John Mayall’s New Album is a Sizzling Late Career Blues Gem

They don’t call John Mayall “The Godfather of British Blues” for nothing. If you’ve paid attention to the blues legend, which I admittedly haven’t as much as I probably should have as somebody who digs the blues, you realize the now-88-year-old has been on an incredible late-stage career roll. Between 2014 and 2019, Mayall has released four albums and just came out with yet another one. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s not only about quantity but more importantly, it’s about quality. In my book, Mayall sure as heck continues to deliver on both!

The Sun is Shining Down, which appeared last Friday, January 28 via Forty Below Records, is Mayall’s close-to-70th record overall, including his releases with The Bluesbreakers. Even if you leave out the live and compilation records, you still easily get to 50-plus albums, which have come out over a 57-year recording period. The picture below taken from Mayall’s website captures his remarkable catalog.

Sure, The Sun is Shining Down, is blues and there are only so many ways you can play the blues. While as such it’s fair to say Mayall doesn’t reinvent the genre, he still has a couple of surprises up his sleeve, which I will get to when taking a closer look at some of the album’s tracks. Mentioning the guest artists may give you a hint or two: Mike Campbell (formerly with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Marcus King, Buddy Miller, Scarlet Rivera, Melvin Taylor and Jake Shimabukuro.

Mayall (vocals, keyboards, harp) is also backed up by his longtime Chicago rhythm section of Greg Rzab (bass) and Jay Davenport (drums), along with Austin-based guitarist Carolyn Wonderland who has been part of Mayall’s band since April 2018. And let’s not forget about the neat horn section featuring Mark Pender (trumpet), Richard Rosenberg (trombone) and Ron Dziubla (saxophone). I’d say ’nuff with background and let’s get to some music, and it’s going to be great!

John Mayall and his core band (clockwise from top left): John Mayall, Carolyn Wonderland, Greg Rzab and Jay Davenport

Here’s the album’s first track, Hungry and Ready, one of six tunes written by Mayall. The remaining four songs are covers. Mayall couldn’t have picked a better opener, which features Chicago blues guitarist Melvin Taylor. The title says it all. Mayall and his backing band clearly were ready to play some sizzling blues, and it all sounds incredibly fresh. The vibe of the tune is somewhere between Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy and the soulful Sweet Home Chicago, Blues Brothers-style. If you dig the blues, how can you not love this!

Since I previously wrote about the excellent Can’t Take It No More featuring rising roots and blues rocker Marcus King on guitar, I’m skipping it here and go right to I’m As Good As Gone, one of the aforementioned covers. Written by Bobby Rush, the tune was first recorded for his 2011 studio album Show You a Good Time. Mayall’s rendition features Americana artist and guitarist Buddy Miller. Nice!

Next, let’s get to something you don’t frequently hear when it comes to the blues – a tune featuring a violinist playing fill-ins commonly provided by a guitar. And we’re not talking any violinist here, we’re talking Scarlet Rivera, of Bob Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue 1975-1976 concert tour. Among others, she played that great violin part on Dylan’s Hurricane. Here’s Got to Find a Better Way, another Mayall composition. The title surely doesn’t refer to the music- check out how cool a violin can sound playing the blues!

Another highlight on the album is Chills and Thrills, a tasty funky tune written by Bernard Ellison as the title track for his 2008 album. You can check out the original here. Now let’s listen to Mayall’s rendition. I think he wisely chose to stay close to the original – why mess with something that’s perfect! This cover features the talented Mike Campbell on guitar. This is some groovy shit with a great guitar solo!

I guess by now you’ve noticed I love this album and could go on and on. The last track I’d like to call out presents another surprise. How ’bout a blues solo played on an electric ukulele? Enter Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso, Jake Shimabukuro. The song is One Special Lady, another tune penned by Mayall. The ukelele solo action starts at around 2:14 minutes. The tune also showcases Mayall’s fine skills on keyboards. Amid all the first-rate artists he has played with throughout his career and, frankly, helped nurture, Mayall oftentimes doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a musician. My only criticism here is Shimabukuro should have been given a bit more room. That ukelele blues action is super cool!

Here’s the entire album pulled from Spotify.

The Sun is Shining Down was recorded in Los Angeles, where Mayall has lived since the late ’60s, at Robby Krieger’s Horse Latitudes studio. And, yep, that’s the Robby Krieger who used to be with The Doors. The album was produced by Eric Corne, founder and president of Forty Below Records. According to his website, apart from Mayall, Corne’s impressive credits include Walter Trout, Joe Walsh, Edgar Winter, Glen Campbell, Lucinda Williams, Nancy Wilson (of Heart) and Krieger, among others.

“I couldn’t be happier with the new record,” said Mayall in a statement. “I can’t wait to share it with my fans. Each one of these special guests brings something unique to the album and our team works so well together. I think you can hear that chemistry in the music.” I couldn’t agree more!

Unfortunately but quite understandably, Mayall separately announced he will substantially scale back his touring schedule, citing the pandemic and his age. Fans will still be able to see him at local shows “and the occasional concert further afield.” Southern California is a bit far for me, but if Mayall will ever return to the New Jersey-New York-Connecticut tristate area or Philadelphia, I’d seriously consider seeing him – unfortunately, I never have. Heck, I might even return to Boston where I saw Neil Young solo in July 2018!

Sources: Wikipedia; John Mayall website; Eric Cone website; Discogs; YouTube; Spotify

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: February 14

Time again to go on some music time travel. For a change, this latest installment of my long-running music history feature around a specific date is skewed toward the ’80s. Usually, my favorite music decades the ’60s and ’70s rule these posts. Given it’s Valentine’s Day, I actually tried to discover a romantic song that was released on February 14, which I thought would be easy-peasy – well, not so. The closest I could find was an album that has various love songs. It’s part of the reason this post is more ’80s-focused.

1964: British beat group The Dave Clark Five released Bits and Pieces in the UK, the second single from their debut album Glad All Over. While it couldn’t quite match the chart success of the record’s title track that had knocked The Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand off the top spot in the UK, the tune came pretty close, climbing to no. 2. Officially, Bits and Pieces was credited to the band’s leader, manager and drummer Dave Clark and lead vocalist and keyboarder Mike Smith, though British singer-songwriter Ron Ryan claimed he actually had penned the tune. Bits and Pieces also became a U.S. single on March 20 that year, peaking at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. In this case, it beat Glad All Over, which had reached no. 6.

1970: Sly & The Family Stone hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). Yes, the words in parentheses are actually written that way. According to Wikipedia, it’s an intentional so-called “sensational spelling” for “thank you for letting me be myself again.” Written by Sly Stone, this great funk tune was part of a double-A single with Everybody Is a Star. Both songs had been intended for a studio album that was subsequently canned. Instead, the tunes ended up on the compilation Greatest Hits that appeared in November of the same year. Thank You was ranked at no. 410 on Rolling Stone’s December 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. That’s one hot funky tune!

1980: Heart released their fifth studio album Bébé le Strange, which became their highest charting on the U.S. Billboard 200 at the time, climbing to no. 4. Here’s the title track co-written by Heart co-founders Ann Wilson, Nancy Wilson and Roger Fisher, together with Sue Ennis, a frequent collaborator. By the time the album came out, Fisher had departed. Bébé le Strange also became the record’s second single but missed the Billboard Hot 100. Heart’s biggest chart success with their eponymous eighth studio album and the smash hit These Dreams was still five years away. I only know a handful of Heart’s songs and had not been familiar with this tune.

1985: Whitney Houston’s eponymous debut album appeared. After an initial slow response, the album started to get traction in the summer of that year and eventually topped the Billboard 200 for 14 weeks in 1986. It spawned various singles, including three no. 1 hits. Here’s one of them: Saving All My Love for You, co-written by Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin. While musically it’s a typical ’80s ballad, Houston’s vocals were just extraordinary. Plus, it’s a fitting tune for all the love birds celebrating today.

1987: Undoubtedly, some eyes are going to roll on this one. New Jersey rockers Bon Jovi hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with Livin’ on a Prayer, their second chart-topper in the U.S. Co-written by frontman and lead vocalist Jon Bon Jovi, then-lead guitarist Richie Sambora and songwriter Desmond Child, Livin’ on a Prayer appeared on the band’s third studio album Slippery When Wet. It became an instant success in the U.S. and internationally and remains Bon Jovi’s best-selling album to date. While I wouldn’t call myself a fan, I think the band has some great songs. Okay, I have to say I much prefer how Jon Bon Jovi looks nowadays. But, hey, it was the hairy ’80s ! 🙂

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music History Calendar; This Day in Rock; YouTube