A Lasting Friendship with the Blues

by Jason MacNeil

Some paternal thoughts from John Mayall, who’s still setting up the young guns.

The Yardbirds often get praise for being the breeding ground of great guitarists. The Holy Trinity of British rock guitarists—Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton—were all members of the band at one time or another. However, at the same time there was also John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. And nearly 40 years later, post-Clapton and post-Mick Taylor, there still is John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, as vital and credible as when Mayall formed the band.

Mayall, who will celebrate his 72nd birthday in late November, says the greatest benefit he’s witnessed in terms of the blues since he started is the shift in demographics.

“I don’t think the biggest change has been in the music itself but of course it has developed over the years in terms of integrating different sounds,” he says. “The biggest change I have seen is that it seems the audiences are getting younger and there are more people starting to play at an earlier age.

“I think initially people like Johnny Lang, they seemed to be a novelty at the time but nowadays there are so many blues guitarists,” he adds. “The most talented basic blues guitarist I’ve heard is Eric Steckel. I have him as a guest on a track called ‘Chaos In The Neighborhood’. He’s quite exceptional.”

Mayall, who released his latest album Road Dogs earlier in 2005, says that despite the wealth of A-list guitarists that have been in his group, current guitarist Buddy Whittington is at the top.

“He’s the most versatile and he’s constantly changing,” Mayall says. “He never plays the same from night to night; he’s a very dynamic player. He’s got a great feeling for the blues and he’s a great singer and he’s been just going great. For him and me it’s a true partnership.

“Working with people, the musical part is one thing but the personal part is totally different and just as critical. If the friendship is there and it’s a lasting friendship, then it will take care of itself.”

It seems that such a friendship is equally important to Mayall. When asked about Eric Clapton or Mick Taylor collaborating with him on a future project, Mayall’s tone seems rather cold towards one and warm towards the other.

“Well Eric Clapton would be impossible because Eric Clapton is Eric Clapton,” Mayall says matter-of-factly. “Mick is usually happy to go along and play with the guys. And it works very well.”

In fact, Taylor opened several shows for Mayall earlier this year and has also performed with him on some European dates. And whether it’s Taylor, Clapton or Whittington, newcomers into the Bluesbreakers have held onto the long-time tradition of performing a Freddy King instrumental.

“Freddy King is the only one I can think of who had such a career not only as a singer but through his recordings,” Mayall says. “He had so many instrumentals, which is very unusual. I can’t think of any other guitarist or blues guitar player who did so many. He had so many hits with just instrumentals.”

With the touring and the new album, Mayall has stayed quite busy in 2005. However, the proverbial icing on the cake was receiving an Order of the British Empire earlier this year.

“That was a big surprise,” he says. “I was very, very proud of that. They send you a letter which came out of left field for me asking if I would accept. I said, ‘Yes of course!’ but that’s the only communication that you get. A lot of people have turned it down over the years, so they want to make sure before they make the announcement that the person is going to accept it.

“So, in other words you say, ‘Yes, okay, I’ll accept it.’ but you don’t hear anything. It kind of makes it look like that you may or may not get it,” he adds with a laugh. “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.”

As for the new album Road Dogs, Mayall says the group’s proficiency resulted in the tracks being finished after the first or second take, a long lost art and near oddity nowadays. The biggest problem for Mayall was condensing the material to fit the time constraints of a small silver-coated disc.

“The difficult thing is trying to find the space to fit everything onto a recording,” he says. “You have to pack as much as you can in an hour or 70 minutes. This time around it was 15 songs, so it was a challenge to get them all the right length so you could get them all on.”

Mayall will wrap up a US tour in late November but already has plans to return again for more shows in March. He is also set to play an extensive European tour next year, including approximately 30-odd dates set for France alone.

When asked who he considered the greatest blues guitarist, Mayall gives a diplomatic response.

“There are so many who are such individuals that you can’t really compare one against the other,” he says. “I usually prefer not to single any one out because they are all great as they are.”

And if he is often considered to be “The Father of British Blues,” then who would be “The Mother of British Blues”?

“I don’t know,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t really know.”

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