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John Mayall Biography

29 November 1933, Macclesfield, Cheshire, England. The career of England’s premier white blues exponent and father of British blues has now spanned six decades and much of that time has been unintentionally spent acting as a musical catalyst.

Mayall formed his first band in 1955 while at college, and as the Powerhouse Four the group worked mostly locally. Soon afterwards, Mayall enlisted for National Service. He then became a commercial artist and finally moved to London to form his Blues Syndicate, the forerunner to his legendary Blues Breakers. Along with Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies and Graham Bond, Mayall pioneered British R&B. The astonishing number of musicians who have passed through his bands reads like a who’s who. Even more remarkable is the number of names who have gone on to eclipse Mayall with either their own bands or as members of highly successful groups. Pete Frame, author of Rock Family Trees, has produced a detailed Mayall specimen, which is recommended. His roster of musicians included John McVie, Hughie Flint, Mick Fleetwood, Roger Dean, Davey Graham, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar, Peter Green, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Keef Hartley, Andy Fraser, Mick Taylor, Henry Lowther, Coco Montoya, Tony Reeves, Chris Mercer, Jon Hiseman, Steve Thompson, Colin Allen, Jon Mark, Johnny Almond, Harvey Mandel, Larry Taylor, and Don ‘Sugercane’ Harris.

Mayall’s 1965 debut, Plays John Mayall, was a live album which, although badly recorded, captured the tremendous atmosphere of an R&B club. His first single, ‘Crawling Up A Hill’, was included on this set and features Mayall’s thin voice attempting to compete with an exciting, distorted harmonica and Hammond organ. The follow-up album Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton (1966) is now a classic, and is highly recommended to all students of white blues. Clapton enabled his boss to reach a wider audience, as the crowds filled the clubs to catch a glimpse of the guitar hero. The following year’s A Hard Road featured some clean and sparing guitar from Peter Green, while Crusade (also 1967) offered a brassier, fuller sound.

Mayall’s first album without the Blues Breakers, The Blues Alone (his third release in 1967), demonstrated a more relaxed style and allowed Mayall to demonstrate his musical dexterity. Diary Of A Band, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 were released during 1968 and captured their live sound from the previous year; both featured excellent drumming from Keef Hartley, in addition to Mick Taylor on guitar. The same year’s Bare Wires, arguably Mayall’s finest work, demonstrated a strong jazz leaning, with the addition of Jon Hiseman on drums and the experienced brass section of Lowther, Mercer and Heckstall-Smith. The album was an introspective journey and contained Mayall’s most competent lyrics, notably the beautiful, hymn-like ‘I Know Now’ (included as part of the opening ‘Bare Wires - Suite’). The similarly packaged Blues From Laurel Canyon (Mayall often produced his own artwork) was another strong album which was recorded in Los Angeles, where Mayall was living.

This marked the end of the Blues Breakers name for a while, and, following the departure of Mick Taylor to the Rolling Stones, Mayall pioneered a drumless acoustic band featuring Jon Mark on acoustic guitar, Johnny Almond on tenor saxophone and flute, and Stephen Thompson on string bass. The subsequent live album, The Turning Point, proved to be his biggest-selling album and almost reached the UK Top 10. Notable tracks are the furious ‘Room To Move’, with Mayall’s finest harmonica solo, and ‘Thoughts About Roxanne’ with some exquisite saxophone from Almond. The same line-up plus Larry Taylor produced 1970’s Empty Rooms, which was more refined and less exciting. The band that recorded the same year’s USA Union comprised Americans Harvey Mandel, Don ‘Sugercane’ Harris and Larry Taylor. It gave Mayall yet another success, although he struggled lyrically.

Following the double Back To The Roots, which reunited some of the famous musicians that had played in his bands, Mayall’s work lost its bite, and over the next few years his output was of poor quality. The halcyon days of name stars in his band had passed and Mayall suffered record company apathy. His last album to chart was New Year, New Band, New Company in 1975, featuring for the first time a female vocalist, Dee McKinnie, and future Fleetwood Mac guitarist Rick Vito.

Following a run of albums that had little or no exposure, Mayall stopped recording, playing only infrequently close to his base in California. He toured Europe in 1988 to small but wildly enthusiastic audiences. That same year he signed to Island Records and released Chicago Line. Renewed activity and interest occurred in 1990 following the release of his finest album in many years, A Sense Of Place. Mayall was interviewed during a short visit to Britain in 1992 and sounded positive, happy and unaffected by years in the commercial doldrums. Wake Up Call changed everything once more. Released in 1993, the album proved one of his finest ever, and became his biggest-selling disc for over two decades.

The 90s were kind to Mayall; the birth of another child in 1995, and a solid new release, Spinning Coin. The replacement for the departing Coco Montoya was yet another highly talented guitarist (a fortune with which Mayall is clearly blessed); Buddy Whittington continued a tradition that started with Clapton and Green. 1997’s Blues For The Lost Days is regarded as one of Mayall’s most cogent lyrical statements. Many of the songs formed an autobiography and the tone was nostalgic and often sad. His first studio album of the new millennium, Along For The Ride remains of historical importance, although the pedestrian album cover was off-putting and looked like a Woolworths bargain basement reject. The music within reunited Mayall with several old Blues Breakers, including Heckstall-Smith, Fleetwood, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, and like-minded musicians such as Gary Moore, Otis Rush, Steve Cropper and Steve Miller.

As the sole survivor from the four 60s UK R&B/blues catalysts, Mayall has played the blues for so long without any deviation that it is hard to think of any other white artist to compare. He has outlived his contemporaries from the early days (Korner, Bond and Davis), and recent reappraisal has put the man back at the top of a genre that he can justifiably claim to have furthered more than any other Englishman.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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