A Green Guitar God with a Unique Tone and Soulful Voice

In memoriam of Peter Green

“Playing fast is something I used to do with John [Mayall] when things weren’t going well. But it isn’t any good. I like to play slowly and feel every note.” I think this quote from Peter Green, which was included in a June 16, 2020 feature by Guitar World, nicely reflects the philosophy of the English guitarist. About six weeks after that story had been published, Green passed away “peacefully in his sleep” on July 25, 2020 at the age of 73, as reported by the BBC and many other media outlets. This post is a late recognition of a great artist I only had known from some of his excellent work with the early Fleetwood Mac.

It’s really unfortunate that oftentimes it takes a death or other tragic event to get somebody on your radar screen. When it came to Peter Green, I first and foremost viewed him as this great British guitarist who wrote the fantastic tune Black Magic Woman, which I initially thought was a Santana song, and Albatross, an instrumental with one of the most beautiful guitar tones I’ve ever heard. As I started to explore some of Green’s post-Fleetwood Mac work, perhaps one of the biggest revelations was that apart from his guitar chops he also had a pretty good voice.

This post doesn’t aim to be a traditional obituary. You can find plenty of such pieces elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to focus on Green’s music, especially beyond Fleetwood Mac. Interestingly, Peter Allen Greenbaum who was born in London on October 29, 1946, started his music career as a bassist. According to the above BBC story, it was an encounter with none other than a young Eric Clapton that convinced Green to switch to guitar. “I decided to go back on lead guitar after seeing him with the Bluesbreakers. He had a Les Paul, his fingers were marvellous. The guy knew how to do a bit of evil, I guess.”

Not only did Green manage to retool fairly quickly, but before he knew it, he ended up replacing Clapton in The Bluesbreakers. Here’s a nice anecdote that’s included in the previously noted feature in Guitar World. When John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers assembled for the sessions to record their sophomore album A Hard Road in October 1966, producer Mike Vernon nervously asked, “Where’s Eric Clapton?” Mayall replied, “He’s not with us any more, but don’t worry, we’ve got someone better.” Apparently, somewhat in disbelief, Vernon said, “You’ve got someone better – than Eric Clapton?” Mayall responded, “He might not be better now, but in a couple of years, he’s going to be the best.” The Godfather of British Blues simply knew talent when he saw it!

Here’s The Supernatural from A Hard Road, a track Green wrote. Check out that mighty guitar tone! It reminds me a bit of Black Magic Woman. The instrumental helped establish Green’s trademark sound and earn him the nickname “The Green God.” In case you didn’t know what inspired the post’s headline, now you do!

By July 1967, Green had left The Bluesbreakers and formed his new band initally called Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac Featuring Jeremy Spencer. Apart from Green (vocals, guitar, harmonica), the lineup included Mick Fleetwood (drums), Jeremy Spencer (vocals, slide guitar, piano) and John McVie (bass). Not only had all of them been previous members of The Bluesbreakers, but John Mayall turned out to be the band’s enabler by offering Green free recording time. Mayall strikes me as somebody who was more than happy to provide apprenticeships to talented up and coming musicians! Here’s Long Grey Mere, a tune Green wrote for Fleetwood Mac, the February 1968 debut by the band that by then was called Peter Greene’s Fleetwood Mac. Bob Brunning, who technically was the band’s first bassist before John McVie joined, played bass on the track.

In early 1970, Fleetwood Mac were on tour in Europe. At that time, Green had become a frequent user of LSD. In Munich, Germany, he ended up visiting a hippie commune and “disappearing” for three days. A New York Times obituary included a later quote from Green saying he “went on a trip, and never came back.” After a final performance on May 20 that year, he left Fleetwood Mac. The following month, Green started work on what became his first solo album, The End of the Game. Released in December of the same year, the record featured edited free-form jazz rock jam sessions, marking a radical departure from his music with the Mac. Here’s the title track.

Following his solo debut, Green’s output became unsteady. In 1971, he briefly reunited with Fleetwood Mac, filling in for Jeremy Spencer after his departure to help the band complete their U.S. tour under the pseudonym Peter Blue. Beasts of Burden is a single Green recorded with fellow British guitarist Nigel Watson, who many years later would become part of Peter Green Splinter Group. The tune later was added to an expanded version of the above album.

Eventually, Green’s mental health issues took a heavy toll. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and ended up being in psychiatric hospitals in the mid-’70s, undergoing electroconvulsive therapy – yikes! To me, this frighteningly sounds like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the 1975 picture starring Jack Nicholson, one of his best performances I’ve ever watched. Luckily, Green reemerged professionally and in May 1979 released his sophomore solo album In the Skies. Here’s the great title track and opener, which Green co-wrote with his wife Jane Greene (nee Samuels) whom he had married in January 1978. Sadly, the marriage was short-lived and ended in divorce in 1979.

Starting with his next album Little Dreamer from April 1980, Green mostly relied on others to write songs for him, including his brother Mike Green (born Michael Greenbaum) for next few years. Here’s the groovy opener Loser Two Times. While the song was written by Mike Green, one cannot help but notice these words feel very autobiographic. I’m a loser two times/I’m a loser two times/I tried to change my ways but I was too blind/I lost my money, I lost my girl/And now I’ve almost lost my mind/Yes, I’m a loser two times…

Peter Green’s first reemergence from his health challenges ended with Kolors, his sixth solo album from 1983, which largely consisted of songs from previous recording sessions that had been unreleased. According to The New York Times, Green’s medications essentially incapacitated him. Eventually, he managed to wean himself from prescription tranquilizers in the ’90s. In 1997, he returned to music for the second time with Peter Green Splinter Group. Here’s Homework from their eponymous first album, a tune by Dave Clark and Al Perkins I had known and liked for many years by The J. Geils Band. The Splinter Group’s rendition features Green on lead vocals.

Time Traders, which appeared in October 2001, was the Splinter Group’s sixth album. Unlike their predecessors that had largely featured covers, especially of Robert Johnson, Time Traders entirely consisted of original tunes that had been written by members of the band. Here’s Underway, an instrumental by Green, which first had appeared on Fleetwood Mac’s third studio album Then Play On from September 1969. The track showcases more of that magic tone Green got out of his guitar.

February 2003 saw the release of the Splinter Group’s eighth and final album Reaching the Cold 100. Here’s Don’t Walk Away From Me, written by Roger Cotton, who played guitar, keyboards and organ in the band, featuring Green on guitar and vocals. Beautiful tune with a great sound – and yet another good example of Green’s vocal abilities!

The final track I’d like to highlight is Trouble in Mind, which Peter Green released together with Ian Stewart, Charlie Hart, Charlie Watts and Brian Knight in February 2009. Written by jazz pianist Richard M. Jones, the blues standard was first recorded by singer Thelma La Vizzo in 1924. It was also covered by Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and many other artists.

Peter Green was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 together with Fleetwood Mac, including Stevie Nicks, Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham, John McVie, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwan and Christine McVie. In June 1996, Green was voted the third greatest guitarist of all time in Mojo magazine. And in December 2015, Rolling Stone ranked him at no. 58 in their list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. No matter how you rank Peter Green, there’s no doubt the “Green God” was a master of tone and I think an undervalued vocalist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Guitar World; BBC; The New York Times; Rolling Stone; YouTube

John Mayall Has Turned 85 And No Plans For Retirement After More Than 50 Years

The Godfather of British Blues has announced a tour and a new album for 2019

What do Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce have in common? Together with Ginger Baker, they formed what perhaps was the ultimate blues rock power trio Cream. How about Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood? Well, they became part of the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac. Andy Fraser? He joined Free as a 15-year-old bass player. Last but not least, Mick Taylor? He of course became a member The Rolling Stones during what is widely considered their musical peak. What else do all these top-notch artists share? They all played with John Mayall, mostly before they became famous.

As a ’60s blues rock fan, it is pretty much impossible not to come across the name of John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. That being said, I’m the first to admit that oftentimes my music knowledge is still pretty insular. While I was well aware of Eric Clapton’s connection with Mayall, I didn’t know about all of the other above mentioned artists. I also had not heard much of John Mayall’s music and had not appreciated that in addition to being a multi-instrumentalist, he’s a pretty good vocalist. What finally caught my attention was a great story about him for his recent 85th birthday in German national daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which I spotted on Facebook the other day. It made me start listening to some of Mayall’s more recent solo albums I dug instantly, which in turn inspired this post.

John Mayall was born on November 29, 1933 in Macclesfield, England, and grew up in a village close to Manchester. He was first exposed to jazz and blues as a young teenager when he listened to the 78 record collection of his father Murray Mayall, a guitarist and jazz music fan. So it certainly was no coincidence that young John initially became attracted to the guitar and guitarists like Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee, Josh White and Leadbelly. As a 14-year-old, he began to learn the basics for playing the piano. A couple of years later, he also picked up the harmonica. Not only does this mean Mayall is a multi-instrumentalist, but he’s also self-taught – pretty cool!

Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton
John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers ca. 1966 (from left): John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Hughie Flint and John McVie

While Mayall had been playing music since his teenage years and during his twenties, it wasn’t until 1962 that he decided to make a living with music. He gave up his job as a graphic designer and moved from Manchester to London. Soon thereafter, he started The Bluesbreakers. In the spring of 1964, the band recorded their first two tracks: Crawling Up A Hill and Mr. James. Afterwards, they backed John Lee Hooker on his 1964 British tour. At the end of the year, Mayall signed with Decca and recorded his debut John Mayall Plays John Mayall, a live record that appeared in March 1965, but it was not successful.

Things started cooking for The Bluesbreakers when Eric Clapton joined the band in April 1965. While initially Clapton only stood until August and left for another venture called The Glands, he returned in November. A few months later, the band recorded Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton. But by the time the album was entering the charts, Clapton and then-Bluesbreakers bassist Jack Bruce had already left to form Cream. The next few years saw a succession of guitarists who came and left, including Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Jon Mark and Harvey Mandel. In fact, frequent line-up changes would become a constant for Mayall, yet I haven’t read anything that he was ever annoyed about it.

John Mayall 2018
John Mayall at 2018 Jazz Fest in New Orleans

In 1969, Mayall moved from England to Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles and began playing with American musicians. Over the next three decades, he recorded many albums featuring artists like Blue Mitchell, Red Holloway, Larry Taylor, Harvey Mandel, Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, Albert Collins and Mick Taylor. In 2008, Mayall decided to retire The Bluesbreakers name. The following year, he started touring with Rocky Athas (guitar), Jay Davenport (drums) and Greg Rzab (bass). In 2016, after Athas had been unable to attend a festival gig due to airline cancellations, Mayall was left with Davenport and Rzab. He liked the trio format and decided to keep it until May of this year, when guitarist Caroyln Wonderland joined the band.

With a recording career of more than 50 years and 60-plus albums, it’s impossible to do Mayall and his music full justice, so the following selection can only scratch the surface. Let’s start with the above mentioned Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton. Here’s Double Crossin’ Time, a tune co-written by Mayall and Clapton. Apart from them, the core line-up of The Bluesbreakers at the time also included John McVie (bass) and Hughie Flint (drums).

In September 1967, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers released their fourth album Crusade. It was the first record with then-18-year-old Mick Taylor. Check out this hot track called Snowy Wood, which is credited to Mayall and Taylor.

To A Princess is an unusual tune from Mayall’s 13th album Empty Rooms, which appeared in 1970. It includes a bass duet featuring band member Steven Thompson and former Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor as a guest. In addition to Mayall (vocals, harmonica, guitars, keyboards), Thompson and Taylor, other musicians on the record were Jon Mark (guitar) and Johnny Almond (saxophone, flute). Mark and Almond left right after the album’s recording to form the duo Mark-Almond.

Next up: The title track of Mayall’s 19th album Ten Years Are Gone released in September 1973. I dig the brass work on this groovy tune, which gives it a cool jazzy and soulful vibe. The musicians on the record included Mayall (piano, guitar, harmonica, vocals), Freddy Robinson (guitar), Victor Gaskin (bass), Keef Hartley (drums), Sugarcane Harris (violin), Blue Mitchell (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Red Holloway (saxophone, flute).

In 1975, Mayall’s 22nd album Notice To Appear came out. For the most part, it featured covers, including the following hot funky take of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. The track features Mayall (vocals), Rick Vito (guitar), Larry Taylor (bass), Soko Richardson (drums), Jay Spell (keyboards), Don Harris (violin) and Dee McKinnie (backing vocals).

In 1988, Mayall recorded his 34th album called Archives To Eighties. It included revised versions of select tunes that originally had appeared on his 1971 release Back To The Roots. Just like the earlier record, Archives To Eighties featured Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor. Here’s Force Of Nature.

Wake Up Call was Mayall’s 39th album. The Grammy-nominated record from 1994 brought together many prominent musicians, including Buddy Guy, Mick Taylor, Albert Collins and Mavis Staples, among others. Here’s the smoking hot title track with Taylor on guitar and Staples on vocals.

In 2005, Mayall released his 53rd album called Road Dogs, one of the last under The Bluesbreakers name. The band’s line-up at the time included Buddy Whittington (guitars), Hank Van Sickle (bass) and Joe Yuele (drums), in addition to Mayall (vocals, keyboard, harmonica). Following is the record’s closer Scrambling.

Here’s the title track of Mayall’s 61st record A Special Life from May 2014. It featured his then-core backing band Rocky Athas (guitar), Greg Rzab (bass, percussions) and Jay Davenport (drums), as well as C. J. Chenier (accordion, vocals). As usually, Mayall provided vocals, guitar, harmonica and keyboards.

The last album I’d like to touch on is Mayall’s most recent, Three For The Road. Released in February 2018, it is his 66th record – unbelievable! It presents live recordings from two 2017 concerts in Germany, performed by the trio format of Mayall, Rzab and Davenport. Here’s Lonely Feelings.

Just before his 85th birthday on November 29, Mayall made two announcements. After completing a few shows in California, he is planning a 2019 tour and has started booking gigs in Europe. A look on the current schedule already reveals 22 dates starting February 26 in Tampere, Finland and stretching out to March 24 in Ancona, Italy. U.S. dates are supposed to be announced soon. Mayall also revealed a new studio album, Nobody Told Me, which is scheduled to be released on February 22, 2019. Apart from his new guitarist Carolyn Wonderland, it includes numerous prominent guest guitarists, including Todd Rundgren, Steven Van Zandt and Alex Lifeson.

I’d like to finish this post with a few quotes posted on Mayall’s website, which I think speak for themselves:

John Mayall has actually run an incredible school for musician. (Eric Clapton)

John Mayall, he was the master of it. If it wasn’t for the British musicians, a lot of us black musicians in America would still be catchin’ the hell that we caught long before. So thanks to all you guys, thank you very much! (B.B. King)

I had this friend in London, John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, who used to play me a lot of records late at night. He was a kind of DJ-type guy. You’d go back to his place, and he’d sit you down, give you a drink, and say “Just check this out.” He’d go over to his deck, and for hours he’d blast you with B.B. King, Eric Clapton – he was sort of showing me where all of Eric’s stuff was from, you know. He gave me a little evening’s education in that. I was turned on after that, and I went and bought an Epiphone. So then I could wind up with the Vox amp and get some nice feedback. (Paul McCartney)

As far as being a blues-guitar sideman, the Bluesbreakers gig is the pinnacle. That’s Mount Everest. You could play with B.B. King or Buddy Guy, but you’re just gonna play chords all night. This guy features you. You get to play solos. He yells your name after every song, brings you to the front of the stage, and lets you sing. He creates a place for you in the world. (Walter Trout)

Sources: Wikipedia, John Mayall website, YouTube