Spanning fifty years, the musical career of John Mayall has been as fascinating and influential as just about anyone in the history of rock. In late 1963, Mayall formed the first incarnation of the Bluesbreakers, a legendary outfit that featured a revolving cast of players that included the likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jack Bruce, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Mick Taylor and a host of other talented players.
Speaking from his home in Los Angeles and in anticipation for his appearance at this weekend's Bedford Blues Festival, Mayall talked with DC9 about what drew him to the blues and how he feels his most recent band (featuring Texan Rocky Athas) is the best group he has ever put together.
Texas has such a long history of great blues guitarists, folks like Lightnin' Hopkins and Robert Johnson.
Yes, absolutely. It has definitely been a bedrock of the blues.
What drew you and so many others in the UK in the early 60's to American blues music?
I don't really know. I can really speak for what everybody else started because I started playing blues at the age of 12 or 13. That was ten years before the British blues thing started. When it did start, I had already been playing for ten years. It was just a change from Dixieland jazz which was playing in the clubs and ruling everything for ten years. I think we were just due for a change.
You started playing at 12?
Right, yes. I grew up listening to jazz and blues. It was a no brainer that I was attracted to it.
Your father was a musician as well.
Yes, he had a big collection of jazz records and when I was old enough to earn some money of my own, I got my own collection going.
Your parents were in support of your career choice?
My father wasn't a professional musician. He was just playing guitar as a hobby. It just meant that there was a guitar around the house that I could practice on.
You are coming up on your 80th birthday. I know you had a big party when you turned 70. Are you planning another extravaganza?
No, just business as usual. I think we have a gig on my actual birthday. I think we were just told that we have a gig in Florida. There is nothing that has been planned, no sitting date for a celebration. It will be what it will be.
Your playing on the same bill with Buddy Guy. I assume you've done a number of shows with him?
Yes, we've been friends for many donkeys' years.
Many guitarists say that Buddy Guy is the best living guitar player. Do you agree?
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Silly people say any guitar player is the best. All of the best players sound different from each other. There is no way of comparing them. You just really appreciate that fact that so many great guitar players and great musicians don't sound like anybody else. Saying anyone of them is any better than the others is ridiculous.
I remember seeing Richard Thompson and being in awe of his playing. Does anyone in particular stand out for you?
Not really. The world is full of great musicians. There are enough great players around for people to get into, people they love to listen to.
You are a big fan of John Lee Hooker. You got your first break playing with Hooker in 1964. What that a dream come true?
It was definitely a learning experience. I felt privileged to be playing with one of my idols. It was very interesting.
You are from the UK, but you have lived in California for many years. Why move?
I love the music and everything else about America. That is where the blues came from. It was a no brainer for me.
Do you miss Britain?
Not really. I have friends there and I got there regularly on tour. It doesn't seem like I left.
Did you also spend some time in South Korea?
I was in the army when I was over there. I was there for three years. That was the mandatory time for the army back then. I was living in a tent.
You have also studied art design and have done some of your own album covers. If things wouldn't have worked out as a musician, would you have done more with art design?
I don't know. That's another what if question. No one knows the answer to that one. There was an opportunity to play music and I went for that.
You play a lot of shows. Do you scale back as the years go by?
It just goes by the demand really. Each year we manage to rack up a hundred shows. It looks like there is going to be a lot more than that this coming year. Maybe that's because of my 80th birthday coming up.
With such a huge catalogue of material, is it difficult coming up with a set list?
No, cause it different from night to night. I do a different set list every night. Numbers are rotated regularly and there is enough material there for us to find new things to do. This band has been together for five years or more.
Is (Texan) Rocky Athas still playing with you?
Yes, he is part of that same lineup that has been together five years now. The band I have now is the best band I have ever had. I think it would be impossible to do better than that.
You've had so many great musicians play in your bands. What attracts so many talented individuals to play with you?
A band leader chooses his musicians carefully for the reasons of compatibility.
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Do you keep in touch with the folks who have played with you over the years?
You don't often get the opportunity to make that happen. If you happen to be playing the same festival or same circuit, you may run into people.