In the 1970s, John Mayall, O.B.E., was, along with Bob Dylan, John Prine, David Bromberg, Loudon Wainwright III, Shawn Phillips and Jerry Jeff Walker, one of my musical heroes. Now at 83 and still touring and recording albums, Mayall is an inspiration.
Mayall, often called the “Godfather of British Blues,” is so much more than just a pioneer of British blues. By introducing a generation of rock fans to the blues, he arguably had a hand in saving blues as a viable music form at a time in the 1960s when elderly bluesmen were looked upon at folk festivals as charming examples of a bygone era. More than 50 years after cutting his first single, Mayall continues to build on that amazing legacy.
As I have mentioned before, one of the first albums I ever got a was Mayall’s Memories, a peculiar collection of autobiographical songs released in 1971 that is now out of print. It was a gift. It wasn’t Mayall’s most acclaimed work, but I liked it enough to start collecting other Mayall albums: The TurningPoint, Mayall’s magnificent mostly acoustic effort from 1969; and Jazz Blues Fusion, with its sleek horn arrangements. Eventually, my collection would include the classic Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, known as the “Beano album” because Clapton was reading the comic book in the cover photo; A Hard Road, which featured the guitar work of original Fleetwood Mac leader Peter Green; and Crusade and Blues From Laurel Canyon, which featured Mick Taylor who went on to join the Rolling Stones. But more importantly, I liked the style of music, which led me to seek out original blues artists like B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf; and then Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon; then the next generation of Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Taj Mahal. Many other blues enthusiasts followed a similar path.
Almost every biography of Mayall includes the litany of rock stars who played with him, including Clapton, who left the successful Yardbirds to join Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before moving on to Cream, Derek and the Dominos, Blind Faith and a solo career; Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, who formed Fleetwood Mac; and Taylor. Mayall was so well regarded as a band leader that Harvey Mandel, Larry Taylor and Walter Trout all left a successful Canned Heat to join Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. On 1990’s A Sense of Place, Sonny Landreth was essentially a member of the band though credited as a guest artist. Coco Montoya also played with the Bluesbreakers, leaving in 1993 to be replaced with Buddy Whittington. But Mayall’s reputation as a band leader and mentor ignores his own musical talents. A multi-instrumentalist, Mayall played all the parts except drums on The Blues Alone in 1967. And he is among the most exciting blues harp players in the world – one listen to “Room to Move” on Turning Point should convince any skeptics of that.
Hailing from Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, Mayall attended art college while living in a treehouse (mustn’t leave that part out!) in Manchester after serving the military in Korea. While working as an artist, Mayall continued to pursue his passion for the blues, eventually moving to London in 1963. Mayall’s 1960s albums with Clapton, Green and Taylor are blues-rock classics, but over the years he has continued to produce high quality music, conquered an alcohol dependency, and matured as a showman (he’ll play “Room to Move” on request now – unlike on Jazz Blues Fusion, where he can be heard refusing, saying “What, did you come here to hear an old record or something?”). He has released several later-career gems, such as A Sense of Place in 1990, Stories in 2002, Tough in 2009 and A Special Life in 2014 and Find a Way to Care in 2015. In 2015 and 2016, Forty Below Records released archival recordings, John Mayal’s Bluesbreakers – Live in 1967 Vol.s 1 & 2, which featured Mayall with Green, McVie and Fleetwood in concert performances in several London clubs.
Mayall continues to surround himself with fabulous musicians like guitarist Rocky Athas, bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport. Talk About That is another in a long line of late career, solid albums by Mayall and his crew. Guitar slinger Joe Walsh joins on two great songs, “The Devil Must Be Laughing” and “Cards on the Table.” Mayall’s harp and vocals on a cover of Jimmy Rogers’ “Goin’ Away Baby” may remind longtime followers of some of Mayall’s 70s stuff with its relaxed, unhurried tone. “Blue Midnight” is a haunting, jazzy affair, and check out “Across the County Line” below to hear Mayall on the harp, keyboards and vocals on one of his own original compositions. And, an artist, he is still designing his own album covers – something he has done throughout his career.
About the author: Bill Wilcox is a roots music enthusiast recently relocated from the Washington, DC area to Philadelphia, PA and back again.