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Tim: John Mayall

John Mayall...
Breaking New Ground

By T.E. Mattox

've heard it said that 75 is the new 60. But if John Mayall has anything to say about it, it would probably be closer to 40. I don’t know what’s in this guy’s water, but I could use a quart or two in my coffee mug right now. Much like that drum-beating bunny in commercials, Mayall’s phenomenal energy level and unrelenting enthusiasm for his work, just keeps going and going….

Two quick stories….I arrived at the club early, so I could sit and chat with a few artists right after sound check. As I walk in the front door, there’s John Mayall opening up a huge display of CD’s. Being the wise-cracking, schmooze that I am, I quipped; ‘Mr. Mayall, you probably could have someone give you a hand with that.’ Without batting an eye, he looked at me, smiled and said, ‘I’m self-employed.’ Great sense of humor.

Story Number Two…. About three hours into one of the most impressive evenings of blues music I’ve ever experienced, the headliner, Mr. Self-Employed, steps on stage into a blinding solo spotlight. No band, no fanfare, just John Mayall and his harmonica. As he speaks into the darkness, this rowdy crowd of close to 700 that hasn’t missed a round of drinks since arrival, and are wedged into every corner, table, nook and cranny of the place, take a collective, quieting breath. John begins a tale of Sonny Boy Williamson trying to teach him a particularly difficult riff on his harmonica. By the time he finishes the story and begins to play it the way Sonny Boy taught him, not even the plates from the kitchen could be heard. Just Mayall, alone with his harp in that single, white shaft of spotlight. I still get chills thinking about it.

I’ve mentioned many times in my ramblings, on this site and elsewhere, that I’ve been truly blessed to sit and talk with some of the most legendary players and musicians to walk the planet over the last 30 years or so. And for the life of me, I really can’t think of anyone more generous and accommodating with his time than John Mayall. On three different occasions now, he has stopped, patiently listened and responded to questions that you know he’s been asked a thousand times. I’m eternally grateful to him for that, and the fact that he dropped that pesky restraining order. Did I say that out loud?

I remembered from an earlier talk that he mentioned a Belgian musician by the name of Django Reinhardt….so that’s where we started.

Django Reinhardt was not necessarily an influence of mine,” John said, “but he was the first person I heard playing jazz guitar. My father had a very large collection of 78’s and a lot of that was Django. So obviously when I was a little kid that was the kind of music I was hearing as I was growing up in the 30’s and 40’s.

What about Blues recordings of that era?

The earlier people I was listening to were Josh White, Teddy Bunn, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, there’s a whole slew of them, but that was the generation of players, blues singers I was exposed to.

Growing up listening to the originators, its’ little wonder why John is so readily identified with the Chicago blues explosion and that talent-rich generation of players. His relentless touring, musical associations, songwriting skills and recordings placed John squarely among his peers. It just so happened, Mayall’s peers had names like Sonny Boy, Otis (Spann and Rush), John Lee, T-Bone, Muddy….. But as he reminded me, that was a different time.

The Chicago Blues boom happened later, a thing of the 40’s and 50’s, really. That was the time when Sonny Boy Number #2 (Rice Miller) came to the foreground along with Little Walter, Muddy Waters and the whole Chicago Blues scene.

John Mayall and fan in San Juan Capistrano
A fan greets John Mayall at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, CA Photo: T.E.Mattox

John Mayall has probably played, recorded and toured with more blues and jazz artists in the last fifty years, than any other musician alive today. Yet, he’s very pragmatic, almost matter of fact when he recalls those days.

They are great memories and it was a great privilege, but we didn’t think it was as important at the time, as it came to be. We kind of took a lot of it for granted, but of course, anytime an American Bluesman came over to England to do a tour or a concert, I was there right at the beginning of that. In the club scene, John Lee Hooker was the first one who came over and did a club tour in England and the Bluesbreakers and myself were his backing group. That opened the gates for Sonny Boy to come over and he worked with the Yardbirds and I also did a few gigs with him. T-Bone Walker, we backed him for a month all up and down the country. Eddie Boyd…I worked with him and just about everybody who was on the scene I met one way or another; whether I saw them in concert or backstage or whatever, so it was a great grounding.

Even the greenest of blues enthusiasts know about Mayall’s legacy and storied background, but what they may not have known, is that John spent 3 years in the British military, serving with the Royal Engineers during the Korean War.

In the British Army I think you were only allowed to be there (Korea) for a total of, I think, 14 or 15 months because of the extreme winters. It took two months to get there on the boat, and two months to get back so 18 months, about half of my three years service.

If you go back in your music library to 1971, look for Mayall’s ‘Memories’ LP. You’ll get a little personal perspective of John’s time in uniform with the songs, ‘The Fighting Line’ and ‘Back from Korea.’

Another little known fact is that John spent a great deal of time in his youth photographing some of America’s most legendary jazz artists.

As a photographer, I was always backstage at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester anytime any of the jazz packages came through. That’s where I met Art Blakey, Miles Davis, just everybody who came through. Duke Ellington. It’s amazing really, to look back on it now, to think that most of these people are gone now. I feel very privileged that I was around at that time when they were in England or in America and I got to work with them.

Although widely know as the ‘Godfather of British Blues,’ Mayall is quick to credit others; like Chris Barber, Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies for laying the groundwork for the British Blues Movement. But for baby boomers the world over, it took John Mayall and a number of young English lads to, as Willie Dixon once so aptly expressed it, ‘Bring it on home.’

It was John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers that introduced America to some of the most prominent musicians and session players from the latter half of the 20th Century. Names like Eric Clapton, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie. Peter Green, Jack Bruce, Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel, ‘Sugarcane’ Harris, Coco Montoya, Walter Trout, Red Holloway…you get the idea.

When John looks back, especially on those early days, he smiles a little. “They all were pretty young; they were teenagers at the time they were in the Bluesbreakers. It’s a wonderful legacy. I’m obviously very happy with it, the way it’s all turned out. At the time, when all these band selections came to be, you were a working musician you get together and hire people, who’s playing you admire, and want to work with. It’s all kind of casual, really.

Casual went out the window in 2003 when a few of his former band mates came back to Liverpool to play with Mayall on the occasion of his 70th birthday. In John’s own words the resulting concert CD and DVD were “somewhat of a reunion. It was the regular Bluesbreakers of that time, Buddy Whittington on guitar, Hank Van Sickle on bass, Joe Yuele on drums and Tom Canning on organ. And then we added to that, Eric Clapton. He had a guest spot on it. Mick Taylor was the other notable, ex-Bluesbreaker guitar player. So the two of them and Buddy really had something going.

Something going, indeed! You can check out the critically acclaimed John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and Friends, 70th Birthday Concert, on Eagle Records.

John Mayall and the writer in Hollywood, 1988
John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, Hollywood, CA circa: 1988 Photo: Joe Reiling

It has always fascinated me how the blues had to circumnavigate the globe just to make it into my headphones. Leaving the Delta South by any conveyance possible, discovered and appreciated all over the world, only to be reintroduced to America’s youth years later?

John just shakes his head. “That’s entirely to do with the racial situation. There was black America and white America at that time and never the two mixed. At the time when the blues and jazz was in its heyday; the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s it was a segregated thing. A lot of the people weren’t allowed to hear each other. But of course in Europe, all the jazz people from the 20’s on… were booked over in Europe and treated like gods, really. So it was a mind-blowing experience for black American jazz and blues musicians to find that kind of audience.

The fact that we didn’t have that on our own doorsteps, we revered the music and there came a time when the wave from traditional jazz moved to Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies who kicked off the blues movement in England.

Chris Barber is probably one of the most important trad jazz figures who helped to introduce American bluesmen to English audiences. Chris was very important, I think people tend to forget that before Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies, Chris out of his own money used to bring American bluesmen over.

(Note: Upon further research, I found Mr. Barber was also instrumental in bringing Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Louis Jordan, James Cotton, and many other legendary American musicians to the British Isles. Barber too, was an additional ‘friend’ on Mayall’s 70th Birthday concert CD.)

He was the first one to bring Muddy Waters over and it freaked English concert audiences out because Muddy plugged in to an amplifier and it scared people to death! Of course I got to see that and see Otis Spann who is one of my piano idols.

Speaking of plugged in, John Mayall is by far one of the most prolific recording artists working on the planet today. He has an amazing wealth of discography and at last count…“There’s 56 original albums. I don’t even know how many there are where people have repackaged things and compilations, I don’t even count those. I sort of creeps up on you, the latest album we have, we recorded probably a year ago. It’s our tribute to Freddie King; ‘In the Palace of the King’ is the title of that one.

Putting together his new band, John says he hopes to be back in the studio and have a new album ready for release sometime in the fall of ’09. And what about touring? Just how long has Mayall been ‘on the road?’ “You figure out the math, but from 1963…. (he laughs) get out your calculator.

Doesn’t the road take a toll? “No, I love it. You get to see places, and I love to play. I never play instruments at home, and never have, so it’s my only chance to play.

The first time I met John, many years ago, I discovered he had master carpentry skills and actually built his own home. So I had to ask if he was still doing construction. He starts to laugh…“No, no…there comes a time when the place is finished! You can’t keep knocking holes in it, once it’s done, it’s done, you know?” The man is also a graphic artist and designer, just look through his montage of album jackets and CD covers. But does he still use those professional skills? “Only when it’s called for, usually designing album covers. Whatever comes up, really.

Personally, I’m kind of hoping he’ll start working on making 80 the new 60.

Let Tim know what you think about his traveling adventure.

I was there at the Shrine to see Bob come in riding on a baby elephant. He says in the interview it was either '68 or 69: it was both – it was New Year's Eve (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Debbie Hollier, Nevada City, CA

* * * *

Who else played with Canned Heat and Deep Purple at the Shrine in '68?

Bill, LA

I think the Shrine show on New Years in '68, where Bob Hite rode out on the elephant, also featured Poco, Lee Michaels, Black Pearl, Love Army and Sweetwater. Don't know that Deep Purple was booked on that evening.

Bill, maybe you're thinking about the International Pop Fest in San Francisco a few months earlier that featured these fine folks... Procol Harum, Iron Butterfly, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Rivers, Eric Burdon And The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grass Roots, The Chambers Brothers, Deep Purple, Fraternity of Man & Canned Heat or possibly the following year in Jan of 1970 when Deep Purple appeared with Canned Heat and Renaissance on a triple-bill in London at the Royal Albert Hall.

One final note: The current Johnny Otis piece didn't mention it, but it was Mr. Otis that took Canned Heat into the studio the very first time to record in 1966. Small world, ain't it?

Tim

* * * *

Thank u for posting it! Bob is still boogin' around!! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Stefano Di Leonardo, Fisciano (Salerno, Italy)

* * * *

Great Read! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite) I will post it on Bob "THE BEAR" Hite Official Facebook Page,

Dave Tohill, Brandon, UK

* * * *

Hello Tim, thank you so much for letting a huge Canned Heat fan check out this
interview with the Bear. I really enjoyed it.

Best regards,

Rick Caldwell, Fairfield, Ohio

* * * *

I knew Bob Hite in the 60's. Canned Heat played at our high school prom 1966 Rexford High. The Family Dog, Chet Helms, Skip Taylor.

Max Kalik, Los Angeles, CA

Dear Tim,

I just discovered you from an email I received from Preston Smith disclosing his next event. I wanted to tap into his website Prestonsmithmusic but it would not link from your site for some reason. I have to say Preston really is a genius and I met him in Glendale at a jazz club about three years ago, after a fatal accident. By chance, I was invited to spend time hanging out with Preston and some friends after his gig. He is everything you say and I will never forget his amazing creativity and his positive influence in my life.

Janelle, Palm Springs, CA

Love the article! (on Lowell George) Lowell was my father.

Forrest George, Warren, Vermont

This Bob Hite interview is the most interesting thing I have read concerning Canned Heat. I have Fito's book, but I always was interested in learning more about Bob Hite. You did it here my friend...great interview!!!!!

Tony Musto - Pittston, PA

Hey Tim, Great article on Preston! I really enjoyed it and you did your homework. I'll probably catch PS this weekend.

Best,

Dave - Northridge, CA

* * * *

Hello, what a great article on Preston Smith! I actually met Preston one evening after an Acoustic set of my own at the Prestigeous Carlton Hotel here in Atascadero, Ca. We were loading up and he happened to be walking down the sidewalk and stop to say hello. I must say that he is a truly interesting and talented man that NEVER forgets to let me know when he is playing around the Central Coast where I live. It was so fun to read about who he truly is...(as if you don't know him the first time you meet him)! My adventures have only just begun as I recently returned from Nashville recording my self titled debut EP. I can only hope that my adventures down the road are as enlightening as Preston's and that I have the honor of a great writer such as yourself to share them with the world. Thank you for doing just that, sharing "Preston Smith" with the world.

Sincerely,

Amy Estrada - Atascadero, CA

Hi Tim,

My name is Bert, I'm from Italy and I'm a blues harmonica player...I read your article and it reminded me of the two trips I made in the Delta, in 2008 and 2009. I love Frank's music and I think it's a shame people don't really know his work. It's important that people like you write about him. Thank you! In the Delta I was only a "stupid" tourist, but it was a great, unique experience I consider one of the most important in my life: driving on the highways, Listening to the blues everywhere, jamming in places like Red's and ground Zero in Clarksdale or the Blues Bar in Greenville... are priceless things, something I will keep in my heart for the rest of my life. I met a beautiful, lovely woman there too (named Hope), but I behaved like a stupid kid and I lost her... Alas! I will never forget that days and the chance I had to find happiness...Well, I also wrote something about Frank on a website, but it's in Italian... I give you the link of the first part (the second will be published in the next weeks) anyway if you know some Italian or somebody who can understand it... Even if I'm thinking of making a translation ...www.bluessummit.com

Cheers,

Bert - Pavia, Italy

I wanna be Tim!

Brent, Seattle, WA

* * *

Those pictures give you an idea of what the Rockin' Pneumonia actually looks like and it looks BAD! But the man can still play! Enjoyed the article - give us more TRAVELING BLUES BOY!

Steve Thomas - NA, INDIANA

* * *

Good Stuff, Tim. Having been a Johnny Winter fan since the first time I heard Rock n Roll Hoochie Koo, it was great hearing his take on some his highlight moments that defined his blues career. His affiliation with Muddy Waters was particularly interesting. Kudos for bringing that out. Thanks to your dedication to covering the blues scene, this "one of a kind" music still lives for servicemen & women around the world. Keep it Up!

Brandon Williams, Moreno Valley, CA

* * *

Impressive! What a legend and how cool that you got so much time with him, Tim.

Don, Louisville, KY

Tim - Great article, enjoyed Little Feat/Lowell George story, really brought me back in time. Did not know he was a fishin' man! Wonder what surfaces out of the abyss of your memory next?

Steve Thomas, New Albany, IN

* * * *

Tim,

I really liked your travel back in time with Lowell and Little Feat. As a long time Feat fan (mostly the stuff with Lowell) it was cool to read. I learned several of their songs back in the day and they still stand up today when played live. Another singer I really liked from back then is TimBuckley. Thanks for the article.

Chet Hogoboom, Arroyo Grande, CA

Loved your last issue of TB, especially the Mayall piece. I want that guy's job!

Brent, Seattle, WA

Tim,

This is a great write up. Has it been printed in any magazines? It's better than a lot of things I read in my guitar magazines, so props for that.

Caejar, Moreno Valley, CA

Tim,

I can tell that you have this passion for jazz. I wonder if you yourself play any instrument. Or are you just a groupie like most of us?

I talked with a mid-aged flute jazz artist a few weeks ago and he lamented that despite his talents (and he is extremely talented) he says that the industry hasn't been kind to him. He said jobs are few and far between. He said the music industry is combating piracy and competition due to technology being readily available to private homes and that they are not as profitable as before. So they are replacing live talent for synthesized or digital instruments.

Do you see the same trend in your relationships with your music network?

Bob, Pasadena, CA



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