John Mayall – A Bluesbreaker For Life


Cover photo © Bob Steshetz/Bob by Request 2022

imageIt seems a bit hard to believe, but after 65 years, John Mayall is about to play the last two live shows of his illustrious career, the last one scheduled for March 26 at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, California. Given that the blues legend is 88 years old, retirement certainly seems appropriate.

But Mayall has never been one to follow in the footsteps of others. Throughout his career he has ventured down different paths, explored different musical approaches, and changed band line-ups in a constant quest to challenge himself and those around him to make beautiful music. The fact that he has been able to remain relevant for so long makes it hard to imagine that the moment has finally arrived for the page to turn to a different chapter in an amazing story.

Whether it was his early work that featured the magnificent guitar work of Eric Clapton and Peter Green, or his shape-shifting efforts from 1969 into the following decade, Mayall has been in the spotlight with his lead vocals, harmonica, keyboard and rhythm guitar playing. His decision to switch to an acoustic sound opened up a world of possibilities as heard on his 1969 release, The Turning Point, which featured his harmonica workout “Room To Move,” long a staple on FM radio. Several years later he cut another live album, Jazz Blues Fusion, this time featuring stellar accompaniment from players like saxophonist Ernie Watts and trumpeter Blue Mitchell, who were well-versed in improvisational music-making.

While many listeners were stunned by those dramatic shifts, for Mayall they were just a natural part of his musical evolution.

“Those songs were featuring jazz players that I really admired so their work is very well featured on the albums that they play on. It was good to be able to explore some of my jazz roots with that band. The Turning Point was an experimental thing to do it without a drummer, so it was a very interesting time to create something that had rhythm and yet didn’t have a drummer. After all the versions of the Bluesbreakers with the great musicians that had come before, I was into doing something different rather than repeating myself. They were all different explorations as far as I was concerned and hopefully the people would follow along with it.”

One quick look at the roster of musicians who have backed him over the years makes it clear that he is a superb assessor of musical talent. The list of guitar players after Clapton and Green includes Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel, Freddy Robinson, Walter Trout, Coco Montoya, Buddy Whittington, and Rocky Athas. Key contributors in the rhythm section have included John McVie and Larry Taylor on bass, and Keef Hartley on drums.

Asked about the criteria that form the basis for his selection process, Mayall was quite clear on what items top the list.

“I think the important thing is their individuality. I choose musicians for what sets them apart from other instrumentalists, their character. We’re on the road all the time and we’re always exploring new things, so any guitarist or other musician I pick is someone I want to have featured. I enjoy playing music and I want to hear what they bring to the table and that’s always a thrill, so I choose musicians that I admire and that bring something different and new to the piece of music.”

Greg Rzab certainly appreciates being one of the musicians that caught Mayall’s ear. With two different stints playing bass in the band, Rzab is experiencing a range of conflicting emotions as the final live show looms on the horizon. He had been playing with Buddy Guy when Mayall approached him about making a change as he told us.

“I first met John in 1987 in Tokyo while on tour with Buddy and Junior Wells, which was the start of our friendship. He would frequently call me to ask if I would join his band. But Buddy’s thing was taking off, so I would always decline the offer. When I finally left Buddy, I got a call from John about a week later, asking me if I was ready to accept his offer, which I did. When I was nine years old, I dragged my mother to the local record store to buy The Turning Point and Blues From Laurel Canyon albums. So one of my proudest accomplishments is that I will forever be a member of the Bluesbreakers.

image“I played with John for several years, then got a call to audition for Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame. You can’t turn down an opportunity like that, so I auditioned, and got the gig! We were on tour in Glasgow when I told John that I was leaving the band. He was like, well, I hate to lose you but Jimmy Page, what are you going to do! After some time with Jimmy, I ended up playing with the Black Crowes, and then Gov’t Mule. Once that all wrapped up, somehow John found out again, and asked me to please come back to his band. That is what I have been doing for the last 14 years.”

When asked what it is about his approach to playing bass that his bandleader finds so appealing, Rzab doesn’t need much time to answer. “Almost every night after a show, John will tell me how much he loves the way I play, the creativeness and my improvisational skills. He also appreciates how we play together, the inter-connectedness of the sound. We bounce ideas off of each other. He has always told me that I am a fabulous bass player. That is a very precious thing.”

Getting that kind of support from one of his idols eliminated much of pressure that any musician might feel from playing with a blues legend. Rzab also loves how Mayall constantly strives to keep the music fresh.

Looking back, Rzab finds plenty to be thankful for.

“First, being on stage with him as he sings “Walking On Sunset,” his vocal phrasing, takes me back to when I was nine years old. There have been so many great shows around the world, like playing in Romania to 3,000 adoring John Mayall fans. I will miss getting on the bus with him, like our first tour where we played 54 shows in 56 days, including 31 shows in a row without a day off! I loved being in that zone. It has been very special, so the thought of it ending is very bittersweet.”

One special memory involves a show in Niagara Falls, where the mayor gave Mayall a key to the city, an honor that had only been bestowed on one other person, Dan Aykroyd. It was a gold key housed in a small black velvet-lined box.

As Rzab recalls, “The next morning at breakfast, John handed me this little case with the key inside, which John had autographed. I told him I couldn’t take it. But he insisted, saying he wanted me to have the key because he knew that it would mean something to me. He gave me the key to Niagara Falls, which now hangs on the wall of my music room. John is a very humble and unassuming human being. Awards and accolades weren’t important to him, only the music being played on any given night.”

Drummer Jay Davenport has been a vital part of the rhythm section with Rzab for the last fourteen years. He cut cut his teeth playing in Chicago blues clubs, backing artists like Sugar Blue, Dion Payton, Jimmy Johnson, and guitarist Melvin Taylor, where he was teamed with Rzab. Once the bass player got the call from Mayall, good fortune came the drummer’s way.

“John was putting together a new band in 2008, which is why he called Greg. He wanted Greg to pick a drummer that he was comfortable with, because John wanted a really tight rhythm section. That’s how that came about. How I have remained there this long is the real mystery! At the time I was working as a consultant in application development in the computer field, playing gigs on the weekend. It was a hard decision to leave that and go out on the road. I never looked back.

“At that time Chicago blues were loud and long, lots of solos, lots of chops. The best musicians in the city were playing blues because it was the best paying gig at the time. Over the years, I have learned that the more I tone it down, the more people notice the drums. The key is getting everybody in the band to listen, and having a willingness to support each other at all times. So my job in the Mayall band might be to keep the 2 & 4 beats, or it might be to announce a change, do something flashy, or even lay out and do nothing at all. When we did the trio thing with John and Greg, it was almost an ecosystem with a heart, the brain, and a cardiovascular system. That is what I have been honing in on since I got here.”

imageEven after playing with the the Dells, a famous Chicago vocal group, Davenport found himself to be frequently tongue tied when he was around Mayall for most of the first year in the band. It took awhile before he felt like something other than the “idiot” drummer.

“Once I broke through to where he was a friend more than an employer, things got really easy and a lot of fun. It was nice not having to worry about having a heart attack every time I came around him. He is so quiet, so you wonder if he is unapproachable, or just quiet. Once I figured it out, we developed a great relationship. Then it was fun to watch other people struggle with the same thing.”

Their time together has given the drummer a valuable insight into why Mayall has been able to sustain high standards throughout his career.

“He feels privileged to have had such a wonderful life playing the music he loves. Some people feel they have a gift, therefore they are owed something. With John, it is more that you have this gift, so now what are you going to do to deserve it. You owe back to the musicians you are playing with, to the audience, to crews that make the show go on. It sets him apart from a large majority of people that I have met in this business.”

Davenport still marvels at the energy Mayall has had over the years, like the time the then 83 year old came out of a truck stop with a Razor scooter, taking off to the astonishment of his band.

Asked for some final thoughts on the “boss,” Davenport is clear on his assessment of the Mayall legacy.

“Sooner or later, he should be voted in to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in recognition for his contributions to American music. The British stuff is what it is. John brought the blues to a place where it could be accepted for what it is, not as race music, just the blues. He paved the way for countless artists. We once met Geddy Lee of Rush in an airport. Geddy said that when they got together, they just wanted to be the Bluesbreakers. John deserves a place with all of the greats of the British invasion.”

Throughout his career Mayall has been a prolific songwriter. Some might think that after all these years, he has said all there is to be said. But the Mayall the songwriter is up to the challenge of creating vibrant music.

“The music usually comes first, or the subject and the music come at the same time, but when you write a song it has to have a certain flavor to it and that’s where you start from and find the subject. Once you have the subject matter that usually takes the lead and the lyrics will follow, which supplies enough for the verses that you’re going to put together. I write songs about a specific subject, like things that are going on in the world or in my life and hopefully people listen to that and connect up with it. When I put an album together I want to make sure that each track has a different strength to it and one track isn’t the same as another. All the songs whether I write them, or they’re by other people, the main thing is that they should have their own identity.

“I just do what’s natural to me. You write a song and it’s about a certain subject that you want to explore through music. I don’t think that there’s anything really special about that. I want to make sure that the subject of the song is represented in the style of music and the actual playing.

“I’ve grown up listening to the earlier singers and instrumentalists and enjoyed their work and it’s always been the same that everyone has their own character. To this day I enjoy listening to musicians from all ages.”

Being a multi-instrumentalist provides choices for a variety of sonic textures, which he has used effectively in the last few decades with smaller band formats. “I don’t really have a favorite instrument.

They all have a different character. The piano of course has the widest range of notes that you can play together. Maybe the piano as it has the most variety, but all of the instruments I play are in charge of expressing certain feelings of mine.”

It has been the job of producer Eric Corne to help Mayall capture his music on the eight recordings they have collaborated on since 2014, including the latest, The Sun Is Shining Down. The two met on a session for the Full Circle project Corne was working on with Walter Trout. Mayall was a guest on the album, the duo laying down a one take performance of the album’s opening track “She Takes More Than She Gives.” Corne continues the story.

image“We really bonded on a second Trout project, The Blues Came Callin’. Knowing that John was coming in, and that veteran musicians are often ready to go when they walk into the studio, I made sure that I had the levels set for the sound on the piano. John walked into the live room, Walter asked him what he thought about doing a boogie. John didn’t say a word, just sat down and started playing while I ran to hit the record button.

“After he was done, Walter told him it was an amazing performance, and then asked if John would like to try again with the band. Mayall replied no, I could never do that again. Didn’t you get it, at which point everyone turned to look at me. I was glad that I could give them the thumbs up! Then John and I listened to the track. He had a piece of paper to take notes on which measures he wanted me to keep, and which ones he wanted removed. Then I added the band with a real old school sound. Shortly after that I got a call from John’s manager saying that John was interested in me doing his next record. That ended up being the album A Special Life, and we have been working together ever since.”

When Mayall was considering doing a self-release as his record deal had expired, Corne offered to take at look at the plan for the release and offer input. His label, Forty Below Records, was relatively new with several albums on the market.

“I didn’t think they had a very robust plan. So I made an offer to John to put the album out on my label, and I wouldn’t take any money, just do my best to make the project successful. John said ok. It all went well, and that grew into John signing with Forty Below. We have done five studio albums, a live trio record, and released two volumes of live recordings from 1967 with the original line-up of Fleetwood Mac.

“It has been a good run for eight years. Not a bad output for someone who had just turned 80 years old just before our first release together.”

Asked about his relationship with Corne, it is clear that Mayall values the skills Corne brings to each project.

“We’ve worked together for a long time and it’s always been a very fruitful relationship. He manages to capture and enhance the music that I play. It’s difficult to say what it is that makes that possible, but he’s a good listener and he’s a good technician and I enjoy working with him”

Corne relishes the education he has acquired working with Mayall. He knows to be prepared, to be ready to strike when the iron is hot, as Mayall is not fond of doing countless takes of a given song, in keeping of his desire to keep things fresh.

When it comes to favorite memories, there are two that stand out for the producer.

“We were at Studio 606, the Foo Fighters Studio, recording for the Nobody Told Me album. Later at night, John did the piano for the title track. I remember sitting there with my feet up on the console, listening to him play, thinking here I am as John Mayall lays down a classic performance, my private audience with a legend. How lucky am I!

“The other huge one was recording two tracks with Joe Walsh, seeing how Joe revered John, which took me back a bit. People have so much respect and admiration for John.”

Joining Mayall’s band in 2018, Carolyn Wonderland is the latest addition to the formidable legacy of guitar players. A road-tested veteran from Texas with a career going back three decades, she was the lead singer fronting the Imperial Monkeys before striking out under her own name twenty years ago.

She had run into Mayall over the years when they were booked on the same festivals. She also got to know Greg Rzab when she did a string of shows with Buddy Guy, while Rzab was in his band. Some years later, while on a music cruise, they exchanged phone numbers. That connection paid dividends in 2017.

image“Greg called to ask if I would be interested in playing guitar on a couple of songs as a guest. I said sure, love to give it a try, and you won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t like what I play. I was in Woodstock when John got on the phone and invited me to play with the band for a bit. I was shocked, but managed to say sure, love to! I had just paid my respects at Levon Helm’s grave. I guess Woodstock has a kind of magic pull like that.

“So he sent me about 80 songs to learn, some of them from soundboard recordings with a lot of Peter Green. They were the songs he would pull from for the shows on the tour. Our first show was at the 2018 New Orleans Jazzfest that year. It was, hello John, and off we went. I had a couple months to listen and chart the songs. I still have my book of charts just in case.”

Wonderland became another band member who marveled at Mayall’s stamina on the road.

“There was one tour of Europe where we did 50 shows in 60 days in 19 countries. I asked John if he ever wanted to take a day off to visit the Louvre Museum or some place like the Colosseum. You could hear his eyes rolling around as he replied, no, love, I just want to play music. I have seen all that. The joy that he has when playing is palpable as soon as he opens his mouth.

“I don’t know how he does it. For me, after three or four shows in a row, I have to hush my mouth or I will lose my voice, because I holler a lot. But John is a real singer. What he does is quite beautiful. But I don’t know how he does it. I am about half his age, and that tour was hard. I felt like my fingers were falling off at one point!

“John is incredibly generous with his kindness and laughter, and also in giving his band space to express themselves. What you do is what you do, and he doesn’t want to hear it the same way twice. At times, you think your solo is done but he pushes you to get to something else. He gives everyone a chance to shine, throws you into the fire, which is why a lot of musicians leave his band playing a higher level than when they started with him.”

The most vivid memory of Wonderland’s time with Mayall occurred in Paris in 2019. Their show was at the Bataclan Theatre, site of a deadly 2015 terrorist attack. The band members weren’t sure if Mayall knew about the history of the venue.

“We don’t always keep up with the news while on the road. That space had seen such violence, and we wanted to reclaim it for the music and for joy, to overcome the hatred of that night. You could still see bullet holes in the frescoes on the walls. It was very heavy. We got up to play that night without saying anything to John. During the show, he did his song “One Life To Live,” which is about his experience serving in Korea. The lyrics lent itself perfectly to the room and the people who were there that night. He got a tear-filled standing ovation, and it hit me hard in my heart. It was something to watch him wield such a healing power in a song to people in another country. It was beautiful.”

While Father Time may be slowing Mayall down, his latest release serves notice that the legend still has the power to make compelling music. It has been that way for decades. Few musicians of any genre have been able to stay musically relevant for as long as Mayall has. The roots, splinters, and branches from his musical tree have impacted blues, and modern music, time and again. And while his humble nature has no need for awards and accolades, he deserve every bit of recognition that comes his way.

Asked about career highlights, Mayall offered this assessment:

“I don’t really have any favorites. I’ve just enjoyed playing with different people because of what they bring to the palette. I’ve have been very lucky that people enjoyed the music I’ve played, so all of my memories have a special place.”

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