John Mayall Interview: Godfather of British Blues
John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers recently released 'In The Palace Of The King', a tribute to the music of the late, great Freddie King. It was therefore a good time to catch up with a genuine Blues legend...
The latest in a long line of album releases, 'In The Palace Of The King' sees John joined by his long-standing Bluesbreakers lineup of guitarist Buddy Whittington, drummer Joe Yuele, bassist Hank Van Sickle, and keyboardist Tom Canning alongside a fine horn section comprising of Lee Thornburg, Lon Price, and Red Holloway.
A Little History...
John Mayall shouldn't need any introduction to any self repecting guitar fan: for many music fans since the 1960's John has simply been known as the 'Godfather of British Blues'. The Bluesbreakers were a genuinely groundbreaking band, and were largely responsible for exposing traditional American blues to the British listeners and musicans that would soon change the face of music.
The Bluesbreakers pioneered an audaciously modern and exciting interpretation of the music of Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, Elmore James, and especially Freddie King. Moreover, the excitement that this new form of electric blues caused in the UK travelled back accross the Atlantic and helped create a new lease of life for blues music in the US and throughout the world.
John wasn't the first English musician to delve deeply into American blues music - Graham Bond and Alexis Korner were also deeply influential in the early 60s - but John had an unrivalled knack for spotting and hiring future guitar superstars. He recognised early on the importance that the electric guitar would have in modern blues, and over the years the songs of John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers have featured some of the most innovative and influential blues guitar work in history.
Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor all went on to experience remarkable careers of their own, each possessing a unique touch, amazing flair and indeed a great aptitude for paying homage to the music of the original blues musicians.
The Bluesbreakers albums that featured the aforementioned guitarists are enduring classics - in particular the ubiquitous 1966 release 'John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton' - better known to most as the 'Beano' album.
American guitarists Walter Trout and Coco Montoya soon followed in the footsteps of the big three, and both guitarists have since built strong and enduring solo careers. For the last 15 years Texan Buddy Whittington has held this much envied position with great style and panache.
However, it would be incomplete to mention only guitarists when talking about the Mayall legacy, as there has been an amazing array of world class bass players (Jack Bruce, John McVie to name but two) drummers (Mick Fleetwood, Soko Richardson and others) and horn players through the ranks over the years.
As chief choreographer of the band's material - as well as its defining father - John Mayall has a long established ability to lift his fellow performers to the level of icon - an idol's 'idol' one might say!
Bandleader, lead vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist (harp, keyboards, guitar, sax...) at 74 years of age John still tours the globe, bringing his exciting brand of electric blues to music lovers and connoisseurs everywhere. I recently spoke with the genuine 'Godfather of British Blues'...
56 AND COUNTING!
Congratulations, John, on your new album, 'In the Palace of the King'.
Oh, yeah. Thank you. I'm very pleased with it.
Fifty-six studio albums, I think it is!
That must be a record in itself...
Yeah...they keep mounting up!
you'VE BEEN hugeLY INFLUENCED BY Freddie King, BUT what SPECIFICALLY brought ABOUT THE idea for a WHOLE Freddie King themeD album?
Well, every time I make an album I like to come up with some kind of theme or idea that'll hold it together. Because I haven't done any kind of tribute albums to any of my heroes, Eagle [Vision] suggested that it would be a good idea. Freddie King was the obvious choice because his guitar style has been something that all the guitar players in the Bluesbreakers have looked at as sort of a role model. In fact, his singing has always been an influence on my singing, too. It seemed logical as soon as it was mentioned, and that's the way we have it.
Freddie'S songs are HIGHLY REGARDED; BUT EQUALLY HIS INFLUENCE ON INSTRUMENTALISTS IS MASSIVE: WHAT ASPECT OF FREDDIE'S MUSIC PRIMARILY GRABBED YOU?
It's the whole package really. You can't really separate them. I mean, Freddie had a great personality, and his chops were terrific. He was a great singer, great guitar player, and very inspiring really.
How did you go about choosing the songs for this album?
Well, you know, he had such a large catalog. From the early days, all of the stuff he did on the Federal label. I suppose it was with the view of getting radio play on AM stations, leading all the way up to where he got together with Non Nix and Leon Russell, and then to the more modern ones, which were healthy material and extended cuts. So, it wasn't really all that hard to pick the material. I just went with the ones that had the most different feel from each other so there wasn't any repetition of tempos or keys, moods or whatever. It kind of fell into place fairly quickly.
Speaking of keys, I like the fact that you put the key to each song in the album CD booklet...
Yeah. It's sort of a guide for people who are interested in trying to follow along. It's something I've always been keen to do.
The Robben Ford song 'Cannonball Shuffle' is a nice addition.
We did a tour with Robben and he enjoyed us. The Bluesbreakers backed him on a little package tour we did a couple of years ago. That was one of the songs he wrote in tribute to Freddie. He and the Bluesbreakers played it quite regularly on that tour, so I wanted that one in there, too.
'You Know That You Love Me:' is an interesting start to the album: It kind of flaunts the whole band individually.
Yeah. Well, it's a good kicker. It gets your attention right away.
'Going Down' is a nice addition to the album as well.
Yeah. That's probably Freddie's most well known song, outside of 'Hideaway'. It's a great Don Nix piece.
Buddy Whittington is amazing on 'Palace of the King'!
Yes. He's been with me for fifteen years now. They're all so much of a well oiled machine, and he's quite an exceptional guitar player, a great addition to the Bluesbreakers' history.
He fits very well into the Bluesbreakers guitarist' alumni...
You've been very successful at choosing guitar players...! Is there a process involved, something you SPECIFICALLY look for?
Well, if you think about it, there hasn't been that many; apart from the early days, in the sixties, when Clapton, Green, and Taylor were in the band for about a year each, before going on to their own careers and so forth. I think what I've always done was indulged my own musical taste with people who turn me on and excite me. That's been the criteria.
Walter Trout and Coco Montoya - both whom I've had the pleasure to interview over the past year or so - have credited you with having amazing bandleader qualities, especially on the road during a gruelling tour. You were more like a father than a boss to them, and you kept everything cool and together.
I think if you have the right people who feel part of a musical family, then we generally get along. There are a few ups and downs here and there, but nothing really serious. I think if you pick the right people, the right personalities, there doesn't seem to be too much trouble. I've always enjoyed getting musical people together, also personality wise.
Mick Taylor has been known to say that there's no better way to learn how to play blues guitar than with John Mayall. Do you think that's because of your understanding of the blues or your understanding of blues guitar?
I think it's a bit of both really. First and foremost, if you pick the right people, I think the whole idea of picking them in the first place is for what they can contribute to the band, and also for how they can grow as musicians in the freedom of the structure of the band. You start to see some amazing stuff come out.
Is it exciting for you when guys like Clapton, Taylor, Trout and Montoya get onstage with you and the Bluesbreakers today?
Yeah. They're great musicians, and they're always exciting and stimulating to listen to.
In your opinion, has Clapton's style changed much since the Beano days?
I don't think so. He has wonderful tone and a recognizable sound all his own. His chops are a lot more complex perhaps, but in a way, the simplicity is always there, the basis of his playing.
Talk about John Mayall the guitarist. Where does the instrument actually fit in with you, alongside the others?
I enjoy playing the guitar, but as with all instruments, I pick the one that most suits the song. If a song is more guitar based, then that's what I'll play. But it does depend upon the song.
Do the guitarists in your band inspire you?
Sure. The whole thing about playing with the guys is that we all stimulate each other. We've been together so long that it's a great unit for improvisation and creating good blues.
Do you have a personal favorite Bluebreakers album?
No. I only release an album when it represents the best that I can do. They're all very personal to me, obviously, whether I write the songs or whether I choose the songs. In other words, if I pick an album to listen to, and it goes back maybe twenty years, ten years, or whatever, it'll mean something to me because it will bring back the times or emotions that went into creating it. It's kind of a musical diary for me, listening to something and bringing back those times.
Talk a little about your gear of choice, when it comes to guitar.
The guitar itself doesn't really make much difference to me, but I always play it through a Roland Jazz Chorus. There's nothing fancy about it or anything, no pedals; I just plug in and play.
Would you like to add anything more about In the Palace of the King'?
It's the latest one, and it's a tribute to the music of Freddie King. It has his feel all over it I think. There's some great horn playing on it that Lon Price put together with Lee Thornburg, so that really enhances it. And of course, our regular recording man on organ is Tom Canning. So, that's it; that's the whole package.