San Francisco show at Slim’s. Concert Photography by J.D. Brumback
Interview conducted June 22, 1997 at Slim’s Night Club by Mike Somavilla
(research by Gordon B. Hull & Mike Somavilla)
John Mayall was born 11/29/33 in Macclesfield, England. His father was a jazz guitarist with a huge blues/jazz record collection. John began playing guitar at 12 and piano at 14. In 1955 he formed his first group called the Power House Four. In ’62 after moving to london, Mayall formed the band “Blues Syndicate”. Turning professional in ’63 with encouragement from Alexis Korner, the first of the Blues Breakers bands recorded its first single “Crawl Up A Hill”.
Over the next 30 years, Mayall recorded over 40 records and the list of talent he discovered and fostered reads like the who’s who of jazz, rock and blues – Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Joohn McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Aynsley Dunber, Jon Mark, Andy Fraser, Keef Hartley, Harvey Mandel, Larry Taylor, Ernie Watts, Dick Heckstall Smith, Hughie Flint, Jack Bruce, Tony McPhee, John Almond and many others.
Q: You’re known as a strict task master who runs a tight ship; you once kicked out John McVie and Mick Fleetwood for excessive drinking; are you more tolerant these days? A: You’re reading quotes from magazines and articles, you know, which is not really fair. I’m having trouble answering something like that – that’s written and read out off of a magazine. I’m not a hard task master – John McVie and Mick Fleetwood were sometimes too drunk to play – so obviously they had to go for that reason and they would tell you the same thing. It was justified and as for the tolerance these days, that doesn’t really apply because I’ve never been a hard task master. I’m the easiest guy to get along with, providing I have the right musicians and I think that history shows that I have.
Q: Regarding your “Blues Alone” album in 1968, did you really lay down all the tracks in one day?
A: I can’t remember – it probably was a bit more than that. If it says so on the album. It was probably done within a week, anyway but it was a pleasureable experience. Keef Harley came in and did the drumming on it because my timing was terrible when it came to playing the drums. It’s one thing I’ve never been able to deal with.
Q: On “The Turning Point” your recorded a tribute to J.B. Lenoir entitled “I’m Gonna Fight For You J.B.” Can you talk about his influence on your music?
A: Well, I’ve always liked his music; his lyrics always struck me as being a little off the beaten track for a standard blues fare and he had a lot of great musical ideas and his voice was terrific too.
Q: “Blues Breakers John Mayall with Eric Clapton” is one of those classic, seminal albums of our time (a “must have” for all collectors), but it seems to be better known because of Eric Clapton; does that bother you?
A: It’s a great album. It put Eric on the map and put me on the map. (It sure did.)
Q: Your only U.S. charting single “Don’t Waste My Time” reached #81 in ’69, but “Room To Move” seems to be your most requested song – Is it your favorite, too?
A: No, it’s more of a signature tune really. Luckily, it’s translated very well to any particular instrumentation that I’ve had ever since. It started off as a big band number and translated into what we had on Turning Point.
Q: Are there any recordings of Powerhouse Four or Blues Syndicate?
The liner notes for your first album were written by Alexis Corner – Can you talk about his influence, and did you ever perform together on stage or informally? A: Did Alexis write the first one? Q: For Klooks Kleek? A: Oh, did he . . . I can’t remember that. . . Yeah, maybe he did . . . obviously, you know about that. We played on the same shows together, but not at the same time. Q: “USA Union” is your best selling album in America, hitting #22 on the Billboard Charts in ’70; are you still in touch with Harvey Mandel (guitar) and/or Larry Taylor (bass)? And how did they come to join your band in the first place? A: It did? (according to my researcher, yes) Sounds very suspect to me. Yeah, Larry lives pretty near me. I see him quite a lot – but Harvey was here at the last gig, but he had to work tonight. I chose them – I’m the band leader, so I pick the musicians.
Q: In ’88 you recorded, remixed and remastered 8 songs from “Back To the Roots” (1971) and releasted it as part of archives to Eighties; Do you have any plans to do this with other recordings? A: No, not right now. Maybe something with the bottom Line if I can ever get my hands on the master tapes, but that particular album – the producer kind of mixed it so that, so . . . . I do remember playing on it, but there’s no evidence of it. I’d like to be able to get that one and hear what is on the actual tracks.
Q: You have guested on albums by Rod Stewart, Eddie Boyd, Albert King and Shakey Jake Harris. Have you played “session man” for anyone else? A: Oh, very few and far between. I think you probably named them all there, I can’t think of any more off hand. (Buddy Guy is another)
Q: You featured a woman – Dee McKinnie on vocals on “New Year New Band and New Company” in 1975 – What brought on this change in direction? A: That was part of the band you know, the band I had then. Dee McKinnie was from Memphis and she worked with Jet Spell who was the keyboardist on that particular outing.
Q: You and Allen Toussaint did an album in ’75 – “Notice To Appear” but there were only two songs that you penned; would you say Allen had more control in those sessions? A: Yeah, he was totally in charge of it. It weas proposed I work with him. So we had to do it his way. It was his studio production entirely. I was lucky to get two songs on it (laughing)!
Q: You released 5 albums on ABC and 3 on DJM between ’76 and ’80, with none of them seeing much action; what would you say was the reason for this? A: It’s hard to tell, I think there was a general recession in the record industry at that particular time. there wasn’t that much interest in blues records – who knows what happens with these things but I know the late 70’s and early 80’s were a pretty rough time for not just me, but for a lot of blues players getting record deals. We were still doing our live gigs with no problem; to get record interest was difficult.
Q: The 1983 audio fidelity release “Casa Blues” featured Blue Mitchell and Freddie Robinson on four long instrumentals. How did this record come about? A:Well, Blue was in my band. Freddy was in my band and Blue had another album to do, so I got ROLLED into that one – it was nice.
Q: Why was there never a record release of the excellent video “Blues Alive”, taken from your June ’82 show at the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey? A: Like I said, That was the time when there was no record interest, so the video was out, so that really tells the story.
Q: “Chicago Line” (1988) featured two superb guitarists – Coco Montoya and Walter Trout. Are you still in touch with them and what do you think of their solo projects? A: Sure, yeah, Coco just released his 3rd album and Walter has about 6 albums out and Walter’s really big in Europe, not so big over here. Yeah, in fact he’s in England (touring) right now.
Q: A sense of Place (1990) is an appropriate title for your return to the charts – Do you have a perspective on this? A: Well, I don’t know about the charts. As far as I’m concerned, no album of mine has been in the charts since probably “The Turning Point”. I don’t really know. And as far as I’m concerned I’ve never had a gold record, so I don’t have any knowledge of these things.
Q: Your current label – Silvertone has released 3 stellar albums “Wake Up Call” (1993) “Spinning Coin” (1996) and the recent “Blues For The Lost Days” Do you feel that you are finally getting the treatment you deserve from a record label?
A:Well, it’s nice to be able to get support from the record company thiat is behind too, so I’m very happy with that. (Sure is, and it looks like they’re doing a good job for you.) Yeah.
Q: Your guitarist, Buddy Whittington is your latest discovery. How did you meet and what is his background? A: He’s from Texas and we had him in an opening act that we did in Dallas a few years ago. That’s how we came to meet and when Coco left, I contacted Buddy.
Q: I understand that you went to art school and at one time you were involved in advertising graphics. You’ve even had a hand in the layout and design of some of your album covers. Does art still play a part in your life? A: No so much, there’s not much time for anything else but music and family life these days, but occasionally I do some painting.
Q: Have you ever played any solo acoustic gigs? A: No, I’ve never been into that. that’s why I’m a band leader and work with sparking off other musicians.
Q: Fairport Conventions have put on shows where all the members from their various line ups converge and perform on stage in chronological order. Have you ever thought about doing a similar adventure for the Blues Breakers to reunite Clapton, Taylor, Green, Mandel, McVie, Dunbar and countless others from the John Mayall School of Music?
A: Don’t even finish, it’s total insanity.
Q: You’ve played with a lot of people – Is there anyone in particular that you would like to work with in the future?
A: I’ve got it now. This is the line up. This is the right one.
Q: In 1972, Cleve (a small label from Texas) released the album “John Lee Hooker, John Mayall and the Ground Hogs”, recorded in London. How much involvement did you have on this this project?
A: None at all. Somebody put my name on it. Ihad nothing to do with that. I don’t even know anything about it except somebody pretended I was on it, but I’m certainly not on it.
Q: I read that you lived in a tree at one time; can you describe the humble abode you once called “home”.
A: I’ve never been one for humble abodes. I’ve alwaays been one for luxuray. And if I built a tree house it was becasue it was my own building and it would be my own decoration and the place to p;ut all my stuff, but humble abodes have never been part of my life (laughing).
Q: Were you ever able to reconstruct your “library” after the fire in Laurel Canyon?
A: No, I was never able to reconstruct anything, some unbeatable photographs, records, tapes, books, magazines – everything is gone, so it was a big loss and nothing could be retained.
Q: “Blues for the Lost Days” is described as your “the best album of John Mayall’s career” in your record company press statement. How do you feel about that?
A:Well, I hope so, I hope they do.
Q: What was it like to live with Frank Zappa and Canned Heat in the ’60’s? Did you and “The Mothers” or Canned Heat ever jam together?
A: No, I never lived with them. I spent a couple of nights at Frank Zappa’s house once and maybe a night at Canned Heat’s house at the time. No I never played with them.
Q: Your wife Maggie sang with the Harvey Mandel Band before joining your band – Does she still sing?
A: No, she had a band – Maggie Mayall and the Cadillacs and when they started to split up there was no replacing the excellent musicians that sparked that off, so she’s just doing the family life now.
Q: It seems to me that without you, Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies, Graham Bond and Long John Baldry there would have been no british blues and rock scene – Just about everybody passed through the ranks of those groups and went on to great success. Would you agree that you guys were sort of the “Blues Godfathers” and forefathers, not to mention a proving ground and training school for talent?
A: Well, that’s how it worked out. We didn’t think of it at the time as being like that. We all had to work and we were all enthused and that’s what happened.
Q: On Blues From Laurel Canyon, you wrote a song “Miss James” about Katherine James from the band “Groupies”. Did you hang out with the Groupies, G.T.O’s or Plaster Casters who were all part of that music scene?
A: Yeah, they tended to gravitate around Frank Zappa’s house so throught them I met everybody.
Q: On “Blues for the Lost Days” there seems to be a lot of songs dealing with tributes and love themes – love for your wife (You Are For Real), love for your mother (One In A Million), love for life and family (I Don’t Mind), loe for old times and friends (Blues for the Lost Days), love for the hate of war (Trenches), love for mentors and heros (All Those Heros) and just an overall love for the blues throughout the album. Any comment?
A: Well, I think you just described the whole album right there (laughing).
Q: How is your current tour going?
A: It’s great as always, we never have any trouble touring.
Q: Your new CD kicks ass – how is the audience reaction to the new songs?
A: Well, you heard it tonight and there was a double encore and they still wanted more, so I think you can say it was totally excellent. (I think so. I can agree with that.)
Q: You’re turning 64 this year; how much longer do you see yourself touring?
A: As long as I’m doing what I’m doing now, you know – kicking ass. (As long as the fans are still there?) Yeah, well the fans will be there as long as I deliver.
Well John, on behalf of CitySites Magazine, I want to thank you for your time and thank Silvertone for this opportunity. We wish you much success with your new CD and the tour.
I have to say that it wa a real pleasure talking with John Mayall and the performance was outstanding. His current killer band of Blues Breakers include Buddy Whittington (guitar), John Paulus (bass), and Joe Yuele (drums) and they all put on one helluva show. I highly recommend that you check out their show whenever you get a chance.
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