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A Conversation with John Mayall

John Mayall has been playing the blues for over six decades, and, watching him perform live, one feels certain that he will continue for many more years. His current UK tour is set to conclude just a couple of days before his 84th birthday at the end of November, and he is releasing a new live album, titled ‘Three for the Road’, early next year.

I attended his show in Birmingham on Saturday 21st October. Although it was the first time for me, many in the audience were fortunate enough to have seen him on several previous occasions. In between two songs, a gentleman next to me said to his wife: “He hasn’t changed.” And I believe it, because the music I have been listening to for years came alive in front of my eyes with an energy and spirit that matched, if not exceeded, that of the recordings.

Fittingly deemed the “Godfather of British Blues”, Mayall far surpasses the criteria for being described as a living legend. He has released many dozens of albums through the decades, and played with early masters of the blues, such as John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and Sonny Boy Williamson, as well as 60s icons Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Peter Green. He was inducted into the Order of the British Empire in 2005.

The setlist included ‘Dancing Shoes’, ‘Another Kind of Love’, ‘Early in the Morning’, ‘Ridin’ on the L & N’, ‘Congo Square’ and ‘Room to Move’. Mayall was accompanied by two Chicago natives: bassist Greg Rzab, who had previously played with Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Jimmy Page, and drummer Jay Davenport, who has toured with Sugar Blue and Melvin Taylor, among others. There is no stage and no room that the three of them could not fill, as they transport the listener back in time, while also convincing us that the blues will never go away.

I am incredibly honoured to have had the chance to talk to Mayall before the concert. It seemed that my questions helped bring back some pleasant memories, but in addition to the past, I also asked him about the future.

John Mayall with his band in Birmingham in October 2017

What are your memories of the time when the blues first became popular in England? Was it an exciting time to be alive?

Yes, it was very exciting. Trad jazz had been the most popular stuff until the late 50s, and then American blues musicians started coming over to perform.

Why do you think so many people over here could relate to the genre?

It was an exciting music. At the time it came along, people had got kind of tired of listening to all of these traditional jazz bands and they wanted to hear something new. That’s how it came about and that’s why it became popular.

Do you think it also had something to do with the collective consciousness of young people?

Well, it probably had, but it’s hard to analyze. It’s hard to tell. But, certainly, there was a new generation growing up and they wanted something different. And then there were Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies, and the two of them sort of sparked it off.

You served in the British Army during the Korean War and I read somewhere that it was during that time that you got your first guitar. 

Yes, that’s true. I played the guitar before, but I got my first guitar then. It was a Japanese one called Lowden, and I bought it when I was on leave in Tokyo. It was the first guitar I ever owned. Until then, I’d just use other people’s guitars.

Was that because you felt more of a need to escape into music during the war?

Not really. It was just something that I loved to do. But, you know, in the 50s this type of music wasn’t very popular yet, so I just played for my own enjoyment and to express myself. It wasn’t something you could find an audience for. But I did play a little bit for the others in the army.

What was your role in the army?

I was very good in the office. I learned to type, and had a good job doing that instead of being outside.  

So you weren’t exposed to the horrors of the war then?

No, not at all.

Who was the first blues musician you saw live?

Probably Muddy Waters. It must have been around 1956-57.

Did that experience have anything to do with why you wanted to play blues music yourself?

No, it had nothing to do with that, because I’d been following and playing blues since the early 50s, although at the time I didn’t think it was something I could do professionally. But every time you see your heroes play, it’s always a very stimulating experience. And then, shortly after that, we got the Bluesbreakers together, and we were fortunate enough to play with John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson and all those guys. It was a very educational.

Did you become friends with any of those musicians?

Yeah, I was friends with most of them. I became great friends with John and I stayed in touch with him right up to the time he died.

John Mayall in 1969 (Credit: Graham Lowe)

You shared a bill with Jimi Hendrix on a couple of occasions. What was he like as a person?

He used to sit in with us quite a few times. He was a good friend; he was very easy to get along with. He was just a really nice guy and he just loved to play. He just loved music, and he loved to be in England, where everybody appreciated him more than in the States.

And how about Etta James? What was she like to work with?

She could be a little unpleasant. She was a fantastic singer, she just wasn’t all that friendly. She was very moody. You got the feeling that she didn’t appreciate people stealing her music.

What was your first impression of Eric Clapton as a guitarist?

When I first saw him live, he wasn’t very good. But by the time he left the Yardbirds, he was really terrific.

It’s often said that the blues is a state of mind. Do you agree with that?

Well, it reflects what the person is feeling. I don’t know about state of mind, but if you feel something, obviously the mind has something to do with that. But it’s hard to explain.

What do you think the future of the blues will look like? Will there always be people who keep the spirit alive?

I think it will keep going on. It’s very evident that there will always be an interest. Wherever I play, there are always young people in the audience. And there are many young musicians, especially guitar players around, who take up music very early and become very good very early on – much earlier than we did. There are 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds playing really-really good guitar for their age. Some are better than others, but the main point is that the interest is there.

But isn’t there only so much that can be done within the confines of the genre? Don’t you think that everything has been done already?

No, I don’t think so. It’s just that new music is always inspired by music that has gone before, and it goes with people’s own impression of it.

How do you feel about the state of the music industry these days?

I don’t really follow it. I know what I like, and, you know, it’s always been the same.

Are there any younger musicians that you think really stand out these days?

Yeah, there’s so many of them; people like Johnny Lang and Shannon Curfman and Ric Hall, who plays with Buddy Guy.

Have you written any new songs recently?

I don’t usually write songs when I don’t have an album to do, because I can’t read or write music. So I have to wait until I do a new album, then I write new songs.

Do you have plans for a new album?

The next album that’s coming out is a live album. We recorded it in Germany earlier this year, and it’s coming out in January or February next year. It’s called ‘Three for the Road’.



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