John Mayall: The Godfather Bandleader

This article originally appeared in London Blues & Jazz, April 20, 2015

Legendary British Bluesman John Mayall talks to Ben Lazarus about his life in music, his recent 80th anniversary tour and the release of his 62nd studio album

Few bluesmen have matched the success and enduring appeal of John Mayall. In a career spanning more than 50 years, “The Godfather of British Blues” has made 62 albums and is widely-credited as the figurehead of the British blues boom, which saw American blues music incorporated into the British mainstream during the 1960s.

“It was a new thing. It was an age of young people who were discovering black American music,” he says nostalgically. “Prior to that it was New Orleans Jazz and it was time for a change, and it was very exciting to see all these bands coming in, and many of them are around still today.”

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John Mayall in the early 1980s | Photo by Gary Chvatal | Creative Commons License

The Bluesbreakers has contained some of the world’s most notable blues and rock musicians since its inception in 1964. Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce left The Bluesbreakers to form Cream, while Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie departed to form Fleetwood Mac (the original blues incarnation). The Rolling Stones recruited Mick Taylor from The Bluesbreakers after they got rid of Brian Jones.

Was he aware that these musicians would go on to become sublime masters of their craft when he first heard them play? “As a bandleader you know these things,” he murmurs in a rather sanguine English voice. “You know what sort of player you are looking for, and it becomes very easy for you. It always has been easy for me. All bandleaders will tell you the same thing. It is an instinctual thing.”

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John Mayall at the Pistoia Blues festival in Italy, 2007 | Photo by Federico Maria Giammusso | Creative Commons License

Mayall’s current outfit is similar to the framework of his original Bluesbreakers: an assemblage of sublime musicians. As a unit they play blazing and fierce blues. They consist of Rocky Athas (guitar), Chicago rhythm section of Grez Rzab (bass) and Jay Davenport (drums), as well as keyboardist Tom Canning. (“These musicians are all very special to me.”)

The innate ability to spot exceptional musicians is one of the main reasons why Mayall is known as “The Godfather of British Blues”. Eric Clapton said of his former bandleader that he has “run an incredibly great school for musicians.” Further, Mick Taylor, formerly of The Rolling Stones, claimed “there’s no better way to learn how to play Blues guitar than playing with John Mayall.” But the title of being British Blues’ Godfather is not one that sits easy with Mayall. “I don’t have a choice in the title. It has been given to me – it is a label that has been applied to me over the years and kept on.”

Mayall says his role as a bandleader meant he played Godfather to many of his young musicians in their formative musical years. “I was a bandleader, and I have always been a bandleader. So that’s the role of what a bandleader does. You just provide the right framework for them to play, and that’s all you can do. It is something you don’t think about with the right people, it just blends together naturally.”

There’s no better way to learn how to play Blues guitar than playing with John Mayall

– Eric Clapton

Peter Green, one of rock's most famous casulties

Peter Green learnt his trade with Mr Mayall | Photo by W.W.Thaler | Creative Commons License

Despite his godfather relationship with his Bluesbreakers, Mayall sees very little of his former musicians. “Unless they come see me on tour, then it is very unlikely they will come see me.” None of them live in LA where he is based. One musician who he has not seen for years is Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green who originally replaced Eric Clapton in The Bluesbreakers in 1967. Green was one of rock’s first and most famous casualties. After suffering an acid-induced breakdown in the late 1960s Green disappeared from the limelight and spent decades in and out of mental institutions before a small-time comeback in the late 1990s. “He doesn’t communicate with anybody,” Mayall sighs. “I haven’t any idea what he is doing. It’s troubling but it has been going on for years. It all happened decades ago. There is a limit to how long you can mourn. His greatest work was in the sixties and it will always be remembered.”

Growing up in Macclesfield, Cheshire, Mayall’s “first love” was Boogie Woogie piano players like Albert Ammons. As a child his musical taste was inspired by his father Murray Mayall, a Jazz guitarist and music enthusiast. “The blues was the music that I grew up listening to. It was in the house. It all came from my father’s record collection.” Mayall taught himself to play, but has never learnt to read or write music.

Some blues musicians today are concerned at the state of the genre, but Mayall thinks there is little to worry about and says there is a “lots of hope” for the blues still. “It is very encouraging that there are so many young people playing instruments now. Just look around you. People are responding to the blues all over the world.”

John Mayall, 1971

John Mayall, 1971 | Photo by Heinrich Klaffs | Creative Commons License

Mayall recently finished an anniversary tour to celebrate his 80th birthday. It coincided with the release of his latest album A Special Life.

Having made 62 albums he has difficulty answering which he likes best. “They are all favourite albums. Because they are like a musical diary, they are all about my life at a particular musical point,” he says.

They are like a musical diary, they are all about my life at a particular musical point.

Staying on the road keeps Mayall alive. “The music is a revitalising thing. It is very invigorating and if you play with the right people, it is a great thrill. It is a different show with us every night and we try and create something and communicate with the audience. I like being on the road, it’s what I do. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t enjoy it. The music comes out of the enjoyment of playing.” How does he want people to think of him in the blues canon? “Just to be remembered. And for people to listen to my body of work, because it is the story of a life.”

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