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!
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.
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