John led a band at art school called the Powerhouse Four, but never really entertained the idea of a life in music, looking instead set for a career as a commercial artist. The only inclination towards the eccentricities of the creative spirit was living in a tree house during the late 1950's, which he even carpeted and wallpapered.
He changes the name of his group in 1961 from the Powerhouse Four to the semi-pro Blues Syndicate, playing Manchester venues like the Twisted Wheel. It was there, in 1962, on the advice of Alexis Korner, John then approaching 30, was persuaded to move to London where money could be made playing the blues. Arriving in January 1963 and renaming his band the Bluesbreakers, it took John months to find a stable line-up.
He went through nearly a dozen musicians (including the folk guitarist Davy Graham before finally settling on John McVie (bass), Bernie Watson (guitar) and Martin hart (drums). John signed a short-term contract with the Decca Record labeland in February 1964 he records 'Crawling Up a Hill' and 'Mr James'.
This version of the Bluesbreakers lasted from July 1963 to April 1964, when Roger Dean and Hughie Flint replaced Watson and Hart respectively. It was this line-up that recorded his first album live from the Klook's Kleek Club in West Hampstead, the mainly self-penned John Mayall Plays John Mayall released in 1965. As the club was conveniently situated right next door to the Decca studio, the engineers simply strung the cable across the roof to record the band.
But as he had already demonstrated, John was relentless in his search for the right musicians and for a band trying to emulate the best of Chicago blues, Roger Dean was not right. Sitting down with his Gretsch guitar, he was too much like a country & western player. John heard a guitar player on record who he very much wanted in his band, and, come April 1965, it was goodbye Roger, hello Eric Clapton, the former lead guitarist with the Yardbirds, joins the Bluesbreakers.
With John on keyboards, harmonica, guitar and vocals, a rhythem section of McVie and Flint, and Eric Clapton as the undoubted star of the show, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers entered what was to be the classic phase of its history. Eric brought many of his Yardbirds fans with him and gave John a hefty boost to his support on the 'underground' blues club circuit. Then in August 1965, Eric went on a still unexplained jaunt with musician friends who intended to go around the world as a band called Glands, but ended up in Greece.
While Eric was away, John went through a succession of replacement guitartists including a very persistent Peter Green who was none too pleased when Eric walked straight back into the band that November. This was an unsettled time for John and the Bluesbreakers. John McVie was fired for Drunkenness, and he was replaced briefly by Jack Bruce, who had been sacked from the Graham Bond Organisation before he too left to enjoy more lucrative times with Manfred Mann.
But just for a brief spell, Clapton and Bruce were in the band at the same time and sowed the seeds of their future together. They can be heard on five tracks, recorded live at the Flamingo Club, but only released in 1977 on Mayall's album Primal Solos. The superb The Bluesbreakers Featuring Eric Clapton album is released in 1966. It was the most important British blues album ever recorded and it made Clapton a star. On release in July, the album reached the Top 10 in the charts, but by then Eric had left to form Cream with Jack Bruce.
It was never going to be easy replacing Eric, but John knew that his best shot would be Peter Green, even though Peter initially played hard to get. 'He wasn't happy to come back at all, because he'd been kicked out to make way for Eric', Peter had an offer from The Animals, but on the strength of the music opted for Mayall. Unhappy with Eric's departure, Hughie Flint voiced his misgivings and shortly after received a phone call from John telling him he'd been replaced by a dynamic Liverpudlian drummer called Aynsley Dunbar.
With John McVie back in the fold, this eighth version of the Bluesbreakers released the superb album Hard Road in 1967, on which tracks such as 'The Supernatural' and 'The Stumble' proved that Peter Green was more than capable of filling Eric's shoes while his vocals on 'You Don't Love Me' and 'The Same Way', were well beyond anything his boss could muster. The album with Eric receives most of the accolades, but in truth Hard Road was every bit as good, some might say better.
As well as the regular Bluesbreakers gigs and recordings, John found other outlets for his dedication to the blues. Inevitably, he played with American blues artists, backing harmonica player Paul Butterfield on an EP and pianist Eddie Boyd on LP, both in 1967 for Decca. For a Decca subsidiary, Ace of Clubs, John recorded the entirely self-penned album The Blues Alone, again in 1967, playing all of the instruments except the drums and completing all 12 tracks in one day.
Somewhat 'busy' for John's taste, Aynsley Dunbar left for the Jeff Beck band in April the same year, to be replaced briefly by Micky Waller and then Mick Fleetwwod before John settled on former Artwoods drummer Keef Hartley. Tiring of the Bluesbreakers format, Peter Green left that May. He quickly formed Fleetwood Mac with Mick Fleetwood, tempting John McVie from the Bluesbreakers in the September, but not before McVie had played on John's next album Crusade, featuring the baby-faced Mick Taylor, at that time only 18 years old. The formula of Crusade was the same successful mix as before, songs written by major blues artists such as Buddy Guy, Albert King and Sonny Boy Williamson II, some John Mayall originals and, for the star guitarist, at least one main work-out, in this instance 'Snowy Wood'.
With Crusade, John made his advocacy for the blues manifest by selecting several tracks written by his particular heroes and writing one song dedicated to the memory of the Chicago bluesman J.B. Lenoir who had died from complications following a car crash a few months before the album was recorded. Crusade was also significant as the last 'straightforward' blues album that John was to record for some time. He recruited a brass section including former Graham Bond and Alexis Korner saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith and in April 1968 drafted in two other jazz musicians, drummer Jon Hiseman and bassist Tony Reeves.
With these musicians, Bare Wires, released in 1968, was a million miles away from the Chicago Blues; the second Bluesbreakers albums that was entirely written by John, more 'progressive' as the jargon of the time put it and a musical recognition that the regular Bluesbreakers format had gone stale. John was in transition; Bare Wires was the first faltering step in the direction of the blues / jazz fusion he aspired to over the next few years. Within two months of the album's release, John had dropped the Bluesbreakers moniker altogether and, retaining only Mick Taylor, moved briefly to Los Angeles where he wrote the next album Blues from Laurel Canyon.
John may have been having second thoughts about his direction, Laurel Canyon was reflective both in its subject matter and its blues milieu. Even Peter Green made a guest appearance for one track and John showed that even after playing blues every night for so long he could still find fresh expression in the genre. But finally, John cut loose from the traditional blues band line-up altogether. Ending a five year partnership with Decca, he signed for the Polydor Record label, releasing an album with a four-piece band that had no drummer or (since Mick Taylor had left in 1969 to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones), no prominent lead guitar.
For the sleeve notes of Turning Point recorded live at the Fillmore East in New York in 1969, John wrote, "The time is right for a new direction in blues music, I set about forming a new band which would be able to explore seldom used areas within the framework of low volume music". Using multi-instrumentalist Johnny Almond plus Steve Thompson on bass along with acoustic guitarist Jon Mark, the result was free-flowing wide-ranging and subtle.
Another tribute to J.B. Lenoir was included, but John began writing beyond the bounds of standard blues themes with a song about police brutality and drugs. The same band recorded the much less succesful album Empty Room - it was to be John's last all-British line-up. Now resident in Los Angeles, John formed an American band with ex-Canned Heat members Larry Taylor (bass) and Harvey Mandel (guitar) plus violinist Sugarcane Harris.
USA Union released in 1970, which featured some strong political material, continued the move towards fusion music, although John had one trip down memory lane in 1971 with the album Back to the Roots. This featured former Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor, 'although it wasn't as if the band were all playing in the same room. That album was more a product of me flying around with a master tape and getting people to contribute'. Unhappy with the mix on eight of the 13 tracks, John returned to it in 1988 and it was rereleased as Archives to Eighties.
Despite the fact that John was working solidly though the 1970's both on tour and in the studio, it has to be said that experimentation of this period didn't work out. Jazz Blues Fusion (1972), Moving Out (1973), Ten Years Are Gone (1973) featuring jazz trumpeter Blue Mitchell, and Latest Edition did nothing for his reputation. Other album released in this period included A banquet in the Blues (1975) and Last of the British Blues (1978).
Between 1975 and 1981, he recorded five albums for ABC and three for DJM including one very aptly named Bottom Linereleased in 1979. Notwithstanding the all-atar presence of Steve Lukather, Jeff Pocaro, the Brecker Brothers and Lee Ritenour, the album was roundley blasted by the critics. Neither ABC nor DJM did very much to promote John's work and all the albums he made for them simply vanished unmourned.
Then, in 1982, things took a turn for the better. John McVie, by then enjoying fame and fortune with Fleetwood Mac, suggested a revival tour and the Bluesbreakers were born again with Mick Taylor and the drummer from Laural Canyon days Colin Allen. The venture was short-lived, but it woke John up to the fact that it was possible the Bluesbreakers could be successful again; but not without a hot lead guitar player. John went one better - he ended up with two - first Coco Montoya then Walter Trout from Canned Heat.
John then went from strength to strength, finding new audiences, especially in Europe. The new Bluesbreakers released a live album which had been recorded in Hungary and which led to the album Chicago Line released in 1988, heralds Mayall's successful comeback. The excellent album A Sense of Place released in 1990, his best album since the 1960's and the equally good Wake Up Call release in 1993, and fine live performances with the new Bluesbreakers, which featured guests Mick Taylor, Buddy Guy and Albert Collins, in his 60th year, Mayall continues on top form. Although Walter Trout left to lead his own band, the rest hed been together for several years by the early 1990's - unprecedented in Bluesbreakers history - and it showed in their powerful. dynamic stage show.
John Mayall has seen and done it all; he has played with the best musicians in the world and weather through good time and bad, he has never stopped working. The blues in now is now back in town and perhaps it's symbolic of John's continued resonance on the music scene that 'Nature's Disappering' on his album Wake Up Call is even more relevant in the 1990's then when it first appeared on USA Union back in 1970.
Two albums not mentioned above are Room To Move and Spinning Coin
Finally, still working as hard as ever, John Mayall appears as support to B.B. King at the M.E.N. Arena Manchester UK on 29 April 1999.
Other links go to John Mayall.netor John Mayall.com