July 12, 2024


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John Mayall: I managed to pick out some pretty special people: Videos

A few veteran blues musicians could still introduce a number by saying: “This is a song I wrote about bad experiences in the army …”, and they’d probably be referring to Vietnam. But not many – if any – could say: “when they sent me to Korea”.

However, John Mayall was conscripted to serve in the British army in Korea between 1950 and 1953. And so he cued his song One Life to Live with a reference to Korea, as his 80th birthday world tour – “The age thing doesn’t come into this. I’m working as hard as I usually do and playing as many gigs as I usually do, not just because it’s my 80th” – wound its way through a rainy night in Frome, Somerset, before concluding its British lap at Ronnie Scott’s in London. Mayall sang the song with a poignant anger and severity at odds with his exuberance during the rest of the show.

But that is the essence of John Mayall, as it was the way of the blues master who influenced him more than any other – JB Lenoir: “You sing about your life, and your time”, Mayall says. “A lot of the critics thought that song was rather trite, but I thought: ‘I’ve got to have a song about this,’ and what I write about in this song never changes. That’s the whole point.

“It’s part of what the blues does, to write about these things. JB Lenoir was the main one in this regard – he wrote about Korea, too, in fact. Songs that reflect these current situations – in his case, racial issues for the most part: in my case, what has happened to me, and I was in Korea.”

The set in Frome – like the very different one at Ronnie Scott’s two weeks later – was beautifully crafted, played with panache, vehemence and musicianship that was often bedazzling, by players from Chicago and Texas whose command of the blues, forays into jazz and seamless but electrifying arrangements of Mayall songs and old-time classics made it feel churlish to hark back always to the Bluesbreakers of the 1960s, Eric Clapton and Peter Green.

But, of course, we do just that, because no Brit can be rightly called an institution in the history of the blues like John Mayall. Mayall made these people, and many more, and took his place among the veterans in America. Like the blues, he never went, and has not gone away.

There is this mystery. Why was it, back in the early 1960s, that great black blues musicians – playing acoustic in the Delta and electric in Chicago – could barely get a gig outside the ghetto in their own country, but set aflame the imagination of young white musicians in England? The answer had something to do with the fact that Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies and John Mayall had come upon the blues several years before, and started the white blues revival. Mayall was born in Macclesfield and grew up in Manchester – his father was a lover of jazz and a good jazz guitarist. Young Mayall learned early: piano, guitar and mouth harp. He went to junior art college and in 1956 founded the Powerhouse Four, an R&B dance band.

He got work window dressing for a department store and in a studio attached to an advertising agency before the army called. When he returned, aged 29, he formed the Blues Syndicate in Manchester before being persuaded by Alexis Korner to come to London. There, in 1963, Mayall formed the Bluesbreakers, and set out along the road on which he remains.

“The blues fitted in with the early 60s, the social way of life at the time,” Mayall says. “Things were changing anyway – in fashion, art, political views. We in Britain had spent the 1950s listening to trad jazz – Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies were part of the jazz scene, and this interest in the blues emerged from that jazz scene. It happened here, rather than in America, because at the time, the scene in America was racially segregated – over there, never the twain would meet. In Europe, however – not just England – the black blues began to be heard by an audience that was not listening to them in America. We discovered Elmore James, Freddie King, JB Lenoir, and they spoke to our feelings, our life stories and that was it. Hooked.”

The first Bluesbreakers album, John Mayall plays John Mayall, was released in 1965, Then, in April 1966, Mayall released a second album to introduce a guitarist, a troubled young man who played like a hurricane, Eric Clapton. Clapton has since recalled how he came to the blues, staying in a tiny room with Mayall and family, immersed in Mayall’s record collection: “We would listen to lots of blues and pick songs that were right for the stage. He was keen to draw me out, and find out what I thought. It was most unusual.”

Mayall remembers: “We listened to those records in the early days at my house when we were woodshedding in the Bluesbreakers. He’d say: ‘Listen to this Otis Rush one’ – they would be obscure things to most people, but I had those records and Eric and I used to listen to them.”

When Clapton formed Cream with Jack Bruce (also briefly a Bluesbreaker) and Ginger Baker, Mayall found and recruited the other top-flight British blues guitarist Peter Green. And those two were just the starriest of a list of Bluesbreakers that would also include Mick Taylor, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Keef Hartley and Aynsley Dunbar – anyone who was anyone in British blues was part of Mayall’s orbit.

Cream … Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce
Cream … Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce.

“If you go into blues history,” he reflects, “you find bands formed around the bandleaders, trying to realise the sound they wanted. They put the band together to enact what they had in mind. The main man chose the musicians to create a specific sound – I had certain ideas and I needed to go out and find the right people to realise them. I was a bandleader in that traditional role, as well as a frontman. I used my ears to pick out what I thought would work, and I suppose that in the long term the careers of the people involved show that I managed to pick out some pretty special people.”

In the mid-60s, the term to “break a record” meant to get it out there, to put it in front of a wide public. So the name of Mayall’s band was didactic: he wanted his music to abound, he wanted his little-known inspirations and their renderings of the blues to “break”. He even called his fourth album Crusade, in that vein. “That’s the whole purpose,” he says. “To use my position to draw attention to people who are lesser known than they should be.”

During the late 1960s, following his move to California, Mayall produced three albums that constitute the core of his early career: Blues from Laurel Canyon, Bare Wires and Looking Back. They contain tributes in the style of his heroes – such as Mr James, for Elmore James – but here Mayall forged his own inimitable and quintessential sound, within the tradition, but bound to no one, writing much of his own material.

“Those albums were a natural development,” Mayall says. “I’ve never thought the blues was a matter of copying other people. The blues singer should sing songs about his own life. And once the ball got rolling, I felt confident enough to do that as well as cover other people’s songs, and the tributes. You’ve got to think about representing your own life in the music, and for me that meant bringing in an element of jazz; I was brought up on jazz, it was my father’s work, it was in the house.”

It showed up on one of Mayall’s greatest albums. Everyone who remembers the blues scene of the late 60s recalls the disbelief when Mayall ditched drums and lead guitar to release The Turning Point in 1969, led by mellifluous sax and finger-picking guitar. “The promoters didn’t think it would work,” he says. “They thought it would flop. But I was inspired by Jazz on a Summer’s Day by Jimmy Giuffre. He showed that you didn’t need drums to drive a rhythm, create that warm sound, play a jazz-blues fusion.”

Through the 70s, Mayall worked mainly with local musicians, making fusion music, before forming a new Bluesbreakers in 1984, keeping the name going until 2008, until it was once more dropped. “I thought it was a bit churlish to use the name of the Bluesbreakers – it seemed wrong in the light of the originals,” he says. “After a while it started to stand still for me. You must reflect the times in your music – and if you are working as much as I do, and every year you are playing these tunes … You have to move on, do something different.”

And so Mayall arrived at his latest incarnation: John Mayall and his band. “I went back to being just John Mayall again, as it had been for most of the time. And I wanted to sing about life, and my life. Put all the ideas in the same basket.”

John Mayall in Macclesfield in April
John Mayall in Macclesfield in April. 

Mayall is one of those musicians who prefers playing music to talking about it. But he does entertain that question to which there is no answer. What is it about the blues, that takes you, claims you and never lets you go? “It’s about – and it’s always been about – that raw honesty with which the blues express our experiences in life, something which all comes together in this music, in the words as well. Something that is connected to us, common to our experiences. To be honest, though, I don’t think anyone really knows exactly what it is. I just can’t stop playing it.”

John Mayall in concert, Bilbao, Spain, April 2014

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