John Mayall, considered the “Godfather of the British Blues,” is a British blues singer/guitarist /keyboard player/blues harmonicist/songwriter/producer and frontman who has been wailing the blues for over 50 years. Mayall introduced the blues to Great Britain and was responsible for the re-introduction of the blues to American audiences. He is presently on a whirlwind tour in America and will be following this with a European tour.
Growing up in Manchester, England, Mayall first listened to American blues artists Lonnie Johnson, Brownie McGhee, Josh White and Leadbelly. He then became hooked on boogie-woogie giants Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis. He taught himself piano, guitar, and harmonica, bought an electric guitar, and while still in college, started playing with semi-pro bands in Manchester. After graduation, Mayall took a job as an art designer, and later designed his logo and many of his album covers. In 1963, he moved to London to play music.
As a musician, Mayall backed blues greats John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, and Sonny Boy Williamson on their first English club tours. In 1963, he created the Bluesbreakers, introducing future stars Eric Clapton, Peter Green, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Andy Fraser and Mick Taylor, among many others. In 1967 he released The Blues Alone, on which he played all instruments except percussion.
Mayall moved to the states in 1968 and a year later released The Turning Point, an acoustic blues album including his huge hit single, “Room to Move.” He has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Blues Matters; was the subject of a BBC documentary The Godfather of British Blues; awarded an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by The Queen’s “Honours” list; has been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, earned two Independent Blues Awards and was named Best Male Blues Artist at the Blues Blast Music Awards.
I caught up with him during his three-night sold-out gig at The Iridium in NYC where he and his band (Carolyn Wonderland on guitar, Jay Davenport on drums and Greg Rzab on bass) received constant standing ovations.
Your father played guitar. Did he play professionally or for fun?
Just a hobby.
You grew up listening to your father’s jazz records and taught yourself to play piano, guitar, and harmonica when you were 13. Did you start by playing jazz?
No. I only ever played blues, the only thing I know. I’m self-taught.
Did you eventually learn to read music?
No. I don’t know anything about that. It’s all by ear.
Where did you first hear the blues?
I started listening to boogie woogie pianists when I was about 10. My father was an amateur guitar player and had a lot of jazz records, but among them were a few records that were more blues-orientated.
What resonated with you about the blues?
You just feel a connection with something that you can relate to.
How did you happen to form your first band?
Well, Alexis Calder and Cyril Davis kicked off the British blues movement and everybody from different parts of the country started putting bands together, so I just joined in.
You make it sound so easy.
It was easy because trad jazz had been ruling the roost for at least ten years and the new generation were looking for something else. A new thing was born.
When you formed your first band, were you looking musicians who had a certain sound? A certain feeling?
We were looking for somebody who could play.
Clapton, who had originally played with you as lead guitarist and went to join the Yardbirds came back in 1965 and the next year you released your first studio album, Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. What was it like playing with him?
He was the first person that I could relate to who had some experience with what the blues was all about. He was kind of unique in that respect so we got on really very well and my band supplied him with blues material that he had hitherto not had that much access to on the road.
That album reached number six in the UK followed by scores of albums in the ’70s. You’ve now released 71 albums. Do you have a favorite?
No. They’re all reflections of what I feel and what I’m doing at any particular time. I have to start with the songwriting that applies to the stories of what’s going on in my life; and then, other songs by other people I can relate to because of the subject matter.
Do you play or feel differently whether you’re playing a live gig or when you’re in a studio?
No. A studio is a bit more challenging because every note that you touch is being recorded which is a thing that you don’t think about when you’re playing live.
When you’re playing live, do you ever have an off night?
I’ve no idea. It usually depends on the sound in the room or the equipment that we’re supplied with… every gig is different.
It’s a known fact that when you’re in the studio, you do very few takes, whereas a lot of musicians do dozens and dozens. How are you able to nail a song so quickly?
If you’re playing with the right people, you instinctively know what feels good so usually a first or second take is all you need.
It’s been said that you’re a very difficult taskmaster when it comes to leading the band. Is this because you’re a perfectionist or is it because you’re looking for a specific feel?
Well, I’ve seen that written about before, but I would say that I’m the easiest person to get along with so I don’t know where that actually came from; but it does get repeated from time to time. I give everybody their freedom, it’s probably a lot more easy-going than most bands. You’re there to create the music together.
When you’re playing live, do you play the same songs every night? Will you play the same songs on this tour?
It’s a different set list every night. We usually play up to 12 songs a night and that’s drawn from our repertoire of about 35 or something like that.
Do you prefer playing keyboards? You’re also proficient on the harp and the guitar.
Keyboards are the main instrument. Piano and organ.
You’re doing this really hectic tour right now, Is it exhausting?
It’s everything but exhausting. It’s what we love to do. It’s not like other bands who have to play the same things and have a big crew. We’re just four right now plus somebody to drive us so it’s very easy going.
Obviously it’s a very different energy every night in every city. Do you create that energy from what you play or is there an inherent energy in the culture of the audience, depending on what city or country they’re from?
It’s our job to excite the audience and that’s what we aim to do. Luckily, we’ve been successful in doing that.
How have you been able to draw so much talent into music since the beginning?
Well, I like what I hear. I can recognize people who I can relate to musically.
Who’s your favorite guitarist?
I don’t have favorite instrumentalists. It doesn’t really make any difference to me as long as they’re creating and we can all work together, that’s what counts.
Carolyn Wonderland is your first female lead guitarist. Is that different than a male lead guitarist?
Not really, no. I hire people whose music not only appeals to me, but somebody who will fit in. And Carolyn does that very well.
Do you plan to do another album?
Sure. Whenever the record company wants one. We’ll probably record one later this year.
What do you think is the future of the blues?
If you’d ask me in 10 years, it would still be the same answer. There’s always new talent coming forward.
You’re 85 now, correct?
I never think about it so just as long as we’re in good health and can get an energetic show, that’s all that counts.
Musically do you find that you’ve gotten even better with age?
No, not really. It’s the same. You’re there to create music and communicate to the audience and that’s what we do.