Chris Wood was born in Quinton, a suburb of Birmingham on June 24, 1944 – the eldest son of Stephen and Muriel Wood and brother to younger sister Steph. The family moved into Corngreaves Hall (which had been sub-divided into smaller dwellings) in 1953 due to his father’s position as Borough Surveyor of Rowley Regis. While the Hall was more of a ‘folly’ than a country house, the Gothic architecture and wooded grounds combined to become a fairy-tale environment that would inspire Chris and Steph into becoming creative souls.
Chris went to Stourbridge College of Art and then on to Birmingham College of Art (Painting Department) to complete his three-year Diploma in Fine Art and Design. There, a fellow artist compared his paintings to abstract artist Willem DeKooning’s seen in the ‘70’s – though Chris painted the style a decade earlier. His skill earned him a place at the Royal Academy of Art in London which he entered on December 7th, 1965 – to begin his Masters Degree.
While studying art, he took up the flute, and later the saxophone – both born from his love for modern jazz and blues. Teenage friends, including actor Hugh Fraser (who starred with Harrison Ford in Patriot Games as well as Poirot with David Suchet) thought Chris could equally have written for and acted on stage. Instead, with his career in art left behind, out of after-hours sessions at The Elbow Room in Birmingham, a new group comprising Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, Jim Capaldi and Dave Mason was born – they called themselves: Traffic.
To focus his fledgling band, Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell arranged for them to move to an isolated farmhouse on the Berkshire Downs near Aston Tirrold – The Cottage. Without a strong enough electricity supply,a generator had to be installed to power their equipment. There was no telephone and, in the winter, the only heating was from wood-fires. Not long after they arrived, a concrete hard standing was poured which was used as an outdoor stage during the summer months – the band (and friends) creating music that wafted across the corn-filled low-lying hills.
Success was instant from their first release, Paper Sun. The group had begun a musical journey that would see them meld their music into an ever-evolving sound that was nothing less than intoxicating.
Due, in part, to Traffic’s isolated lifestyle, rumours in the music press grew into pure mythology about life and times at The Cottage – with visiting musicians recounting tales of acid-drenched outdoor all-night jam sessions under the stars; listening to rare import records wreathed in clouds of hash-smoke; midnight trips by Land-Rover across The Downs to sit among ancient standing stones to tales about the house itself – professed by most who visited to be haunted by a ghost. A tenant that moved in after the band left also experienced the same.
Chris’s sensitivity connected with The Cottage in particular. From a young age he was as deeply interested in ornithology as he was drawn to spiritualism and mysticism: astrology, spirits, ancient British pagan sites and Ley Lines. His curiosity led him to explore all types of life experiences, pushing himself into experiences and places others would not. For instance, he would often go to sit among the ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire at night – a Grade 1 listed building, once one of the great houses of the Midlands, but today a spectacular ruin after being devastated by fire in 1937. He’d go alone, sometimes with band members and once with visiting rock ‘n roll royalty – Bob Dylan.
From their first recordings, Traffic became famous on a global level; nowadays, their legacy endures via a canon of extraordinary music – from Dear Mr Fantasy (which Chris co-wrote with Steve and Jim) to The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys via John Barleycorn – a traditional British song that dated from the Middle Ages which Chris first heard sung by the mainly acapela group from the North of England, The Watersons. It became the title song to their 1970 album, John Barleycorn Must Die and was not only one of the group’s most loved recordings but a lynchpin of their concerts for the rest of the band’s natural life.
Although the core of Steve, Chris and Jim remained constant throughout the band’s life, Traffic constantly reinvented itself with the inclusion of different musicians; its sound evolving over the nine albums issued in its seven year life.
In the early 70’s, Chris met the love of his life – Jeanette Jacobs, a former girlfriend of Jimi Hendrix (to whom Chris was also close friends). After Traffic split for the first time, Chris and Jeanette toured the length and breadth of America with Dr. John before returning to Britain and joining Ginger Baker’s Airforce. Chris and Jeanette married at Kensington Registry Office in 1972.
After the nucleus of Traffic disbanded in 1974, Jim and especially Steve would go on to enjoy highly successful solo careers. Chris, however – deeply affected by the group’s dissolution – started to push his music into new areas, making tentative first steps into recording his own album and exploring his jazz roots once more.
Throughout Traffic’s life, Chris had been in-demand as a session musician with his immediately identifiable flute or saxophone playing cropping up on albums by Island label-mates Free, Third World, Rebop Kwaku Baah and Remi Kabaka as well as recordings by Fat Mattress; Gordon Jackson, Crawler, The Sky, Jimi Hendrix, Ginger Baker’s Airforce, Bobby Whitlock, The Small Faces and many others.
However, tortured by his wife’s serial infidelity while immersing himself in musical experimentation, trying to kick-start his musical career, Chris turned more inward, seeking solace in substance abuse which, eventually, led to a liver condition being identified.
Besides Hendrix’s own passing, it was the death of two other close friends, Free’s Paul Kossoff and former band-mate Rebop Kwaku Baah followed by that of his (by now, estranged) wife that affected Chris the most – the combination of loss (his band and his friends), inner turmoil and alcohol dependency finally took its toll.
Chris Wood died in hospital in Birmingham, UK on July 12, 1983, from multiple organ failure. Three weeks earlier, he had turned 39.
Through the efforts of friends and family, a posthumous CD called Vulcan was released on October 27, 2008 – allowing fans, at long last, to share a little of the magic of Chris Wood.
During the summer of 2016 – and after four years in development – HiddenMasters in collaboration with The Chris Wood Estate (run by his sister Steph), will issue Evening Blue.
A 200+ page, hardback edition, Evening Blue chronicles and celebrates Chris’s life in music from co-founding Traffic via his many collaborations with the likes of John Martyn, The Wailers’ Tyrone Downie, Nick Drake and very many others to his own solo work.
Further information on the set – which includes multiple CDs as well as a 180gsm pressing of Chris’s never-released solo LP – will be made shortly.