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Photo courtesy Monterey
International Inc.In the mid-'60s, John Mayall was one bad stud. With his druggie-chic eye baggage and beatnik goatee, Mayall could be seen hanging backstage with Bob Dylan and his comically inebriated coterie in D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. You hadda be a serious playa to get 'faced in the same room with Dylan in those days.
Mayall, you see, had conscripted the U.K.'s crème de la scene for his Bluesbreakers, a rotating roster of musicians that came to personify the British blues movement: Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie—subsequent members of Cream, the Rolling Stones and the early, un-lame version of Fleetwood Mac—all played supporting roles to Mayall, who—let's face it—was never really more than a technically competent if undeniably ardent singer, harmonica player and keyboardist.
Still, Mayall's bandleading and composing skills ultimately hallmarked his chief contributions to the blues. His impact crested in the early '70s, when he ceased merely interpreting American blues and began creating something personal, experimental and ultimately far more enduring—all as a grizzled old fuck, pushing 40 in an era when "Don't trust anyone over 30!" was a catch phrase. Mayall turns 72 in a couple of months, far older than the Muddys and Wolfs that he so revered in his time. And, happily, he neither looks nor sounds remotely ready for the codger farm just yet: "It's hard to believe, isn't it? It just kind of crept up on me, didn't it?" he asks.
At its best, Mayall's muse was distinctive, groundbreaking, scintillating; his greatest albums hold up to anything released by more celebrated contemporaries in several genres. 1969's The Turning Point was Mayall's trial run working within a low-volume, drummer-free combo. With acoustic guitarist Jon Marc and reed man Johnny Almond in tow, Mayall flawlessly combined elements of blues, jazz and folk music into something all his own. The album featured a chooglin', harp-driven, mostly instrumental workout called "Room to Move" that was the closest Mayall ever came to enjoying a radio hit. The following year's USA Union featured Mayall's finest-ever batch of songs—the hauntingly melodic "Night Flyer"; the Curtis Mayfield-worthy "Possessive Emotions"; the drunken, barrelhouse roll of "Where Did My Legs Go." And perhaps Mayall's swan song as an A-lister was '72's Jazz Blues Fusion,another exceptional, experimental showcase featuring trumpeter Blue Mitchell and guitarist Freddy Robinson. That's an essential, sanctified triad for connoisseurs of blues, jazz and rock, and, more arguably, a historical "turning point" in blurring the parameters of pop music itself.
It hasn't exactly been a one-way ticket back to Palookaville since then, but neither has Mayall regained the creative or popular propulsion of those heady days. His albums are inevitably as enjoyable as they are interchangeable—with one remaining bit of the old magic still in place: Mayall's lyrics. In a genre infamous for endlessly recycling clichés, Mayall remains perhaps its ultimate poet. His songs and reflections are deeply personal and often superbly impressionistic, having more in common with songsters John Prine and Guy Clark than the hordes of "woke up this morning, my baby was gone"-spouting cretins populating the blues milieu.
"It's just a general belief I've always had—if you're gonna sing something, you should sing something personal," says Mayall. "That's what the main feature of the blues is, as far as I'm concerned. You just use the medium to tell your story. I've never been a fan of singing about things I have no experience of."
"I'm not going away," he says. "There's this segment that considers me some legendary figure, and it's a pleasure to continue playing because of those people."