Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Interview with John Mayall
No slowing down or looking back for this almost 83-year-old ‘Road Dog’ who thrives on touring, recording and creating
By Jeff Johnson
Marlon Brando was 47 when he played Don Corleone in “The Godfather.” The Godfather of British Blues will be 83 on Nov. 29, 2016 but John Mayall doesn’t play about anything – especially his craft.
The singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/bandleader could have settled comfortably into elder statesman status a decade ago, touring and recording only occasionally and cashing in on boomer nostalgia. After all, his greatest success came in the late 1960s, when he and his star-making band, the Bluesbreakers, enjoyed their best commercial triumphs.
But comfortable semi-retirement was an offer the Godfather had to refuse. “We’re the ‘Road Dogs,’ ” he declared on the title track to his 2005 album for Eagle Records. And true to his word, rather than easing up on his hectic schedule, he doubled down on his live appearances and gave Eagle six new albums between 2001 and 2009. Label execs, unaccustomed to working with artists as prolific as Mayall, just couldn’t keep up with him. The Godfather proceeded to blow up his long-running Bluesbreakers in 2008. Then he flew the Eagle coop after one final album.
“I had a terrible time with Eagle, and they kept putting me off when it came to making a new album,” he acknowledged during a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “I just couldn’t get my songs out there fast enough. But the record industry as a whole is going through tough times and it probably won’t get any better.”
Mayall’s in a better place these days, despite being jet-legged at this particular moment after flying home from a festival in Wausau, Wis. He has a deal at producer Eric Corne’s Forty Below Records where he’s encouraged to use the House of Blues Studio in Encino, Calif., whenever he’s ready. He took Corne up on the offer three times so far, with 2014’s A Special Life, last year’s Find a Way to Care and a new disc in the can that’s due out early next year.
“It’s called Talk About That, and I hope people will be talking about it,” he said. “There’s a guest appearance by Joe Walsh, and there’s a lot blues going on. Joe is friends with the people who run the House of Blues studio, and he told the studio owner that he wanted to play on the album, so we brought him in to play guitar on a couple of tracks. That was a bit of a no-brainer, really. It’s mainly all my own compositions. There’s a lot more of my writing, and I play a lot of keyboards. Keyboard has always been my main instrument.”
The octogenarian has always been a whirling dervish onstage, with his trademark nasally vocals and a penchant for jumping from one instrument to another. “It’s a natural rotation,” he explained. “If I play the first song on keyboards, then I’ll play the guitar on the next song, followed by the harmonica, so they all sound different.”
As versatile as he is as a musician, Mayall is equally clever with a pen. His compositions range from uplifting proclamations to cautionary tales that reflect his strong social conscience. Perhaps his best-known tune is “Room to Move,” his 1969 declaration of independence from a clinging woman, with Mayall on vocals, harmonica and mouth percussion.
Along with the recent studio works, Forty Below recently released two volumes of live material from 1967 Bluesbreakers shows that feature future Fleetwood Mac founders Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and Peter Green.
“I’ve known about (the recordings) for a long, long time, but Tom Huissen, who owned the original tapes, thought they were so precious that he didn’t want to part with them,” Mayall said. “Finally he decided that they were of significant enough historical value that he should share them. About 10 years ago I heard them for the first time and thought they were terrific, and they are.”
Not usually one to dwell on the past, Mayall considers longevity to be a musician’s best friend. Asked to rate Find a Way to Care and A Special Life against his most beloved early recordings, he said, “I think they’re a lot better because there’s more experience showing.”
Mayall's current outfit is long on experience, if lacking in the jaw-dropping virtuosity that marked early Bluesbreakers incarnations. Until late August, it included guitarist Rocky Athas and the Chicago rhythm section of Jay Davenport on drums and Greg Rzab on bass. “We’ve been together as a band for seven going on eight years,” he said. But a week after this interview, Mayall issued a statement announcing that he'd be fronting a trio for upcoming tours, dropping Athas but keeping the rhythm section. He said Athas was detained in Dallas by recent flooding, and the gigs without a lead guitarist inspired him to carry on as a threesome.
There’s a simple recipe for keeping a band together, Mayall said. “We get along and we love playing together.”
And he downplays the notion that his band members come and go frequently. “(Frequent turnover) is something of a misconception that sticks in people’s minds because in the 1960s there was such a swift turnover of guitarists. That hasn’t been the case more recently. My last band lasted 15 years.”
Any list of Bluesbreakers six-string alumni starts with Eric Clapton, who was given co-billing with Mayall when he left the Yardbirds in 1965, before leaving to form Cream the following year. Other star guitarists who did time with Mayall include Green, Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel, Jon Mark, Freddy Robinson, Walter Trout, Coco Montoya and Buddy Whittington, who stuck around for 15 years until the 2008 disbandment. The roster of former Bluesbreakers drummers, bassists and other instrumentalists is also impressive.
Just don’t expect to see some Bluesbreakers reunion project any time soon. Mayall won’t even entertain suggestions along those lines. “That would be kind of silly,” he said dismissively. “Somewhere it kind of crops up, but it’s completely ridiculous. They’ve all got their own careers. The main people that would have the most appeal in any sort of reunion are so far up the ladder fame wise that it wouldn’t ever happen.”
John Mayall is scheduled to appear Sept. 30 at a sold out show at City Winery, Chicago and Oct. 1 at Shank Hall in Milwaukee (www.shankhall.com).
For info: http://www.johnmayall.com/