John Mayall: Blues' First Bona Fide Rock Star

At 76, blues rocker John Mayall shows no signs of slowing down. In the last year he started up a new band with guitarist Rocky Athas from Texas, Greg Rzab on bass, and drummer Jay Davenport, released his 57th album, and launched tours in both the U.S. and Europe.

The era of Mayall began back in the 1960s in London with the Bluesbreakers, a band known as much for Mayall's resolute content and his singular tenor as well as for his choice in flashy lead guitarists. Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, and Andy Fraser are only a few of the legendary axe masters who were Bluesbreakers at one time or another.

In his day, Brits called Mayall the godfather of the blues, but when he settled into Laurel Canyon in the 1970s, he became the blues' first bona fide rock star.

OC Weekly: Each time we've spoken by phone you have always requested an early call. Are you a morning person?

John Mayall: Well, yes. I have to take my boy to school.

The title of your newest CD--Tough--does that describe you?

I think it just sums up the feeling of the music. It's very strong, so tough seemed like a really good title for it.

After 57 albums, what's next?

Well, I think the next one will be a live album.

When you make a new record, are you competing against yourself?

Not really. There's at least an 18 month gap between recordings these days and in that time, lots of things can happen to give you inspiration for new stuff.

You are prolific to a fault. Do you just write songs all the time and then decide later what gets included on the next album?

No. I don't write things down until a week before we go in the studio, and then it's like a roundup of ideas.

You just got back from Europe--again. Why are audiences there such fans of American music?

Probably because they don't have it on their own doorstep. As Americans, you kind of take it for granted that there's always some band playing nearby.

Walter Trout told me that one of your greatest talents, in his opinion, was in knowing who would sound good together. What's the story behind your new band?

Well, Rocky Athas is a good friend of [ex-Bluesbreaker] Buddy Whittington's. We all played a show together a few years ago, and I just remembered that he was a very unusual and complete guitar player. Greg has worked with me before and he recommended Jay, the drummer. When the album Tough was made, they'd only met a week before. [Laughs.] It was how do you do, and off we go.

Even in your darkest and most bleak blues-man moments, you seem to maintain a thread of optimism.

 I think the blues has always fulfilled that function. Blues has always been a very personal thing from the point of view of the singer-player.

At the Long Beach Blues Festival last year you were still signing autographs while your band was starting your set and you had to sprint up the stairs to the stage at the last minute. What's with the new accessibility these days?

 I enjoy it. [Laughs.] The alternative is just sitting around in your dressing room waiting to go on, so I do like to, you know, find out who my audience is. And they do appreciate it.

John Mayall performs at the Coach House Nov. 11


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