“Godfather of British Blues” Still Makes Music You Can’t Refuse

PCC’s Vintage Interview

By Paul Freeman

He rose to prominence more than half a century ago. But John Mayall continues to make vibrant new music. As leader of The Bluesbreakers, Mayall helped launch the careers of such giants as Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, John McVie, Harvey Mandel, Coco Montoya, Jon Mark, John Almond and Aynsley Dunbar. But Mayall is an icon in his own right.

The legendary Mayall doesn’t need a big band of Bluebreakers to make his presence felt. His latest release, “Three for the Road,” is a trio album. Joined by his roadmates bassist Greg Rabz and drummer Jay Davenport, Mayall, now 84, turns up plenty of heat with his raw-edged vocals and soulful piano, organ and harp playing. Mayall still displays ample energy and fire.

The “Three For The Road” set, a live 2017 recording, is a real crowd pleaser. Among the grabbers here are Curtis Salgado’s “The Sum of Everything,” Lionel Hampton’s “Ridin’ on the L&N,” Sonny Landreth’s rollicking “Congo Square” and Mayall’s own “Streamline.” Seemingly, for this master of the blues, the road goes on forever.

His ongoing creativity amazes everyone but Mayall. “Playing as much as we do, new ideas come naturally,” says the bluesman. “In the ‘60s, I used to make three albums a year and there was no shortage of ideas back then. So now, when it tends to be every few years that we get a chance to do an album, there’s more than enough inspiration saved up.”

Growing up in Manchester, England, Mayall was fascinated by the blues 78s his musician father had collected. Soon the young Mayall was buying records of his own.

“I don’t know why the blues appealed to me,” he says. ”I have no idea. I think if you asked a painter what drew him to a paintbrush, he wouldn’t be able to tell you. People are drawn to whatever they’re cut out to be… and then they pursue it.”

Mayall turns to another blues great, Willie Dixon, to sum up the music’s allure. “He said, ‘It’s the honesty.’ It’s a way of conveying emotion that’s pretty much common to all people, no matter where they come from. Listeners recognize that and identify with it. They say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s happened to me.’ The blues has words, as well as music, so it’s hitting you with both barrels.”

Mayall began hitting the charts not long after forming The Bluesbreakers in London in 1963. In the band’s early days, such luminaries as Freddie King, Sonny Boy Williamson and Jimi Hendrix sat in with the group.

“No matter where or when you start, you remember that time,” Mayall says. “It’s so challenging, scuffling around, trying to get gigs, trying to get your music together.”

Over the years, dozens of top-notch musicians became part of The Bluesbreakers. But Mayall, who became known as “The Godfather of the British Blues,” doesn’t think there was a revolving door policy. “People always seem to dwell on the changes in personnel,” he says. “That’s missing the point. It was a very stable band for a long, long time. Lots of other bands had far more changes.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is Mayall’s deep love and respect for the roots of the blues. His song “All Those Heroes,” from the 1997 “Blues for the Lost Days” album, pays tribute to the founding fathers, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Muddy Waters. He laments the fact that many modern blues artists don’t travel very far back when seeking influences.

“It seems that way, when you listen to the majority of blues records that are released today. There’s a certain sameness that seems to suggest that. Of course, doing a song like “All Those Heroes,” my intention was to draw attention to that generation that came before B.B. (King). People like B.B. and Albert King had to get their inspiration somewhere, too. We all pass the torch along as we go.”

As he continues to record and tour, Mayall proves the timelessness of his music’s appeal. He believes the blues to be an eternal force.

“It’s passed the test of time already. It’s seen other music come and go. And it’s integrated itself into pretty much all modern music as decades have gone by. It’s never going to lose its popularity, because it’s so real.”

Mayall, who was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2016, never stops honing his blues abilities. “When you’re playing the same notes constantly, grinding it out, as might be the case with a nostalgic rock revival, you get bored with it. But with the blues, you’re not just playing the same stuff all the time. Every time you get on stage, you’re improvising. Every night, you’re creating something fresh.”

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