John Mayall: Unbreakable

By: Jarrod Dicker

John Mayall
“I think we are keeping it alive,” John Mayall murmurs in a rather sanguine tone responding to my query about the impending death of the blues. “It’s not only that though, it’s inspiring kids and musicians, who seem to be taking to their instruments a lot earlier than they used to do. It just shows the power of the music. It keeps going from generation to generation. It might not be hit parade stuff but there’s definitely a permanent market for blues music. I think it will always be relevant as well, inspiring people to play.”

The blues is a genre built upon the underpinnings of ingenious innovators decades ago. It has since progressed, been modified and even drastically altered, birthing various sister shapes found in most forms of rock & roll. Nonetheless, in the end, it is one faction of music that will always relish and revere its classic roots. John Mayall was one of the exploratory musicians who took American blues to the U.K. and made it his own, garnering himself the unofficial title of “Godfather of British blues.”

In November 2008, Mayall announced on his website that he’d decided to disband the current incarnation of the Bluesbreakers to give himself more time to work independently. However, as nothing can keep a good man down, a follow-up announcement three months later declared the launch of a world tour with a new set of musicians. “The Bluesbreakers are no more,” Mayall says. “It’s now under the banner of my name, [the] John Mayall Band.”

John Mayall and the new band
Mayall’s new group mirrors the framework of past ensembles; an assemblage of exceptional musicians in their own right, which together structure a group of absolute and unique artistry. The newest edition consists of Rocky Athas (guitar), Chicago musicians Greg Rzab (bass) and Jay Davenport (drums), and former Mayall bandmate Tom Canning (keyboards).

Together they helped produce Mayall’s 57th studio album, Tough, released via Eagle Records on September 7 in U.K./Europe and September 15 in the United States.

“After just ten albums I didn’t think I’d ever reach 57,” Mayall laughs heartily. “It’s been pretty amazing, but the albums seem to fall into place at regular intervals, you know? Of course, I’ve been on the road for quite some years now as well, so [new albums] tend to come up.”

Tough grants listeners three brand new songs written by Mayall, “Slow Train to Nowhere,” “That Good Old Rockin’ Blues,” and “Tough Times Ahead.” As repeated by many reviews of the latest album, Mayall evokes lyrical content from situations he feels close to in his life. Whether it is the current state of political affairs or the existing condition of music, Mayall concentrates on his passions and transcribes them lyrically and musically on Tough. Not to mention at 76-years-old Mayall continues to annihilate the guitar, harmonica and organ while providing familiar vocal patterns fans have grown to treasure over the years.

After a staggering 57 albums one might assume that Mayall has acclimated himself to a life of musical prosperity, but everything hasn’t always worked so leniently on his behalf. Constant changes in band lineups, personal issues, and lack of public limelight have hindered Mayall throughout his career, but never stopped him.

John Mayall by Perole
Born in England, Mayall heard American blues music as an adolescent and has cherished it since. So how exactly did a white lad in the 1940s from urban London come in contact with the blues?

“My father’s record collection was the starting point when I was a kid,” he proudly boasts. “Because of him, music was always there for me to subconsciously get into my system. It’s been with me all of life really.”

Mayall trained himself to play and broaden his musical comprehension by use of his father’s and various neighbor’s instruments. But music was, at this particular moment in his life, a second adoration. He was exceptionally creative and drawn to painting and other forms of art. He still utilizes these skills today in his musical efforts.

“I do have a hand in some art when it comes to upcoming album designs for my records and various other bits and pieces. Some tour material as well,” says Mayall. “It’s useful to have this skill, so from time to time they let me use my artistic work.”

But as history tells, music conquered fine art as his primary worship and while serving in the Korean War, Mayall was able to cease borrowing instruments and claim one of his own.

“I was playing guitar before the war, but when I went to Korea, midway through we had leave in Japan, so I bought myself my first brand new electric guitar in Tokyo,” he recalls. “That meant that I had an instrument of my own that my father wasn’t using. So, it was quite nice to have my own actual electric guitar.”

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John Mayall
After that, Mayall fixed himself as a blues brewing factory. He would assemble skilled musicians, allow them to master their craft and produce admirable music, and then release them into the musical wild to triumph in their future endeavors. Just to name a modest few, early Bluesbreakers included Eric Clapton, Peter Green, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Andy Fraser and Mick Taylor. These musicians would come and go, however, all went to form or join their own legendary groups including Cream, Derek and the Dominos, Fleetwood Mac, Free, and The Rolling Stones.

“John Mayall has actually run an incredibly great school for musicians,” Eric Clapton has stated.

Upon relaying the admirable quote to Mayall, his response is quite humble.

“Well… it just seems that way doesn’t it? When you collectively go through the entire list, I think it’s probably due to the fact that I’ve always been a bandleader and bandleader’s always put their own stamp on whatever they do, regardless of who’s playing in the band. So, I think that that’s probably the thing that automatically happens when you have a bandleader who’s calling the shots, so to speak.”

The band leading titan has continued to manufacture musicians, who circulate in and out of his band at various points, both early and late in their careers. But one must ask whether the constant variation of the Bluesbreakers was done deliberately?

“It’s not always by choice, especially in the early days when all those guys whose names we very well know were all finding their own directions,” Mayall explains. “It was inevitable that they would work with me, hone their skills, so to speak, and then go on in their own direction. So, that was kind of the pattern of things and I didn’t expect anything different really. Anytime there was a change, of course, and this applies throughout my career, it would kick some new life into it because you’d have different musicians, styles, and individualities. It’s always a stimulating thing when you get new people.”

John Mayall
“I think because of the individuality and the energies each particular lineup brought to the table, it’s impossible to set one against the other. I’m just very proud of the fact that all the bands that I’ve put together have been received so wonderfully by audiences,” continues Mayall. “That goes for all of the countries all over the world. They’ve given me that freedom to choose musicians and put bands together that have been great for us and of course, fortunately, people agreed to it.”

Outside of the Bluesbreakers Mayall has partnered with the likes of Albert King, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), and most recently, B.B. King, just to name just few. In 2005, Mayall was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen’s Honor list alongside Brian May and Jimmy Page.

But some bewilderment lingers despite Mayall’s successful and celebrated career, a few things left unfulfilled that leaves his peers, fans and critics pondering, “Why?” John Mayall has received just ONE Grammy nomination for the 57 albums he’s released. Sadly, the nomination didn’t result in a win. And he still hasn’t been chosen for inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It seems preposterous with his resume that these honors haven’t come his way, but as with many artists, these organizations often overlook the truly worthy. Luckily for us, Mayall hasn’t let awards distract from his musical journey. He simply continues to do what he does best with little regard for these slights.

Now, a father of six children and grandfather of six more, Mayall has built a tremendous musical kingdom of his own. But does blue blood run through the Mayall family veins?

“I don’t know about that!” he laughs. “They’ve all got their differences. My eldest son, who’s in his fifties, has always been active in the music scene in London. He’s had his own blues club for the last 20 years. My next eldest son works for a Japanese music company that puts on the festivals there every year. So there is a connection that runs through that with the music side of things, I suppose.”

He may be growing long in the tooth, but this energizer bunny of the blues has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.

“I’m sure there will be many other records, and we have a busy touring schedule shaping up,” Mayall exclaims. “All the details of that and everything else are always obtainable through my website. It’s really an excellent forum for fans to get their thoughts on the music and also tells everyone where we’ll be playing and everything else. It’s all the news that’s fit to print!”

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