John Mayall’s fabled biography reads like a fairy tale about the blues baron mentor of British Invasion rock stars who went on to re-introduce blues to a generation of Americans. Himself a guitarist, keyboard player, harp player and songwriter, The Godfather of British Blues is best known for introducing a steady stream of guitarists who went on to become rock royalty: Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor later of Cream, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones, respectively.
Other graduates included Fleetwood Mac’s John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, Cream’s Jack Bruce, Free’s Andy Fraser and blues stalwarts Walter Trout, Coco Montoya, and Buddy Whittington. He’s the poet laureate, the full professor who was 20 years ahead of the curve half a century ago and remains an innovator in the genre today with unbelievable energy and creativity at age 82.
I’ll never forget the look on Eric Clapton’s face when I pulled out an album cover for him to sign in 1990. I’d just done an interview with him for my biography on Buddy Guy deep in an Adirondack retreat. He was obviously relieved that our subject was someone other than himself. We’d spent more than an hour talking about Buddy Guy’s influence, and I’d come away with the impression that Clapton was trapped in a bubble of fame, numb and bored with a world that looked at him as superhuman.
The album I had him sign was Bluesbreakers John Mayall with Eric Clapton recorded in 1965, when Clapton was 19 years old. It’s known as “The Beano album” because it pictures a blasé Eric Clapton reading a British Beano comic book while the rest of the band stares into the camera. It was Clapton’s first release since leaving the Yardbirds in disgust over their abandonment of real blues on the song “For Your Love.” It was as if I’d shaken Clapton awake, burst him out of his bubble. I got it! I understood it was about the music, not the myth.
Fifty years after the release of that album, The Blues Magazine in England has done a 12-page cover story on the Beano album proclaiming that it “was this album above all others (even the work of Paul Butterfield and Canned Heat) that raised awareness and ultimately led to a resurgence in the careers of many black blues artists who hit hard times as their music was overtaken b
For 50 years the spotlight has always been about Clapton and the other rising stars Mayall has mentored more than it has been about Mayall himself. Nobody in the press ever seems to zero in on what makes Mayall tick. “I mean it’s still an acquired taste for my listening public, and they’re not of sufficient numbers to put me on the charts or put me in the news in any way, so I’m still pretty much of an outsider in that respect, so I just go my own way and hope for the best, but we just have a great time playing which is just an enviable situation because people in big hit groups and everything, they’re kind of stuck with what they’ve made famous, and they’ve lost the opportunity to improvise and explore.”
So, what is it about Mayall that inspired all these guitarists to greatness?
John Yeule, former Bluesbreaker drummer, told me in 2003, that part of Mayall’s magic was his childlike attitude toward music. “These guys want to play with him ’cause they have a chance to really blow. It’s wide open. He encourages it. Let’s have fun. They love when we’re out there and really stretching. I think that’s important in his attitude.”
“Improvisation is the main thing,” says Mayall today. “You have your structure of the musical piece, and then you embellish it in whatever direction that evening’s performance entails. So, it’s always been the bedrock of everything I’ve done. The whole idea is to create music as you’re playing. The improvisational thing is the main part of it. You’re exploring the music.”
At 82, Mayall is more than a decade older than Clapton and his other fellow British Invasion cohorts. He was a graphic designer by profession and sees the fundamental 4/4 blues form as simple, which suits him because he doesn’t read music, but creates a template for improvising and jamming, going into the zone on a variety of instruments: keyboards, guitar, harmonica, and a voice that’s unsanded mahogany as instantly recognizable as Gregg Allman’s. Clapton lived with Mayall for months studying his blues record collection before making the Beano album.
“Eric Clapton was the main one that pioneered (the love of blues),” Mayall explained to me in 1996. “He was the first person I met that actually did have an understanding of where all this music came from. But of course, once he set the standard, the word spread and people like Peter Green came along and subsequently Mick Taylor. So, you know, one thing leads to another, really.
“Until Eric came long, there wasn’t anybody who understood the history or background or the whole thing, what it was really all about. Up to that point they were just really copying. The better musicians were able to copy certain solos and licks and things, but the heart and soul of it were a very elusive thing. And like I say, Eric was the first one to come along to have that.”
In his memoir “Blowing the Blues,” the late Bluesbreakers sax player Dick Heckstall-Smith writes, “(Mayall’s) modus operandi seemed to be: get the right players and leave them to it. The only musical instruction I ever got from him was that ‘Right then, on you go!’ In fact, the whole band was totally hassle-free to a man.”
“The reason I choose musicians is what they bring to the table, and I enjoy their work, and I want to give them an opportunity to express themselves because that’s what I hired them for,” says Mayall. “So I enjoy their playing and fortunately, being a bandleader, I get to choose who I want to play with. So, I indulge my own musical enjoyment.
On the average, it takes Mayall three days to do all the backing tracks on an album and then a couple of days to put on his own “bits and pieces” and do the lead vocals. “It usually takes us over a week to do the whole thing. There’s no reason for it to be any longer than that because we like to capture things like you would do on a live gig. You just do the thing in a couple of takes or one take in most cases. “
Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Mayall is still as vibrant in 2016 as he was with Clapton on the Beano album, and on his current tour that includes a headlining gig at the King Biscuit Blues Festival on Friday, October 7th, he is playing for the first time in his storied career without a lead guitarist.
Mayall’s latest rising star guitarist Rocky Athas – a seven-year veteran of the band – has parted ways with the Godfather of British blues, and the current band has been pared back to a trio. In a September letter to his fans, Mayall writes, “Having never performed anywhere or at any time without a guitar sidekick, I found that I was able to explore new territories in a trio configuration playing organ, keyboards, harmonica and guitar. Needless to say I was surprised at how different and stimulating the experience was for me as a performer.”
In a ragged but right performance September 16th at The Egg in Albany, New York, Mayall came across with a show that was more Son House than Eric Clapton, more Sonny Boy Williamson than British Invasion rave up. Yes, he’s lost Rocky Athas whose credits include touring with Black Oak Arkansas and a childhood friendship with Stevie Ray Vaughan, but the remaining two members’ credits are much more rooted in blues legacy.
Greg Rzab became Otis Rush’s bass player at 21. He played with Buddy Guy from 1986 to 1998. He has toured with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Warren Haynes’ Gov’t Mule. He’s also recorded and played with Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and the Allman Brothers Band. He’s been with Mayall since 2009, and this is his second time around.
Jay Davenport on drums was mentored by Bo Diddley’s drummer Clifton James and played the Chicago scene with Junior Wells, Valerie Wellington, Pinetop Perkins and Jimmie Johnson. He was in Melvin Taylor’s West Side band before Greg Rzab brought him to Mayall in 2009.
The Albany show was a tour de force of Mayall’s career including “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Albert King from his 1967 LP Crusade, a jamming version of Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm,” Charles Brown’s “Drifting Blues,” “Moving Out and Moving On” that had Mayall playing guitar with one hand and keyboards with the other, and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me.” They encored with “Room to Move” with Mayall practically eating his harp alive.
“Sonny Boy Williamson was my idol of course as opposed to Little Walter who was amplified harp. I lean more towards the acoustic harp the way Sonny played it, and Sonny Terry, people like that. So, I got on really well with him as well as anybody could really because he was definitely a very cantankerous character.”
While Clapton had a contentious relationship with Sonny Boy Williamson having recorded a live album with Sonny Boy as at 17-year-old guitarist with the Yardbirds, Mayall had a much more cordial friendship with the Delta blues giant.
“I might have been dissatisfied with my own attempts being far short of the idols of the songs we were covering, people like Otis Rush and Freddie King,” Mayall told me in 1994. “We were in awe of these people and Sonny Boy Williamson. Our attempts seemed rather feeble by comparison. We were developing our own style. And yet to me I was trying to learn those licks. Being a different person, of course, they came out differently.”
Today, he’s more sanguine. “We were all doing the best we could, and we loved he music, but we hadn’t understood really the roots of it sufficiently enough to be convincing or whatever, but he was glad to get the opportunity to get an audience, but he didn’t really have too much respect for the Yardbirds, so he made it quite known that he didn’t appreciate them, but Sonny Boy was a cantankerous character, and luckily he enjoyed talking to me, so we got along pretty well.
“He took me down to the Hohner Harmonica Headquarters in London,” recalls Mayall today, “and he got me fixed up with (harmonica) keys that weren’t really available to the public. He was very helpful. They weren’t available to the public in certain keys, and if you tried to find out how he did it you wouldn’t be able to find it. He had Hohner make them up in those particular keys. They weren’t for general distribution. I came away with those I needed.”
Yet Sonny Boy’s contempt for Clapton may have had as much to do with Sonny Boy’s own demons. “He was the king of drinking. There was a benefit thing at the Flamingo Club in London, and he was one of the performers on that with the Yardbirds, but he was so drunk by 2 o’clock in the morning when we heard him that he couldn’t find the harmonica. He was just standing there searching through his pockets while the band was standing there behind him. And he was saying, ‘What the devil did I do with that thing? Don’t know.’ He was pretty out of it most of the time.
The Wall Street Journal calls Mayall “a pioneer granting PhDs in blues.” The Blues Foundation inducted Mayall into the Blues Hall of Fame this year, two years after Clapton’s induction. Incredibly agile and fresh more than 60 years into his career, he almost always writes and records his CDs in under two weeks. His latest CD Find a Way to Care was recorded in seven days and includes five originals.
Since coming out of a semi-retirement in 2008, Mayall has released two albums, A Special Life and Find A Way to Care with Let’s Talk About That scheduled for January. The AllMusic Guide describes him as being on “a late career tear” with A Special Life receiving “wide approval from fans and critics alike.” In his career he’s put out 60 records total, and has 130 world tour dates planned for 2017. John is not on his second wind. He’s on his fifth wind as a creative blues innovator.
Mayall doesn’t drink, he’s a vegetarian, and in his prime he often performed naked to the waist, showing off his physique. His 83 is most people’s 50. “As long as I have my health and the energies needed to give a storied performance, that’s what I do, and I love playing, and as long as I have my health and energy as I say to be able to do a good job I think that’s what’s most important. I really love to play with these guys, and we have a great time together on the road. So, that’s it. So as long as that continues, I don’t see anything about slowing down.
“Next year we have a massive tour. I mean, we usually do up to 100 shows every year, but I think next year we’ll exceed that because we have a big tour of the U.K. at the end of the year, and all the festivals in the summer. So it’s probably going to end up being about 130 shows next year, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Visit John’s website at: www.johnmayall.com.
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.