In Praise of John Mayall: The Godfather of British Blues
On Friday night I was lucky enough to go and see John Mayall, The ‘Godfather of British Blues’. He was playing at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club – one of the most iconic venues in London. I had never been before and so I had the great pleasure of ticking 2 of the boxes on my musical bucket list in one go.
To see one of the most iconic characters in the history of the British Blues scene was a huge moment for me.
Not only did Mayall play a huge role in the British Blues boom during the 1960s; he helped to launch the careers of guitarists like Eric Clapton and Peter Green. This created a movement that was so profound that it led to new levels of success for the bluesmen that had originally inspired Mayall – players like Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Freddie King.
Yet despite the profound impact that John Mayall has had on the blues, he remains largely unknown. When I told friends and colleagues I was going to see Mayall, they looked puzzled. Either that or they misheard me, thought I said ‘John Mayer’ and started singing ‘Waiting on The World to Change’… Even some guitar playing friends didn’t recognise the name.
I wanted to redress this injustice in some small way. This is an article in praise of John Mayall – a man who helped to shape the genre of the blues as we now know it.
A Brief History of British Blues
The British Blues boom set in motion one of the most significant cultural movements of the 20th century. I would argue that this precipitated the birth of rock n’ roll, as well as the hippy culture of free love, peace and psychedelia.
The history of this movement is fascinating and hinges on just a few key characters, of which John Mayall is one.
After the Second World War, Britain was the ‘Sick Man of Europe’. Despite victory over Germany, the country was economically crippled and wartime measures like rationing remained. For the youth of the day, life was dull. They lacked opportunities and excitement and felt dissillusioned with life in Britain.
They started to look outside of Britain for inspiration and many fixed on America. Their perception of the country was highly idealistic. For teenagers like Eric Clapton, America was a country where life was easy and opportunity and excitement was everywhere.
This led to frustration, anger and depression amongst many British teenagers. They wanted more than they felt was being offered to them in England. And so they started to look elsewhere for inspiration. This was how they found the American bluesman.
The Bluesman & The British Blues ‘Network’
The Bluesman is an interesting cultural figure. He is downtrodden, impoverished and faces discrimination on an almost daily basis. But he is also an aspirational figure. The bluesman is a lothario. He is charismatic, powerful and has superhuman skills with the opposite sex. He is skilled, respected in his community and lives a life full of excitement. Finally, he is always on the move, travelling to new places and gaining new experiences.
The Bluesman’s life was the antithesis of that of a teenager in 1950s England. And so it is little surprise that characters like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson became the key source of inspiration for young musicians like Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Jeff Beck, amongst countless others. The bluesman touched these young musicians on an emotional level. As author Andrew Kellett has noted in his book The British Blues Network, ‘For a generation of young middle-class British men, the bluesman persona was a tonic’.
Separately, these young men became obsessed by the blues and went to extreme measures to consume as much blues music as possible. They started ordering LPs from the US, buying niche magazines and travelling around the country to see the blues played live in bars like Eel Pie Island in London. They began to form a network of avid blues musicians, who began to copy and adapt the American blues music they were so passionate about. As Keith Richards once put it, every town in Britain in the late 1950s had a small group of blues enthusiasts: ‘Sometimes just four or five guys – the blues freaks!’
John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers
John Mayall was a prominent figure within this burgeoning blues scene. Almost 10 years older than those British musicians that would later rise to fame – like Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Jimmy Page – Mayall was one of the first experts on the blues outside of the US. He had studied and listened to blues music for years prior to the scene taking off in the early 1960s. Thus he naturally fell into a mentorship role for guitarists like Clapton and Green – the former spending hours at Mayall’s house listening to his extensive collection of blues LPs.
This proved to be significant, and would lead to the creation of two of the most prominent albums in British blues with Mayall’s band – John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. The first of these was the famous ‘Beano’ album, officially titled Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. The second, recorded a few years later was A Hard Road, featuring Peter Green on lead guitar.
Although Mayall has gone on to record countless solo albums, he will always be best remembered for these two albums. They set the standard for British blues and have come to define the sub-genre. Prior to the Beano album, no-one had played loud, overdriven guitar with as much intensity as Clapton. His guitar playing on songs like ‘Steppin’ Out‘ and ‘Double Crossing Time‘ was unprecedented. It changed the way that musicians approached the instrument and inspired a whole generation of guitarists.
Whilst Green’s work with the band is not quite as well remembered, it is equally notable for the effect that it had on blues music. Green’s short tenure with the band empowered him to go and form Fleetwood Mac, the early incarnation of which went on to become one of the best British blues groups of all time.
John Mayall’s Legacy
The Bluesbreakers started a British blues movement that quickly gathered a huge amount of momentum. It catapulted Clapton into stardom and caused an explosion in the popularity of blues and blues rock music. The effects of this were both immense and far reaching. Guitarists like B.B. King and Muddy Waters gained new levels of stardom both in the US and abroad. They were granted accessed to prestigious venues like the Fillmore East from which they had previously been banned. And it was the first time that musicians like King played for white audiences.
It would be an exaggeration to say that John Mayall was the only character who played a part in these significant cultural changes. There was a diverse range of musicians, promoters and club owners that helped to popularise blues on both sides of the Atlantic. Certainly though, we can see that Mayall was one of the pioneers of this movement.
He personally played a huge part in the careers of Eric Clapton and Peter Green, arguably two of the best British blues guitarists of all time. This in turn started a movement that gave life to a new style of music and totally changed the landscape of the blues.
Almost 6o years later and Mayall is still going strong, writing new music and spreading the good vibes of the blues. He is a true inspiration and an amazing advocate of the blues in all its forms.
John Mayall – Recommended Listening
John Mayall has a recording career that spans almost 6 decades. So there is a whole wealth of material to which you can listen. But If you’re new to John Mayall – or if it’s been a while since you listened to him, start with the albums I’ve listed below. They are amongst some of the most influential British blues albums ever recorded:
As noted above, the ‘Beano’ album (so called because Eric Clapton is pictured reading a copy of the Beano magazine on the album cover), totally changed the landscape of blues music. It began the process of British musicians adapting American blues, giving it a heavier rock sound.
The album features some of Eric Clapton’s best guitar playing, and showcases an electric guitar tone that many still hail as the gold standard in modern blues. All of the tracks on this album are brilliant, but some of the standout songs for me are:
This final song is a brilliant cover of Freddie King’s original version. I think it epitomises the differences between American and British blues; the latter being heavier, faster and more intense than the American equivalent.
When Eric Clapton left the Bluesbreakers to form Cream, Peter Green was drafted in as his replacement. So the story goes, when Mayall was questioned about Clapton leaving the band by his exasperated producer Mike Vernon, Mayall responded ‘Don’t worry, we got someone better’.
Green was only 20 at the time, but had no trouble filling Clapton’s shoes. He quickly earned the nickname the ‘Green God’ as a result. Although Green’s playing is not at it’s very best on this album (in my opinion that came later, with Fleetwood Mac), the album features some beautiful songs and guitar solos. Some of my favourites are:
The album also features the masterful instrumental, The Super-Natural. This was written by Green and hints at the guitarist that Green would go on to become. It illustrates his immense control of the instrument, as well as the quality of his touch and feel. It ended up becoming one of his most famous songs and somewhat of a trademark.
If like me you’re a big fan of Peter Green, then you need to listen to this live album from 1967. It features the only recordings of what many believe is the ultimate Bluesbreakers line up. In addition to Mayall and Green, it included John McVie and Mick Fleetwood – the founding (and still current) members of Fleetwood Mac. This line up was only together for around 3 months, and they never recorded any studio material.
Fortunately for us, a passionate young fan called Tom Hussein followed the band around five different clubs across London. He recorded each of their performances, the best of which have been compiled on this album.
Given how the songs were recorded, at times the quality is a little sketchy, but as Hussein notes, that isn’t really the point:
Of course, it’s not 24-bit hi-fi audio. But what you hear is exactly how it sounded in The Marquee, The Manor House and Klooks Kleek. People say to me, ‘Oh, I wish I was there’. Well, with this album, in a certain way, you are. I was 16 then. I’m 65 now. But when I hear that music, I see myself standing there in the clubs again…
Beyond these 3 albums, which are my favourites, I would also recommend listening to The Blues Alone and The Crusade – both of which feature Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor – as well as The Turning Point. This last album is a collection of acoustic live recordings performed without a drummer. It is a brilliant collection of songs performed the way the blues was originally in the Deep South in the early 20th century.