What John Mayall did from 1964–66 probably couldn’t be attempted today: He launched a band of mostly-younger players, each of whom became a major force in English music over the next four decades. That batch of Bluesbreakers—with Eric Clapton, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Jack Bruce, Peter Green and Mick Taylor at various times—may be his most celebrated era, but it was only one of many dozen, wildly diverse blues bands he’s fronted over the years. The latest incarnation, now a trio without drums and with the new addition of Texas guitar firebrand Carolyn Wonderland, hits the Fest this year.
It seems remarkable now that a bunch of English kids would revere and play the blues as well as they did. “We didn’t think of them as kids—they were grown men, even though they were 17 and 18 years old,” Mayall says now. “Trad jazz had been ruling the roost for ten years before that, thanks to people like Chris Barber. And then we had bluesmen like Big Bill Broonzy coming over to England. So it was definitely more than a fad.”
Mayall wound up largely abandoning the guitar-band format just as bands like Cream and Fleetwood Mac were starting to catch on—and to a great extent, that’s where his catalogue gets interesting. The 1969 album The Turning Point, still one of his best sellers, bucked convention by using an acoustic band—guitar, flute, bass and harmonica, no drums. That album also introduced “Room to Move,” his signature tune for decades to come.
“I had gotten tired of electric guitar dominating the band, so I came up with the idea of a drummerless band with the saxophone. But it wasn’t a case of shifting interests—just different interpretations of the blues. Whether jazz or folk influences come in, it’s all a continuing path. There’s many reasons a band will change—the players might become more established and want to move on.”
In one telling moment just a few albums later—on 1972’s Jazz Blues Fusion—he leaves in a live section where he berates the audience for yelling for “Room to Move,” asking if they just came to hear an old record. “That wasn’t what we were there for at that time, it wouldn’t have fit with that instrumentation. I wanted to let people know that they weren’t hearing an acoustic band, they were hearing some of the best jazz players around.” (“Room to Move” does figure in his live sets nowadays.)
His lyrics through those years tend to read like a personal diary; he’ll be lovelorn and thoughtful on one album, political on the next, boozy and loose on the one after that (Mayall got sober in the ’80s). Prime example of the latter is 1973’s Ten Years Are Gone—the last of the Polydor albums—where he cracks up laughing all the way through one song, “Good Looking Stranger.” Featuring a brass-heavy band, it’s his horniest track in more ways than one. “That song was just what the lyrics said—walking down the street and seeing a woman with some beautiful frontage. Eventually I did sing it and get all the lyrics right, but that one just worked.”
Mayall has intersected with New Orleans and Louisiana a few times. The great Louisiana guitarist Gerry McGee—also a longtime Venture and the son of fiddler Dennis McGee—was briefly his lead guitarist in the early ’70s. More recently he made the 1987 album A Sense of Place with Sonny Landreth, whose song “Congo Square” remains a favorite live number. That era generally found Mayall getting more receptive to outside material. “I’ve always had an eye out for songs that excite me, whoever they were by. So if I do a cover of somebody else’s song, you can bet that it won’t sound like the person I took it from.”
He also made an album with Allen Toussaint in 1976, and while Notice to Appear is a pretty good album for Toussaint fans—give or take its funk version of “A Hard Day’s Night”—it’s not one that he feels especially enthused about. “It was doomed from the start, that one was all my manager’s idea. We really saw very little of Allen Toussaint, mostly we waited for him to show up. I can hear it now and it’s a very nice album, but it’s his album rather than mine—I just did a bit of singing here and there. To my mind music is always fine whenever you get to play it, but my manager had this idea that it would be a hit record, so I went along with it. From my point of view, I’m thinking ‘This song would be an excellent single’ every time I make a record, but it doesn’t work out that way.”
Mayall is now 84, having outlasted many of his protégés as a live performer, and in recent years his onstage energy has been something to behold. “I swim most every day, and I’ve always kept myself healthy. That’s important whether you’re a rock or a blues performer, and I intend to be around for a very long time.”
JOHN MAYALL: SUNDAY, APRIL 29—BLUES TENT, 5:45 P.M.