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John Mayall, OBE (born 29 November 1933) is an English blues singer, musician and songwriter, whose musical career spans over sixty years. In the 1960s, he was the founder of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, a band that has counted among its members some of the most famous blues and blues rock musicians.
Born in Macclesfield, Cheshire, in 1933, Mayall grew up in Cheadle Hulme. He was the son of Murray Mayall, a guitarist and jazz enthusiast. From an early age he was drawn to the sounds of American blues players such as Lead Belly, Albert Ammons, Pinetop Smith and Eddie Lang, and taught himself to play the piano, guitars, and harmonica.
Mayall was sent to Korea as part of his national service, and during a period of leave bought his first electric guitar in Japan. Back in England, he enrolled at Manchester College of Art and started playing with a semi-professional band, the Powerhouse Four. After graduation, he obtained a job as an art designer, but continued to play with local musicians. In 1963, he opted for a full-time musical career and moved to London. His previous craft would be put to good use in the designing of covers for many of his coming albums.
Mayall began living in the US part time in the late 1960s, living there full time by the early 1970s. A brush fire destroyed his house in Laurel Canyon in 1979, seriously damaging his musical collections and archives.
Mayall has been married twice, and has six children and six grandchildren. His second wife, Maggie Mayall, is an American blues performer, and since the early 1980s she has taken part in the management of her husband's career. They married in 1982, and divorced in 2011.
In 2005, Mayall was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Honours List.
In 1956, with college fellow Peter Ward, Mayall had founded the Powerhouse Four, which consisted of the two men and other local musicians with whom they played at local dances. In 1962 Mayall became a member of the Blues Syndicate. The band was formed by trumpeter John Rowlands and alto saxophonist Jack Massarik, who had seen the Alexis Korner band at a Manchester club and wanted to try a similar blend of jazz and blues. It also included rhythm guitarist Ray Cummings and drummer Hughie Flint, whom Mayall already knew. In 1962 John and his band were frequent and popular artists at all-night R&B sessions at the Twisted Wheel cellar club in central Manchester.
Alexis Korner persuaded Mayall to opt for a full-time musical career and move to London, where Korner introduced him to many other musicians and helped them to find gigs. In late 1963, with his band, which was now called the Bluesbreakers, Mayall started playing at the Marquee Club. The lineup was Mayall, Ward, John McVie on bass and guitarist Bernie Watson, formerly of Cyril Davies and the R&B All-Stars. The next spring Mayall obtained his first recording date with producer Ian Samwell. The band, with Martin Hart at the drums, recorded two tracks: "Crawling Up a Hill" and "Mr. James". Shortly after, Hughie Flint replaced Hart and Roger Dean took the guitar from Bernie Watson. This lineup backed John Lee Hooker on his British tour in 1964.
Mayall was offered a recording contract by Decca and, on 7 December 1964, a live performance of the band was recorded at the Klooks Kleek. A later studio-recorded single, "Crocodile Walk", was released along with the album, but both failed to achieve any success and the contract was terminated.
In April 1965 former Yardbirds guitarist Eric Clapton replaced Roger Dean and John Mayall's career entered a decisive phase.
Eric Clapton as guitarist, 1965–66
In 1965, with Eric Clapton as their new guitar player, the Bluesbreakers began attracting considerable attention. That summer the band cut a couple of tracks for a single, "I'm Your Witchdoctor" b/w "Telephone Blues" (released in October). In August, however, Clapton left for a jaunt to Greece with a bunch of relative musical amateurs calling themselves the 'Glands'. John Weider, John Slaughter, and Geoff Krivit attempted to fill in as Bluesbreaker guitarist but, finally, Peter Green took charge. John McVie was dismissed, and during the next few months Jack Bruce, from the Graham Bond Organisation, played bass.
In November 1965 Clapton returned, and Green departed as Mayall had guaranteed Clapton his spot back in the Bluesbreakers whenever he tired of the Glands. McVie was allowed back, and Bruce left to join Manfred Mann, but not before a live date by the Mayall-Clapton-Bruce-Flint line-up was recorded on Mayall's two-track tape recorder at London's Flamingo Club in November. The rough recording provided tracks that later appeared on the 1969 compilation Looking Back and the 1977 Primal Solos.
The same line-up also entered the studio to record a planned single, "On Top of the World", which was not released at that time. Mayall and Clapton cut a couple of tracks without the others (although some sources give this as occurring back in the summer): "Lonely Years" b/w "Bernard Jenkins" was released as a single the next August on producer Mike Vernon's Purdah Records label (both tracks appeared again two decades later in Clapton's Crossroads box set). In a November 1965 session, blues pianist-singer Champion Jack Dupree (originally from New Orleans but in the 1960s living in Europe) got Mayall and Clapton to play on a few tracks.
In April 1966, the Bluesbreakers returned to Decca Studios to record a second LP with producer Vernon. The sessions, with horn arrangements for some tracks (John Almond on baritone sax, Alan Skidmore on tenor sax, and Dennis Healey on trumpet), lasted just three days. Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton was released in the UK on 22 July 1966.
Several of the 12 tracks were covers of pure Chicago blues (side 1 kicking off strongly with Otis Rush's "All Your Love" and Freddy King's hit instrumental "Hide Away" [here spelled without a space as "Hideaway"]); Mayall wrote or arranged five (such as "Double Crossing Time", a slow blues with a scorching solo by co-writer Clapton); and Clapton debuted as lead vocalist, and began his practice of paying tribute to Robert Johnson, with "Ramblin' on My Mind". The album was Mayall's commercial breakthrough, rising to No. 6 on the UK Albums Chart, and has since gained classic status, largely for the audacious aggressiveness and molten fluidity of Clapton's guitar playing. "It's Eric Clapton who steals the limelight," reported music mag Beat Instrumental, adding with unintended understatement, "and no doubt several copies of the album will be sold on the strength of his name."
In the meantime, on 11 June the formation of Cream—Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce, and drummer Ginger Baker—had been revealed in the music press, much to the embarrassment of Clapton, who had not said anything about this to Mayall. (After a May Bluesbreakers gig at which Baker had sat in, he and Clapton had first discussed forming their own band, and surreptitious rehearsal jams with Bruce soon commenced.) Clapton's last scheduled gig with the Bluesbreakers was 17 July in Bexley, south-east of London; Cream made a warmup club debut 29 July in Manchester and its "official" live debut two days later at the Sixth National Jazz and Blues Festival, Windsor.
Peter Green as guitarist, 1966–67
Mayall had to replace Clapton, and he succeeded in persuading Peter Green to come back. During the following year, with Green on guitar and various other sidemen, some 40 tracks were recorded. The album A Hard Road was released in February 1967. Today its expanded versions include most of this material, and the album itself also stands as a classic. In early 1967, Mayall released an EP recorded with American blues harpist Paul Butterfield.
But Peter Green gave notice and soon started his own project, Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, which eventually was to include all three of Mayall's Bluesbreakers at this time: Green, McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood who was a Bluesbreaker for only a few weeks. Two live albums, Live in 1967 Volumes I and II, featuring this lineup were released on Forty Below Records in 2015 and 2016.
Mick Taylor as guitarist, 1967–69
Mayall's first choice to replace Green was 18-year-old David O'List, guitarist from the Attack. O'List declined, however, and went on to form the Nice with organist Keith Emerson. Through both a "musicians wanted" ad in Melody Maker on 10 June and his own search, Mayall found three other potential guitarists for his Bluesbreakers, a black musician named Terry Edmonds, John Moorshead, and 18-year-old Mick Taylor. The last made the band quickly, but Mayall also decided to hire Edmonds as a rhythm guitarist for a few days.
In the meantime, on a single day in May 1967, Mayall had assembled a studio album to showcase his own abilities. Former Artwoods drummer Keef Hartley appeared on only half of the tracks, and everything else was played by Mayall. The album was released in November titled The Blues Alone.
A six-piece line-up—consisting of Mayall, Mick Taylor as lead guitarist, John McVie still on bass, Hughie Flint or Hartley on drums, and Rip Kant and Chris Mercer on saxophones—recorded the album Crusade on 11 and 12 July 1967. These Bluesbreakers spent most of the year touring abroad, and Mayall taped the shows on a portable recorder. At the end of the tour, he had over sixty hours of tapes, which he edited into an album in two volumes: Diary of a Band, Vols. 1 & 2, released in February 1968. Meanwhile, a few line-up changes had occurred: McVie had departed and was replaced by Paul Williams, who himself soon quit to join Alan Price and was replaced by Keith Tillman; Dick Heckstall-Smith had taken the sax spot.
Following a US tour, there were more line-up changes, starting with the troublesome bass position. First Mayall replaced bassist Tillman with 15-year-old Andy Fraser. Within six weeks, though, Fraser left to join Free and was replaced by Tony Reeves, previously a member of the New Jazz Orchestra. Hartley was required to leave, and he was replaced by New Jazz Orchestra drummer Jon Hiseman (who had also played with the Graham Bond Organisation). Henry Lowther, who played violin and cornet, joined in February 1968. Two months later the Bluesbreakers recorded Bare Wires, co-produced by Mayall and Mike Vernon, which came up to UK No. 6.
Hiseman, Reeves, and Heckstall-Smith then moved on to form Colosseum. The Mayall line-up retained Mick Taylor and added drummer Colin Allen (formerly of Zoot Money's Big Roll Band / Dantalian's Chariot, and Georgie Fame) and a young bassist named Stephen Thompson. In August 1968 the new quartet recorded Blues from Laurel Canyon.
On 13 June 1969, after nearly two years with Mayall, Taylor left and joined the Rolling Stones.
01."Mr. James" John Mayall B-side of Decca F11900 02:55
02."Blues City Shakedown" Mayall B-side of Decca F12120 02:23
03."Stormy Monday" T-Bone Walker Previously unreleased 04:36
04."So Many Roads" Paul Marshall, Paul Williams B-side of Decca F12506 04:46
05."Looking Back" Johnny "Guitar" Watson A-side of Decca F125060 02:37
06."Sitting in the Rain" Mayall A-side of Decca F12545 02:59
07."It Hurts Me Too" Mel London, Hudson Whittaker B-side of Decca F12621 02:57
08."Double Trouble" Otis Rush, M. Melka A-side of Decca F12621 03:22
09."Suspicions (Part Two)" Mayall B-side of Decca F12684 05:29
10."Jenny" Mayall B-side of Decca F12732 04:38
11. "Picture on the Wall" Mayall A-side of Decca F12732 03:02
12. I´m Your Witchdoctor [UK 1965 Bonus] 02.12
13. Telephone Blues [UK 1965 Bonus] 03.57
14. On Top Of The World [Bonus] 02.49
15. Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack, John Mayall - Can't Fail Blues [Bonus] 05.39
16. Bye Bye Bird [BBC UK 1965] 02.50
17. Sitting In The Rain [UK 1967 Bonus] 02.52
18. Crocodile Walk [BBC UK 1965] 02.25
19. Riding On The L & N [BBC UK 1966] 02.19
20. Leaping Christine [BBC UK 1967] 01.53
21. Tears in My Eyes [BBC UK 1966] 04.31