Though he doesn’t actively encourage the label, John Mayall has for many years been known as “the godfather of the British blues boom.” He’s revered in blues and rock circles both for his impressive body of work and for his prescient ability to surround himself with some of the best musicians.
Now approaching his 83rd birthday, Mayall is as vital a performer as ever; he and his current band will play Jergel’s Rhythm Grille on Wed., Sept. 21.
Mayall is quick to credit the true originators of the British blues scene: Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies, the two men who started England’s love affair with American blues in the early 1960s. For his part, Mayall was a bit of a late bloomer. For him, “music was always a hobby, from the age of about 10 or 12 years old,” and he didn’t approach it seriously until he was 30. “Alexis and Cyril pioneered the whole movement,” he says, “and musicians came from all around the country to put their versions in, too.”
John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers released their first album — Mayall Plays Mayall — in 1965. His bass player at that time was John McVie, who would stay on for several years while guitarists and drummers came and went. The most famous guitarist who was once a Bluesbreaker is Eric Clapton. He’s featured on the group’s second LP, 1966’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton. But even he didn’t stay around long. In fact, he had joined, quit and joined again before that second album was even recorded.
Mayall recalls how Peter Green “came to audition for the job of lead guitar player when Eric Clapton left on his ‘Greek expedition.’” Clapton had put together a touring group of his own called the Glands, but that effort fell apart in a matter of weeks. “I had promised Eric the job if things fell through,” Mayall recalls, and so when Clapton returned, Green was out.
Not long after, Clapton left again — this time for good, going on to form Cream with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce — and Peter Green returned. While the lineup continued to shift, there was a three-month period when the group featured Mayall on keyboards, Green on guitar, bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood. Those last three would eventually leave, one at a time, and put together a new group, originally called Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.
Mayall has recently released two CDs’ worth of recently discovered live tapes of that iteration of the band.
Live in 1967 Volumes One and Two capture the group onstage in a variety of London clubs, among them the Marquee Club (one of The Who’s favorite haunts), Manor House and Klook’s Kleek. The Bluesbreakers of that period were a tight band, road-tested by constant playing. “We were working steadily like always in those days,” Mayall says. “We did at least 300 shows a year.” The CDs — recorded by a fan using the best mobile equipment available at the time — may sound a bit rough but the energy is undeniable.
The short-lived lineup’s repertoire featured classics like “Stormy Monday” and Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” and original compositions written by Mayall or Green. Some of those tunes remain on Mayall’s set list to this day.
The constant shifting of personnel might have discouraged some bandleaders, but not Mayall. “Nobody left en masse,” he explains. “It was just the way things were. Things [were] just rotating … business as usual, really.” And there were no hard feelings; he wished Fleetwood Mac the best. “I was just very happy that they had got it together,” he says. He notes that, in particular, guitarist Peter Green “was always a joy to listen to.”
While Mayall retired the Bluesbreakers name several years ago, he hasn’t retired from playing, and his current band — newly pared down to a trio featuring longtime musical associates Greg Rzab (bass) and drummer Jay Davenport — performs with all the fire, energy and passion blues fans have come to expect from Mayall. He’s as proud of his current band as any that he’s led in the more than 50 years he’s been at it.
“I never found it difficult to find excellent musicians,” he says.