45 Years Ago: Traffic Hits High Point with ‘The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys’
After exploring English folk on 1970's John Barleycorn Must Die, Traffic continued broadening their sound to incorporate other musical idea on the follow-up. Released in November 1971, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys saw them move more towards progressive rock, featuring extended tracks and off-kilter rhythms inspired by other genres.
“With Traffic we wanted to actually create music which contained many elements,” Steve Winwood told In the Studio with Redbeard. “Not excluding blues and rhythm and blues, but also including folk music, jazz, rock and various kinds of ethnic music.”
All of those different sounds would go into “Rock & Roll Stew,” aided by some recent hires to bolster the triumvirate of Winwood (vocals, keyboards, guitar), Jim Capaldi (drums, vocals) and Chris Wood (woodwinds, keyboards). These included Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech, Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah and Derek and the Dominos drummer Jim Gordon (who was brought in to allow Capaldi to focus on songwriting and singing lead, which he did on two of album’s six tracks).
Of all styles, jazz seemed to come to the forefront on The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, especially on the nearly 12-minute title track. The song was conjured out of studio experimentation, with Capaldi even writing the lyrics to the third verse just before Winwood sang them.
“What would happen is that Jim would jot some words down on a piece of paper – some lines, maybe, and not too many, and certainly not arranged in a verse – chorus kind of way,” Winwood told Performing Songwriter. “He would just jot a few phrases or ideas down, and then we would go and jam. I would stand the piece of paper on top of the piano or organ, then during the jam when I felt it was right and appropriate, I’d sing what he’d written down and it always came out of a jam. It was born out of the fact that we were players rather than writers.”
As for the bizarre, but memorable title, Capaldi got the phrase from actor Michael J. Pollard (Bonnie and Clyde) with whom he was working on a film project. Pollard wrote “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” in Capaldi’s book and it fired his imagination.
“For me, it summed him up,” Capaldi said. “He had this tremendous rebel attitude. He walked around in his cowboy boots, his leather jacket. At the time he was a heavy little dude. It seemed to sum up all the people of that generation who were just rebels.”
The meandering song, although never released as a single, became a staple of ’70s FM radio, famous for its length, hazy mood and electronic saxophone solo played by Wood. Winwood recalled how Wood came to create the nasal, Eastern-tinged sound on “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.”
“He used a lot of gadgetry on his saxophone,” Winwood said. “He bought a thing called a Maestro, which is a machine for electrifying a saxophone, a reed instrument.”
The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys rose to No. 7 on the American chart due to the popularity of its title track and the mild success of single “Rock & Roll Stew.” The LP remains the band’s lone platinum release in the U.S., known for its mind-altering sounds, in addition to its famous die-cut album cover, which created an optical illusion.
The group would continue on for a few more years, releasing two more albums before breaking up in 1974. Wood died in 1983, but Capaldi and Winwood reunited for a new Traffic record and tour in the ’90s, as well as for the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. Decades later, Low Spark is considered by many fans and critics to be Traffic’s high point.
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