John Mayall: Bluesbreaker and Beyond (Part 1)
A renewed interest in American blues gave rise to a musical movement in 1960s Great Britain. The British blues boom would launch the musical careers of countless musicians who would go on to greater fame. And with good reason, John Mayall is known as the godfather of that movement; his band, the Bluesbreakers, saw many of those players pass through its ranks; the Bluesbreakers became known as something of a “farm team” for some of the best musicians to come out of England in the 1960s. Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Jack Bruce, Mick Fleetwood, Harvey Mandel, and Aynsley Dunbar are just a few of the musicians who played with Mayall’s band early in their careers.
But focusing only on that dimension of John Mayall’s career threatens to obscure the very real contributions that he made to music. The man’s catalog may be rooted in blues, but as a musician and bandleader, Mayall pushed beyond the confines of that genre, encompassing jazz, rock, and more. Though he retired the Bluesbreakers name a few years ago, Mayall remains as vital and active as ever. His most recent studio album, 2015’s Find a Way to Care, is every bit as musically fulfilling as the sides he cut fifty years ago. And he still performs live: Mayall and band’s latest tour brings them to the Eastern US in spring 2016.
Though he’s been a California resident for decades now, the Macclesfield, England-born Mayall spent his formative years in Manchester. His early love of music came via his father’s record collection. Murray Mayall’s 78rpm discs would have been the only way that a British boy the likes of John could have heard American blues, as the tightly-controlled playlists of BBC radio didn’t allow room for blues. Mayall suspects his father discovered blues “in college. People collected records; they’ve always been doing that.”
John Mayall began leading bands of his own in the 1950s, eventually relocating to London. At the time, one of the most popular styles of music in Great Britain was “trad jazz,” what Americans call Dixieland. But though he’d eventually incorporate elements of jazz into his music, Mayall’s compositions rarely displayed any influence from the early trad jazz style. “It’s all part of the same thing, jazz and blues together,” Mayall observes. “New Orleans style jazz was popular for at least ten years on the British charts and in the clubs. It wasn’t until Alexis Korner and Cyril Davis got the blues scene going that blues took over.”
Mayall’s Bluesbreakers quickly established themselves as the vanguard of that movement. Mayall – who plays keyboards and guitar – recruited some of the best young players for his band. His criteria for picking players had as much to do with their personality as it did their level of musicianship. “I never found it difficult” to find excellent musicians, Mayall says. “People are always marveling at the long string of musicians who’ve been in my bands, but for me, it’s always been pretty much a no-brainer.”
In the sixties, Mayall’s band lineups experienced “quite a swift turnover,” he admits. Not so in later years: by the 1980s, ace guitarist Coco Montoya joined the Bluesbreakers. “Coco was with me for ten years. And [lead guitarist] Walter Trout was in for the same amount of time. Buddy Whittington was in for fifteen years.” And Mayall notes that his current band “has been together seven years already.”
Way back in 1965, Mayall launched his recording career with the Decca LP Mayall Plays Mayall, cut live at the London club, Klook’s Kleek. It was audacious move; very few bands started their careers with live recordings. Mayall is characteristically modest about having done so. “I think it was [Decca’s] idea. Because their studio was next door to the club. All they had to do was run some cables out the back window of the studio and into the premises of the pub next door. Other people had recorded live albums there, so it wasn’t quite that unusual.”
Note: an edited version of this feature originally appeared in the pages of Style Weekly (Richmond VA).