Godfather of blues to rock region
He was the man who made the careers of many of the rock guitar legends of the 1960s, but his own music is highly acclaimed in itself. John Mayall, the Godfather of British Blues, has dates in Norwich, King's Lynn and Ipswich this week.
Eric Clapton went on to Cream and a hugely successful solo career, Jimmy Page formed Led Zeppelin, Mick Taylor joined the Rolling Stones and Peter Green went on to Fleetwood Mac.
What they all have in common, apart from being among the best British rock guitarists of the 1960s, is one man: John Mayall. His band The Bluesbreakers has always been known a finishing school for the country's most promising blues musicians. For this reason, along with the fact that at 72 he's a few years older than most of his protégés, Mayall has been dubbed the Godfather of British Blues. And 40-plus years on from when he made his name, he is still touring relentlessly and dedicating himself to promoting the music he loves. This Sunday, November 5, The Bluesbreakers come to Norwich, and Mayall is confident that his current lead guitarist could match anyone you care to name from the band's past.
“We have a Texan blues guitarist, Buddy Whittington,” he says. “The mark of a great guitar player is if you listen to somebody and you can tell who they are after a couple of bars.
“Buddy is in that category and the fact that he has been with me for so many years attests to that. You never get bored listening to him.”
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His current line-up of The Bluesbreakers is the most settled in the band's history, he explains.
“Over the last 20 years I think we have been very steady. Everybody has been very supportive, I've had the best band I've ever had.”
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Mayall himself primarily plays keyboards and sings but is a multi-instrumentalist bandleader, playing harmonica, lead guitar, piano and Hammond organ during the course of a gig.
Music ran in the family. He was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire, to a semi-professional guitar player on November 29, 1933, and took an early interest in jazz and blues by exploring his father's record collection. As a teenager he had his first brush with fame, though not for his music. He decided to leave the parental home moved into his treehouse in the back garden. This typically eccentric decision made the local papers, and after he had returned from a spell with the army in Korea, he brought his first wife back to his treehouse to live with him there.
He had been playing music since his early teens - by 14 he had taught himself the basics of guitar and boogie woogie piano, though in terms of a career he was studying to become an artist.
“As my career was directed towards graphic design, I never really thought about becoming a professional musician. During the 50s, England was dominated by the traditional jazz bands of the day and, as there was no indication that the blues would ever have an audience, I played only for my own satisfaction.”
He began playing for an audience in the 1950s, however, and cut his teeth fronting semi-professional bands The Powerhouse Four and Blues Syndicate.
In 1963 he moved to London aged 29 and formed The Bluesbreakers. Two years later he hired Eric Clapton in a move that propelled both musicians' careers to a new level. Mayall also learnt his craft from the originators of the music he loves, backing blues greats such as John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and Sonny Boy Williamson on their English tours. He says he looks back fondly: “All those characters are no longer with us. It was a great thrill to be able to back them. I certainly learnt a lot from each of them: you learn a lot about delivery. It makes you feel quite small and inadequate! But you learn a lot.”
The 1970s saw Mayall establish a solo career and move to Laurel Canyon, near Los Angeles, which is where he remains based.
He suffered a setback in 1979 when his house burned down but by the early 1980s was on the up again, reforming The Bluesbreakers with Mick Taylor and John McVie, who had left the band in the mid-60s with Peter Green to form Fleetwood Mac.
Although his career has fluctuated in terms of critical and commercial success, Mayall is adamant that he has always found something to enjoy in playing the blues.
Certain bands haven't been as popular as others but that's part of the fabric of popular music,” he said.
In fact, he is so engrossed in his current band that he was a little reluctant to talk about the great musicians with whom he has worked in the past.
“What I love most is the fact it's an ongoing career; every year we play 120 shows,” he says.
“There may be people who are bigger names than I am, but some of them have got stuck with the same notes they have to play for the last 20 or 30 years.
“I don't have time to look back and digest it all, it's an ongoing project. But it's a great career to have experienced,” he said.
John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers are at the UEA at 8pm on Sunday, November 5, supported by Stan Webb's Chicken Shack. Tickets cost £20. For tickets call the UEA box office on 01603 508050. Then on Monday, November 6, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers are at King's Lynn Corn Exchange, telephone 01553 764864; followed by Ipswich Corn Exchange on Tuesday, November 7, telephone 01473 433100.