May 20, 2004
by BOB DORAN
HE'S KNOWN REVERENTLY AS "The Father of British Blues, but John Mayall [photo above] could just as well be considered a blues grandfather. Late last year, the silver-haired bluesman (who incidentally has six grandchildren) celebrated his 70th birthday playing a concert in Liverpool with the current version of the Bluesbreakers, the band he has run for four decades, augmented by a couple of star alums, Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor.
When I called him at his home in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mayall spoke of his first exposure to the blues, back in the 1940s, living in a small village not far from Manchester, England.
"I started collecting records when I was 12 or 13," he recalled, "mostly American artists. I'd been brought up listening to jazz and blues from my father's collection, then when I found my own direction, which was piano boogie-woogie -- Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and the like -- I started delving out into that area. It was before long-playing records were invented, so everything was 78s."
He learned to play piano, guitar and harmonica, and began to dig deeper in the roots of the blues, but not with any plan to make music a profession.
"I was playing music for myself," he said. "The kind of music I was playing, well, there was no thought in my head that there was any kind of market for it, because there wasn't."
By the time the '50s became the '60s, Mayall had started up a blues band in Manchester. Meanwhile, a vibrant blues scene was developing in London. Mayall knew that's where he had to be -- he moved there in 1963.
"It all happened very quickly, this British rock/blues scene, Alexis Korner and Cyril Davis pioneered it; then there was the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Georgie Fame, Spencer Davis, the Yardbirds -- everybody was playing in London."
After relocating, Mayall formed a new band, the Bluesbreakers. With its focus on blues roots, it became a training ground for aspiring British bluesmen -- dozens passed through the ranks in the '60s. A young Eric Clapton joined in the spring of 1965, leaving the Yardbirds in search of a more straight-ahead blues experience. Clapton was on board for the seminal Blues Breakers album, then departed to form Cream. Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green took his place (Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were also Bluesbreakers). Green was in turn replaced by Mick Taylor, who left to join the Rolling Stones. Drummer Aynsley Dunbar was a Bluesbreaker, as were bassists Jack Bruce of Cream and Andy Fraser of Free.
After moving to Los Angeles at the end of the '60s, Mayall hired guitarist Harvey Mandel, Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor and later, guitarist Coco Montoya, among others.
Asked what he looks for in a musician, he boiled it down to, "whatever moves me. It comes down to talent, being in the right place at the right time -- and it's always been that way."
Mayall is humble about his role as a blues mentor, saying simply, "I've heard from lots of people that I turned them on to music they might not have heard of, then they head off on their own journey."
The current Bluesbreakers lineup, "a long-term relationship that continues to flourish" includes bassist Joe Yuele, who has logged 18 years, guitarist Buddy Whittington, who has been with the band 10 years, and drummer Hank Van Sickle, who has been a Bluesbreaker for five years.
As the blues festival season begins, the band is on the road, hitting 10 different states in May, then heading overseas to spend most of the summer bouncing around Europe.
"The set we're doing at the moment is based around the 70th birthday concert," said Mayall, "which in itself includes stuff from the old days, from the '60s and so forth." The birthday show was recorded and filmed, resulting in a DVD and a double-disc CD.
The buff septuagenarian says he is definitely not thinking about retirement. "I don't see anything like that on the horizon. As long as you have your health and the energy to deliver to the maximum, I don't see doing anything different."
The state of the blues today? From his perspective, it's strong. "Blues is not one of those things that's subject to fads; it's not the soup of the day. You'll always have young players putting bands together, trying to scuffle around in the clubs. They're doing what they want to do, what they believe in. That's the sort of attitude that keeps the blues alive."
Earthshine Productions presents John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers in concert at the Eureka Theater on Thursday, May 20. Slim Pickens, with special guest David Isley open the show promptly at 8 p.m. Admission is $25 at the door. Bring canned goods for Food for People to enter in drawing for cool stuff. For more information on John Mayall (including exclusive recordings) go to www.johnmayall.com
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.