John Mayall gets ‘Tough’ with the blues

 By Peter Lindblad
(Courtesy of Eagle Rock)
(Courtesy of Eagle Rock)
The list of names is impressive to say the least. From Eric Clapton to Jack Bruce to Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood to Free’s Andy Fraser — all, at one time or another, worked with British blues-rock legend John Mayall and his Bluesbreakers.

In fact, the Bluesbreakers are probably known more as a training ground for artists who go on to bigger and better things than for helping to galvanize the early- to mid-1960s British blues movement.

And that thinking does Mayall a great disservice. Though he undoubtedly played a role in helping Clapton and others achieve greatness, Mayall’s talent as a multi-instrumentalist, a songwriter and an interpreter of classic blues songs deserves heaps of praise.

With Clapton, Mayall and the Bluesbreakers recorded what many consider to be the greatest British blues record ever made in Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton.

The son of a musician, Mayall taught himself to play music by the time he was a teenager. Around that time, he gained a bit of notoreity in the English press for moving into a tree house.

Years would pass by, and after stints in the British Army, serving in Korea, and then as a graphic artist, he finally, at the age of 30, embarked fully on a career as a professional musician.

Still active, Mayall completely blew up the last edition of the Bluesbreakers in 2008 and then emerged this fall with a new band and a new album of gritty, propulsive blues titled Tough on Eagle Records. He recently talked about his past.

I wanted to take you back to your childhood. What do you remember about hearing the blues for the first time, and do you remember the first blues record you heard?

John Mayall: Well, nothing specific, because my father was a guitar player and there was always music being played in the house. So all the records passed through the background I suppose, you know. So jazz and blues stuff … more jazz I would imagine than anything else, I suppose. You grow up in a musical environment, obviously, something brushes off.

Was there maybe a particular artist or  record that drew you in more than the others?

JM: Well, yeah, the music of Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson. Those were guitar duets I can remember very distinctly. And then Teddy Bunn with the Spirits Of Rhythm and The Mills Brothers … various things like that. But particularly, Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang were, instrumentally, kicking it off.

What got you to start teaching yourself how to play music?

JM: Well, I think one thing just leads to another where, if you’ve got music inside you, obviously, you want to get to an instrument and get cracking on it.

So when I was starting school, they had the piano there and I was very connected with boogie-woogie pianists. And so that’s where I started with the piano.

I wanted to ask you about your first brush with fame, namely moving into the tree house. How did that all come about?

JM: It came about through just being mentioned in the little jazz column in the Manchester Evening News. Other, larger [outlets] kind of picked up on it, and the word “tree house” picked up and people made a big thing of it for a little while.

But you actually moved out of the house and into the tree house?

JM: Well, I didn’t necessarily move out of the house. It was like having your own room, but it was up a tree.

Going into adulthood, you spent time in art college and then in the British Army in Korea. And when you got out, you had your career in graphic design. So you didn’t really start pursuing a music career until about age 30, huh?

JM: That’s right. The kind of music I was playing was blues. There wasn’t any kind of indication that would become something viable, you know, as a career. I didn’t know anything about anybody else who was playing the same kind of music, but after the jazz thing was winding down, Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies got together and kicked off the blues movement, and within weeks it was just the new thing and drawing people into the clubs like that. And it kind of revolutionized the club business and that’s how it all came about.

At age 30, did you feel strange about starting a little later than a lot of musicians do?

JM: No, I think I only saw it as an advantage really, because, you know, I knew more about the blues and jazz than somebody who was 14 or 15 years old. So I had a 10-year start on people who were around me in the music scene. So it kind of helped.

What do you remember about meeting Alexis Korner for the first time?

JM: Well, you know, his Alexis Korner Blues Incorporated did do a show … they were mainly centered in London, but they did touring around the clubs around the country.

So that’s where I met Alexis firsthand, and he had what was possibly the best lineup at that particular time and certainly a lineup that lasted six months before they all went different directions. But Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were the rhythm section, and Dick Heckstall-Smith was on saxophone. It was a very amazing, amazing band.

And he helped you start the Bluesbreakers as well?

JM: Well, he just said, if you get a band together, we can find a spot for you, you know, opening up for us at the Flamingo. So that’s how that came about. You know, I got some guys together and made a start.

When Eric Clapton quit the Yardbirds, did you have any idea you guys would form a partnership?

JM: Well, yeah. It was definitely my intention. It was like a godsend to me. I really wanted to work with him, and at the same time, he decided that he’d had enough of The Yardbirds. So these two things collided fortunately, and that’s how we became involved.

I think neither of us imagined it would last so long or become in any way commercial, because The Yardbirds were very commercial and we obviously weren’t, so we were just playing for the love of the music.

It was quite a surprise to us when we got the first Bluesbreakers album [ 1966’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton] out that it would reach so many people and cause such a stir. And it’s become one of the classic British albums of all time.

When you were recording that album, did you feel you were making something special at that moment?

JM: Well, it was special to us, because, you know, we were just very glad to have a chance to record what we were playing in the clubs, you know, because it was a great opportunity for us to go in the studio and basically just play the way we did onstage.

And after the success of it, how did your life change after that?

JM: Well, it didn’t really change much at all, other than we were now thoroughly integrated into the British club scene, and we were working seven or eight gigs a week.

I wanted to ask you about some of the other sidemen you worked with, and what they were particularly great at and what you enjoyed about working with them the most, starting with Peter Green.

JM: Yeah, well, Peter was very special. He had his own style, and he was a very aggressive player. And you know, I could tell instantly that he’d be a worthy successor to Eric, who had just left to form Cream. So, you know, it just dropped right in there with Peter. Not only was he a great guitar player back then, but he also was a damn fine singer, too — did a lot of his own compositions, too, which was another thing he carried through into the Fleetwood Mac era.

Andy Fraser.

JM: Well, we didn’t work together very long. He was only 15 when he joined me [in 1968], and he was a great little guy to hang around with. And he really knew his instrument, and it just fit right in there. So I think he was only with us for about four months or something like that. By then, he was getting some other things together. It was a good grounding for him, but we enjoyed playing.

Mick Taylor.

JM: Yeah, well, Mick was Eric’s successor in many ways, because when Eric didn’t show up for one gig one night, Mick was in the audience and he sat in with us to complete the evening.

Then I lost touch with him until after Peter Green left, and you know, he would re-emerge and became my guitar player for a couple of years … no, it was about three years, so that worked out really well. Mick not only [had his own way] with the blues style, but his own style in that he has a lot of jazz influences in his playing that Eric and Peter didn’t. So he very quickly developed his own audience and it was great.

Was it tough for you to see some of these guitarists move on to create other bands?

JM: Not really. That was just the natural order of things, you know. When things happen, you roll with them. No, I didn’t have any regrets really. When somebody leaves, it gives you the opportunity to do something fresh. So it works both ways.

Over the years, you’ve backed some incredible blues musicians, from Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker … who were your favorites to play with?

JM: Well, each one was its own learning experience, and it’s also a great thrill to be playing with men such as that. The things you learn from them — dynamics … Things that we were not as conversive with as some of the masters. But Freddie King … I didn’t play with him very often, but it was a great thrill to be in the company of and to be on the same stage as these people. I think their influence automatically brushes … you learn something from all of them. So I was very lucky to have been around, to be in close contact with all those greats. Many are no longer with us, of course.

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