A few veteran blues musicians could still introduce a number by saying: “This is a song I wrote about bad experiences in the army …” and they’d probably be referring to Vietnam. But not many – if any – could say: “when they sent me to Korea”.

However, John Mayall was conscripted to serve in the British army in Korea between 1950 and 1953. He recently cued his song One Life to Live with a reference to Korea – “The age thing doesn’t come into this. I’m working as hard as I usually do and playing as many gigs as I usually do, not just because it’s my 83.”  Mayall still sings the song with a poignant anger and severity at odds with his normal performing exuberance.

But that is the essence of John Mayall, as it was the way of the blues master who influenced him more than any other – JB Lenoir: “You sing about your life, and your time”, Mayall says. “A lot of the critics thought that song was rather trite, but I thought: ‘I’ve got to have a song about this,’ and what I write about in this song never changes. That’s the whole point.

“It’s part of what the blues does, to write about these things. JB Lenoir was the main one in this regard – he wrote about Korea, too, in fact. Songs that reflect these current situations – in his case, racial issues for the most part: in my case, what has happened to me, and I was in Korea.”

Shot in 1968 on Rick Shaw’s “Saturday Hop”, Miami, FL. John was 34 years old and had a young looking Bluesbreaker band that didn’t look too enthusiastic being on TV. Check out Mick Taylor on the guitar. Sooo young and talented.

But, of course, we do just that because no Brit can be rightly called an institution in the history of the blues like John Mayall. Mayall made these people, and many more, and took his place among the veterans in America. Like the blues, he never went, and has not gone away.

cyril-davies-alex-korner Cyril Davies & Alex Korner

There is this mystery. Why was it, back in the early 1960s, that great black blues musicians – playing acoustic in the Delta and electric in Chicago – could barely get a gig outside the ghetto in their own country, but set aflame the imagination of young white musicians in England? The answer had something to do with the fact that Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies, and John Mayall had come upon the blues several years before, and started the white blues revival.

Mayall was born in Macclesfield and grew up in Manchester – his father was a lover of jazz and a good jazz guitarist. Young Mayall learned early: piano, guitar, and mouth harp. He went to junior art college and in 1956 founded the Powerhouse Four, an R&B dance band. As an interesting aside, wanting his own space Mayall moved into the backyard treehouse at his family home age 15. The Manchester Evening News wrote a story about the treehouse home and after the Korean War, he and his first wife lived there, also.

He got work window dressing for a department store and in a studio attached to an advertising agency before the army called. When he returned, aged 29, he formed the Blues Syndicate in Manchester before being persuaded by Alexis Korner to come to London. There, in 1963, Mayall formed the Bluesbreakers and set out along the road on which he remains.

“The blues fitted in with the early 60s, the social way of life at the time,” Mayall says. “Things were changing anyway – in fashion, art, political views. We in Britain had spent the 1950s listening to trad jazz – Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies were part of the jazz scene, and this interest in the blues emerged from that jazz scene. It happened here, rather than in America, because at the time, the scene in America was racially segregated – over there, never the twain would meet. In Europe, however – not just England – the black blues began to be heard by an audience that was not listening to them in America. We discovered Elmore James, Freddie King, JB Lenoir, and they spoke to our feelings, our life stories and that was it. Hooked.”

The first time I ever heard this, I had to play it three times. It just blew me away and still does today. No oubt Freddie King enjoyed the royalties!

The first Bluesbreakers album, “John Mayall plays John Mayall”, was released in 1965, then, in April 1966, Mayall released a second album to introduce a guitarist, a troubled young man who played like a hurricane, Eric Clapton. After hearing his work with the Yardbirds, Mayall heavily recruited him for the Bluesbreakers.By this point in his career, Clapton wanted to play the blues. Clapton has since recalled how he came to the blues, staying in a tiny room with Mayall and family, immersed in Mayall’s record collection: “We would listen to lots of blues and pick songs that were right for the stage. He was keen to draw me out and find out what I thought. It was most unusual.”  The first single recorded with Clapton, “I’m Your Witchdoctor” (Oct. 1965) on the new Immediate label was produced by a future Yardbird, Jimmy Page.

Mayall remembers: “We listened to those records in the early days at my house when we were woodshedding in the Bluesbreakers. He’d say: ‘Listen to this Otis Rush one’ – they would be obscure things to most people, but I had those records and Eric and I used to listen to them.”

jm-and-keefThe Bluesbreakers with Keef Hartley  

jm-clapton This album was also known as “The Beano Album”, due to the comic book Clapton is reading on its cover. It is the only album he recorded with the band.

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The Bluesbreakers with Aynsley Dunbar

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The Bluesbreakers with Mick Taylor

Mayall was very upset upon hearing Clapton was leaving the band. He agreed to stay on until a replacement could be found. After missing numerous shows, however, Eric was fired. Clapton  then formed Cream with Jack Bruce (also briefly a Bluesbreaker) and Ginger Baker.

Mayall found and recruited the other top-flight British blues guitarist Peter Green. Being more of a blues fan (and with some persuasion), Green accepted the offer to join the Bluesbreakers full time in July 1966. In late 1965 with Clapton on vacation, Green filled in for a couple of months with the band.And those two were just the starriest of a list of Bluesbreakers that would also include Mick Taylor, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Keef Hartley and Aynsley Dunbar – anyone who was anyone in British blues was part of Mayall’s orbit.

In June 1966, Taylor went to see Mayall perform (Clapton was a no-show). His friends encouraged him to ask Mayall if he could sit in; Mayall let him and Taylor played well. After the show, he disappeared before Mayall could get his name and phone number. Remembering how well he played, Mayall put an ad in ‘Melody Maker’ to find him. Taylor answered and soon joined the Bluesbreakers.

Drummer Aynsley Dunbar joined the Bluesbreakers in Sep. 1966. In April 1967 he was let go for playing too complexly and dominating the band’s sound. Mayall wanted a drummer who played in a simpler manner. Fleetwood was embarrassed about the replacement, thinking Dunbar was a far better drummer (which he was!)

Cream in 1968. In spite of personalities that did not mesh, and a lunatic on the drum kit, the band’s musicality, and talent changed music forever.

“If you go into blues history,” he reflects, “you find bands formed around the bandleaders, trying to realize the sound they wanted. They put the band together to enact what they had in mind. The main man chose the musicians to create a specific sound – I had certain ideas and I needed to go out and find the right people to realize them. I was a bandleader in that traditional role, as well as a front man. I used my ears to pick out what I thought would work and I suppose that in the long term the careers of the people involved show that I managed to pick out some pretty special people.”

In the mid-60s, the term to “break a record” meant to get it out there, to put it in front of a wide public. So the name of Mayall’s band was didactic: he wanted his music to abound, he wanted his little-known inspirations and their renderings of the blues to “break”. He even called his fourth album Crusade, in that vein. “That’s the whole purpose,” he says. “To use my position to draw attention to people who are lesser known than they should be.”

With the Bluesbreakers going towards a “jazzy” sound Peter Green gave notice he was leaving the band in June 1967. He wanted to form a new band with Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. Green and Fleetwood named the band Fleetwood Mac (McVie) as a way to get McVie to join them. McVie stayed with the Bluesbreakers until Sep. 1967 before joining Fleetwood Mac.

In Jan. 1968, the Bluesbreakers toured the U.S. for the first time. They broke attendance records at Café Au-Go-Go in New York, played in Detroit, Los Angeles, and finally San Francisco. During these dates the band first jammed with Jimi Hendrix, Freddie King, and Albert King.

During the late 1960s, following his move to California, Mayall produced three albums that constitute the core of his early career: Blues from Laurel Canyon, Bare Wires and Looking Back. They contain tributes in the style of his heroes – such as “Mr. James”, for Elmore James – but here Mayall forged his own inimitable and quintessential sound, within the tradition, but bound to no one, writing much of his own material.

On June 21 1968, the Bluesbreakers released “Bare Wires” which went to number three in the U.K. and number 59 in the U.S. This album was more jazz than blues featuring a horn section. Mayall was discouraged he had all these talented musicians, but, could only have so many solos. Soon he was back with a stripped down band and would continue to change lineups and musical styles until reforming the Bluesbreakers in 1982.

In 1969, the Rolling Stones were getting ready to tour North America. Because of visa and other problems for Brian Jones, Mick Jagger came to Mayall and asked his advice for a new guitarist for the Stones. Mick Taylor was invited by Jagger to a recording session, thinking they wanted session work done. He then realized he was being auditioned as their new guitarist. Jagger and Keith Richards were impressed and told him to come back the next day. He continued recording and rehearsing with the Stones for the rest of the summer. The song “Country Honk” from “Let It Bleed” 1969 was drastically altered when Taylor experimented with it. The new version of the song became “Honky Tonk Women”, Billboard number one July 26, 1969. They fired Jones in June 1969.

“Those albums were a natural development,” Mayall says. “I’ve never thought the blues was a matter of copying other people. The blues singer should sing songs about his own life. And once the ball got rolling, I felt confident enough to do that as well as cover other people’s songs, and the tributes. You’ve got to think about representing your own life in the music, and for me, that meant bringing in an element of jazz; I was brought up on jazz, it was my father’s work, it was in the house.”

This short biographical video gives a peek into the classic “Room to Move” from Mayall’s classic album Turning Point.

It showed up on one of Mayall’s greatest albums. Everyone who remembers the blues scene of the late 60s recalls the disbelief when Mayall ditched drums and lead guitar to release The Turning Point in 1969, led by mellifluous sax and finger-picking guitar. “The promoters didn’t think it would work,” he says. “They thought it would flop. But I was inspired by Jazz on a Summer’s Day by Jimmy Giuffre. He showed that you didn’t need drums to drive a rhythm, create that warm sound, play a jazz-blues fusion.”

Through the 70s, Mayall worked mainly with local musicians, making fusion music, before forming a new Bluesbreakers in 1984, keeping the name going until 2008, until it was once more dropped. “I thought it was a bit churlish to use the name of the Bluesbreakers – it seemed wrong in the light of the originals,” he says. “After a while, it started to stand still for me. You must reflect the times in your music – and if you are working as much as I do, and every year you are playing these tunes … You have to move on, do something different.”

And so Mayall arrived at his latest incarnation: John Mayall and his band. “I went back to being just John Mayall again, as it had been for most of the time. And I wanted to sing about life – and my life. Put all the ideas in the same basket.”

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John Mayall is known as “The Godfather of British Blues” – a moniker he doesn;t particularly care for….

Mayall is one of those musicians who prefers playing music to talking about it. But he does entertain that question to which there is no answer. What is it about the blues that takes you, claims you and never lets you go? “It’s about – and it’s always been about – that raw honesty with which the blues express our experiences in life, something which all comes together in this music, in the words as well. Something that is connected to us, common to our experiences. To be honest, though, I don’t think anyone really knows exactly what it is. I just can’t stop playing it.”

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