When it comes to iconic artists defining the arc of popular music, John Mayall is one of those pivotal names that may not register among contemporary audiences as a living musical legend, but has certainly done more to advance the niche of Blues and Rock-blended R&B music into popular consciousness than few artists in recent memory.
With the release of his new album of original material titled Nobody Told Me under his belt, the 85-year old Blues Hall of Famer will be performing a live show on Saturday, July 27th at Arbeitoer Hall in Bay City at 7 PM, featuring special guest Larry McCray, who also turns in some stellar guitar-work on several tracks of Mayall’s new release, which boosts an impressive and diverse list of other guest guitarists - all personal favorites of Mayall’s - including Todd Rundgren, Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band, Alex Lifeson from Rush, Joe Bonamassa, and Carolyn Wonderland, who will be joining the band on tour.
Also, on hand are Mayall’s dynamic Chicago rhythm section of Greg Rzab on bass guitar and Jay Davenport on drums, along with Billy Watts (Lucinda Williams) on rhythm guitar and Mayall’s regular horn section, moonlighting from their day job in The Late Show with Conan O’Brien’s house band.
The album was produced by Mayall and Forty Below Records founder Eric Corne at The Foo Fighters’ Studio 606 on the same legendary Sound City Neve console his one-time band mates from Fleetwood Mac used to record parts of the best-selling Rumors album.
For those unfamiliar with Mayall, he was born in 1933 and is an English Blues singer, guitarist, keyboardist and songwriter, whose musical career spans over 60 years. In the 1960s he founded John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, a band that became a breeding ground for talent that included as members such famous and seminal artists as Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jack Bruce, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Mick Taylor, Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris, Harvey Mandel and Aynsley Dunbar.
From an early age, John was drawn to the sounds of American blues players such as Lead Belly, Albert Ammons, Pinetop Smith and Eddie Lang, and taught himself to play the piano, guitars, and harmonica. Mayall spent three years in Korea for national service and, during a period of leave, he bought his first electric guitar. Back in England, he enrolled at Manchester College of Art and started playing with semi-professional bands. After graduation, he obtained a job as an art designer but continued to play with local musicians. In 1963, he opted for a full-time musical career and moved to London. His previous craft would be put to good use in the designing of covers for many of his coming albums.
One of Mayall’s key turning points was in 1965, when he hired Eric Clapton as his new guitar player after Clapton decided to quit the legendary British rock band The Yardbirds. With Clapton’s impeccable style, the Bluesbreakers began attracting considerable attention. That summer the band cut a couple tracks for a single, "I'm Your Witchdoctor" b/w "Telephone Blues", but in August of that year Clapton left for a jaunt to Greece with a bunch of relative musical amateurs calling themselves the 'Glands'.
To replace Clapton, Mayall found another remarkable talent in the form of Peter Green - the original guitarist, vocalist, and principal songwriter for Fleetwood Mac - and during the next few months Jack Bruce (former co-founder of Cream) was enlisted to play bass. In November 1965 Clapton returned, and Green departed as Mayall had guaranteed Clapton his spot back in the Bluesbreakers whenever he tired of the Glands. John McVie (also of Fleetwood Mac) was brought back in on bass after Bruce left to join Manfred Mann, and shortly later another legendary guitarist by the name of Mick Taylor was brought in to handle guitar duties. Taylor was later enlisted by The Rolling Stones to replace original guitarist Brian Jones.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Mayall has been married twice and has six grandchildren. In 2005 he was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and since the end of the 1960’s, he has lived in the United States. A brush fire destroyed his house in Laurel Canyon in 1979, sadly seriously damaging his musical collections and archives.
In advance of his Bay City performance in July, I recently had the good fortune to chat with Mayall in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home about his new CD release, his current tour, and his memorable legacy. At the age of 85 and still doing 100 shows per year, there is a lot still left in this ageless and tireless road dog.
Review: First, I want to tell you how much I’ve always been a fan of your work - not simply because of your musical skills, or your ability to select the best musicians to work with that match the goals of whatever project you’re working on; but mainly for your ability to evolve the genre of the Blues with such integrity over the decades.
Mayall. Well, thank you. That’s a very generous compliment and observation.
Review: In reading up on your background, your father was a guitarist and jazz enthusiast and you were self-taught to play piano, guitar & harmonica - how did you first get exposed to artists like Lead Belly, Pinetop Smith, and all the fundamental Blues artists coming out of America at the time, given the limited access to these recordings was fairly limited and this music wasn’t being played on the BBC at the time.
Mayall: The BBC had nothing to do with it. I would always listen to a certain kind of music and then do serious searches to find and buy the records. I was interested in Boogie Woogie and Pete Johnson in particular, so I’ve always followed whatever my interests were.
Review: What was it about the Blues that you feels distinguishes it the most from other forms of popular music?
Mayall: Well, mainly it’s the sonority and the overall feel that emerges when its properly performed.
Review: I’d like to talk about the genesis of the Blues Breakers. Apart from your other musical talents, you’ve got an impeccable ear for talent, as can be witnessed with your selection of Eric Clapton, which really jettisoned the arc of attention towards the music you were creating. Can you tell me a bit about that period? What was it like the first time you heard Clapton perform; and what do you feel his biggest contribution was to advancing your own musical goals?
Mayall: Eric was in the Yardbirds and personally, I wasn’t convinced about that band and didn’t feel they really stood out; but on the B-side of their first single they had this song called For Your Love that attracted me, so when Eric left the Yardbirds, I made him an offer and he joined my band. He liked the kind of music the Bluesbreakers were making and wanted to join in. He thought the direction the Yardbirds was going in was too commercial.
Review: What about the first time you heard Peter Green and Mick Taylor perform. What was it about their work that made you want to enlist them?
Mayall: It’s the same with the others as it was with Eric. I asked them what kind of music they wanted to play, told them the direction we were heading, and asked if they wanted to join. It’s really quite that simple. I like music and had the privilege of being able to make these people an offer to join the band, which they didn’t refuse.
Review: Let’s talk about the present. What goals and direction do you see your work evolving towards at this present period of your life, especially with public attention becoming fragmented in so many directions by all the mutations and blending of genre that is going on.
Mayall: I love music and playing with the musicians that we have featured on this new release because I have a strong connection to them. When I am on the road I enjoy performing because it’s what I do for a living. It’s what I’ve always done. Honestly, I don’t pay attention to music outside of what I do. I just play the music I love, because that’s what I do. This project has been a true labor of love for me and I can’t wait for people to hear the fireworks that took place. Each of the featured guitarists wanted to offer their services on my latest recordings, which is a very nice thing to have happen.
Review: Looking back over your career, what do you feel is the most challenging component facing musicians hoping to forge a successful career in the business?
Mayall: You don’t have that much control over it. My advice is to play the music you want to play and express the feelings you want to express through your music; and whether it catches on or not with the public enough to make a living out of it is another matter entirely beyond your control. All I can do is play the music the way I feel it and fortunately have enough people to support it.
Review: Are you continuously writing? How many unreleased songs do you have under your belt?
Mayall: I don’t have any really new songs under my belt. When I’m not on the road I really don’t play too much music. When I decide to make an album I sit down and round up a few ideas and put them into the cake. I don’t have other stuff laying around. With this latest release it’s a fair statement of what I’m doing now. Anytime I make an album it reflects what I’m feeling at that given time, so in that sense it’s no different from any other album I’ve made. It’s something I’m proud of and when we play for audiences I hope they’ll appreciate it.
Review: Do you still tour a lot? At the age of 85 are you thinking of winding things down a bit?
Mayall: I do 100 shows every year and there is no exception to that, except for last year when illness prevented me from hitting that mark. It takes me all over the world and fortunately I still have enough of an audience out there to appreciate it. Some great guitar players came forward to me with this latest projected that wanted to work and play on my album and I appreciate their work and input. It all fell together very naturally.
John Mayall and special guest Larry McCray will perform on Saturday, July 27th at Arbeitoer Hall, 1304 S. Wenonah in Bay City. Doors open at 5 PM and music begins at 7 PM. Tickets are $30.00 and available at BrownPaperTickets.com and B&D Mini Mart in Munger; Electric Kitsch & Three Doors Down in Bay City; The Rabbit Hole and Records & Tapes Galore in Saginaw.
9th February, 2024