Born November 29, 1933, in Manchester, England; wife's name, Maggie (a singer); children: Jason. Education: Graduated from Manchester Junior School of Art, 1949; graduated from Manchester Regional College of Art, 1959. Addresses: Record company-- Island Records, 14 East Fourth St., New York, NY 10012.

John Mayall's Bluesbreakers were without a doubt the seminal British blues band, a major catalyst in the musical revolution that swept England in the 1960s and gave birth to blues rock. Countless musicians hold Mayall in highest regard for both his talent and his integrity; nonetheless, he is best known primarily for the caliber of musicians who learned their craft in his band. Many Bluesbreakers alumni have gone on to a star status greater than anything Mayall has achieved simply because they branched out into pop music, while Mayall's dedication to pure blues remains greater than his desire for a chart-breaking hit.

Mayall's father played in many amateur dance bands, and his large collection of jazz recordings was his son's first inspiration. He never made a living at music, however, and John had no intention of pursuing that trade either, though he learned to play piano, guitar, and ukelele while in his early teens. Mayall's natural talent in art led him to the Manchester Junior Art School at age 13, about the same time he discovered and fell in love with American blues. He taught himself to play harmonica while going through the school's two-year course. At 15 he went to work as a window dresser in a Manchester department store, moving his way up to a position in the art offices before being drafted into the British Army. He spent two years in the service, including some time in Korea. Upon returning to England in 1955, he continued his education at the Regional College of Art in Manchester, where he formed his first band, the Powerhouse Four. Graduating in 1959, he landed a job with an advertising agency and quickly established a reputation as one of the best typographers and graphic artists in the region.

The legendary Mississippi-born Muddy Waters had toured England in 1958 with an electric band featuring Chicago's best bluesmen. The tour is often credited with sparking a British music revolution as it unified the country's scattered blues followers and gave them a common vision. Mayall is often referred to as "The Father of British Blues," but he told Down Beat' s Dan Ouellette that the title properly belongs to "Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies, [who] triggered the transformation of London's club scene from traditional jazz of the '50s to electric blues in 1960 with their six-piece band influenced by Muddy Waters." Korner and Davies convinced Mayall that if he left Manchester--where he'd put together an amateur group, the Blues Syndicate--and went to London, he could make it as a professional musician. In 1963, at the age of 29--old by most rock and roll standards--he took up residence in London and formed his dream group, the Bluesbreakers.

Mayall worked days as a draftsman for about a year; but by early 1964 the Bluesbreakers were doing well enough for Mayall to become a full-time musician. The band backed American greats John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson on their tours of the United Kingdom and played dates in small clubs six nights a week. Before long the Bluesbreakers were acknowledged as the best blues band in England; their success, however, was overshadowed by the mass popularity of new rhythm-and-blues-influenced groups like the Rolling Stones. The situation changed rapidly when guitarist Eric Clapton became a Bluesbreaker in April of 1965. Clapton had already made a name for himself with the Yardbirds, but decided leave that group when they began developing what he considered too pop-oriented a sound. Mayall's purist philosophy suited Clapton perfectly, and his talent blossomed in the group. It was at this time that the famous graffito "Clapton is God" began to appear in London. With "God" in the lineup, the Bluesbreakers became the hottest ticket around.

Clapton was a restless musician, however; he abruptly left the Bluesbreakers in August of 1965, returned in November, then left for good in July of 1966 to form Cream with drummer Ginger Baker and ex-Bluesbreaker Jack Bruce. Mayall was unruffled. He understood from the start that some musicians would feel constrained by his strict adherence to classic blues forms, and he frequently encouraged them to leave and explore new directions. He also let many excellent players go simply because he had conceived a new sound for the band and didn't feel they could contribute what he needed. Still other musicians were thrown out of the group for breaking their leader's absolute prohibition against drinking on the job. Each time a great player moved on, Mayall found a replacement capable of bringing a new dimension to his band. Some of the musicians who developed their talents in the Bluesbreakers are John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and Peter Green, who went on to form Fleetwood Mac; Aynsley Dunbar, who became a part of the Jeff Beck Group, the Mothers of Invention, and Journey; Jon Hiseman and Tony Reeves, who formed the pioneer jazz rock group Colosseum II; and Mick Taylor, who would later go on to fame as a Rolling Stone.

In 1967 Mayall and the Bluesbreakers made their first U.S. tour. American audiences greeted them with great enthusiasm--so much so that Mayall soon moved to Laurel Canyon, California. He continued to be a blues purist, but that didn't keep him from exploring all the possibilities of the music. At a time when heavy amplification was common, he recorded The Turning Point, a subtle, wholly acoustic album that was notable particularly for its lack of drums. The absence of percussion instruments, however, did not keep Mayall and his sidemen from creating a driving, accessible sound; in fact, the record yielded what is probably Mayall's best-known tune, "Room to Move." The Turning Point became his best-selling album and was eventually certified gold. As Mayall entered the 1970s he disbanded the many-peopled Bluesbreakers and instead hired free-lance musicians to support him on his tours and recording projects.

As the 1970s wore on, Mayall entered a slow decline; he still played roughly 120 live dates a year, but as he revealed to Ouellette in Down Beat, he saw his recording career "dwindle and finally die out" after several label changes. The abstemious musician who'd once fired sidemen for having a drink before playing now developed his own alcohol problem. "Throughout the '70s, I performed most of my shows drunk," he admitted in Down Beat. Other bad luck plagued him as well, including the complete destruction of his house in a 1979 fire, and a serious injury sustained when he jumped from a balcony and missed the swimming pool for which he was aiming. "That was one incident that got me to stop drinking," he told Ouellette.

Things began to turn around for Mayall in the early 1980s. In 1982 he recreated one of the earlier incarnations of the Bluesbreakers with Mick Taylor and John McVie, playing a series of well-received club dates. Although that reunion didn't last, the idea of getting back to the original Bluesbreakers sound did. In 1984 Mayall put together a new edition of the Bluesbreakers featuring guitarist Coco Montoya and drummer Joe Yuele. This lineup toured Eastern Europe and released some small-label recordings, including Behind the Iron Curtain, The Power of the Blues, and Chicago Line. Island Records eventually re-released Chicago Line in the U.S. and signed Mayall to a recording contract, which led to his 1990 release, A Sense of Place. Down Beat contributor David Whiteis stated that the album "shows that Mayall is capable of exploring new directions with sensitivity and imagination."

by Joan Goldsworthy

John Mayall's Career

Worked variously as a window dresser, typographer, graphic artist, and draftsman. Formed bands Powerhouse Four, 1955, and the Blues Syndicate, 1963, before forming the Bluesbreakers, 1963. Military service: British Army, 1953-55, served in Korea.

John Mayall's Awards

Gold record for The Turning Point, 1969.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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