John Mayall: British Blues Pioneer

John Mayall: British Blues Pioneer

Written by WL Woodward

Let’s get the silly stuff out of the way first.

John Mayall was born in 1933 near Manchester, England to parents of dubious distinction. His dad was a dedicated boozer who played guitar and had a strong jazz record collection. Mayall’s earliest memories included listening to these records, and his mom and dad fighting about dad’s drinking. Dad had a hard time holding down jobs and the family lived near the poverty level, surviving mostly due to John’s maternal grandparents’ largesse. Mom would take up with other men when dad would take up with female drinking partners. The family would routinely break apart and fall together, with John and his brother living alternately with the grandparents or their mother.

The home got bad enough that John built a treehouse in the back yard and lived in it long enough to add electricity and furniture. One of his first reviews, once he had started playing semi-professionally, focused on his habitat and in fact the article was titled “The Man Who Lives in a Tree.” Certainly an inauspicious start. But the article got some publicity and interest, and he became a minor local celebrity.

Dude. Living in a treehouse to avoid your home…dat’s the blues man.

Mayall served in Korea and was “demobbed” or discharged in January 1955. He had been obsessed with the blues music coming from America from an early age, and his travels in the Army brought him into contact with people from all over the globe. Through reading a blues magazine, he found out he could petition pen pals and he developed many in America who would send him magazines by the dozens.  John’s record collection also began taking on mythic proportions.

His early influences make up quite a list. Folks like Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Boy Fuller, Tommy McClennan, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, T Bone Walker and Sonny Boy Williamson were found as he scoured the British bluescape, which was not exactly a going concern in the 1950s. Everything was happening in America.

John was learning guitar listening to Charlie Christian and Barney Kessel, piano from boogie-woogie guys like Pinetop Smith and Otis Spann, and harmonica from listening to Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson (II). The significant takeaway from his development was his dedication as well as raw talent.  Lots of blokes have raw talent. If you combine that with dedication, and a real passion for what you are chasing, the world can become your oyster.

Of course, we cannot forget timing. Couple his talent and passion with what was happening in the British blues scene in the beginning of the 1960s and you had a stew that was about to boil over.

Towards the end of the 1950s Mayall was going to college during the week but traveling up to London to gig on weekends. His first official semi-professional band, which he called John Mayall’s Powerhouse Four, brought traditional blues by artists like Broonzy and T-Bone Walker to London nightclubs that had begun turning to rock and roll and the Teddy Boy era but still had a taste for jazz and blues.

The British blues scene in 1960 was an insular community packed with artists who would go on to define the sixties. While traveling to London on weekends Mayall met Alexis Korner. John Mayall has often been referred to as “The Father of British Blues” but that honor belongs categorically to Alexis Andrew Nicholas Koerner, five years Mayall’s elder. John jammed with Korner’s Blues Incorporated and subsequently was introduced to a myriad of artists and musicians who would become instrumental to the British blues/rock scene. In 1962 Korner convinced Mayall to move to London and dive into the professional blues scene full time.

The caliber and diversity of the people surrounding Mayall and Korner cannot be overstated. Alexis Korner was influential to many formulating British bands like The Rolling Stones just by virtue of the musicians who floated through and met in Blues Incorporated. Regular members included Charlie Watts, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Long John Baldry and Graham Bond. There was a large crowd of fans and hangers-on who would occasionally perform with the group, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Rod Stewart, Mayall and Jimmy Page.

In 1963 Mayall had changed the band name to The Bluesbreakers and started playing at the Marquee Club. That first line-up included Peter Ward, John McVie on bass (later of Fleetwood Mac), guitarist Bernie Watson and Martin Hart on drums. Mayall had frequent problems with McVie due to McVie’s excessive drinking, with Mayall relating that the bass player often had to be propped up at gigs. Mayall would alternately fire McVie, then bring him back, then lose him again. In 1964 this first line-up got a recording date and recorded two tracks, one of which was “Crawling Up A Hill.” Mayall’s energy on the harp was already evident.


Mayall replaced Bernie Watson on guitar with Roger Dean, who did all right on stage but had none of the energy and blues prowess Mayall desired in the studio. The Bluesbreakers got a Decca recording contract and released “Crocodile Walk” but the single never surfaced on the charts. Decca released them from their contract. It was time to find a new guitar player. Enter 21-year-old Eric Clapton.

Clapton had played with The Yardbirds from October 1963 to March 1965 but had become increasingly disenchanted with the group’s thirst for pop stardom and subsequent moving away from the blues. The last straw was the release of “For Your Love” in March 1965. The track did not feature guitar and that made Clapton mad enough to quit the band before the single was released.

Before Clapton left the band, The Yardbirds recorded “Got To Hurry” as the B side to “For Your Love.” It was that side that blew Mayall away. He knew this was the guy. Drummer Hughie Flint remembers that Mayall, during a gig break, made the band stand around the juke box and listen to the recording.

Mayall had to call Eric’s mother because Clapton had moved back home and was doing odd jobs. Clapton was considering a move to Chicago and was not real interested in joining another British blues band. Mayall persisted, however, and as Hughie Flint related, “One night Eric was just in the van.”

Clapton stayed with The Bluesbreakers for four months in 1965 before he left to go on a mad tour of Europe with a band called The Glands, taking Hughie Flint with him. Mayall was forced to find a new guitar player and hired Peter Green. Give me a break. McVie was dismissed (again) and they added Jack Bruce from the Graham Bond Organization.

By August 1965 The Glands were in trouble with several venue managers on the continent and had to leave so fast that Clapton left behind his Les Paul and Marshall combo amp. Mayall had, unfortunately for Green, promised Clapton that he could always have his job back. By November Clapton was once again the guitarist for The Bluesbreakers. Bruce left to play bass for Manfred Mann and McVie was allowed back.

In April 1966 the band went into Decca to record Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. This was the infamous “Beano” album, nicknamed because a photo-allergic Clapton was reading a well-known British comic book instead of looking into the camera, to show his disdain. The album is a bona fide classic in blues history, highlighted by the tone of Clapton’s 1960 Les Paul “Burst” played through a JTM45 Marshall combo Clapton had to buy on time payments from Jim Marshall. I still see videos dedicated to Clapton’s famous “Beano” rig. This album is a must-have for any blues enthusiast if only for the incredible tone Clapton got in the studio with the Marshall dimed, turned to the wall, and covered with a blanket. Even with the blanket producer Mike Vernon would relate the guitar rig was bleeding into everything, and some of Mayall’s vocals had to be re-recorded.

From the album, this is “All Your Love” written by Otis Rush. I know you’ve heard it. At 1:21 you hear the bell tones that happen when you dime KT66 output tubes pushing 2X12 Celestion AlNiCo speakers. By the way, except for the KT66 tubes that’s a Fender Bassman circuit. Bring it on.


Cream, anyone?

Mayall tells an interesting story in his autobiography Blues from Laurel Canyon, written with Joel McIver, about the track “Double Crossing Time.” Apparently Mayall told Jack Bruce what the band’s wages were going to be going forward, and Bruce didn’t like it. Bruce then got an offer from Manfred Mann, or solicited an offer depending on who’s telling the story. Manfred had a string of hits so could afford the wages Bruce demanded. The band read in Melody Maker that Bruce had left The Bluesbreakers to play bass for Manfred Mann and Mayall had to get McVie back. Mayall and Clapton were so incensed they co-wrote “Double Crossing Time” and Clapton scorched the solo. Clapton’s solo timing is glorious. The line “Double Crossing Mann” is spelled just like that in the written lyric.


The ironic coda to this story is that the band started recording the Blues Breakers album at Decca in April and it was released in July of 1966. However, in June, before the release, Melody Maker announced that Clapton had left The Bluesbreakers to form Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. What a maroon.  Clapton is a great guitar player and an icon of our generation. But he could be, especially in those days, a bit of a wank*r.

A parade of great guitarists ensued. Peter Green agreed to come back and stayed for a year until he left and took McVie and Mick Fleetwood who had only been with The Bluesbreakers a few weeks, to form Fleetwood Mac.

Mayall then hired an 18-year-old Mick Taylor who stayed two years before joining the Rolling Stones.

We’ve talked about this before, but 1966 to 1970 were heady times for virtually everybody.

By 1969 John Mayall had decided to move to LA which he had visited and where he had loved the lifestyle. He signed a new record contract and began a new chapter in his career. In July 1969 he recorded a live album at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East and aptly titled it The Turning Point. On that album is one of his most iconic songs, “Room to Move.” A lot of harp players I’ve played with pointed to this song as the reason why they picked up the instrument. One of those was Kevin Landolina, a dear friend and an absolute master. Hey, shout out to Kev!


We will continue this journey into Mayall Land with the next column “John Mayall – The Turning Point.”

I must thank John Mayall for his aforementioned autobiography Blues From Laurel Canyon, which helped provide the inspiration and information for these columns.

I covered some of the particulars of Eric Clapton’s rig here. I generally don’t like to do that because it exposes my ignorance. Please leave a comment if you know something I don’t know, about anything.

What am I talking about? You folks do that regularly! And thanks.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/perole, cropped to fit format.

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