For decades, he’s been called the grand old man of British blues, which might indicate such a descriptive phrase was first applied to singer/guitarist/keyboard player John Mayall when he was fairly young.
And the venerable English musician has indeed championed the songs of American blues performers for many years, and such is still the case. For example, the lyrics to “All Those Heroes,” on his latest album, Blues for the Lost Days (Silvertone Records), include the names of a number of blues artists who matter to Mayall…and a listener gets the feeling Mayall thinks they should matter to the listener, as well.
In a brief and courteous telephone conversation with Vintage Guitar, Mayall discussed his position as one of the “original re-importers” of blues music back to America from England in the 1960s, and what’s he’s accomplished in decades of performing and recording:
Vintage Guitar: Along with Alexis Korner and perhaps a couple of other individuals, you’ve been cited as one of the progenitors of the British blues movement. How did you first come in contact with original American blues music, and what attracted you to it?
John Mayall: I grew up listening to it, so I can’t explain what attracted me to it, but since I grew up with it, there was a connection. The earliest blues records I listened to were by performers from the ’30s, like Lonnie Johnson, and the Mills Brothers.
In his own interview with this magazine, B.B. King said “…the British bands came over in the early ’60s, and they made the U.S. as a whole aware of blues, when the blues had been there all the time.” Do you agree?
Sure, because Europeans always revered American music far more than Americans did, because of the segregation of the races that had been prevalent throughout most of American history. Consequently, very few people crossed the line and became aware of the American heritage of black music, which was the only art form that ever came out of America.
Rather than inquiring about some of the guitar players you’ve had in your band over the decades, I thought we might discuss some of your own guitars, and some of your own playing experiences.
My father had a Gibson I tried to play when I was a kid, but the action was so high I couldn’t press the strings down (chuckles). So I started out on a ukulele, with four strings, and worked up from that. When I went to Korea with the army in the early ’50s, I bought my first six-string guitar in Japan; it was a Weldone.
Is that the one you eventually made into a nine-string instrument?
Yeah; there’s a photograph of it on The Blues Alone (a Mayall album from the ’60s, on the London label), I wanted to make it into a 12-string guitar, but the neck wasn’t built to handle more than six strings. After I got nine strings on it, the neck started to bend upward, so I stopped right there (chuckles)!
When you were learning to play, were you trying to emulate certain blues players, and were you using open tunings?
I wasn’t using open tunings on the ukulele. I was listening to people like Teddy Bunn, Josh White, Leadbelly, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. I eventually got into open tunings, which is how the nine-string guitar was tuned.
The Blues Alone, which you mentioned earlier, was a bit unique for its time, because if I remember correctly, you played all of the instruments on that album.
Except for drums. I had a go at them, but it wasn’t working out, so Keef Hartley played drums on that album.
Hasn’t an anthology CD set of a lot of your earlier material been released?
There’ve been two double-CD sets on the Chronicle series; the first was London Blues, and the other was Room To Move.
During those times, did you use any other guitars besides the nine-string?
Yeah; I used a Burns. I used to modify the bodies on my guitars, and sometimes I still do. Buddy [Whittington] seems to know more about my stuff than I do (chuckles). He identifies things in photographs I know nothing about, such as pickups and machine heads. That Burns was a six-string that was tuned open; it had high action, so I could use a slide. I probably used it on some tracks, but I can’t recall which ones.
Around the time of the Bare Wires album, you added horns.
I had been using horns on albums before then, but at that time we had a bit more money to play around with (chuckles), so I employed a horn section. Dick Heckstall-Smith was one of the members at one time.
Around the end of the decade, you did an abrupt turn and introduced a band that consisted of a fingerstyle acoustic guitarist, a bass player, a sax and flute player, and yourself on guitar and harmonica; there was no drummer. Why did you opt to go in that direction?
As I said on the liner notes to the album that introduced that lineup, it was a change of pace; I felt at the time that I’d done pretty much everything that could be done in the format I’d been in, so it was time for something different. It attracted a lot more attention than I thought it would, but ultimately it was kind of limited because of the instrumentation. It was only in existence for a mere 12 months, but it was taken a lot more seriously than I expected.
Was the “change of pace” idea you referred to the reason you opted to present that particular incarnation with a live album [The Turning Point]?
It seemed like that was the way to go with it.
What guitar did you play on The Turning Point? There’s some slide work on songs like “Sawmill Gulch Road.”
It might be a Rickenbacker 12-string; I still play one of those. The one I have now has been heard on albums from Behind the Iron Curtain onwards.
Describe the direction you went in the decades following the demise of the drummerless quartet?
Well, I just did whatever I felt like doing. Moving to America in 1969 opened a lot more possibilities with American musicians; there was USA/Union with Harvey [Mandel], Sugarcane [Harris], and Larry Taylor, for example. That was basically a continuation of what I’d been doing with the band on The Turning Point.
It’s been noted over the decades that you’ve always set up your own equipment, instead of using roadies.
Yeah, we always do that. Roadies, as far as I’m concerned, are excess baggage. You have to pay their wages; you have to pay for their airfare and their hotel rooms; you have to find transportation for them. Our equipment and instruments are our “tools,” and nobody knows them better than we do.
How much of the rest of your earlier material is available on CD?
The stuff that came out after one of the double-CD sets I mentioned is pretty much available on One Way Records, including the six albums I did for ABC.
Are there any particular live recordings over the years that might not have been released that you would like to see released?
Well, every night you play has high spots and low points. And usually, when you know you’re being recorded, you try not to pay attention to it. You just try to do your best, and that should be the case even if you’re not being recorded. Of course, there may be times when you wish something could’ve been recorded, but that’s wishful thinking or hindsight.
You keep in touch with a lot of your former players, don’t you?
Yeah, but sometimes we’ll just run into each other at concerts or elsewhere on the road. Our friendships were forged in the past, and such friendships are still strong.
How do you feel about having seen Peter Green back onstage?
I think he’s probably much more comfortable with it now; when we played with his band, it was only his third or fourth public appearance. We hear he’s much more out in the public eye now, so one assumes he’s getting it back together.
Tell me about that Rickenbacker of yours that has some inlays on the body surface.
I didn’t change the body shape on that one. I cut into the top and inlaid some stones, using plaster of Paris, then I put varnish over it. It’s tuned to open D.
Are you still planning on performing about 130 dates a year?
That’s what we’ve been doing up to now. But I want to be a bit more selective, so I can spend more time with my family.
After all this time, my perception is that you’re still doing “research” about blues musicians, and that you’re still trying to educate your listeners about players and singers you feel might not have gotten the attention they deserve.
I think it’s important to do that; there are great catalogs of music by musicians who don’t get talked about very much. If I read about someone who might have influenced someone that I’ve been listening to, then I’m all ears; I’ll seek out their material and pass along their names. I’m still learning, and I’ll still write about musicians whose music is recommended listening (chuckles).
In some respects, John Mayall has a lot of common ground with previous Vintage Guitar interviewee Hank Thompson (November ’97). Although their chosen musical genres are quite different, each man has hosted a number of notable guitarists in his respective outfit over the years, and each is dedicated to plying his trade within those respective genres. John Mayall’s lyrics have consistently been straightforward since he came to prominence in the ’60s, and such is still the case with his current songwriting. That he’s still sticking with his original guidelines, not to mention his original inspirations, is a tribute to his tenacity.
John Mayall Discography
Year Label Title Guitarist
1966 London Bluesbreakers W/Eric Clapton Eric Clapton
1967 London A Hard Road Peter Green and Eric Clapton
1967 London Crusadee John Mayall and Mick Taylor
1968 London The Blues Alonen John Mayall
1968 London Bare Wires John Mayall and Mick Taylor
1968 London Raw Bluess Eric Clapton, Peter Green and John Mayall
1969 London Blues From Laurel Canyon John Mayall and Mick Taylor
1969 London Looking Back Eric Calpton, Roger Dean, Peter Green, John Mayall and Mick Taylor
1970 Decca World Of John Mayall (Import) Eric Clapton, Peter Green, John Mayall and Mick Taylor
1970 London Diary Of A Band John Mayall and Mick Taylor
1970 Polydor Turning Point Jon Mark and John Mayall
1970 Polydor Empty Rooms Jon Mark and John Mayall
1970 Polydor U.S.A. Union Harvey Mandel and John Mayall
1971 London Live In Europe John Mayall and Mick Taylor
1971 London Thru The Years (Double Album) Eric Clapton, Peter Green, John Mayall and Mick Taylor
1971 Polydor Back To The Roots (Double Album) Eric Clapton, Harvey Mandel, John Mayall, Jerry Mcgee and Mick Taylor
1971 Polydor Memories John Mayall and Jerry Mecgee
1972 London Down The Line (Double Album) Eric Clapton, Roger Dean, Peter Green, John Mayall and Mick Taylor
1972 Polydor Jazz-blues Fusion John Mayall and Freedie Robinson
1972 Polydor Moving On John Mayall and Freddie Robinson
1973 Polydor Ten Years Are Gone (Double Album) John Mayall and Freddie Robinson
1973 Polydor Best Of John Mayall Eric Clapton, Harvey Mandel, Jon Mark, John Mayall, Jerry Mcgee and Freddie Robinson
1974 Polydor Latest Edition John Mayall and Randy Resnick
1975 Blue Thumb New Year, New Band, New Company John Mayall and Rick Vito
1975 ABC Notice To Appear Steve Hughes, John Mayall and Rick Vito
1975 ABC A Banquet In Blues Mike Cooley, Jon Mark, John Mayall and Rick Vito
1977 ABC Lots Of People Gary Rowles
1977 ABC A Hardcore Package John Mayall
1977 London Primal Solos Eric Clapton
1977 London Bluesbreakers W/Eric Clapton Eric Clapton
1978 ABC Last Of The British Blues John Mayall and James Quill Smith
1979 DJM The Bottom Line Ben Benay, Cornell Dupree, Jeff Layton, Steve Luthaker, Sid Mcginnis, Jeferey Miranov, Lee Ritenour and John Tropea
1979 DJM No More Interviews John Mayall, James Quill Smith and Rick Vito
1982 Accord Road Show Blues Band John Mayall and James Quill Smith
1986 Crescendo Behind The Iron Curtain John Mayall, Coco Montoya and Walter Trout
1986 Decal Some Of My Best Friends Are Blues John Mayall
1988 Island Chicago Line Coco Montoya and Walter Trout
1988 Polydor Archives To The Eighties Eric Calpton, John Mayall and Mick Taylor
1990 Island A Sense Of Place Debbie Davies, Sonny Landreth, John Mayall and Coco Montoya
1993 Silvertone Wake-up Call (Import) Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, John Mayall, Coco Montoya, David Grissom and Mick Taylor
1995 Silvertone Spinning Coin John Mayall and Buddy Whittington, R.S. Field
1997 Silvertone Blues For The Lost Days Mike Martsolf, John Mayall, John Paulus, John Porter, Buddy Wittington
Mayall wails on harp onstage in Chicago, 1994. Photo: Kate Hoddinott.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’98 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.