‘Godfather of British Blues’ John Mayall embarks on new musical explorations with every live gig

By Bliss Bowen

Mayall, a mentor to Eric Clapton and Mick Fleetwood, is still jamming hard
Photo by Jeff Fasano

It’s strange that we’re living in times of such political chaos and historic consequence, yet so few artists are addressing current events in their songs. Blues and folk in particular have historically lent themselves to that kind of musical commentary.

“I’ve always believed in writing about real things going on around us,” says Blues Hall of Famer John Mayall, who has often tucked timely songs into his albums, from “The Laws Must Change” on 1969’s “The Turning Point” to “The Devil Must Be Laughing” on this year’s “Talk About That.”

“When I put compositions together for an album, I like to make sure that any ideas I’ve got I can at least put them into music and put them out there. Not necessarily to convert people, but just to put my opinions forward. I get a lot of feedback from people who appreciate that aspect. I think it’s a good thing to do. And the blues is a fine vehicle for doing that, because it always has traditionally expressed what’s going on around from a personal point of view.”

Songwriting, topical or otherwise, is not what the keyboardist, harmonica player and sometime guitarist is best known for, but the fact that he continues to express his thoughts about the world contributes to his ongoing popularity. At age 83, he still records and tours regularly, averaging 100 shows a year; he’ll be backed by longtime drummer Jay Davenport and bassist Greg Rzab at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Friday night.

“We’re having a great time with the trio format,” he says. “There’s a lot of freedom and excitement involved in it.”

Commonly referred to as the “godfather of British blues,” Mayall was at ground zero of the early-1960s British blues explosion in London. His second album put him on the map: 1966’s “Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton,” a foundational brick in the blues-rock canon. It also helped fix Mayall’s enduring reputation as a mentor of future rock stars. Aside from Clapton, who migrated from the Bluesbreakers to Cream, a short list of players who got schooled in Mayall’s legendary band includes Mick Fleetwood, visionary guitarist Peter Green and John McVie (all pre-Fleetwood Mac), Free bassist Andy Fraser, violinist Don “Sugarcane” Harris, Coco Montoya, Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor, later Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, and Walter Trout.

When asked what qualities were essential for a musician to be recruited into his band, Mayall is polite but unsentimental.

“Nothing specific,” he says. “Somebody that’s got his own style and something that turns me on. It’s a bandleader’s privilege that if he hears somebody he likes, he’s in a position to hire them so he can have the pleasure of working with them.”

Mayall recalls having no specific mentors himself: “When the British blues movement started with Alex Korner in the ’60s, everybody that had an interest in the music gravitated to London and started to find their own way.”

He was already 30 when he started performing professionally during that momentous era characterized by rock ‘n’ roll excess, which may account for the mature focus he trained on working-class virtues like steady income while also churning through ever-shifting lineups of musicians as he developed his sound.

Mayall brought heat and conviction to performance, along with deep knowledge of blues and jazz. He was and remains disciplined and productive — prodigiously so; he’s released dozens of albums. That discipline sometimes placed him at odds with musicians as well as producers such as late, great New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. Asked about their experience recording 1976’s “Notice to Appear,” Mayall describes a fundamental clash of work styles.

“I’m used to going in a studio and recording, getting down to it right away. But it was very difficult because he was the producer, but he wasn’t there half the time and we were just hanging around waiting for him to get inspired or something. And then when it all came out there was very little of my input into it at all. So it was a very difficult experience.”

A Los Angeles resident since 1969, Mayall has soldiered on, continually working, not unlike the blues trailblazers (John Lee Hooker, Albert King, Sonny Boy Williamson) he accompanied in his early days. In 2005, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire— an anomaly on a Macclesfield-born blues musician’s resume.

“That was a bit of a surprise, but it was quite exciting to go beyond the palace gates and meet Prince Charles and all that,” he says. “So it was an honor. [Chuckles.] Big step, isn’t it?”

Some might consider that their career peak. But Mayall finds his greatest achievement as an artist onstage.

“What sets me apart from most blokes who go on the road, most of them play the same songs every night,” he says. “But for me it’s a different show every night, a different set list. It’s constantly improvising and exploring the music. So it’s very free in that respect. It’s something I’ve always believed in: We get up on the stage and we’re meant to create something that’s original and exciting.

“I think it’s important to constantly explore the music. There’s so much always to do, to express yourself. That’s the important thing.”

 

John Mayall performs at The Broad Stage (1310 11th St, Santa Monica) at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25. Tickets are $65 to $115. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com.

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