Alone Together. I must confess that, as a proud Boomer, I cleared out most of my 300 LPs collection in the 90’s when CDs took over the market. I did save about 20 real albums, among them was Mason’s 1970 Alone Together, which featured a swirling pattern on the usually black LP. The songs still sound fresh to me after half a century.
He joined and left Traffic, made music with Eric Clapton on his Derek and the Dominos album, played on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, sat in with Paul McCartney and Wings, played on The Rolling Stones Beggar’s Banquet and its infamous song Street Fighting Man. Over the years he has performed with Graham Nash and David Crosby, The Spencer Davis Group, Cass Elliot. He joined and left Fleetwood Mac at one time.
He famously is featured on All Along the Watchtower with the legendary Jimi Hendrix. I asked him specifically about that song and his participation, but he declined to answer.
“All this stuff is going to be laid out in the book which should be out in May. I have to leave a little something here for everybody otherwise no point in the book,” he said. The book is Only You Know and I Knowby Mason and Chris Epting.
He did talk about how he came to be featured on so many different songs with so many different musicians during the 60s and 70s.
“In England everybody finished up in one place, and that was London. Eventually, inevitably you’re running into everybody at various semi-private late-night clubs. You’d often go somewhere and McCartney, Lennon and Hendrix, Traffic or members of other bands were there. And there were very few studios and pretty much the same engineers,” he said. “It was just a very closed circle in 60s London. It was very much a melting pot in one place unlike America, which had number of music locations: New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Nashville.”
Mason has spent much of his free time in his home studio writing and recording new music. But he is dedicated to a charity called Rock Our Vets, which he and Ted Knapp created in 2015. Rock Our Vets helps out veterans and first responders by donating laptop computers, wheelchairs, clothing and scholarships to those in need.
“I’m a post war baby. When I grew up there were still bombed out cities,” he said. “My father was in the 1914 war and my brother was driving tanks in the Second World War. They made it through alright, so I want to help those who serve.”
He laughed when he talked about how his body holds up on tour. He gave a small chortle when asked what he wants his legacy to be even though his legacy is guaranteed with the song Feeling Alright. So what does a man in his sunset years want to really be remembered by?
“I have no idea,” he said. “I leave that up to others. You know one song can be interpreted in 50 different ways. I guess the music could be what it is.”
Rock on, Dave, and on … and on … and on