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Issue 1084

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Feature

John Mayall: We've Got Mayall

John Mayall @bluesandsoul.com
John Mayall @bluesandsoul.com John Mayall @bluesandsoul.com John Mayall @bluesandsoul.com John Mayall @bluesandsoul.com

I think we can safely say that at 78-years old and circa 70 albums to his name, the Godfather, Grandfather, Guvânor, Daddy, Elder Statesman (delete where appropriate) of British blues, has more than paid his dues. With OBE after his name, to recognise services to music, John Mayall is also responsible for discovering and mentoring some of the worldâs best known guitar heroes.

So imagine my surprise when I find John, selling his own CDs in the foyer of the Leicester venue, where he is appearing as part of a major UK tour with his American band.

I spend some time with John in his dressing room before the show, and while he is flogging his wares and fans do a double-take as they enter the building, spotting the star himself alone behind the merchâ table.

We talk about the state of the blues around the world, and I ask John if he thinks he gets enough recognition for his achievements. We also discuss the trend toward the rockier side of the blues, which most of the young pretenders seem to be obsessed with. Plus; their lack of knowledge of the foundation of the blues.

It really was one of those times where the clock was against me, and Iâd have loved to have spent a lot more time listening to this fascinating man. John has been there, done it (several times), bought the tee shirt, and written the âhow to play the bluesâ manual. Knocking on the door of 80, John is still very active, agile and alert. Touring around the globe every year, and he tells me he doesnât like days off! I know blokes of 50 with less drive!

âI love what Iâm doing. It is very invigorating. I am 78 at the end of this monthâ¦.itâs not really gruelling for me. We like to work every day rather than have days off, just waiting around for the next show. Itâs the momentum that I enjoy. Doing it keeps you doing it. I do 120 shows a year at least, but thatâs only a third of any given year, so if you figure it out, I get two thirds of a year off.â

So how healthy is the blues around the world, John? âThe fact we do travel all over the world every year without fail, does show there is the interest there, and it keeps on going. It is always a very healthy sign, when each year you get a crop of young players who want to play the blues, particularly guitar players being the most noticeable. Oli Brown is a case in point, who we have as our opening act on this tour. It does show you there is a continuing stream of people who are going to be playing the blues.â

So what about this growing trend pushing young players down the rock road, following in the footsteps of Joe Bonamassa?â Absolutely they are. I donât really hear anybody who has probably absorbed as much about the history of the blues that I have. Itâs just a natural progression I think, that the guitar has become the leading instrument to forge the way; the most noticeable instrument. I think ever since Jimi Hendrix, it has gone in that direction, combining rock and roll and blues.â

âIt could be considered a negative, in the sense that the new players are not necessarily singing about events and things going on in their lives. In other words; personal tales, which is what the blues is really all about. Thatâs its function. So I donât know how much the younger players put their own diaries, so to speak, into their music. Thatâs what should be there. Itâs gonna keep this stuff aliveâ¦â

John advises the new blues players and artists to âwrite about your own experiences.â He cites a list of blues originators â Leadbelly, Bukka White, Freddie King, Albert King, BB King etc â and how they wrote and sang about their own lives and their own tough times. âBlues is an expression of whatâs going on in their lives. That they could share with other people, who have got similar paths in life.â

âThat is what it started off being; a reflection of a life. I donât think in the 20s and earlier, that people really took the time to analyse what they were singing about, other than they were just expressing themselves, and what was going on in their lives.â John ârecommendsâ youngsters go back to learning about the originators of the blues, like Robert Johnson, âand soak it all upâ¦â

âYeah, thatâs an essential thing about carrying on the tradition; however the younger people or anyone, as a matter of fact, interprets it. They have got to have the history, and find out where it comes from, and what it meant to everybody who played it.â

âIt is the foundation. Your groundwork. You start with that, and see where it came from, and out of that you discover how closely they were able to interpret what was going on in their lives."

John Mayall was born on the 29th Nov 1939, near Manchester. His father Murray Mayall was a guitarist and jazz enthusiast. He had an extensive record collection, and young John wore those records out. He adored Leadbelly, Albert Ammons, Pinetop Smith, Eddie Lang et al. He taught himself to play piano, guitar and harmonica. On the blues harp, he was influenced by Sonny Terry, Little Walter and his main hero, Sonny boy Williamson. (John told me he never quite got Sonny Boyâs vibrato on harmonica. âEveryone else seemed to get it, but not me!â)

At 18, he went off to Korea for three years National Service, and while on leave he bought his first guitar. After his service, he went back to Manchester and enrolled at the College of Art, while playing in semi-pro bands. He took a job as a graphic designer, but in 1963 he moved to London, aged 30, for a full time music career - at the suggestion of Alexis Korner.

His art talents would come in handy, as John designed many of the covers of his own albums. He moved to the US at the end of the 60s, where he has lived ever since. Korner helped him find gigs and form his own band in London, and The Bluesbreakers were born. In late 1963, the band started regular gigs at the famous at Marquee club.

The next spring, he got his first record deal for just two tracks. The band changed line-up, and backed John Lee Hooker on his UK tour in 1964. They also went on to back US blues stars T Bone Walker and Sonny Boy Williamson. He landed a Decca Records deal, and cut a live recording on the 7th Dec 1964 at Klooks Kleek. A single was recorded in the studio, and released with the album. But with little success, so they lost the Decca deal.

Things changed for the better in April 1965, when a Mr E. Clapton joined Johnâs band from The Yardbirds. Peter Green replaced him while he went off to do some gigs in Greece. But John kept his job open and when Clapton returned to the UK, Green had to go. In Feb 1966, Mayall and Clapton played with Champion Jack Dupree in the studio. Acclaimed British blues producer Mike Vernon then had Mayall on his fledgling label.

Mayall then returned to Decca with Vernon producing, in April 1966. Mayall had his biggest commercial success then with the Bluesbreakers album âJohn Mayallâs Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton,â released in the UK on 22nd July 1966. It reached number six on the British charts, and is now a sought-after classic. An important record that crossed blues over from cult interest, to mainstream consciousness and appeal, opening the door to many other blues bands.

Clapton left to form Cream, and Green came back into the Mayall fold. Green left after one album to form Peter Greenâs Fleetwood Mac. Mick Taylor joined the Bluesbreakers as an 18 year old. Eventually, in June 1969 after two years with Mayall, Mick Taylor joined a band you may have heard of, called The Rolling Stones. Mayall also discovered a 15-year-old bass player, who stayed for just six weeks before leaving to form a band called Free. Andy Fraser. He knows how to pick âem, does John. Bluesbreakers members over the years have included: Clapton Jack Bruce, Peter Green, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel, Aynsley Dunbar, Hughie Flint, Jon Hiseman, Andy Fraser, Walter Trout, Coco Montoya and Buddy Whittington. And many more who went on to fame and fortune. I wonder if heâd be as good at picking lottery numbers?

We chat about the biggest changes John has seen in his 50+ years of playing music, and he names advances in technology as a key factor. It is funny; I note during the bandâs soundcheck, that he has his monitor wedge facing out into the audience, and only keyboard in it. No vocal, harmonica, guitar from John, or other band members (drums and guitar) in his mix. Just keyboard. He tells me he hates to have stuff blasting out at him âfrom a boxâ and prefers to hear his voice out in the hall through the FOH PA.

But coming back to changes, he adds: âThe fact remains that the blues, regardless of whatâs going on in other kinds of music, the blues has always been a very strong contributing factor to all popular music.â Amen to that. So does he enjoy the wave of non-blues artists doing blues albums? Like Cyndi Lauperâs recent foray? âI do object to pop singers trying to cash in on the blues thing, which is a hell of a backwards way round. Willie Nelson sings the blues, forget itâ¦it is kind of annoyingâ¦â I make him laugh loudly, labelling him the âantidoteâ to all that inferior blues stuff.

So how does he feel about being called âGodfatherâ of the blues? âAll those titles. Like water off a duckâs back to me. I canât really take it seriously, but I am just glad Iâve got my place.â

I discuss the OBE he was awarded in 1985 for his achievements in music, but the fact he has had little other recognition. No Grammy. No entry into the Hall Of Fame. No Lifetime Achievement Award. So, does he himself think he has been recognised enough for what he has done?

âIt rankled me many, many years ago that it wasnât recognised, then it became a matter of solid fact. So I take it for granted that Iâve got something that doesnât really fit in with that category of being recognised for Grammys, or body of work. Or anything like that. It was kind of nice I got the OBE, for contribution to music, which a lot of musicians donât get.â

John went to the Palace, and Prince Charles took charge of proceedings as the Queen was overseas. âHe seemed to be very knowledgeable in any category, to fire questions off, and he had done his homework and knew who I was. Itâs all a blur now, it happens very fast. â(I joke about John being worried that while his head was bowed, Charles could have picked up s near-by sword and rid him of his trade-mark pony tail!)

So what ambitions does a 78-year-old blues legend have left, if any? His answer surprises me. âTo get a little bit more notoriety, so I can pay the band more . But right now we manage very comfortably. Like to bring more punters in to the shows, and have a record that would be better promoted than it has been over the years. To reach more people. After all; if you are a blues or jazz musician, your main object (sic) in life is to reach as many people as possible, so that they can share it. So, that kind of push that I have never had.â I mention it is an incredible feat, to still be touring the world at his age and after 50+ years as a pro musician. He smiles, and says: âItâs not bad is it?â No it is not, John. Wonder if todayâs rockier blues kids, will ever be clocking up anywhere near half a century?

A US resident since the end of the 60s, in 1979, John had a devastating turn of events, when a brush fire destroyed his Laurel Canyon home and he lost music collections, archives, and one of the worldâs largest and most valuable collections of pornography, dating back as far as the 13th century. But none of that mattered, compared to his greatest loss. His diaries. John had kept a page-a-day diary since he was 10 years old. It was irreplaceable. âI lost every single one. It was sad to lose my tapes and my artwork, but the diaries hurt the most. There are certain things you can get back, but you can never get back what you wrote.â Gutted for you, John.

Biggest mistakes, regret or biggest lesson learned in your career, John? âI donât think in those terms. I take life as it is, and just bowl along. It is full of surprises, if you leave yourself open to things. Hindsight does you no good.â Yeah, reminds me of a Tower of Power lyric: Hindsight is just foresight that happened too late! âThe thing that has guided me all along through music; is to be honest with it. Express yourself regardless of what other people might think of it. Put your life into it. Hope for the best, and hope people will identify with those same qualities.â

âI feel very fortunate and glad that I have always had the total freedom to play anything that I felt like playing. That people would accept it for its honesty, integrity and excitement. A lot of musicians donât have that. If they have a big success with a record, they get locked in to that and canât break out of it. Whereas Iâve had total artistic freedom, which a lot of jazz people have, to have my followers go with what I want to give them. Itâs greatâ¦â

As a visionary in spotting talent at 200 paces, blindfoldâ¦.any tips for me? He names a young guitarist from Florida, Eric Steckel as âextremely talented,â just 15 when John had him play on an album a few years ago. He also names a young woman now in her early 20s, Shannon Curfman, who plays guitar and sings on Johnâs star-studded CD, âAlong For The Ride.â She is now a member of Kid Rockâs band. Johnâs time off the road is often spent watching movies. He is a member of BAFTA, and as a judge, gets to see the new films before they are released.

So who would you have play John Mayall in a movie about your life story? He laughs. âI have no idea. Probably somebody youâve never heard of.â Well, we have all heard of John Mayall, thatâs for sure. How about a campaign to get him entry into the Hall of Fame? Lifetime achievement award? Even a title: Sir John Mayall? Now that has a great ring to it; John Mayall: First Knight of the bluesâ¦â¦â¦â¦â¦â¦â¦

Photos: Simon Redley
Words SIMON REDLEY

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