A FEW MINUTES WITH… John Mayall

September 14th, 2016, 2:00 pm by Greg

By Don Wilcock

I’ll never forget the look on Eric Clapton’s face when I pulled out an album cover for him to sign in 1990. I’d just done an interview with him for my biography on Buddy Guy deep in an Adirondack retreat. He was obviously relieved that our subject was someone other than himself. We’d spent more than an hour talking about Buddy Guy’s influence, and I’d come away with the impression that Clapton was trapped in a bubble of fame, numb and bored with a world that looked at him as superhuman.

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The album I had him sign was Bluesbreakers John Mayall with Eric Clapton recorded in 1965, when Clapton was 19 years old. It’s known as “The Beano album” because it pictures a blasé Eric Clapton reading a British Beano comic book while the rest of the band stares into the camera. It was Clapton’s first release since leaving the Yardbirds in disgust over their abandonment of real blues on the song “For Your Love.” It was as if I’d shaken Clapton awake, burst him out of his bubble. I got it! I understood it was about the music, not the myth.

Fifty years after the release of that album, The Blues Magazine in England has done a 12-page cover story on the Beano album proclaiming that it “was this album above all others (even the work of Paul Butterfield and Canned Heat) that raised awareness and ultimately led to a resurgence in the careers of many black blues artists who hit hard times as their music was overtaken by soul and Tamla Motown.”

The Beano album was Clapton’s launching pad for a career as an iconic guitar god, a link between Freddie King blues and three generations of hard rock, heavy metal and alt-rock chart-toppers.

But what about John Mayall, the guy who pulled that performance out of Clapton?

Mayall, who performs at The Egg in Albany Friday night, is almost always written about as the guy who discovered Clapton, the first of a steady stream of guitarists who went on to become rock royalty: Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac’s John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, Cream’s Jack Bruce, Free’s Andy Fraser and blues stalwarts Walter Trout, Coco Montoya and Buddy Whittington.

Nobody in the press ever seems to zero in on what makes Mayall tick. What is it about Mayall that inspired all these guitarists to greatness? John Yeule, former Bluesbreaker drummer, told me in 2003, that part of Mayall’s magic was his kid’s attitude toward music. “These guys want to play with him ’cause they have a chance to really blow. It’s wide open. He encourages it. Let’s have fun. They love when we’re out there and really stretching. I think that’s important in his attitude.”

“Improvisation is the main thing,” says Mayall today. “You have your structure of the musical piece, and then you embellish it in whatever direction that evening’s performance entails. So, it’s always been the bedrock of everything I’ve done. The whole idea is to create music as you’re playing. The improvisational thing is the main part of it. You’re exploring the music.”

At 83, Mayall is more than a decade older than Clapton and his other fellow British Invasion cohorts. He was a graphic designer by profession and sees the fundamental 4/4 blues form as simple, which suits him because he doesn’t read music, but creates a template for improvising and jamming, going into the zone on a variety of instruments: keyboards, guitar, harmonica, and a voice that’s unsanded mahogany as instantly recognizable as Gregg Allman’s. Clapton lived with Mayall for months studying his blues record collection before making the Beano album.

“Eric Clapton was the main one that pioneered (the love of blues),” Mayall explained to me in 1996. “He was the first person I met that actually did have an understanding of where all this music came from. But of course, once he set the standard, the word spread and people like Peter Green came along and subsequently Mick Taylor. So, you know, one thing leads to another, really.

“Until Eric came long, there wasn’t anybody who understood the history or background or the whole thing, what it was really all about. Up to that point they were just really copying. The better musicians were able to copy certain solos and licks and things, but the heart and soul of it were a very elusive thing. And like I say, Eric was the first one to come along to have that.”

In his memoir “Blowing the Blues,” the late Bluesbreakers sax player Dick Heckstall-Smith writes, “(Mayall’s) modus operandi seemed to be: get the right players and leave them to it. The only musical instruction I ever got from him was that ‘Right then, on you go!’ In fact, the whole band was totally hassle-free to a man.”

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Mayall is still as vibrant in 2016 as he was with Clapton on the Beano album, and he has a band he calls his best ever playing with him at The Egg.

Greg Rzab became Otis Rush’s bass player at 21. He played with Buddy Guy from 1986 to 1998. He has toured with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Warren Haynes’ Gov’t Mule. He’s also recorded and played with Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, the Allman Brothers Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Black Crowes. At the beginning of 2009, Greg joined John Mayall for a second time.

Jay Davenport on drums was mentored by Bo Diddley’s drummer Clifton James and played the Chicago scene with Junior Wells, Valerie Wellington, Pinetop Perkins and Jimmie Johnson. He was in Melvin Taylor’s West Side band before Greg Rzab brought him to Mayall in 2009.

“The reason I choose musicians is what they bring to the table, and I enjoy their work, and I want to give them an opportunity to express themselves because that’s what I hired them for,” says Mayall. “So I enjoy their playing and fortunately, being a bandleader, I get to choose who I want to play with. So, I indulge my own musical enjoyment.”

Recently, guitarist Rocky Athas – a seven-year veteran of the band – parted ways with Mayall, and the current band has been pared back to a trio.

“Having never performed anywhere or at any time without a guitar sidekick, I found that I was able to explore new territories in a trio configuration playing organ, keyboards, harmonica and guitar,” Mayall explains. “Needless to say I was surprised at how different and stimulating the experience was for me as a performer.”

“I don’t play the same things every night, so even though the songs may be the same, it’s always been the way you’re there to have a good time with it and explore the potential of the songs.”

Mayall doesn’t drink, he’s a vegetarian, and in his prime he often performed naked to the waist, showing off his physique. His 83 is most people’s 50. “As long as I have my health and the energies needed to give a storied performance, that’s what I do, and I love playing, and to be able to do a good job I think is what’s most important. I really love to play with these guys, and we have a great time together on the road. So, that’s it. So as long as that continues, I don’t see anything about slowing down.”

The Wall Street Journal calls Mayall “a pioneer granting PhDs in blues.” The Blues Foundation inducted Mayall into the Blues Hall of Fame this year, two years after Clapton’s induction. Incredibly agile and fresh more than 60 years into his career, he almost always writes and records his CDs in under two weeks. His latest CD Find a Way to Care was recorded in seven days and includes five originals.

WHO: John Mayall
WHERE: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
WHEN: 8pm Friday (September 16)
HOW MUCH: $38