Heading the British school of blues/rock
By Tom MacIntosh
As one of the few elderly headmasters of the school of British blues/rock, John Mayall was perhaps as adept at personnel changes, and providing context for the Chicago blues, as he was as a showman in his own right. His Bluesbreakers throughout the 60s became something of a ‘honing station’ for many budding blues guitarists before setting out on their own triumphal paths. Take Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor for example, they came and went like dawn to dusk in the early 60s, only to veer off into their own careers, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, and The Rolling Stones, respectively. There have been some 15 different lineups for the Bluesbreakers during 60s, so it’s a bit hard to keep up with the band’s turnover clock, but we’ll try to shed some light on that and the life of our protagonist, blues/rock legend and guru John Mayall.
He was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire, England in 1933, and got his early interest in music through his father Murray, who was a trombonist/guitarist and blues/jazz fan, so young Johnny was exposed to his dad’s records, and especially took to the blues sounds of Lead Belly, Eddie Lang, Pinetop Smith, and Albert Ammons. He picked up his first electric guitar on leave from military service in Korea, and that ‘little snowball’ started to roll from there. He attended the Manchester College of Art and began sitting in with semi-professional outfits while there. He graduated with a degree in art design, a craft which was put to good use on the look of many of his future album covers. In 1963 he decided a career in music was his calling, and with some advice from a bloke who some named “the founding father of British blues”, Alexis Korner, he set forth for London.
Through Korner’s ties he met many other players and landed gigs with his band, which by then was called the Bluesbreakers. They inked a recording contract in ‘64 on the Decca label, recorded the single Crocodile Walk, which went nowhere and the deal was dead. This type of encouragement made him even more determined to break through. Always sharp at attracting new blood into the mix, he got Eric Clapton to join the squad in 1965, and the snowball was picking up speed. Clapton by then had gained a following, attracting much needed attention to the Bluesbreakers. They recorded two singles that summer, I’m Your Witchdoctor,(produced by Jimmy Page) and Telephone Blues. However, Clapton went to Greece straight after that exploring new horizons, leaving Mayall with personnel problems, and original bassman John McVie was fired, but the ever-persuasive Mayall landed fill-in guitarist Peter Green, who was every bit as good as Clapton, but hadn’t the ‘street creds’ yet, and Jack Bruce on bass (Graham Bond Organisation), but he left after a short stint.
Then Clapton returned to his top spot and in ‘66 they put out the now classic John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, (McVie back on bass) also known as The Beano Album (because Clapton was reading the Beano children’s magazine on the record cover). Most of the vocals on the record were Mayall’s, along with his handy work on piano, Hammond organ and harmonica, Hughie Flint was on sticks. The track Ramblin’ On My Mind was Clapton’s first recording as lead vocalist.
But the musical merry-go-round kept going round and Clapton left the group to join Bruce to form Cream with Ginger Baker. Peter Green was back as lead shredder and with various other sidemen, they cut A Hard Road in the winter of ‘67, along with several singles. Perhaps the reason behind all the lineup changes was due to the emerging popularity of the British invasion into the USA in the early 60s where blues music was negro music, mostly played on negro radio, with little chance of reaching the white masses. These white British blues blokes broke the tinted glass ceiling and their popularity brought them fame and riches; thus the scramble to get in the hot band of the moment, one speculates. Nevertheless, the blues was now cooking on the front burner across the country thanks to them.
So almost like clock work, hopping off the carousel again was Green, who teamed up with Mick Fleetwood to work on his project Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Enter 18-year-old guitarist Mick Taylor, and together they released the album Crusade in ‘67, with a horn section giving a thick brassy sound. Then Diary of a Band Vol 1 & 2, featuring fabulous drummer Keef Hartley, and Bare Wires, which some say was his best work to date, showing off his jazz beginnings and development in writing more meaningful lyrics, such as on the lovely I Know Now.
After Taylor quit the band to join the Stones, Mayhall dropped the Bluesbreakers moniker for a while and formed a drumless acoustic set with guitarist Jon Mark, Johnny Almond blowing tenor sax and flute, and Stephen Thompson plucking the string bass. The result was the live album The Turning Point, which reached the top 10 on the U.K. charts, and was his best selling record. It features his best known harmonica licks on the classic Room to Move, and Thoughts About Roxanne, where Almond shines on sax.
Mayall then got back to the studio (Larrabee Studios, L.A.) with new American friends Harvey Mandel/guitar, Larry Taylor/bass, and Don “Sugarcane” Harris/electric violin to record USA Union, a jazzy experiment that addressed his love for his girl, as in the sweet My Pretty Girl, the funky Possessive Emotions, for example, and his concern for the environment, Nature’s Disappearing. In 1971 he put together the double album Back to the Roots with former Breakers Clapton, Mick Taylor, Hartley, Mandel, and Almond, but had no effects commercially. Then his Jazz Fusion Blues album of the same year, featuring Blue Mitchell/trumpet, Clifford Solomon and Ernie Watts/sax, Larry Taylor/bass, Ron Selico/drums, and Freddy Robinson/guitar, with Mayall on piano and harmonica. It’s another live record, the first side being a gig at the Boston Music Hall and side B was a combo of two gigs at Hunter College in New York. Two years later in ‘73 with the same lineup, he cut Moving On, but his flame was starting to dwindle somewhat, so he stopped recording for a while, playing just close to his base in California.
He got back on the road again in Europe (1988), playing to small but enthusiastic crowds, and later that year he signed with Island Records and released Chicago Line. The commercial doldrums started to pick up wind in 1990 with one of his best albums over the last few years, A Sense of Place, and in 1993 his record Wake Up Call was considered his finest ever and was his best selling work in over 20 years. It won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album that year.
The 90s smiled on John Mayall, giving him a new son from his second marriage in 1995, and a rockin bluesy new album called Spinning Coin, featuring talented Texan blues guitarist Buddy Whittington; Mayall just had the ‘knack’ for attracting the best players around. Then what was viewed as Mayall’s most cogent lyrical effort, Blues for the Lost Days, released in 1997, featuring the classic All Those Heroes which he pays tribute to all of his influences , including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Maceo and Blind Blake. On the 40th anniversary of his glittering career, he got back together with old friends to record a celebratory album called Along for the Ride (2001), which included 20 halcyon names on the cover, like the old original Breakers, and also Gary Moore, Jonny Lang, Steve Cropper, Steve Miller, Otis Rush, Billy Gibbons, Chris Rea, Jeff Healey, phenom vocalist Shannon Curfman and more…
In 2013 Mayall signed with producer Eric Corne’s label Forty Below Records and cut 3 albums, A Special Life, showcasing accordion wizard C.J. Chenier, Find a Way to Care, and Talk About That, with Joe Walsh.
As for his gear, he says, “All the guitars in my past have been hand-me-downs and not very good, but the one on the cover of A Special Life is my personal favourite. That one is an Eric Johnson Stratocaster in origin, but with all the guitars I have, I cut them up and make personal designs out of them. I cut out the parts I don’t need, tear out everything except one pickup and volume control, and whatever shape is left, I decorate it.”
John Mayall OBE (The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2017. As the only survivor of the four progenitors of British blues/rock, (after all this time) he still plays with a keen eye on the true product: the blues. “It’s about that raw honesty with which the blues express our experiences in life, something that is connected to us,...To be honest though, I don’t think anyone really knows what exactly it is. I just can’t stop playing it.” He can now claim the mantel as the one Englishman who has furthered the cause more than anyone.