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John Mayall
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John Mayall

John Mayall, OBE (born 29 November 1933) is a pioneering English blues singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. His musical career spans over fifty years but the most notable episode in it occurred during the late '60s. He was the founder of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and has been influential in the careers of many instrumentalists, including Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Mick Taylor, Don "Sugarcane" Harris, Harvey Mandel, Larry Taylor, Aynsley Dunbar, Hughie Flint, Jon Hiseman, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Andy Fraser, Johnny Almond, Jon Mark, Walter Trout, Coco Montoya, and Buddy Whittington.


Mayall's father was Murray Mayall, a guitarist and jazz music enthusiast. From an early age, he was drawn to the sounds of American blues players such as Leadbelly, Albert Ammons, Pinetop Smith, and Eddie Lang, and taught himself to play the piano, guitars, and harmonica. Mayall served three years of national service in Korea and, during a period of leave, he bought his first electric guitar. Back in Manchester he enrolled at Manchester College of Art, now part of Manchester Metropolitan University, and started playing with semi-professional bands. After graduation he obtained a job as an art designer but continued to play with local musicians. In 1963 he opted for a full time musical career and moved to London. His previous craft was put to good use in the designing of covers for many of his own albums. John Mayall married twice and has six grand-children. Mrs Maggie Mayall is an American blues performer and since the early 1980s takes an active part in the management of her husband's career. In 2005 Mayall was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Honours List.

The early years

In 1956, with college fellow Peter Ward, Mayall had formed the Powerhouse Four which consisted of both men plus other local musicians with whom they played at local dances. In 1962, Mayall became a member of the Blues Syndicate. The band was formed by trumpeter John Rowlands and alto saxophonist Jack Massarik, who had seen the Alexis Korner band at a Manchester club and wanted to try a similar blend of Jazz and Blues. It also included ryhthm guitarist Ray Cummins and drummer Hughie Flint whom Mayall already knew. It was Alexis Korner who persuaded Mayall to opt for a full time musical career and move to London. There, Korner introduced him to many other musicians and helped them to find gigs. In late 1963, with his band, which was now called the Bluesbreakers, Mayall started playing at the Marquee Club. The lineup was Mayall, Ward, John McVie on bass and guitarist Bernie Watson, formerly of Cyril Davies and the R&B All-Stars. The next spring Mayall obtained his first recording date with producer Ian Samwell. The band, with Martin Hart at the drums, recorded two tracks: "Crawling Up a Hill" and "Mr. James." Shortly after, Hughie Flint replaced Hart, and Roger Dean took the guitar from Bernie Watson. This lineup backed John Lee Hooker on his British tour in 1964.

Mayall was offered a recording contract and on 7 December 1964 a live performance of the band was recorded at the Klook's Kleek. A single, "Crocodile Walk", was recorded later in studio and released along with the album but both failed to achieve any success and the contract was terminated.

In April 1965 former Yardbirds guitarist Eric Clapton replaced Roger Dean and John Mayall's career entered its decisive phase.

The late sixties

The Bluesbreakers with their new guitar player started to attract considerable attention. However Clapton departed without notice and had to be replaced urgently. John Weider, John Slaughter and Geoff Krivit attempted to fill in but finally Peter Green took the charge. John MacVie was dismissed and during the next six months Jack Bruce, from Graham Bond Organization, held the bass. In November Clapton came back and Green departed. Sometime later in the month, the band entered the studio to record a single, Sitting on Top of the World. Also, a live date recorded at the Flamingo provided tracks that appeared later on the 1969 compilation Looking Back and the 1977 album Primal Solos.

In April 1966, the Bluesbreakers returned to (Decca) Studios to record a second LP with producer Mike Vernon. The sessions with horn arrangements for some tracks (John Almond on baritone sax, Alan Skidmore on tenor sax and Dennis Healey on trumpet) lasted just three days. Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton was released in the UK on 22 July 1966. Today the album has gained the status of a classic, but it was also Mayall's commercial breakthrough, rising to #6 on the chart. In the mean time Clapton announced the formation of Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.

Mayall had to replace him and persuaded Peter Green to come back. During the following year with Peter Green on guitar and various other sidemen some 40 tracks were recorded. The album A Hard Road was released in February 1967. Today its expanded versions include most of this material and the album itself also stands as a classic. Peter Green gave notice and soon started his own project Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac which was to include the three former Bluesbreakers.

Mayall's first choice to replace Green was 16-year-old David O'List, guitarist from The Attack. However O'List declined and went to form The Nice with organist Keith Emerson. Mayall found two other guitarists for the Bluesbreakers, Terry Edmonds and 19-year-old Mick Taylor.

In a single day of May 1967 Mayall alone had put together in a studio an album which was released in November with the apt title The Blues Alone. Only former Artwoods drummer Keef Hartley appears on half of the tracks which showcase Mayall's ability as multi-instrumentalist.

A six-piece lineup (consisting of Mick Taylor on lead guitar, John McVie on bass, Hughie Flint or Keef Hartley on drums, Rip Kant and Chris Mercer on saxes), recorded the album Crusade on 11 and 12 July 1967. These Bluesbreakers spent most of the year touring and Mayall taped the shows on a portable recorder. At the end of the tour he had over sixty hours of tapes which he edited into an album in two volumes: Diary of a Band, Vols. 1 & 2, released in February 1968. Meanwhile a few lineup changes had occurred: McVie had departed and was replaced by Paul Williams who quit to join Alan Price and was replaced by Keith Tillman; Dick Heckstall-Smith had taken the sax.

Following a U.S. tour Mayall had a bad dose of the squitters, more lineup changes occurred as Mayall replaced Tillman by 15-year-old Andy Fraser, who left within six weeks to join Free and Tony Reeves, previously a member of the New Jazz Orchestra, replaced him. Hartley also left to form his own band, the Keef Hartley Band, and was replaced by New Jazz Orchestra drummer Jon Hiseman, who had also played with the Graham Bond Organization. Henry Lowther who played violin and cornet joined in February 1968. Two months after the Bluesbreakers recorded Bare Wires, co-produced by Mayall and Mike Vernon. Hiseman, Reeves and Heckstall-Smith moved on to form Colosseum; the new lineup retained Mick Taylor and added drummer Colin Allen, formerly of Zoot Money's Big Roll Band, Dantalian's Chariot and Georgie Fame, and a young bassist Stephen Thompson. In August 1968, the new quartet recorded Blues from Laurel Canyon.

After nearly two years with Mayall, Taylor left and joined officially the Rolling Stones on 13 June 1969. Chas Crane filled in briefly. Allen then left for Stone the Crows, leaving as the only holdover bassist Thompson (who would also eventually join Stone the Crows). Mayall recruited acoustic finger-style guitarist Jon Mark and flautist/saxophonist John Almond. Mark was best known as Marianne Faithfull's accompanist for three years and for having been a member of the band Sweet Thursday (which included Nicky Hopkins); Almond had played with Zoot Money and Alan Price. The new band was markedly different from previous Mayall projects. A performance at the Fillmore East provided the tracks for the live album The Turning Point. A studio album, Empty Rooms, was recorded with the same personnel and Mayall continued the experiment of formations without drummers on two more albums. On USA Union a violin replaced the wind instruments and on Memories the band was stripped down to a trio.

In November 1970 Mayall launched a recording project involving most of the notable musicians with whom he had played during the last few years. The double album, Back to the Roots, features Clapton, M. Taylor, Harvey Mandel and Jerry McGee on guitar, Thompson and L. Taylor on bass, Keef Hartley and Paul Lagos on drums. Back to the Roots did not promote new names and USA Union and Memories were recorded with American musicians: Mayall had exhausted his catalytic role on the British blues-rock scene. The list of musicians who had benefited from association with him remains impressive.

The seventies and beyond

At the start of the seventies Mayall had relocated in the USA where he spent most of the next 15 years, recording with local musicians for various labels. In August 1971, Mayall produced a jazz oriented session for bluesman Albert King and a few months later took on tour the musicians present in the studio. A live album Jazz Blues Fusion was released next year, with Mayall on harmonica, guitar and piano, Blue Mitchell on trumpet, Clifford Solomon and Ernie Watts on saxophones, Larry Taylor on bass, Ron Selico on drums and Freddy Robinson on guitar. A few personnel changes are noted at the release of a similar album in 1973, the live Moving On. During the next decade Mayall continued shifting musicians and switching labels and released a score of albums. Tom Wilson, Don Nix and Allen Toussaint occasionally served as producers. At this stage of his career most of Mayall's music was rather different from electric blues played by rock musicians, incorporating jazz, funk or pop elements and adding even female vocals. A notable exception is The Last Of the British Blues (1978), a live album excused apparently by its title for the momentaneous return to this type of music.

The return of The Bluesbreakers

Mayall performing in 1981, in Nambassa Photo: Heather Bryce

In 1982 Mayall was reunited with M. Taylor, John McVie and Colin Allen, three musicians of his sixties lineups, for a brief tour from which a live album would emerge a decade later. In 1984 Mayall restored the name Bluesbreakers for a lineup comprising the two lead guitars of Walter Trout and Coco Montoya, bassist Bobby Haynes and drummer Joe Yuele. The mythic name did perhaps something to enhance the interest in a band which by all standards was already remarkable. A successful world tour and live recordings achieved the rest. In the early 1990s most of the excitement was already spent and Buddy Whittington became the sole lead guitarist in a formation which included then organist Tom Canning. Mayall's 70th birthday was the occasion for a get together concert with some previous sidemen, including Clapton, Taylor and a few other well known names.

In November 2008 Mayall announced on his website he was disbanding the Bluesbreakers to cut back on his heavy workload and give himself freedom to work with other musicians. However three months later a world tour with a new band was anounced: Rocky Athas on guitar,(who was brought in to provide a more melodic structure to the group), Greg Rzab on bass and Jay Davenport on drums. They will be playing with Mayall from March to June 2009.


  • As a teenager, Mayall lived in a tree house in his mother's large garden. His father, by this time with a new wife, lived next door, and had built a similar tree house for his new family. The Manchester Evening News and the Stockport Express ran a feature on Mayall's tree-dwelling habit. In his early twenties Mayall destroyed the house, pulling it out of the tree, and, in the process damaging a significant proportion of his huge record collection. The song 'Home in a Tree' appeared on 'Memories' (1971)
  • On 12 May 1965, the Bluesbreakers were in a studio backing Bob Dylan with Tom Wilson producing. According to Mayall the session was a "fiasco" and recordings have not been released. Mayall makes a brief appearance in the film Dont Look Back [sic].
  • In January 1968 Mayall played at the Fillmore and Winterland in San Francisco on triple bills featuring the Bluesbreakers, Jimi Hendrix and Albert King.
  • In 1979 a brush fire destroyed Mayall's house in Laurel Canyon, damaging seriously his musical collections and archives. This had been his Laurel Canyon Home lovingly described on his first post-Bluesbreakers album, Blues from Laurel Canyon
  • On the occasion of the 40th year of his career Mayall received carte blanche to invite fellow musicians for the recording of a celebratory album. Along for the Ride appeared in 2001, credited to John Mayall and Friends with twenty names listed on the cover, including some Bluesbreakers, old and new, and also Gary Moore, Jonny Lang, Steve Cropper, Steve Miller, Otis Rush, Billy Gibbons, Chris Rea, Jeff Healey, Shannon Curfman and a few others.
  • In 2005, Mayall was awarded an OBE in the Honours List. "It's the only major award I've ever received. I've never had a hit record or a Grammy or been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." commented Mayall.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


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