John Mayall

TrackSingle / Album
Crawling Up A HillDecca F 11900
Have You HeardBlues Breakers With Eric Clapton
Little GirlBlues Breakers With Eric Clapton
Lonely YearsPurdah 45 3502
Looking BackDecca F 12506
So Many RoadsDecca F 12506
Someday After A While
(You'll Be Sorry)
A Hard Road
Sonny Boy BlowThe Blues Alone
It Hurts Me TooDecca F 12621
Tears In My EyesCrusade

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John Mayall photo

John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (l to r): John Mayall (vocals, organ, harmonica), Hughie Flint (drums), Eric Clapton (guitar), John McVie (bass). Photo: Michael Ochs 1966

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Broadly speaking, British blues artists from 1963 to 1965 broke into two groupings: the ‘lads’ including the Stones, the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things and plenty more, who were likely to play more Chuck and Bo than anything rather more angsty, and the ‘grown-ups’ who had a deeper understanding of blues and almost saw themselves as missionaries for the genre. Key members of the latter grouping included Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies and Long John Baldry, though the last named didn’t shed too many tears when the opportunity to become a pop star came his way. Most of the lads moved to pop or rock as we started to call their somewhat heavier variety, though to be fair to the Stones they never quite forgot their roots (as demonstrated by 2016’s Blue And Lonesome album).

But there was one man in that grown-ups grouping who just kept on playing the blues like a real American black artist. That man, of course, was John Mayall OBE. And he’s still rolling after a recent – May 2018 – pneumonia scare.

John was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire in November 1933. His exposure to blues came largely via his father who was a jazz enthusiast and guitarist, and one should bear in mind that blues was owned by jazzers or folkies back in those days. According to the official John Mayall site, Mayall Senior’s record collection included 78s from Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Leadbelly etc. plus plenty from the boogie pianists like Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis, to quote the usual names. And while Sonny Terry’s name doesn’t get an official mention until a few lines down, you can be sure he would have been in there as well, as the near inseparable partner of Brownie McGhee. All of which spurred young John into wanting to play as well as listen to what he saw as his music. By his mid-teens he was at least moderately proficient on piano and guitar and within a year or so he was starting to learn the harmonica.

John did a couple of years at art school – he was later involved in the creation of many of his record sleeves – and also did his two years national service which in those days was obligatory. In either ’55 or ’56, depending on who you read, he worked in a band called the Powerhouse Four and then switched to the Blues Syndicate in 1962; the second band largely came about due to news of Alexis Korner’s exploits in London and its environs travelling north. The extracts from John’s scrapbook which decorate his 1969 compilation Looking Back include an ad for John Mayall’s Powerhouse Four appearing at the El Rio club in Macclesfield on Friday 14th February 1958. There’s also a picture of John with guitar and Dylan style harmonica in neck harness with the scribbled note, “This is me when I had the Blues Syndicate in Manchester so it would be late 1962”.

Keen to get to where the real action was, John moved to London in ’63. By November of that year he and his new band, The Bluesbreakers, had a contract to appear at the Marquee, the club that had introduced Korner’s band, Blues Incorporated, to an appreciative audience in Spring ’62.

 

THE SINGLES

I first saw John live at the Flamingo in, I think, 1964. The club had laid on a sort of ‘meet the Brit Blues guys’ night with several bands/artists featured. I don’t remember the others but Mayall stuck in my mind. It would have been the pre-Clapton Bluesbreakers; Eric was already such a cult name that I’d have been aware of his presence. John and the band certainly made sufficient impact for me to go and buy the first Blues Breakers single.

A fascinating debut it was too, from a studio team which consisted of John on organ and harmonica, Bernie Watson on guitar, John McVie on bass and Martin Hart, drums. The A-side, Crawling Up A Hill, was utterly unlike anything that had been recorded so far by the New Brit Blues contingent. Much more R&B than blues as such with backing dominated by John’s Hammond and some abrasive harp work appearing in the first portion of the break – Bernie Watson got a chance to strut his stuff following John. Structurally, the number owed a debt to the Percy Mayfield/Ray Charles’ Hit The Road Jack but Mayall had added a rather neat descending middle eight which broke the song up well. Lyric wise – and I haven’t yet stated that both sides were written by John – it was a mix of homespun philosophy and autobiography:

Every morning ‘bout half past eight
My wife wake me say
“Don’t be late”
Get to the office, tryin’ to concentrate
Life is just a slow train crawling up a hill

There’s a happy ending wherein John departs and arrives in London Town where there’s a “better scene” and “the kind of music that won’t bring me down”.

John switches to piano for the flip, Mr James, which utilised the melody line from It Hurts Me Too, a song heavily associated with Elmore James (though he didn’t write it). It’s hard to believe now but Elmore James, back in 1964, wasn’t the near household name he is now. The song was John’s tribute to his hero – “Way out in Chicago, there lived a guy, named Elmore James, why did you die?”. This was real blues with something of the Chicago sound that we’d heard from Alexis Korner’s (and Cyril Davies’) Blues Incorporated which had sent folk like me scurrying off to try and get hold of the Muddy Waters etc. originals.

A recording session in February ’64 produced John’s second single, Crocodile Walk/Blues City Breakdown. The group had changed for this one: Roger Dean had come in on guitar and Hughie Flint took over on drums. For me the single was a little disappointing after that excellent debut. The A-side was organ led R&B again but not one of John’s very best, while the flip, the more interesting of the pair, offered us a chance to hear him stretch out on harmonica for a jumpy sort of instro which might have been prompted by the artistic, but unfortunately not commercial, success of Cyril Davies’ Country Line Special.

Things improved considerably on single #3. Eric Clapton had taken over the lead guitar role having previously played with the Roosters, Casey Jones and the Engineers, and most recently, and famously, the Yardbirds. He left the last named due to their move into more of a pop/rock direction. It was the single, For Your Love, which signalled the parting of the ways for Eric. Even with Mayall he was somewhat restless, leaving once and then rejoining. However he was very definitely with them for John & the Bluesbreakers’ second ’65 single, I’m Your Witchdoctor backed with Telephone Blues. While the pattern was broadly the same – up tempo R&B on the A-side and blues on the flip perhaps causing one to wonder whether Mayall had sufficient confidence in the commercial appeal of his blues – the execution was definitely up a notch or two. Both sides were produced by Jimmy Page which could well have had something to do with the improvement. For this record, John had switched to Immediate Records since Decca, his original label, had lost faith in him, and Page was at that time house producer at Immediate.

‘Witchdoctor’ almost had credibility as a real blues jumper given the fascination with voodoo/hoodoo in the Southern States. Clapton’s riff drove the number along at a cracking pace and the piercing howl of feedback from his amp as the first verse ended, signified a mood of willingness to take on board experimentation. The flip was even better. Telephone Blues was a straight, no gimmicks slow blues of the type recorded by B.B. and the other Kings, and was probably of the sort Clapton had been pining for in the Yardbirds. In his diary, the Samuel Pepys of his day, Jimmy Page, noted, “Eric’s solo on Telephone Blues was superb”. He was right and it was arguably the first recording from a British white band to get at all close to the blues sound that was current in the US.

Both sides were written by John. Again.

Although by now, LPs were starting to see release from John and the Bluesbreakers, I’m going to continue with the singles for a while since the albums and singles were almost mutually exclusive in the early days. For collectors I should add that the re-releases of albums 2, 3 and 4 now have singles added as bonus tracks (though confusingly some of the Peter Green era tracks found their way onto Crusade, the first album to feature Mick Taylor). I also wonder whether John himself, although fond of adding his own creative touches to many of his albums, had a particular thing about singles. It was the format used – and there wasn’t a lot of choice – by many of his blues heroes.

Before moving on, I should note that there were further tracks recorded with Jimmy Page which didn’t see release until their appearance on compilations, years later. These included an early version of Double Crossing Time, and On Top Of The World which bore no relation to the blues standard Sitting On Top Of The World. Instead it sat somewhere between pop and R&B. Perhaps Immediate felt that it fell between the two genres.

The next release from John was actually credited to Eric Clapton and John Mayall and it appeared on Purdah Records, a tiny indie label owned by blues enthusiast and record producer, Mike Vernon. Both sides were blues on this little nugget with the top side being the vocal Lonely Years, penned by John, and the flip, an instrumental called Bernard Jenkins, penned by Eric. I’ve made Lonely Years a selection since it seems to capture the two men playing for each other, with little thought given to the world of commerce. Unlike the single that preceded it plus the Mayall and Clapton album still to come, it took you back to an earlier age of blues when electricity wasn’t everywhere (or maybe didn’t exist at all in terms of the performers). John is on mouth harp and vocal, Eric of course is on guitar.

Eric’s second and final departure from the Bluesbreakers came in July 1966 by which time the group had built up a reputation on the club circuit as the best live blues band in the UK. One got the impression that he (Eric) felt he had done everything he could in the field of straight, undoctored blues, and his move – to Cream – gave him more scope and (possibly) some more exciting collaborators. Over the years, as many of us know, he has returned to less rock oriented blues on many occasions.

The Clapton replacement was Peter Green whose preparation for the Bluesbreakers hadn’t been as high profile as that of Clapton but he had featured on record. He was with a band named Peter B’s Looners for three months during which time they recorded a single. This is the flip, Jodrell Blues and if you stick with it for roughly 1:25 minutes you’ll hear Mr. Green.

Peter joined in July 1966. In late September the same year, the group, supplemented by a brass section went into the Decca studios and recorded two tracks, which together comprised the sixth single from Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. And, no, those numbers don’t add up. I’ve ignored single #5 which coupled Parchman Farm and Key To Love, two numbers from the album Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton. And that album isn’t going to be ignored …

Back to the new Mayall & Bluesbreakers single. Tour-de-force is one way of describing it. Yes it followed the usual formula: Side 1– R&B, Side 2 – blues, but never before had the band managed to deliver that formula with such panache. For the first time neither side was composed by John but I wouldn’t interpret that as a criticism of his writing skills. Green seemed to be everywhere on both tracks. Whether there was an element of “anything Eric can do, etc.” I don’t know, but everything he did worked and there was no over embellishment.

Let’s separate the sides.

Looking Back was, in theory anyway, the lighter of the two, an upbeat almost Memphis-horn driven romp, but I’ve found that it’s one that improves with repeated listening. When I initially purchased the record, I thought that John was the writer – the wordplay in the title line “I was looking back to see if she was looking back to see if I was looking back at her” was suggestive of an English lyricist (well, to me anyway) – but I was wrong. There was a “Watson” listed in the credits who turned out to be Texan singer/guitarist Johnny “Guitar” Watson, the man who made a successful switch from blues to soul cum disco in the seventies (and for more on that source, see Footnotes). Putting the quality of the song and those splendid horns to one side, the other feature that makes the record a standout is the coruscating break from Peter, 24 bars of an extended “Wow”.

The flip is among the best British blues records ever made, if not the best. The song is Otis Rush’s So Many Roads. Initially, there appears to be four components: the plaintive Mayall voice, his slightly ethereal piano tinkling, the solid foundation provided by the horns, and Green’s axe which weaves in and out of the lot, sometimes distant but at others growling to the foreground. Even more variation is provided by one of the saxes which provides further musical commentary as the number progresses, but it’s the constant counterpart of the Green guitar which absolutely makes the record.

One of those rare white blues performances that compares favourably to black records and, to these ears, better than anything that appeared on the subsequent LP, A Hard Road (though I’m aware that others will differ).

Skipping ahead to another Otis Rush cover which found itself on the A-side this time. Double Trouble was another fine performance but much more understated than So Many Roads. Minor key, echoey and with Green showing his sensitive side, there was nothing not to like here. But in terms of selections I’m going for the flip, a return visit (if you can call Mr James a visit) to It Hurts Me Too. Perhaps John just felt this version of the Bluesbreakers would perform the song well or maybe he just wanted to record a version (for posterity perhaps). Whatever, they did and he did and I’m pleased to own the record.

I’m still trying to figure what it is that I like so much about this track. It doesn’t have the ragged authority of the Elmore model – I can’t call it original because it wasn’t but it was the one used as a base by many artists – and while the instrumental work from John, Peter and the rest of the group is fine it’s less striking than Elmore’s. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s John’s voice which captures the mood superbly, more resignation than suicidal (though Elmore’s let-it-all-hang-out negativity was almost the default for many of his outpourings).

Which brings me to the more general subject of the Mayall voice. I’ve noticed that even the most ardent of the man’s fans can be defensive on this subject. It has to be put in the context of a white Englishman attempting to sing songs associated with black Americans and often those from the American south. It was the same problem with fifties rock and roll. A singer this side of the pond was left with the problem of do you go with the full American imitation and risk sounding like a pastiche rather than a tribute, or do you try and do it your own way? Mayall went for the latter though oral elements associated with some of his heroes did creep in. The semi-contained agony of Otis Rush comes through in many of John’s recordings but often expressed with the precision of the white American, Mose Allison – the single I skipped over had Allison’s Parchman Farm as the A-side incidentally. I notice also in John’s occasional tendency to move to very high notes or falsetto, echoes of another hero, J.B. Lenoir – John includes a tribute to the man on his Crusade album.

It is true that John is less overtly expressive than his black heroes, or blues singers in general. But it’s possible that he’d made the decision not to unduly force his voice since the result wasn’t necessarily going to be convincing.

Enough pondering, this is actually a good place to switch attention to albums. With the exception of an EP with Paul Butterfield, on which there’s more in the Footnotes, subsequent singles were predominantly album related.

 

THE ALBUMS

… and the first of those was John Mayall Plays John Mayall which was recorded live at Klooks Kleek in December 1964 and released three months later. For this one, the core team was Roger Dean, guitar, John McVie, bass and Hughie Flint, drums, supplemented by Nigel Stanger on sax. I would hazard a pretty strong guess that the model for the album was Georgie Fame’s Rhythm And Blues At The Flamingo, recorded live in ’63 and released in January ’64, which had become something of a cult classic particularly among mods. The differentiator was the John playing John touch which he managed with only three exceptions. On one of those exceptions – R&B Time, a mash-up of Night Train and Lucille – he actually got into Fame territory. Elsewhere it was live versions of some of the early singles plus several that only appear in this set. There was only one slow(ish) blues, Heartache, and maybe because John felt that the audience wasn’t ready for the real thing, his spoken intro is almost apologetic. He takes the only solo on the number on harmonica so the track didn’t really amount to a look ahead to the Clapton era, though polished up in the studio it might still have made a decent single.

While it was undoubtedly brave to go for own compositions, hindsight suggests that this could have been a mistake. Maybe a few more covers of known and popular material might have boosted sales. I have a theory that the approach could have been due to John not having the confidence to offer up comparisons to existing artists in case he didn’t show up well. But I could be talking baloney of course. What definitely does come through is the presence of an audience and John and the band’s connection with the same.

Which brings me up to July 1966’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton a.k.a. the Beano album and one look at the sleeve will tell you why. What does one say? Certainly the best British blues album up to that time, probably the best white blues album to that time, bearing in mind the Paul Butterfield Band wasn’t all white. In terms of later comparisons, I’ll leave the reader to make up his/her mind but in my view it stands up well. And I wonder, would you be reading this if it wasn’t for that album?

The contents consisted of 4 originals, 7 songs from other artists – Otis Rush, Freddie King, Ray Charles, Mose Allison, Robert Johnson, Memphis Slim and Little Walter in that order – and one Trad. Arr. But that doesn’t tell you a lot. What mattered was that the album kicked off with a monster of a track, had a great rocker positioned at the end of side one and a rip snorter at the end of side two (this was an LP, remember) and everything in between was highly listenable with adjectives like involving, authentic, intense, exciting and innovative just jostling for my attention. Okay, don’t listen to me, this is what Joe Bonamassa thinks of it on his website

“The blues on this album is authentic, vital, and great fun. While the record should be recognized as the important piece of blues history that it is, the music is as fresh and vibrant a listen today as I imagine it was back in 1966.”

I could have taken my ten selections from this set but that might have been boring so I’m limiting myself to two only. And the last few selections were covers so I’m going for a couple of Mayall originals. Have You Heard takes the prize for being the most intense slow blues on the album. Double Crossing Time runs it close but it doesn’t have an Alan Skidmore tenor intro plus the rest of the brass section supplying some solid riffing a couple of verses in. No one’s in a hurry to finish this one. Eric in particular is on fire, dropping mini bombshells all over the place but saving plenty of ammunition for the solo. And John is in West Side Chicago mode; it’s one of his better vocals.

Little Girl, however, is more evocative of the South Side. There are distinct echoes of the Mighty Wolf with Forty Four back in ’54 (with Hubert Sumlin and Jody Williams on guitars, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon bass and Earl Phillips drums in the Chess studio on the Wolf’s third Chicago session in October 1954). Yup, some pilfering was going on here but the end result was, in my view, well worth it. This is one of the relatively few tracks on the album that warrants the descriptor ‘blues rock’ but it’s not unlike the way that blues songs have evolved over the years in all sorts of directions. Sensibly, Mayall leaves the adrenaline stuff to Clapton, McVie and his own Hammond, and doesn’t attempt a Wolf style vocal.

I can’t leave this splendid album without at least a few further mentions. Slowhand had two opportunities to demonstrate his skills on instrumentals and the one that usually gets attention is his take on Freddie King’s Hideaway, a number that’s often seen as a rite of passage for axemen (and Eric certainly did very well in that respect). I’d draw the reader’s attention though to Steppin’ Out, a piece which was originally recorded by Memphis Slim in 1959 with a snorting sax accompanying his keyboard work. While it would be tempting to view that as something from the Mayall record collection, in fact Clapton first recorded the number during some apparently authorised moonlighting from the Bluesbreakers, with an all-star outfit called Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse, but unfortunately the result isn’t on YouTube. The Bluesbreakers one is though; this is it. My only regret is that the brass section was only used as backdrop, one of those saxes could have made a more than useful contribution.

John had a couple of harmonica dominated pieces (rather than pure instros). I’m guilty of ignoring Parchman Farm for years since my vote for Brit version of the Mose Allison classic had already gone to Georgie Fame (and his take was on that Rhythm And Blues At The Flamingo LP mentioned earlier and it’s on Spotify but not YT). But I’ve mellowed. The mouth harp replacing piano on the song actually works rather well.

One more and it’s the closer, Little Walter’s It Ain’t Right. One listen and you’ll know why it was the closer. Take it off, turn it over and drop that stylus.

The follow-up, A Hard Road, was released less than a year later. Peter Green replaced Eric Clapton and Aynsley Dunbar replaced Hughie Flint on drums. The cover image with big blocky lettering and the four members depicted Mount Rushmore-esque in a painting by John, all looking as if the troubles of the world were on their shoulders but they were going to see it through, contrasted strongly with the sense of fun – to use Joe Bonamassa’s word – or even mild surrealism conveyed by the Beano image of the preceding album. And which fun I felt had crept into the album proper in things like the sheer joy of taking on an old war horse in What’d I Say, the gleeful transformation of the Howlin’ Wolf oldie and the delight in steaming through the closing number.

Maybe I’m making too much of this but to these eyes and more importantly, ears, there was a deliberate message being put over by the sleeve, which the contents didn’t entirely dispel, that de blooz was something really serious. There was also evidence that the marketing guys had been at work in terms of trying to match the Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton set: two instrumental workouts for Peter with one being a Freddie King number, two vocals for Peter (and I didn’t mention that Eric had been given one in the previous album), two largely harmonica affairs from John. Where the albums did differ was in the fact that space for only three songs from external sources was allotted out of a total of 14 tracks.

It was all immaculate though, just slightly lacking the sparks which made Looking Back/So Many Roads such a good single. My choice from the set is a number associated with Freddie King on which he demonstrated he could do one heck of a lot more than just put out a series of fast instrumentals. Someday After A While (You’ll Be Sorry) is an 8 bar blues which immediately has the effect of seeming to locate the listener in a more gentle past time. It was great in the King format and Mayall & co do a pretty job to it also, with Green busier and slightly more fierce than King. The brass section is back for this one too and they add the appropriate oomph in the right places (see also Footnotes on the song since it had a life prior to Freddie getting hold of it).

Noteworthy also on A Hard Road are Top Of The Hill which showed that almost-upbeat-but-plaintive-at-the-same-time effect which John was wont to display at times, and Peter’s sung and composed, The Same Way, on which he displayed the fine control of timing and tone that would stand him in good stead for the future. I should also mention Peter’s self-composed minor key instro, The Super-Natural which is more of a mood piece than a blues but there’s nowt wrong with that and this is one that critics tend to rhapsodise over, in part, as another pointer to the future. Is it me or are there really echoes of an early Green hero, Hank Marvin, on this number?

Next from John was a near solo LP, The Blues Alone, which broke up the trilogy, or triptych, of albums of Mayall plus gentlemen who would go on to be British guitar gods: Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor. In their infinite wisdom Decca decided against pushing the boat out on this one, releasing it on Ace Of Clubs, their budget label. This was presumably because there was a distinct absence of a god like figure –I guess you could hardly classify Keef Hartley who sat in on drums for some numbers, in such a manner (and it was the presence of Hartley which caused me to include the adjective ‘near’ in my opening sentence). There was a god like figure involved in a non musical sense though; John Peel wrote the sleeve notes and did a good job too.

It’s not what I’d call an essential album but it’s one that contains plenty of good listening. Now is that faint praise or is that faint praise? Talk about damning. What I’m really trying to say is that I bought the set when it came out, I didn’t play it a lot, but I’ve been pleased to reacquaint myself. John wrote all the numbers and played all the instruments barring only the drums on some. Most if not all of its content is virtually the antithesis of the ‘guitar heroes numbers’. For those who own either of the Bluesbreakers albums just discussed, I’d liken the contents to some of the more intimate tracks on those albums, for example, Living Alone, the closer from A Hard Road.

My initial hesitation with The Blues Alone might be due to the fact that several of the songs don’t sound like blues although they usually conform to the 12 bar format. To explain myself better, they don’t sound like anyone else’s blues but they’re John’s blues, or John expressing himself in the language he loves. My selection from the set though does conform much more strongly to expectations. It’s a tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson II who died in 1965. In the years preceding his death, Sonny Boy toured Britain and Europe more than once, and John is very likely to have seen him. The song is suitably entitled Sonny Boy Blow. The lyrics are basic, repetitive, but to the point.

I heard Sonny Boy Blow (four times)
He’s a mean old man
But I love him so

Now, he’s dead and gone (four times)
He was a mean old man
When he blow his horn

John accompanies himself on his own piano and the sound is not unlike that heard on an LP that came out not long after Sonny Boy’s death. The album was on Storyville and it was entitled The Blues Of Sonny Boy Williamson Vol.2. This is one of the tracks, the unaccompanied Movin’ Down The River and the river was the Rhine. If you ignore some of Sonny Boy’s more extreme flights on the harp, I feel that John captures the general tone very well.

For a fuller sample of the variety available on The Blues Alone, check out the piano instro Marsha’s Mood (Marsha is believed to be American singer Marsha Hunt) or John on 9 string guitar on No More Tears (Spotify only).

Although John has stated that he had songs in his head that didn’t suit the Bluesbreakers format, hence The Blues Alone, another possible reason for its creation was the fact that he was temporarily without a lead guitarist. That situation didn’t last too long as 18-year-old Mick Taylor of Hatfield, Herts, via Welwyn Garden City hove into view. There’s a lovely story in Wiki of an earlier Mick at the age of 16, asking and being allowed to play with the band at The Hop in Welwyn on a night when Clapton didn’t show up.

Crusade, the first album with Taylor on board, was recorded in July ’67 – in seven hours reportedly – and released in September that year. It conformed to the Bluesbreakers/Guitar Heroes formula which will sound negative but in fact it was a fine album, at least as good as A Hard Road in my view. There was greater reliance on non-Mayall songs on this one, perhaps he’d used too many of his own up on The Blues Alone, but they were consistently interesting choices. Songs like Otis Rush’s I Can’t Quit You Baby and My Time After Awhile which was popularised by Buddy Guy, were obvious vehicles for the new man on guitar and he attacked them with confidence. Special mention on this album has to go to John’s deeply felt salute to another of his heroes, The Death Of J.B. Lenoir – “When I read the news, night came early into day”.

But I’m going for John’s own Tears In My Eyes as my selection from this set. It has an air of calmness about it notwithstanding the desperation of the lyrics. No one overdoes things and Mick Taylor plays with a delicacy that you rarely hear from one so young.

The song had evidently been around for some time with versions on YouTube from the Clapton period (in the studio) and the Green days (live) though I feel that the Crusade cut does the best job on what was a good song in the first place.

Skipping a couple of live albums, The Diary Of A Band Volumes 1 & 2, the next studio set from John & the Bluesbreakers was 1968’s Bare Wires. For this one it could be truly said that the formula was broken. By now record buyers had heard such things as Pepper, Pet Sounds and Notorious Byrd Brothers, Hendrix was at large and the first shoots of prog were starting to appear. Couple that with the twin facts that John’s erstwhile mentor, Alexis Korner, had released an album with his band Blues Incorporated, imaginatively entitled Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, which was devoted uncompromisingly to blues inflected jazz, way back in 1965, and that John himself had an interest in jazz as well as blues from his early days, then the time had to be right for something more ambitious.

Most of the experimentation on Bare Wires comes on side one which was organised into a suite of seven musically connected numbers. This is it. Not all of it was blues and even what was wasn’t immediately recognisable as such. Nothing too difficult or avant-garde though. And the public liked it. The LP hit the #3 spot in the UK Album Chart, his best ever placing, and was the first Mayall album to register in the US Billboard 200. And am I sitting on the fence? Maybe, but at the very least I applaud the thought and effort that went into it. It’s one I tend to drift in and out of which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. AllMusic called it “indulgent” which I thought was harsh.

To remind us he could still do something much more basic, even with a few jazzers on board, the closer She’s Too Young was an echo of the fun we found in Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton. And that last solo was from Dick Heckstall-Smith, sparring partner to the likes of Graham Bond and Alexis Korner.

 

I’m stopping at this point. John Mayall has made a lot, and I mean a lot, of albums. He lived in the US throughout the 70s and was successful with several albums in that spell all making the album charts in the UK: Blues From Laurel Canyon, The Turning Point (live at Fillmore East), Empty Rooms.

All three, incredibly, were released in 1969. They all have their followers but I’m sticking with the earlier stuff.

He’s made more great music since and he’s played with many interesting people throughout an extraordinary career. Let’s not forget that he was the one who originally brought the lads and the grown-ups together and, in the process, introduced the blues to a much wider audience. For many of us, though, it was in the sixties that he was most relevant.

“John Mayall … one of the greatest bluesmen in the world” John Peel said that

“I’ll let you be in my blues if I can be in yours” Bob Dylan didn’t quite say that but John Mayall might have

 

FOOTNOTES

1. On the Rate Your Music site I came across the following on Purdah Records:

“Purdah, along with sister imprint Outasite Records, was an offshoot of the mid-1960s Blue Horizon label. The label’s early recordings were pressed and marketed in limited quantities and sold through the Vernon brothers’ Blue Horizon Newsletter. Unlike gospel label Wheel Records, which never got off the ground, the 1966 launch of Purdah opened the door for parent label Blue Horizon’s autumn 1967 distribution deal with CBS.”

From what I’ve been able to ascertain, there were only five releases in total from Purdah with other acts including Tony McPhee, Savoy Brown, Aynsley Dunbar and Stone’s Masonry. The latter were new to me but I established that they were founded by Martin Stone who also played in the Action (later Mighty Baby). This was what Stone’s Masonry sounded like.

2. Reportedly, there were only 500 pressings of the Clapton/Mayall Purdah single which may or may not have been for tax reasons. It has resulted in the single having considerable monetary value (and is currently £306.75 on eBay as I write).

3. The song Looking Back has an interesting history. It originally appeared on a single from Johnny “Guitar” Watson in 1961 on Escort Records of California. The record was medium tempo and without horns. It didn’t get released in the UK. Consequently, Mayall was relatively unlikely to have picked up the record unless he was a big Watson fan. However, in 1965, Johnny Watson toured the UK with rocker Larry Williams who was looking to revive his fortunes. I managed to get to see them at the Flamingo – the tour was mainly of clubs rather than concert halls – and it was a good show. Indeed it was good enough for Decca to decide to record the duo with the results appearing on the LP, The Larry Williams Show Featuring Johnny “Guitar” Watson With The Stormsville Shakers. The band were from Guildford and, as far as I know, this was their only claim to fame (though according to the Discogs notes, a rather young Philip Goodhand-Tait was on piano). Apart from backing Williams on vocal and guitar, Watson made two solo vocal appearances, one of which was a revisit to Looking Back (pun unintended) which was noticeably faster than the single version and there were backing horns. Discogs lists the producer as Michael Vernon, which I think rather neatly gives us the source and the arrangement of the Mayall single given the Vernon presence as its producer.

4. The first recognisable version of It Hurts Me Too was written and recorded by Tampa Red in 1940. The song’s origins, however, would appear to date back earlier though it’s less obvious which records can be said to be clear precursors. Among those that get mentioned are Tampa Red’s own Things ‘Bout Coming My Way (1931), the Mississippi Sheiks’ Sittin’ On Top Of The World (1930) and Leroy Carr’s How Long, How Long Blues (1928) plus his slightly later You’ve Got To Reap What You Sow (which title subsequently got recorded as an instrumental by Tampa Red, which takes us full circle). These songs were also the basis for Robert Johnson’s Come On In My Kitchen (1936). To an extent the 8 (or sometimes 9) bar pattern and chord structure as used on these numbers has tended to give rise to similar melody lines (much of the info in this para came from Cal Taylor).

Elmore James is likely to have heard the Tampa Red version – he recorded several of the man’s songs – though there were other versions in between including one from Big Bill Broonzy. The James cut came out in ’57 with new lyrics which might or might not have come from his then label’s owner, Mel London. The record did very little on release but was recut by Elmore, circa late ’62 or early ’63, and was released in 1965, two years after Elmore’s death, giving Mr James a posthumous R&B Chart hit and one that almost made the Hot 100. Hence the song would have been relatively current when Mayall cut his version in ’67. One of the non-originals on A Hard Road was Elmore’s Dust My Blues. That song selection would probably be seen as ultra corny and predictable now – in part thanks to the Jeremy Spencer era Fleetwood Mac – but Mayall and the Bluesbreakers were one of the earlier British artists to record it.

5. The EP released in 1967 which showcased the talents of Mayall and the man who might have been perceived as his US equivalent, Paul Butterfield, is well worth investigating. Three ‘versions’ – but of songs that were anything but overfamiliar – and one Mayall original, all performed very capably and with spirit. The whole of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Paul Butterfield can be found here. Track #2, Riding On The L And N, a train song, came from an unusual source, Lionel Hampton, back in 1947. Later bands to cover the song included Dr. Feelgood and Nine Below Zero.

6. There’s a fine feature on the song Forty Four in Wiki which I’m not going to attempt to précis here. I would, however, draw your attention to the first known recorded version by Roosevelt Sykes in 1929 on the Okeh label and then point you back to the later (and better-known) cut from Howlin’ Wolf. What first strikes you is the dramatic arrangement that had been cooked up in the studio by the Wolf and his very classy group of supporters. It doesn’t necessarily mean that this version is better. What Mayall & Clapton (and I wouldn’t totally ignore the rhythm section) did was take that arrangement, change it again, in terms of speed, tone and polish, and apply it to a different song. Once again this was something that musicians had been doing since the birth of music.

7. The song Parchman Farm was written by Mose Allison and recorded by him in his inimitable style which combined elements of blues plus other black music with modern jazz. He used Bukka White’s 1940 record, Parchman Farm Blues as a source though melodically the songs differ considerably.

8. When Mayall re-enters the fray after the drum break in the What’d I Say studio cut, Clapton comes in with the riff from Day Tripper which itself was a variant on the riff in one of Lennon’s favourite records, Watch Your Step by Bobby Parker.

9, The song Double Crossing Time from Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton was reportedly written about Jack Bruce who played briefly with the band (but didn’t appear on any official releases at the time) before leaving to join Manfred Mann. The song was originally called Double Crossing Man.

10. The song, Someday After A While (You’ll Be Sorry) was in existence prior to Freddie King getting hold of it. It was originally recorded by Big Joe Turner as You’ll Be Sorry in 1950. He then had a second go at it while he was at Atlantic and it re-emerged with the title After Awhile in 1957. This is the second version.

11. I was lucky enough to see Sonny Boy Williamson II at the Marquee and had a pretty close view. Some numbers he performed without support, commanding the stage with just his harp and his personality. I recall Movin’ On Down The River being among such performances – it was probably the somewhat unexpected references to the River Rhine that lingered in my head. Mayall might have included the “mean old man” bit due to SB dismissing Long John Baldry and his band in favour of the Yardbirds as backing band, a story that has now entered folk history but I saw him do it.

12. My Time After Awhile wasn’t an original Buddy Guy number though the song is most strongly associated with him. The original recording came from Vance “Tiny” Powell from Arkansas. According to 45cat it was first cut in 1962 and then re-released two years later. Reportedly, Chess wanted to lease and issue the Tiny Powell recording but Bob Geddins, co-writer of the song, refused which prompted Chess to record their own version which they did with Buddy Guy. Thirty seconds or so of that clip and you can see what Chess liked about the song and performance.

Tiny Powell was a highly respected Gospel singer who performed with the Paramount Gospel Singers for many years and briefly with the Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi.

13. In 1955, the Manchester Evening News reported:

“John Mayall lives in a tree in Cheadle Hulme. There he has built himself a one-roomed home with all mod cons. – running water, bed, stove, gramophone, and even carpets and wallpaper.” (Source: the Looking Back album sleeve)

14. I want to record my thanks to Cal Taylor. Although he doesn’t get a namecheck above this essay, he agreed to do the fact checking for me and his assistance was, as always, invaluable.

 

John Mayall official website

John Mayall discography

John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers former members

John Mayall biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #731

5 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jul 11, 2018

    What a superb piece – brilliantly researched and so much fascinating material that it will take a while to digest it all. Also introduced me to Albert Ammons and to the great Peter Green solo on Looking Back’. Great stuff entirely, as they say back home.

  2. Peter Viney
    Jul 14, 2018

    You’ll send me back to the earlier albums. I’ve been listening to Crawling Up A Hill and Looking Back frequently. I have several 60s soul / R&B compilations I use for daily exercise, and those two tracks have been the recent favourites. I saw Mayall several times, but live I thought the “drummerless” bands era with Jon Mark on acoustic guitar and John Almond on flute and sax was easily my favourite incarnation, mainly because they sounded so different and rocked so hard so quietly. I saw the drummerless band at least three times.

  3. Ilkka Jauramo
    Jul 15, 2018

    Sorry… and sorry again. Unfortunately this was not a ‘superb piece’ for me at all. (Don’t panic, it’s only natural. We oldies are victims of our time, like every generation is!)
    For the Finnish blues fan John Mayall was essential. Even ‘The Diary Of A Band 1 & 2″ which I have not listened to for decades meant a thing. Remember, it was the period with The Cold War. ‘Dust My Blues’, the singles in ‘So Many Roads’ made the students in the cellars of their schools or their middle class garages to bend their fingers in painful positions (… but not me who played the bass with only four strings.) Not to mention that John Mayall slept drunk in the bath tub of my university “pall” after his concert in Helsinki. (Well, this pall was everyone’s pall.)
    During the years I have seen John Mayall several times: heavy ‘Bluesbreakers’, without the drummer, in the nineties – and actually, for a time ago at a table of the local food market (and a romantic coastal hotel here in the coast of Scania where he stayed a few days between his concerts.
    Anyway, thanks for including John Mayall in the list of great musicians here on Toppermost.

  4. Ilkka Jauramo
    Jul 15, 2018

    Don’t forget John Mayall as an innovator – a teacher, live artist, creator of concept albums, LP cover artist, inventing blues-jazz (my term only), building the bridge with Californian and British blues.

    • Dave Stephens
      Jul 16, 2018

      Gentlemen, thank you for your comments.
      Andrew and Peter, I was trying to get across the impression that John has been much more than a band leader who nurtured axemen (but possibly didn’t include as much along these lines as Ilkka was expecting).
      Ilkka, sorry if I didn’t quite match up expectations matching John’s reverence as a God like figure in Finland. I did include several singles that appear in “So Many Roads” though I do feel that that album missed a trick by not including “Crawling Up A Hill”.

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