John Mayall - Biography
By J Poet
John Mayall was one of the prime movers in the British blues explosion of the late 60s. He never became a superstar in his own right, but as a mentor and champion of the blues in Britain his influence can’t be overstated. The musicians that gained notoriety in his bands include Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Andy Fraser, Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel, Aynsley Dunbar, Johnny Almond, and Coco Montoya to name just a few. He only had one hit single “I’m Your Witchdoctor” in 1965, and only earned one gold record [The Turning Point (1969 London, 2001 BGO)] in his lengthy career, but his large body of work – over 50 official albums and countless reissues - speaks for itself. In 2005, Mayall was given the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to British music. It’s the only major award he’s ever received.
Mayall was born in Macclesfield, a small town near Manchester, in 1933. His father was an amateur guitar player with a massive collection of jazz and blues albums, which impressed the young Mayall and sent him on his musical journey. The family was poor and he taught himself to play on a neighbor’s piano and various borrowed guitars and harmonicas. He began playing local gigs as a teenager, then joined the Army for three years returning to enroll in the Manchester College of Art. Between 1956 and 1962, Mayall was working days as a graphic design and performing nights with various bands including The Powerhouse Four and The Blues Syndicate. He met, and played briefly with, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Kroner suggested Mayall quit his day job, move to London and try to make it as a musician. Kroner introduced Mayall to London’s blues scene and helped him find musicians for his first edition of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. They landed a gig backing up John Lee Hooker on his 1964 British tour. That led to a contract with Decca, but their band’s first singles went nowhere.
In 1965 Eric Clapton quit the Yardbirds to play with Mayall and together they cut Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (1965 Decca UK, 2008 Decca), still considered the best British blues album ever recorded; it made Mayall and Clapton stars. Clapton left later that year to start Cream, and Mayall scrambled to find musicians for his follow up. A Hard Road (1967 Decca UK) featured Peter Green, on his way to starting Fleetwood Mac and Crusade (1967 Decca UK, 2008 Uni) had Mick Taylor, soon to be a Rolling Stone, on lead guitar. Mayall cut all the instrumental tracks for The Blues Alone (1967 Decca UK, 2008 Uni), except for drums my Bluesbreaker Keef Hartley. Taylor lasted through Bare Wires (1968 Decca UK, 2008 Uni), which included the jazz title track, which clocked in at 22 minutes and Blues from Laurel Canyon (1967 Decca UK, 2008 Uni) another early masterpiece.
Mayall dropped the Bluesbreakers moniker in 1967, perhaps due to the rapid shifts in personnel the band went through, and started making records under his own name. In 1969 his band, now featuring acoustic guitarist Jon Mark and flautist/saxophonist John Almond (soon to form Mark-Almond), cut The Turning Point (1969 London, 2001 BGO). It was recorded live at the Fillmore east In New York and was Mayall’s first acoustic album. It marked his commercial peak going gold in the US and placing high on the British pop charts. Mayall kept his acoustic group together for a few more jazz flavored blues albums Empty Rooms (1970 Polydor) and USA Union (1970 Polydor). In 1970, he put together a super group including Clapton, Taylor, and Harvey Mandel for Back to the Roots (1971 Polydor, 2001 Uni) a double LP set that summed up his career so far. Later that year he moved to Los Angeles.
During the 70s Mayall continued his jazz/blues/rock fusion with a series of albums that included Moving On (1973 Polydor), Latest Edition (1974 Polydor) New Year, New Band, New Company (1975 Blue Thumb) A Banquet in Blues (1976 ABC), Lots of People (1977 ABC), Last of the British Blues (1978 ABC) and The Bottom Line (1979 DJM UK). By 1979, the blues were out of favor and Mayall was struggling to keep his career on track. A brush fire leveled his Laurel Canyon home destroying his scrupulously diaries, his father’s diaries, master recordings, library, artwork, and everything else.
In the ‘80s and early ‘90s Mayall stayed busy on the road, but only recorded sporadically. Behind the Iron Curtain (1985 GNP Crescendo, 2006 GNP Crescendo) was caught live at a 1985 gig in Hungary, Chicago Line (1988 Island) a solid collection of bedrock electric blues, and A Sense of Place (1990 Island). As the ‘90s progressed, Mayall returned to the sound of the Chicago blues that inspired him and made the Grammy nominated Wake Up Call (1993 Silvertone) with Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, Albert Collins and Mick Taylor, Cross Country Blues (1994 One Way), Spinning Coin (1995 Silvertone) Blues for the Lost Days (1997 Jive) and Padlock on the Blues (1999 Purple Pyramid).
Mayall greeted the new millenium with another superstar reunion that included ols pals Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Mick Fleetwood, and John McVie, with guests like Billy Gibbons, Billy Preston, Steve Cropper, and Otis Rush. The result, Along for the Ride (2001 Red Ink) showed Mayall amazing sprightly for a 68 year old. Stories (2002 Red Ink) entered the Billboard Blues chart at #1 and includes smoking performances from mayall on harp and Buddy Whittington on guitar; Mayall followed it with an extensive world tour. In 2003 Mayall was 70 and celebrated with the DVD/CD set (2003 Eagle Rock) which included guest shots from Taylor, and Clapton with a full horn section. Road Dogs (2005) was Mayall’s 55th album, with his bedrock sound still intact. In the Palace of the King (2007 Eagle Rock) pays tribute to one of Mayall’s inspirations, guitarist Freddie King, with a program of tunes associated with the legendary Texas guitarist, while Live from Austin, Texas (2007 New West) proves Mayall is still rockin’ hard at 74, and in 2009 he released an new Lp called Tough.