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John Mayall

+ {John Mayall And The Bluesbreakers}

Although not the first electric British blues buff to import the genre from the States (that was down to ALEXIS KORNER’s Blues Incorporated at the turn of the 60s), bandleader/multi-instrumentalist/composer/singer JOHN MAYALL’s stoic and steadfast approach to his craft has seen him cover over half a century in the business; in May 2014, aged 80, he delivered his umpteenth set, `A Special Life’.
Affectionately known as the granddaddy of British blues (others would say elder statesman), JOHN MAYALL, OBE, would push the envelope out on the purist mid-60s blues market, initially giving it a face-lift and make-over when introducing his teenage team of talent, The BLUESBREAKERS. Okay, his revolving-door combo weren’t all teenagers; saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith was his old mucker (JM and he were 30+), drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist Jack Bruce were in their early 20s, but guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor were 19 or younger when they respectively signed on the dotted line; ditto bassists John McVie and Andy Fraser, plus drummer Aynsley Dunbar. It goes without saying (although needs must), fans of CREAM, FLEETWOOD MAC, The ROLLING STONES, FREE, et al, owe a debt of gratitude to their edifying bandleader. Others too would pass within the ranks of his re-vamped “Bluesbreakers”, or indeed, his solo alumni.
Born 29th November 1933, Macclesfield in Cheshire, John picked up a taste for jazz, boogie and R&B from his trombone and guitar playing father Murray Mayall. But there was something in the blues that drew John toward its light. A national service veteran from the Korean War between 1951-1955, John duly became a graphic artist, studying at Manchester College of Art and working in a studio attached to a local advertising agency. MAYALL started to master piano styles from boogie-woogie 78s by CRIPPLE CLARENCE LOFTON, PINETOP SMITH and others, before going on to learn the basics of harmonica and electric guitar.
Although John almost immediately initiated his first band in 1962, the Powerhouse Four (with Manchester buddy Peter Ward), he took up ALEXIS KORNER’s request to join with the Blues Syndicate; a northern-based musical cousin to the Blues Incorporated, formed by jazz trumpeter John Rowlands and sax player Jack Massarik, who’d already roped in drummer Hughie Flint and rhythm guitarist Ray Cummings. Another simple twist of fate saw KORNER open up doors for MAYALL down in London, and in no time at all (late ’63 to be exact), John’s Bluesbreakers were performing at the Marquee Club. The line-up turned out to be John McVie (bass), Bernie Watson (guitar) and Peter Ward; the latter was replaced by Martin Hart when JOHN MAYALL AND THE BLUESBREAKERS went full-time. They duly released their debut Decca single, `Crawling Up A Hill’ (b/w `Mr. James’), and gained a residency at the Scene, Great Windmill Street, London.
Renowned for being a bit quirky (he spent some time living in a self constructed tree-house), MAYALL was a strict leader and maintained an almost religious belief in blues purism. His songs were excellent pastiches of his heroes’ compositions, his voice being reminiscent of OTIS RUSH, BUDDY GUY and his ultimate idol, J.B. LENOIR.
With McVie, guitarist Roger Dean and drummer Hughie Flint at the helm, a tour in support of JOHN LEE HOOKER helped map out the live recording playlist that would feature on the group’s debut album, JOHN MAYALL PLAYS JOHN MAYALL (1965) {*6}, a rough-edged recording at Klooks Kleek the previous December, which nevertheless captured the intimate atmosphere of a sweaty R&B club. One of the record’s best pieces (which was duly released as a single), `Crocodile Walk’, showcased MAYALL’s soulful voice being over-run by his distorted harmonica and the strains of his Hammond organ. Despite some of the other titles on the LP (`Runaway’, `Chicago Line’ and `I Need Your Love’), only the medley of `R. & B. Time’ (comprising Simpkins & Washington’s `Night Train’ and LITTLE RICHARD’s `Lucille’) was not a straight-from-the-peg original.
A refugee from hit-makers the YARDBIRDS, the godly charms of Eric Clapton superseded Dean soon afterwards, bringing commerciality and class to the band as fans flocked to see their young guitar hero; but sadly, there were no takers for the combo’s sole Immediate Records-endorsed 45, `I’m Your Witchdoctor’ (b/w `Telephone Blues’). In August ’65, the bubble burst when E.C. swanned off to Greece in order to play for amateur act The Glands; his berth filled at first by John Weider, and then by Peter Green (for 3 days!). When McVie was sacked, his place taken by Jack Bruce (from the GRAHAM BOND ORGANIZATION), it looked like the Kleek was finally klooked. As Eric gradually returned to his spot that November, and John McVie was back in tow after Jack B was hooked in by MANFRED MANN, the emergency was temporarily avoided.
The Mike Vernon-produced BLUES BREAKERS WITH ERIC CLAPTON (1966) {*9} enjoyed a period in the Top 10, a remarkable set accredited to JOHN MAYALL that pitted his compositions `Key To Love’, `Have You Heard’, `Little Girl’, `Another Man’ and `Double Crossing Time’ (the latter a la Clapton/Mayall) with several blues staples from OTIS RUSH (`All Your Love’), MOSE ALLISON (`Parchman Farm’), `It Ain’t Right’ (LITTLE WALTER), `Ramblin’ On My Mind’ (trad/ROBERT JOHNSON), `Steppin’ Out’ (L.C. Frazier), `Hideaway’ (FREDDIE KING & Sonny Thompson) – interpolating JIMMY McCRACKLIN’s `The Walk’ – and `What’d I Say’ (RAY CHARLES) – interpolating LENNON-McCARTNEY’s `Day Tripper’.
By the end of the year, ERIC CLAPTON was again out of the picture when he formed CREAM (with JACK BRUCE and GINGER BAKER), and it took some convincing to persuade Green back to the fold. By the time album three, A HARD ROAD {*8}, was issued in February ’67, Aynsley Dunbar (ex-MOJOS) had already replaced Flint (who’d form McGUINNESS FLINT). As with the previous set (although wind man Ray Warleigh and sax players John Almond and Alan Skidmore expanded the quartet’s musical scope), MAYALL sourced others for tracks; two of special quality, `The Supernatural’ (a precursor to the Mac’s `Black Magic Woman’) and `The Same Way’ stemming from his sharp guitarist Green, who also excelled on other instrumental `The Stumble’ (a la FREDDIE KING and Sonny Thompson) as well as providing soulful vocals on the likes of WILLIE COBBS’ `You Don’t Love Me’; the rest was down to MAYALL who tackled his own gems (including `Living Alone’), ELMORE JAMES’ `Dust My Blues’ and the second KING-Thompson cut `Someday After A While (You’ll Be Sorry)’.
The addition of drummer Mick Fleetwood that April (for JEFF BECK GROUP-bound Dunbar) was a crucial one for MAYALL. Little did he imagine that Peter would subsequently bail, taking with him Mick and, a little later, after CRUSADE (1967) {*8}, take John McV to form PETER GREEN’S FLEETWOOD MAC. Another tick in the CV box for Mike Vernon (the man who signed ‘Mac to his Blue Horizon imprint), yet another star-turn lead guitarist was cultivated, the shy and unassuming 18 year-old Mick Taylor (ex-GODS); `Snowy Wood’ was his co-contribution. Three other musicians had been found for Mayall’s “Crusade”, drummer Keef Hartley (from The ARTWOODS), and sax players Chris Mercer and Rip Kant; the sextet displaying a tightness and bond on several cover versions (most notable being WILLIE DIXON’s `I Can’t Quit You Baby’, SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON’s `Checkin’ Up On My Baby’ and FREDDIE KING’s `Driving Sideways’); MAYALL also paid idolatry tribute on `The Death Of J.B. Lenoir’.
His previous “Bluesbreakers” efforts had dented the Top 10, so it was cool that a solo JOHN MAYALL – his only accompaniment coming from Keef – branched out on Decca subsidiary Ace Of Clubs for Top 30 entry BLUES ALONE (1967) {*6}. John’s all-round capacity and dexterity had been proved over time and, in tracks such from `Brand New Start’ to `Don’t Kick Me’ (interspersed by his tribute to the recently parted WILLIAMSON II: `Sonny Boy Blow’), the man served up superb displays – although dubbed – on vocals, guitars, keyboards, harmonica and, even, drums.
Dick Heckstall-Smith (on sax) and Henry Lowther (on trumpet) were at the helm of MAYALL’s live unit, which also featured bassist Keith Tillman (who’d replaced Paul Williams; ex-ZOOT MONEY), but there was more than a modicum of self-indulgence on the simultaneous delivery in January ’68 of two single LPs, DIARY OF A BAND VOLUME ONE {*5} and DIARY OF A BAND VOLUME TWO {*5}. Selecting high spots from sixty hours of Bluesbreakers club recordings from 1967 – as rendered on the sleeve – the Top 30 albums were littered with interviews and chat.
1968 also unearthed BARE WIRES {*7}, a Top 3 set leaning towards jazz and featuring Jon Hiseman on sticks (in for the solo-bound KEEF HARTLEY), Tony Reeves on bass (taking over from 16 year-old Andy Fraser who joined FREE) and an experienced brass section of the aforementioned Heckstall-Smith, Mercer and Lowther. A Top 60 breakthrough in America, if there were any doubts of Mick Taylor’s ability (or for that matter any of the members), the 23-minute journey through MAYALL’s `Bare Wires Suite’ medley was proof the outfit could adapt to the electric psychedelia that surrounded the airwaves.
Dropping the Bluesbreakers suffix from the billing turned out to be a risk too far for JOHN MAYALL, at least in commercial terms (1968’s BLUES FROM LAUREL CANYON {*8} only touched No.33), but there was at least a committed Mick Taylor to fulfil his duties before he was whisked off to replace the tragic Brian Jones in The ROLLING STONES; PETER GREEN took a guest role on `First Time Alone’. Although recorded in West Hampstead, London with drummer Colin Allen (from DANTALION’S CHARIOT) and bassist Steve Thompson, MAYALL autobiographically referred to the sunnier climes of the L.A. area where he previously visited and would soon reside. A concept blues album in praise of Laurel Canyon, well… yes… his meetings with The MOTHERS OF INVENTION/FRANK ZAPPA and some CANNED HEAT alumni (as depicted respectively on tracks `2401’ and `The Bear’), this set took him outside his comfort zone.
Understandably, JM had become tired of running his band as a finishing school for aspiring megastars and he disbanded The Bluesbreakers; both Allen and, later Thompson (in 1970), joined Scottish blues band STONE THE CROWS. Subsequently signing to Polydor Records and forming a support quartet to play “low volume music”, acoustic guitarist Jon Mark and saxophonist/flautist Johnny Almond were on hand (as was Thompson) to record live album THE TURNING POINT (1969) {*8} at Fillmore East, NY. MAYALL’s biggest seller and his first not to be weighed down by drums and “heavy” guitar, the near Top 10 set became his only gold disc. It featuring John’s best known song, `Room To Move’ (with his finest harp solo) and also `Thoughts About Roxanne’, one of two lengthy pieces penned with Thompson (the other was `California’).
1970’s EMPTY ROOMS {*6} was the first to feature CANNED HEAT’s Larry Taylor (although only as a guest on `To A Princess’), so basically there was no change in the line-up – pigs would indeed fly. Securing another Top 10 position (Top 40 across in the Big Pond), the set included a rare US minor hit, `Don’t Waste My Time’, and elements of folk-jazz; Mark, for instance, had cut his proverbial teeth as accompaniment for MARIANNE FAITHFULL in her prime, Almond had jazz-pop experience with ZOOT MONEY and the ALAN PRICE SET.
Upping sticks to Laurel Canyon as projected earlier, Jon and Johnny were left to form their own MARK-ALMOND band. Roping in friends from CANNED HEAT: guitarist Harvey Mandel and bassist Larry Taylor (now full-time), there was room for electric violinist Don “Sugarcane” Harris (he of DON & DEWEY and FRANK ZAPPA fame) on the fittingly-titled U.S.A. UNION (1970) {*5}. Although critics rounded on MAYALL’s insipid lyrics, the record somehow managed to scrape into the UK Top 50 (US #22), its funky jazz motifs dealing with the environment; e.g. `Nature’s Disappearing’ to the book-end `Deep Blue Sea’.
Adding to his current core of musicians, former Bluesbreakers ERIC CLAPTON, MICK TAYLOR, KEEF HARTLEY, Johnny Almond and Steve Thompson all gathered in the studio for 1971’s double-LP BACK TO THE ROOTS {*6}, alongside guitarist Jerry McGee (ex-VENTURES) and drummers Paul Lagos and Joe Yuele. Despite decent tracks (`Accidental Suicide’ – naming HENDRIX – the pick of the bunch) and an average showing chart-wise as MAYALL’s Brit appeal dried up, blues fans seemed to be distancing themselves from acts that were branching out into other fields; McGee would be preferred over Harris for the bluesman’s autobiographical and back-to-basics MEMORIES (1971) {*5}.
The rest of 70s were bleak for MAYALL in terms of chart positions, even America had forsaken the man after the concert set “performed and recorded in Boston and New York”, JAZZ BLUES FUSION (1972) {*5}, and studio return MOVING ON (1972) {*5}. At this stage of MAYALL’s transitional time, he surrounded himself with mainly jazz-funk musicians such as Ernie Watts, Clifford Solomon and Charles Owens (saxophones), Victor Gaskin (bass), Freddy Robinson (guitar), Blue Mitchell (trumpet) and a former Bluesbreaker KEEF HARTLEY.
With only Larry Taylor as John’s constant sidekick after the bassist took a break for the half-studio/half-live double, TEN YEARS ARE GONE (1973) {*6}, news was that THE LATEST EDITION (1974) {*4} had little to spread but a track concerning the impeachment of President Nixon (`Troubled Times’) and one about the gas/oil shortage (`Gasoline Blues’); star points was afforded the funky twin-guitar playing of Hightide Harris and Randy Resnick.
Duly dropped by Polydor, MAYALL’s work-rate declined, while his output over the next few years was of poor standard in comparison to his 60s sets. The struggling bluesman signed to A.B.C./Blue Thumb, releasing NEW YEAR, NEW BAND, NEW COMPANY (1975) {*4}, an album introducing, for the first time, a female vocalist, Dee McKimmie, alongside future FLEETWOOD MAC guitarist Rick Vito. The album was to be his last US chart entry for 15 years. Featuring the much in-demand New Orleans star ALLEN TOUSSAINT (but for a horrendous cover of LENNON-McCARTNEY’s `A Hard Day’s Night’), NOTICE TO APPEAR (1975) {*4} – and A BANQUET IN BLUES (1976) {*5} were limited in their commercial appeal.
Sandwiched somewhere in the middle of two live sets, the funky-addled LOTS OF PEOPLE (1977) {*4} and the R&B-infused LAST OF THE BRITISH BLUES (1978) {*5}, A HARD CORE PACKAGE (1978) {*4} was a final bow for to his American masters, whom he found out were using his albums for creative accountancy purposes. Inadequate exposure for his records led to MAYALL halting the process, only playing the odd local gig near his house in California, a house that burnt to the ground after a brush fire in 1979.
Back on British terra firma, but with less instruments after the fire, DJM Records were only too happy to let the man loose on the session-friendly BOTTOM LINE (1979) {*3}. Going under the radar while rock music developed away from its roots, NO MORE INTERVIEWS (1979) {*3} and ROAD SHOW BLUES (1981) {*3} were a sad reflection on a man, approaching 50, who was dealing with his own demons.
Still, there was time to re-energise the batteries of the Bluesbreakers and, reunited with Mick Taylor, John McVie and Colin Allen, the bandleader embarked on a 2-year world tour. Although no UK/US records were issued at the time (not until over a decade later: “The 1982 Reunion Concert” CD in ‘94), MAYALL was spurred on by the appreciation felt by these semi-large audiences. In 1985, the man enlisted not ye olde JOHN MAYALL’S BLUESBREAKERS, but something in line with what he was achieving two decades previously: nurturing up-and-coming musicians, but this time with Americans Walter Trout and Henry “Coco” Montoya (twin leads), Bobby Haynes (bass) and the returning Joe Yuele (drums): BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN (1986) {*6} – recorded in Szeged in Hungary – the fruits of their labour.
JOHN MAYALL toured Europe in ‘87 to small but enthusiastic audiences, and after unleashing yet another live German-only effort, THE POWER OF THE BLUES {*4}, he was ready to deliver his inaugural studio set for Island Records: CHICAGO LINE (1988) {*5}. Together with fresh MAYALL fodder (Walter’s own `Life In The Jungle’ the finale), the team transpired the blues via BLIND BOY FULLER’s `Cold Blooded Mama’ and JIMMY ROGERS’ `The Last Time’.
Although the man never regained his initial success from bygone age, John was gradually becoming, once again, recognised as the Father of British Blues. The new decade was kinder to MAYALL, 1990’s solo-billed A SENSE OF PLACE {*7} – which marked his return to the US Top 200 – exhibited one original (`Send Me Down To Vicksburg’) and no less than ten covers, ranging from J.B. LENOIR’s `I Want To Go’ and WILBERT HARRISON’s `Let’s Work Together’, to J.J. CALE’s `Sensitive Kind’ and SONNY LANDRETH’s `Congo Square’.
Without WALTER TROUT and Haynes, but with bassist Rick Cortes and guest guitarists MICK TAYLOR, ALBERT COLLINS and BUDDY GUY, the blues revival was back on track with WAKE UP CALL (1993) {*7}. Issued on Silvertone Records, this time it was Britain that took note, the set becoming a Top 75 entry on the strength of versions of `Nature’s Disappearing’, JUNIOR WELLS’ `I Could Cry’, JIMMY REED’s `Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby’, TONY JOE WHITE’s `Undercover Agent For The Blues’, CHRIS SMITHERS’ `Mail Order Mystics’ and a title track sung with the great MAVIS STAPLES.
Montoya had been his longest-serving guitarist for some time, but with 1995’s SPINNING COIN {*6}, MAYALL took a gamble with Buddy Whittington, whom he witnessed in ’91 as his support when he performed in gigs at Dallas and Fort Worth. A long-time admirer of the late J.B. LENOIR (as one might’ve gathered), `Voodoo Music’ was the star-turn here, and at 60, John was still in fine fettle on his own compositions, including `No Big Hurry’, `Run’ and the title track.
Yet another in the unstoppable line of JOHN MAYALL AND THE BLUESBREAKERS sets, 1997’s BLUES FOR THE LOST DAYS {*6} furthered his attempts at turning back the clock to capture his halcyon days. It’d been some time since he’d journeyed down memory lane, but in this nostalgic concept, MAYALL dusted off the cobwebs of his life to commemorate his family, friends, lovers, idols and origins; check out `Trenches’, `Dead City’ and `One In A Million’.
Showcasing special guest JOHN LEE HOOKER (two years before he met his maker), PADLOCK ON THE BLUES (1999) {*6} was another in the JOHN MAYALL AND THE BLUESBREAKERS canon; Cortes making room for John Paulus. Twilight label Eagle Records were behind the team 100%, a solid set of songs (including JM’s `White Line Fever’ and a re-vamp of `A Hard Road’), and one for purist blues buffs to shout about.
Duly rounding up a posse of pals, JOHN MAYALL & FRIENDS were indeed, coming ALONG FOR THE RIDE (2001) {*6}. A list of rock and blues artists as long as the sleeve itself, the all-star cast read like a who’s who of talent: namely his FLEETWOOD MAC Bluesbreakers trio, plus MICK TAYLOR, GARY MOORE, ZZ TOP’s Billy F Gibbons, JONNY LANG, OTIS RUSH, STEVE CROPPER, Joe Yuele, STEVE MILLER, ANDY FAIRWEATHER LOW, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Buddy Whittington, Shannon Curfman, Red Holloway, BILLY PRESTON, Tom Canning, JEFF HEALEY and CHRIS REA – all permutated to create a little panache and history on best bits `Testify’, `A World Of Hurt’ and `So Many Roads’.
Roping in bassist Hank Van Sickle to connect with Whiitington, Yuele and keyboardist Tom Canning, The BLUESBREAKERS set STORIES (2002) {*7} found MAYALL as undiminished by age as ever. The soon-to-be septuagenarian cast a knowing eye back over the history of his beloved blues with tributes such as `Oh, Leadbelly’, `Southside Story’ (recreating the day he saw LITTLE WALTER in concert) and the JJ CALE-esque `Feels Like Home’ and `Dirty Water’.
There aren’t many men still cutting it as of 70 years of age, but then MAYALL was merely following the traditions of his chosen genre, and if there weren’t many old-time blues players afforded a bash as big as 70th BIRTHDAY CONCERT (2003) {*8}, then the man made up for them all with a gutsy, heady trip down memory lane with “friends” (as billed): ERIC CLAPTON, CHRIS BARBER and MICK TAYLOR. A double-CD or DVD, recorded on July 19th, the blues was burning hot on this night, the combination of top-notch guests (and his current BLUESBREAKERS) on extensions of all his and the Devil’s best tunes; from `Grits Ain’t Groceries’ (from the pen of Titus Turner) to `No Big Hurry’ and `Please Mr Lofton’ to LENOIR’s `Talk To Your Daughter’.
JOHN MAYALL AND THE BLUESBREAKERS surfaced from the studio again in 2005, courtesy of umpteenth set, ROAD DOGS {*7}, a modern-day take on a blues revival now 40 years old but still kicking it big style. Once more it was the power of the CLAPTON-like Whittington (and Co) that coagulated the short distance between bandleader and band. Evergreen memories of BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON (on `Short Wave Radio’) or FREDDIE KING playing a Don Nix tune (on the Whittington-Yuele cut `Awestruck And Spellbound’), the MAYALL bondsmen were casting their spell deep from within a muddy swamp… and no one was getting dirty.
A disciple of the long-missed FREDDIE KING (who died aged 42 in 1976), MAYALL would probably not have rested until he finally paid a full-album tribute to the Texas bluesman, having littered previous sets with the odd track or two. The aptly-titled IN THE PALACE OF THE KING (2007) {*6} – the swansong for his Bluesbreakers! – un-preserved some canned blues and/or boogie-woogie on such items as `You Know That You Love Me’, `Palace Of The King’ and the ROBBEN FORD-injected instrumental `Cannonball Shuffle’.
Marking his 75th year on Planet Earth, a solo JOHN MAYALL stripped back his years and his long-serving band (all but Canning) and enlisted guitarist Rocky Athas, bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport for the gritty and depression-addled TOUGH (2009) {*6}. If the blues was stuck in a time-warp for some musos, then MAYALL was giving it a modern-day twist a la `Tough Times Ahead’; on the lyrics “The banks are closing daily… and recession’s coming back again / A depression like the twenties… with all the people crying in pain”. What other time-served bluesman could come up with these poignant lines?
Another 5 years and another landmark album for the maverick MAYALL, even the man himself could be forgiven if he’d lost count of the exact number as 2014’s A SPECIAL LIFE {*6} hit the shops. Yes, 80 years-young and over half a century in the business for a man who was born six years before the breakout of WWII, there was only the elder B.B. KING (who was to taken upstairs a year later) that was finding time to celebrate the blues. Adding accordion player C.J. Chenier (son of Cajun king CLIFTON CHENIER) on opener `Why Did You Go Last Night’, there was depth and drama on MAYALL’s attempt at committing gospel-soul to the genre. Featuring ALBERT KING’s `Floodin’ In California’, JIMMY McCRACKLIN’s `I Just Got To Know’, EDDIE TAYLOR’s `Big Town Playboy’ and SONNY LANDRETH’s `Speak Of The Devil’, among a handful of his own compositions, MAYALL was still reaching out to blues fans of all ages.
Just over a year on, FIND A WAY TO CARE (2015) {*7} managed to integrate and gel MAYALL’s Hammond flourishes with a funky, modern-day blues. Adding a horn section (Ron Dzublia, Mark Pender and Richard Rosenberg) to complement usual suspects Athas, Rzab and Davenport, killer tracks stemmed from `I Feel So Bad’, the title track and PERCY MAYFIELD’s `The River’s Invitation’, while MUDDY WATERS’ `Long Distance Call’, CHARLES BROWN’s `Drifting Blues’, JUNIOR PARKER’s `Mother In Law Blues’ and LITTLE MILTON’s `Feels So Bad’ were other fine renditions; the groovy `Ain’t No Guarantees’, the best from his own penned pile.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Sep2015

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