The Godfather of the Blues: An Interview with John Mayall
by Brian L. Knight
John Mayall is one of the world's most eminent bluesmen. His Bluesbreakers has served as a farm league for some of rock and roll's best musicians. The list consists of Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce of Cream, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac. Mayall has recorded over forty albums since his first release in 1963. This past April, Mayall released "Blues for the Lost Days" (Silvertone Records) and he is touring to support the release. This past Thursday evening, the Southern Vermont Review got an opportunity to talk with the legend.
The Southern Vermont Review: Thank you for taking the time to come down here
I think I'll start by asking you a couple questions about your new album, Blues for the Lost Days. Some of the songs on your new album such as "All Those Heroes", "Blues for Lost Days and "Trenches", have a historic flare to them. Do you have a passion for history?
John Mayall: Its more or less the history of my time. I have experienced everything that is in there, except of course, World War I ("Trenches"). It was before my time. People who survived that war were still around. Those were the things that I have always been interested in. As for the rest of the songs, they mostly tell their own story. My career.
The Southern Vermont Review: Other songs, such as "Stone Cold Deal", " Dead City" and "How Can You Live Like That" address the problems of the American city or any city at that. What are you personal comments on the situation in our urban environments?
John Mayall: Those our my comments. "Stone Cold Deal" touches on it in a tongue and cheek way. "How Can You Live Like That" was written by Eddie Harris. It was a coincidence that his song found its way onto the album. Like I said, all the songs that I write are personal observations that I get involved in. They are points of view.
The Southern Vermont Review: Not only do you cover two of his songs, but you also mention Freddie King in your song "Blues for the Lost Days". The man obviously has an impact on your life. Could you tell us a little about him?
John Mayall: He was a very involved. The time when all those 60's blues bands were basing their repertoires on Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, the Bluesbreakers, especially when Eric (Clapton) joined the band, take on it all was Freddie King's stuff. Freddie King at the time was not really that well known in London as much as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. His singing was a big influence to me. He is one of the all time greats. Particularly the guitar. He was a big inspiration to Eric.
The Southern Vermont Review: You studied art in graduate school and then went to work as a graphic designer. Do you still use the art skills that you learned then?
John Mayall: I guess indirectly, if it is ever called for. The only thing I done recently is design the T-shirts for the tour. I guess that is current enough.
The Southern Vermont Review: You switched from graphic design to a being a full time musician. What prompted that change?
John Mayall: Well at that time, I was doing both jobs for the first year. Semi professional for one year and then there was enough work to drop the day job. That is how the transition took place.
The Southern Vermont Review: Was music always your true love even through art school?
John Mayall: Both of them, but I never thought I could make a living making music. That came much later.
The Southern Vermont Review: You mention a lot of your influences in the tune "All Those Heroes'. Have you had an opportunity to play with any of those influences?
John Mayall: Yeah. Not the ones on "All Those Heroes", for the mainly have been dead for a long time. I saw Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
The Southern Vermont Review: Your song "One in a Million" was written about your mother. Did you find it difficult to write?
John Mayall: It was easy. There are no shortage of comments to write about her so it was very easy.
The Southern Vermont Review: Did she support you in your music?
John Mayall: Yeah. She was very supportive our music.
The Southern Vermont Review: You listened to a lot of your father's records when you were growing up. Was that your main influence?
John Mayall: Well, it was a starting point. I think that anybody who becomes interested in music starts with something and it leads to other things.
The Southern Vermont Review: Who did you listen to growing up?
John Mayall: Everybody in jazz and blues that you could possibly find in the encyclopedia. I listened to everything. My father didn't have any blues records or boogie-oogie piano records. His collection introduced me to jazz music.
The Southern Vermont Review: David Bromberg once sang "You Have to Suffer to Sing the Blues." Would you agree?
John Mayall: Well, it depends on how you qualify suffer. Emotion is the key word. You have to be emotionally accurate. Feeling is everything.
The Southern Vermont Review: You have had a lot different lineups over the years. How is it to change from one lineup to another? Is it difficult to adapt?
John Mayall: I don't have to, for this band has been together for such a long time. There haven't been any changes for many years. The other changes: those are the things that happen in the course of time. People leaving and so forth. Mainly people remember that because it was the sixties. Its been very long term with this band.
The Southern Vermont Review: You seem to be progressive and less nostalgic.
John Mayall: If somebody leaves, you are not going to stop playing. You move on to the next step and somebody else comes in. That is what happens.
The Southern Vermont Review: Could you rate your albums. Does any particular album stick out?
John Mayall: Well, I think that anytime that you make an album, it is an accurate update on what is going on with me at any given point. So music in that respect is a form of a musical diary, an accurate depiction of what is going on with the musicians I have worked with any other story that goes to making up the blues. I am thrilled with the new album because it is a very bluesy album. I got the opportunity nearly all the songs on it. That was an extra added attraction. And working with John Porter (Producer) for the first time was a thrill too for he is such a complete blues producer. He really helped.
The Southern Vermont Review: You play a wide variety of instruments. Which was your first instrument and which is your favorite instrument?
John Mayall: I am a keyboard player first and foremost. That was basically my first instrument although I have messed around with the guitar or the ukulele and banjo. I started playing the piano when I was thirteen or fourteen. The harmonica came much later. The keyboard is number one.
The Southern Vermont Review: When you are not playing music or touring, what are you doing?
John Mayall: Family life takes up the rest of the time. I have a thirteen year old and a two year old. My thirteen year old plays bass guitar. Not very much, because school takes up all of his time.
The Southern Vermont Review: Do you have a most memorable stage moment?
John Mayall: Not particularly. I think coming to America was very exciting moment for me. Any of those first shows that we did; The Newport Jazz Festival was pretty memorable, The Filmore was very special as well.
The Southern Vermont Review: Did your moving to America have any impact on how you played?
John Mayall: No, I don't think it was a factor. I think if you are a musician you can move anywhere. As long as you can get on playing and go somewhere you can play. That is all that is necessary. Living in America has just opened the opportunities to working with American musicians.
The Southern Vermont Review: What music do you like that is being produced today?
Alanis Morrisette. Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters , Stone Temple Pilots, Green Day. I have seen Green Day live. It was a pretty dynamic show. I get a lot of energy from their creative ideas. I have only met the guys in Stone Temple Pilots because I wanted an autograph for my son. They said: " John Mayall! We grew up listening to you. We started off listening to you." What goes around comes around.
Immediately after this interview, John Mayall got on stage with his band and played to a sold out crowd at Burlington's Club Metronome. The present Bluesbreakers consist of bassist John Paulus, drummer Joe Yuele and guitarist Buddy Whittington. Mayall traded between his keyboards and the blues harp. The band loves playing with Mayall and they love his legendary status. Like most musicians, John Paulus grew up listening to John Mayall: "John Mayall was responsible for getting me into the blues. Real Blues. I kind of thought I knew the blues but John showed me." The members do not feel that they are second bill to Mayall. Buddy Whittington commented: "There is a little pressure. You want to the best that you can do. When we play, John let us do what we want. It feels great to be great supporting player in a great band. A cohesive playing unit is important. It is also still fun to rip and snort."
"Rip and Snort" is exactly what the band did that evening as they played songs mostly from the new album such as " Stone Cold Deal", "Sen-Say Shun" and "All Those Heroes." In addition, they pulled out some classics such as "Room To Move" which was on Mayall's landmark 1970 album, Turning Point. The legend came to the town and as expected, put on a legendary performance.