Legendary bluesman John Mayall to play SLO Brew

One of the originators of the British blues invasion, he has influenced many of rock’s superstars

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comMay 15, 2013 

John Mayall

COURTESY PHOTO

This story about John Mayall isn’t going to begin any differently than all the others.

It can’t.

Because any story on the British blues pioneer has to start with the names: Eric Clapton. Mick Fleetwood. Mick Taylor.

Those former members of Mayall’s band would later become famous in groups such as Cream, Fleetwood Mac, and The Rolling Stones, earning Mayall’s outfit — John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers — a reputation as the foremost School of Rock.

“I’ve had some great players, and it’s a great privilege to know that I was part of their groundwork,” Mayall said by phone recently.

But more than that, Mayall played an integral role in the evolution of rock music — a Brit-led transformation that paved the way for blues-based acts like the Stones, Led Zeppelin, The White Stripes and The Black Keys.

“I think we were due for a change, really,” said Mayall, who performs at SLO Brew on May 23. “The predominant music people were listening to and following was traditional jazz. People like (jazz musician) Chris Barber were the mainstays. But I think after 10 years, the public — the new generation — was ready for something a little bit different.”

Growing up in Manchester, England, Mayall’s early influences came from his father’s record collection.

“My father had a few blues records mixed in with his jazz records,” Mayall said.

After his discharge from the British army in 1955, Mayall formed his first band, the Powerhouse Four, which he played in while working as a graphic artist at an ad agency. It wasn’t until 1963 — when Mayall was 30 — that he became a professional musician.

By that time, two key events had laid the groundwork for the British blues: In 1955, Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies opened the London Blues and Barrelhouse Club, a venue for American blues music. And in 1958, Barber invited Muddy Waters to play in England. When Waters plugged in — blues had previously been played acoustically — legend has it that several offended Brits walked out. Others went on to purchase electric guitars.

“I think people were a little surprised,” Mayall said. “I think a lot of people only heard him playing acoustic, and that was a little bit of a change for them.”

It would still take a bit for white American audiences to notice the blues music they had missed. But as future British rock stars lined up to purchase amplifiers, Mayall was already a veteran of the genre.

“I’d been playing for at least 10 years before anybody else started doing it and making a name for themselves,” said Mayall, who sings and plays guitar, piano and harmonica. “So I had a little background. But I didn’t expect it to be something I could do professionally.”

While American blues music featured similar chord progressions and lyrics, the Brits would eventually add rock and psychedelic influences, creating a formula that quickly rendered pioneering rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis into novelty acts.

“We all appreciated and loved the blues that we listened to over the years,” Mayall said. “And when we started picking up instruments, we wanted to play the music. And we were just doing the best we could. I don’t think anybody thought about putting their own slant on things.”

Eventually, that slant helped American audiences appreciate their own bluesmen. But first they had to hear the blues through acts like the Stones.

Like the American bluesmen that inspired him, Mayall never reached Stone-like mega-stardom. But his influence on others is a notable addition to music’s timeline.

Through the years, his band was a training ground for future rock icons. (Other former Bluesbreakers include Cream singer Jack Bruce, Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green and bassist John McVie and Andy Fraser of Free.) As a result, Mayall is often called the Godfather of British Blues.

“I don’t know how you put a label on it,” Mayall said. “People do. For me, I’m just a bandleader, and I think bandleaders put their stamp on whatever they come up with, and choose musicians that can best interpret what they want to say.”

When Clapton left the Yardbirds because he wanted to play more traditional blues in 1965, Mayall’s Bluesbreakers was a perfect fit. And soon Clapton became a legend, parlayed in the form of London graffiti declaring “Clapton is God.”

Initially, Mayall said, neither he nor Clapton knew exactly how good he was.

“But there was an undercurrent of appreciation for what he was doing, especially when he was working with my band because he had such a featured spot.”

As bandmates like Clapton went on to have huge success, Mayall shifted to progressive jazz in the 1970s. During that time, he often collaborated with Red Holloway, the jazz and blues saxophonist who lived in Cambria until his death last year.

“That’s why a lot of people know me — because of the fact that I was working with him for a while,” Holloway told the Tribune in 2011.

Mayall returned to the blues in 1984 and — at 79 — continues to perform up to 150 dates a year. While Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and the Stones (with Taylor rejoining the band) will tour to huge crowds this spring, Mayall quietly continues to perform at small clubs, providing audiences an up-close lesson in music history.

“The current band has been together for five years now,” he said. “And it’s absolutely one of the best ever.”

And that, of course, says a lot.

IF YOU GO

John Mayall
7 p.m. May 23
SLO Brew, 1119 Garden St., San Luis Obispo
$23 in advance, $25 at the door
543-1842 or www.slobrewingco.com

Reach Pat Pemberton at 781-7903.

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