The vocals on John Mayall’s most recent album, Find a Way to Care, are so powerful that they make one wonder what rituals the veteran bluesman follows to keep his voice so strong. “I don’t know. I guess I’m lucky,” says Mayall, who is finishing up a 19-date East Coast tour this month, ahead of the May 6 release of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers Live in 1967 - Volume Two (Forty Below Records). “There are no tricks. I just sing. It must be the inspiration of the music.”
There’s been a lot of music and a lot of inspiration in the storied career of the Godfather of British Blues. It’s been an amazing run for the 82-year-old, and there are no signs he’s slowing down. After 19 dates in a three-week span in 10 states and Washington, DC, this month, Mayall has six more dates already scheduled for May in Florida, Maryland, Texas, Colorado, and California. He says there’s no thought of kicking back and making life a permanent vacation at his California home.
“I am able to do both — vacation and play music,” he says. “I usually do 100 shows every year. It’s not stressful. I’m touring with the best band I ever had. We enjoy each others’ company. We travel in a van and have a great time. The music is completely stimulating. I have two-thirds of the year for home life.”
Mayall’s belief that his current band — guitarist Rocky Athas, bassist Greg Rzab, and drummer Jay Davenport — is the best one he has led is quite a compliment. His former bandmates included names who became rock and roll legends: Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, John McVie, and Mick Fleetwood. Other notable names in Mayall’s bands were Aynsley Dunbar, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Andy Fraser, and Jon Mark and Johnny Almond, who went on to form the underrated Mark-Almond Band.
Mayall says he never had a systematic process to identify the most talented musicians to join his bands, and musicians were not clamoring to join him. “I didn’t think about it too much,“ he says. Still, his bands’ reputation of a revolving door for musicians is undeserved. “My current band has been together seven years, and my previous band was together 10-15 years. In the early days, it was a fast time. Everybody was young and getting on their feet. Some found their own direction, moved on, and became household names.”
Does it ever bother Mayall that some of his band members have become renowned names internationally, while his name and music are unfamiliar to many Americans? “It’s something I have no control over,” he says. “That’s the way things are.”
Many critics regard his 1966 album with Clapton, Blues Breakers, the landmark album of Mayall’s career and one of the finest blues albums ever recorded. It was released between Clapton’s time with the Yardbirds and the genesis of Cream, and included a tight rhythm section of McVie and drummer Hughie Flint. Clapton’s guitar playing was unsurprisingly superb throughout the album, and Mayall’s organ, guitar, and vocal work was top notch.
Mayall says the album was fortunate to get off the ground. An earlier live record on Decca Records didn’t sell well, and he was dropped from the label. Decca producer Mike Vernon, though, went to bat for Mayall and convinced the label's executives to give him another shot. Today, he says he doesn’t put the album on a special pedestal: “I look at the music on that record as one of the many pieces of my musical history.”
There have been quite a large number of pieces. He has released 67 albums, not counting compilations, but says, “They are all very important to me. I don’t release anything without a personal statement and a personal style. How do you pick between your children? Each album is a document of the time — like a personal diary.”
Mayall says the best live concerts he attended as a spectator were early folk-blues festivals in England. They featured such legendary performers as John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters. While many young British musicians back then were copping licks from these blues greats, Mayall says he was different. “I grew up listening to blues and jazz from my earliest days, and I saw a lot of jazz concerts.”
Now, heading for his 83rd birthday in November, what does Mayall see as his legacy in blues music? “My work is right there and available for everyone to listen to,” he says. “I hope they enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it.”