Musician Dave Mason’s biography reads like a who’s-who of rock history: the co-founder of the band Traffic with Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, and Chris Wood, writer of “Feelin’ Alright,” and performer of the ‘70s hit “We Just Disagree” counted Jimi Hendrix among his closest friends and has collaborated with everyone from Paul McCartney and George Harrison to the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, and Michael Jackson.
But it’s one particular friendship, which has endured for more than 40 years, that brings him back to the Caribbean again and again.
In the late 1970s, Mason was riding the wave of success from “We Just Disagree” (which peaked at number 12 on the Billboard charts in 1977 when he visited St. Thomas to do a series of acoustic shows at Barnacle Bill’s in the Sub Base neighborhood of Charlotte Amalie. “The stage was planks laid over the lobster tanks,” Mason remembers.
The bands stayed at the small hotels then occupying nearby Frenchtown, one of which was operated by the Doumeng family, which still runs the Bolongo Bay Beach Resort today.
“We just all clicked, and we’ve been friends ever since,” said Mason, who over the years has jammed with David Doumeng (“if ever there was someone born to be onstage, it’s David,” says Mason), moved to St. Thomas just in time for Hurricane Hugo to hit in 1989 (“I moved there because of the Doumengs”), and still hangs out with the family when he gets back to the island.
One particular night Mason spend at Bolongo-owned Iggie’s Beach Bar in 2012 has since become the stuff of island legend. The local band at the bar was playing Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” when Stevie, who was there for dinner, joined the Becca Darling Band for a rendition of “House of the Rising Sun.”
Mason happened to be out to dinner with the Doumengs that night. “I knew Stevie from the past, he played on a couple of my records,” says Mason (the pair memorably recorded “The Lonely One,” along with Leon Russell, in 1973). “Richard told me he was at Iggie’s — it just happened that we were both there, although a lot of celebrities love that place down there.”
Mason hustled over to the bar in time to call his fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member back to the stage, where they jammed to a version of “Stormy Monday” with Stevie on harmonica and both artists on vocals leading a crowd-pleasing sing-a-long.
The song title became all too real for Mason a few years later. The musician purchased a home in the heights above Charlotte Amalie in 1989, and had barely settled in before Hurricane Hugo hit the island as a monster, Category 4 hurricane.
“The intensity of a hurricane increases every 300 feet, and I was about 1,200 feet above sea level,” he recalls. Mason, his wife, and their cat rode out the storm in the mountainside home, eventually retreating to a rear bathroom after the winds ripped through most of the house.
“For eight hours it sounded like a whole bunch of 747s ready for takeoff,” he says.
Rather than fleeing the island after the storm, Mason stuck around to help with recovery, including playing free shows with David Doumeng to help keep people’s spirits up. The boost was needed on an island where electricity wasn’t restored for three months and phones didn’t come back for six.
“If you were a single guy and could make ice, you could have had any woman you wanted at that time,” he says with a laugh.
The experience did nothing to dampen Mason’s love for St. Thomas and the Caribbean. Not only did Mason remain a St. Thomas resident for four years, he also frequently visits with friends in Virgin Gorda. The English-born musician has been a long-time resident of California and also has a home in Maui, but says, “Personally, I like the Caribbean better — the water is a whole lot warmer.”
“Somewhere in my alternative life I was probably a pirate,” he laughs. Mason also was exposed to West Indian culture, including reggae music, at an early age — the latter influence can be heard in his 1987 duet with Phoebe Snow, “Dreams I Dream,” as well as “World in Changes” from his 1970 solo debut album, “Alone Together.”
Sailing, scuba diving, and the succulent delights of grilled lobster are among favorite island experiences for Mason, who says celebrities come to the Caribbean for “the same reasons everyone else does” — the beauty, the beach, the food, and the warm welcome of the Caribbean people.
Mason remains busy with his music, including re-recording a special 50th-anniversary edition of his debut album (dubbed “Alone Together Again”) and performing a new version of “Feelin’ Alright” with his ‘house band’ of Michael McDonald, the Doobie Brothers, Sammy Hagar, and Mick Fleetwood, which he dubbed, “Dave and the Quarantines.”
If not for COVID, he says, he’d be on the beach at Bologna Bay right now.
“Taking a boat ride to Virgin Gorda or Tortola on the Heavenly Days (Bolongo Bay Beach Resort’s catamaran) under a full moon — that’s my vision of heaven,” he says.