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Buyer's Guide: John Mayall

The Godfather of British blues has reigned for half a century. Here are the albums you can’t refuse.

Plenty of British bluesmen have sold more records, but few command as much respect as John Mayall OBE. With a back catalogue of close to 60 albums, and kick-starting the careers of countless stadium-filling galacticos, there’s a solid pub argument that nobody has done so much, for so long, to keep British blues afloat. No wonder they call him the Godfather. Mayall almost missed the boat. Born near Macclesfield in 1933, he grew up in thrall to his father’s imported collection of blues 78s, and taught himself piano, guitar, harmonica and ukelele during downtime at art school. But National Service knocked him off track, and he returned to 1950s Britain to find a monopoly of trad-jazz bands “all playing the same tunes”. At last, in 1962, he sensed revolution in the air, and the following year he hit London like a train. Even back then, pushing 30, the bandleader seemed like an elder statesman; a silverback among the cubs of the nascent British scene, whose gravitas, brittle wit and deep knowledge of the genre’s roots made him a big fish at Alexis Korner’s Ealing Club. “London was booming,” Mayall recalls. “I was just glad the music I’d played since I was a kid was now a viable thing.” With impeccable timing, Mayall launched The Bluesbreakers, and so began an imperious early run of albums that remain set-texts for anyone remotely serious about the blues. This was Mayall’s band (the turnover of hired/fired members backs up his former guitarist Walter Trout’s observation that he was a “benevolent dictator”). But alongside the prolific songwriting, stinging musicianship and tremulous vocals, his genius lay in the nabbing and nurturing of ‘next big things’. In the 60s especially, the talent on the payroll was staggering – Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jack Bruce, Mick Taylor. And Mayall always let his charges off the leash. “Any person who joins my band,” he noted, “they’re all equal, whatever their age.” These days, Mayall, 80, continues to make albums that please the hard-core but make little dent in the mainstream. It’s unlikely he’ll produce anything to shuffle the pecking-order laid out here, but you can bet he’ll go down trying. “With music you can be any age,” he noted last year. “There’s no end in sight yet.”

ESSENTIAL Classics

Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton 

John Mayall And The Bluesbreakers

Decca, 1966

The inevitable first purchase, 1966’s so-called Beano album is the high-water mark of the 60s British blues boom, Mayall’s finest hour and Eric Clapton’s precocious launch pad. From the languid opening swoop of Otis Rush’s All Your Love, through the jet-fuelled Hideaway, to spring-heeled Mayall originals like Key To Love and Little Girl, this is amped-up blues rock that walks a tightrope between reverential and rip-it-up exciting. Nearly 50 years after it hit number six in the UK, there’s a case for saying that nobody involved has ever flown higher.

A Hard Road

John Mayall And The Bluesbreakers 

Decca, 1967 

Producer Mike Vernon hit the roof when The Bluesbreakers rolled into Decca Studios without Eric Clapton. He needn’t have panicked. The canny Mayall’s new signing, 20-year-old nonentity Peter Green, was patently up to snuff, whether bleeding soul over his self-penned instrumental The Supernatural, detonating Freddie King’s The Stumble, or dovetailing with Mayall on top-drawer originals like the morose title track.

Green and bassist John McVie would split that same year for Fleetwood Mac, but their legacy is an album that snaps at The Bluesbreakers’ heels.

SUPERIOR Reputation cementing

Crusade

John Mayall And The Bluesbreakers 

Decca, 1967 

Mayall was outraged by the untrumpeted death of J.B. Lenoir, and Crusade was his attempt to force the blues down the throat of the mainstream (“I hope you’ll join forces with me,” he writes in the sleeve notes).

With Green gone, his eye had settled on a teenage Mick Taylor, who brings equal parts soul and swagger. Crusade took just seven hours to record and mix, which perhaps accounts for its wham-bam brilliance. The band tips its hat on The Death Of J.B. Lenoir, and Taylor arguably pips Clapton’s Hideaway with his jaw-dropping instrumental Snowy Wood.

Blues From Laurel Canyon 

John Mayall 

Decca, 1968

Mayall had spent the summer of 1968 crashing at Frank Zappa’s dissolute Laurel Canyon home. This loose concept album is his postcard, opening with the roar of an airliner touching down (Vacation), then lurching through sticky accounts of musos (The Bear) and LA groupies (the jazzy Miss James). The rhythm section of drummer Colin Allen and bassist Steve Thompson provide a taut backbone, but the star of the piece is a ridiculously precocious Mick Taylor, whose pugnacious, heart-in-fingers fretwork made his exit for the Stones the following year feel like a step down.

Bare Wires

John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers 

Decca, 1968 

Bold moves all round, as Bare Wires binned the Crusade rhythm section, added brass and kicked off with a 23-minute title ‘suite’. Jazzier and lyrically introspective, the album rewarded open-minded listeners with a volley of cuts that still dazzle, from the rug-cutting funk of No Reply (Mick Taylor working the wah-wah pedal with Hendrix-worthy panache) to the parping slow-blues of I’m A Stranger. It tested the faith of his trad-blues fans, but the consensus was a thumbs-up: Bare Wires gave Mayall his highest UK chart placing (number three) and broke him in the States.

The Turning Point 

John Mayall 

Polydor, 1969

By the end of the 60s, the man who mobilised electric blues was restless, dropping the Bluesbreakers brand and recording a live album of self-described “low-volume music”. Out went the drums and blazing lead guitar; in came John Almond’s saxophone and Jon Mark’s acoustic finger-style nuances, for some of the folkiest and rootsiest tracks of Mayall’s career. So Hard To Share drips atmosphere, and I’m Gonna Fight For You J.B. is campfire- intimate, but the pick is the closing Room To Move, its chippy harp-led strut remaining a high point of Mayall shows to this day.

GOOD Worth exploring

USA Union

John Mayall

Polydor, 1970

Mayall’s recruitment of an all-American band was a blow to national pride, but the line-up of Canned Heat’s Harvey Mandel and Larry Taylor alongside the emotive electric violin of Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris proved a potent mix on this love-letter to then-partner Nancy Throckmorton.

With its generally laidback vibe, it’s the spiritual sequel to The Turning Point, and while the material isn’t quite up to that album there is frequent magic in highlights like You Must Be Crazy and Crying. Best of all is Nature’s Disappearing, its jazzy lilt concealing a stinging ecological polemic (‘Man’s a filthy creature, raping the land and water and the air...’).

Back To The Roots 

John Mayall 

Polydor, 1971

It was certainly a star-studded prospect, with Bluesbreakers alumni Clapton, Taylor and Keef Hartley briefly lured back to the fold, alongside Mayall’s US band of the period. In practice, while the chemistry doesn’t always spark like the old days, Back To The Roots offers enough gems for a spot on the podium. Prisons On The Road _is a barrelhouse pop at the daily commute, and Taylor has rarely sounded sweeter than on _Marriage Madness, but the peak is Accidental Suicide, on which the guesting guitar heroes jockey for position. Remixed versions appeared on Archive To The Eighties, but Roots is the better option.

Jazz Blues Fusion

John Mayall

Polydor, 1972

Don’t let the cappucino-and-polo-neck connotations of the title scare you off. Mayall lured a crack squad of jazz cats into the fold – including guitarist Freddy Robinson and trumpeter Blue Mitchell – but this live album is anything but po-faced muso pseudery. Between the upbeat anarchy of Good Time Boogie and the brassy bounce of Mess Around, there’s plenty to scratch the hard-core’s blues itch, while there are few finer showcases for the bandleader’s formidable harp chops than Exercise In C Major. Mayall deemed the short-lived line-up a “dynamite combination”, and this album sounds like one hell of a night out.

AVOID

Big Man Blues

John Mayall

Music Avenue, 2012

John Mayall doesn’t make ‘bad’ albums as such, but he does knock out the odd workmanlike one. There’s nothing wrong with this one, recorded in the early 80s and repackaged various times since. The line-up – James Quill Smith, in particular, is a capable guitarist – make a decent fist of cuts like Jimmy Reed’s Baby, What You Want Me To Do and J.B. Lenoir’s Mama Talk To Your Daughter. Elsewhere though, on some lacklustre Mayall originals like John Lee Boogie, there’s a wagon-circling feel, and changes that can be seen coming a mile off. Not a car crash, it’s just another so-so blues album. And God knows we’ve got enough of those.

ESSENTIAL PLAYLIST

STEPPIN' OUT

Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton

KEY TO LOVE

Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton

NATURE'S DISAPPEARING 

USA Union

SO MANY ROADS

Looking Back

OH, PRETTY WOMAN 

Crusade

I’M YOUR WITCHDOCTOR 

1965 single

A HARD ROAD

A Hard Road

2401

Blues From Laurel Canyon

ROOM TO MOVE

The Turning Point

GOOD TIME BOOGIE 

Jazz Blues Fusion

MARRIAGE MADNESS 

Back To The Roots

CRAWLING UP A HILL 

1964 single

PICTURE ON THE WALL 

Looking Back

THE SUPERNATURAL 

A Hard Road

NO REPLY

Bare Wires

THE STUMBLE

A Hard Road

SO MANY ROADS LIVE

WHAT HAPPENED IN 1933?

Mayall was born in 1933. This is also what happened that year:

  • Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge began

  • Hitler comes to power in Germany

  • King Kong premiers in New York

  • America repeals prohibition

  • The controversial Bodyline cricket series between England and Australia happens

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