Even at 80, British Blues Legend John Mayall Is "Always on Tour"
John Mayall today
Photo by Jeff Fasano/Mark Pucci Media
At 80 years old, the "Godfather of British Blues" has certainly earned the opportunity to relax. Or slow down. Or stop performing all over the world at all. But when asked as to what his plans are after his current tour, John Mayall seems perplexed, as if it signals the end of one thing and the conscious start of something different.
"Which tour? I tour year-round. I am always on tour," the singer/guitarist/harmonica player says matter-of-factly. "Always on tour. You've got to communicate and make the audience part of what you're doing. Then you know you've succeeded."
And Mayall is making no concessions to age in terms of how he approaches each show, be it a huge festival, small theater or intimate barn. His current jaunt finds him promoting his latest record, A Special Life (Sony/RED), 11 tracks of Mayall originals, a catalogue re-recording, a tune from his band, and covers of songs by Jimmy Rogers, Albert King, Sonny Landreth and Eddie Taylor.
Joining Mayall on both Special Life and the tour are Rocky Athas (guitar), Greg Rzab (bass) and Jay Davenport (drums). Give or take a few, it is nearly his 70th record since 1965. That is not including the live discs he offers on his website. And he wasn't looking to mess with the formula.
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"It's a straight-ahead blues album, and I tried to get in as many different shades of the music as possible," he says. "Like 'Speak of the Devil' by Sonny Landreth. That was just a great shuffle. A rocking tune."
One new track, "World Gone Crazy," is especially pointed in mentioning a current hot-button topic.
"On each record, I try to put in at least one song with some commentary," Mayall offers. "Things are in such turmoil now with all the religious wars going on overseas, it's just madness. And it's a [prime subject] for a piece of music."
Mayall calls his current band his "most creative" ever, and Athas is his second Texas-bred guitarist in a row. He won't go so far as to generalize about the talents of axe-slingers from the Lone Star State, though.
"The best guitar players, wherever they come from, have their own distinctive style," Mayall says. "It's just coincidental that so many come from Texas; I'm thinking of Freddie King and several others. And the best of the best players don't sound like anybody else. So I won't compare one against the other. They are all important in the blues world."
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Of course, naming his current band the "most creative" he has ever worked with is a tall order to fill, given that Mayall's ever-shifting Bluesbreakers lineup over the years has served as an apprenticeship/stopping point for a Who's Who of '60s British blues-rockers. Those include many who would go on to much greater fame, including Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce (Cream); Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood Mac); Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones) and Andy Fraser (Free).
In fact, 1966's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton -- nicknamed the "Beano" record for the title of the comic book that Clapton is reading on the cover -- was hugely influential and is probably his best known release, coming in #195 on Rolling Stone's list of the Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
But after all the ensuing decades, is Mayall ever bothered that any article on him (including this one) and even his official bio makes so much of his former hires? Does he ever think, "Hey, that was my band? What about me?"
"Well, I suppose a little bit of that," Mayall laughs. "But that's what you get when the musicians that you've launched are so incredibly good. So it's natural for people to make that connection."
A little bit older than many of his '60s bandmembers, Mayall also handily used his huge record collection to influence their playing and outlook. But despite tales of young Englsh players hounding returning sailors for American records or -- in the case of Mick Jagger -- sending money to Chess Records in Chicago and then waiting until the precious discs were shipped back over to England, Mayall says it wasn't too hard finding the music. He says the older artists especially had all been handily issued in Britain.
"I had been collecting blues records quite easily from 1950 onwards, plenty of 78s around from artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Josh White, and Leadbelly," Mayall recalls. "Jagger and Clapton an all those guys didn't know about those artists [at first], they were mainly [interested] in the artists from Chess."
In a huge list of credits, one stands out in Mayall's career as being a bit interesting. At the end of the 1978 movie musical Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, his is one of dozens of "Guests of Pepperland" standing on huge risers belting out the title song.
The filming brought together a nothing-like-it-ever gathering of stars like Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees and George Burns, who appeared in the film, with a wildly divergent group of musicians and actors including Stephen Bishop, George Benson, Donovan, Leif Garrett, Etta James, Dr. John, Nils Lofgren, Wilson Pickett, Johnny Rivers, Hank Williams, Jr., Sha Na Na, and...Carol Channing.
In one short bit, Mayall even gets a close-up turning his face in rhythm before the chorus begins again.
"I don't know whose idea it was, but it was a lot of fun!", he laughs, surprised at the question. "It lasted all day and was a great social meeting point. A fun time and a great party. A very good vibe!"
John Mayall performs tonight at Dosey Doe, 25911 I-45 N., The Woodlands. $88-$108, ticket price includes three course meal and soft drink. Dinner will be served between 6-7:30 p.m.
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