(Originally published in All Out Guitar in 2007)
John Mayall - The Godfather of British Blues
John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers recently released "In the Palace of the King", a tribute to the music of the late, great Freddie King. The album marks number 56 for the multi-instrumentalist, this one with a Bluesbreakers lineup also consisting of guitarist Buddy Whittington, drummer Joe Yuele, bassist Hank Van Sickle, and keyboardist Tom Canning. A fine horn section completes the album.
John Mayall, a performer who doesnít necessarily need introductions, especially for those familiar with the origin of the music, is known to many as the "Godfather of British Blues". The Bluesbreakers are not only responsible for exposing traditional American blues to British listeners, but the excitement their brand of blues generated quickly reverberated back to the US and throughout the world. A pioneer of the real thing infused with a foreign element, the result was an audaciously modern and exciting interpretation of the music of Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, Elmore James, and especially Freddie King. Though John wasnít the first English musician to delve deeply into American blues, as Graham Bond and Alexis Korner (known comparatively as "the Founding Father of British Blues") were heavily into it in the early 60s, John had a knack for putting together numerous versions of a band many consider to be one of the greatest blues bands in history, in England or anywhere else.
Comprehending the importance of electric guitar in modern blues, augmented by the fact that he was greatly influenced by his guitarist father, the songs of John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers contain some of the most innovative yet complementary guitar work on record. Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor, all of whom went on to experience remarkable careers of their own, each possessed amazing flair and aptitude for paying homage to the music of the original blues musicians. The early albums that featured these three members individually are enduring and adored chestnuts to this day, beginning with the 1966 release "John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton", known to many as the "Beano" album because of the comic book Clapton is seen reading on its cover. However, it would be incomplete to mention only guitarists when talking about the Mayall legacy, as many incredible bass players (Jack Bruce, John McVie, etc.), drummers (Mick Fleetwood, Soko Richardson, etc.), and horn players have graced the lineup of this legendary band over the years. But besides the great Mayall himself, each guitar player has had a tendency to stand out, defining many of the albums and eras of the band. American guitarists Walter Trout and Coco Montoya, among others, soon followed in the footsteps of the big three. Both guitarists are current strongholds in blues oriented music to this day. Replacing Coco Montoya in 1993, Buddy Whittington is enjoying his fifteenth year as guitarist for John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers.
The principal choreographer of the bandís material, as well as its defining father, John Mayall is an established professional, one adept enough to lift performers to the level of iconóan idolís idol, one might say. The renowned bandleader, lead vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist (harp, keyboards, guitar, sax, etc), still tours the globe, bringing his exciting brand of electric blues to music lovers and connoisseurs everywhere.
Being a Freddie King themed album, "In the Palace of the King" is no doubt an extremely appropriate tribute for the 74-year-old Mayall, for all of the other band members throughout its lengthy history as well. Below is my recent conversation with the Godfather of British Blues.
Brian D. Holland) Congratulations, John, on your new album, "In the Palace of the King".
John Mayall) Oh, yeah. Thank you. Iím very pleased with it.
BH) Fifty-six studio albums, I think it is.
JM) Thatís right.
BH) That must be a record in itself.
JM) Yeah. They keep mounting up.
BH) Though I know youíre a huge Freddie King inspired musician, what brought on the idea for a Freddie King inspired theme album?
JM) Well, every time I make an album I like to come up with some kind of theme or idea thatíll hold it together. Because I havenít done any kind of tribute albums to any of my heroes, Eagle [Vision] suggested that it would be a good idea. Freddie King was the obvious choice because his guitar style has been something that all the guitar players in the Bluesbreakers have looked at as sort of a role model. In fact, his singing has always been an influence on my singing, too. It seemed logical as soon as it was mentioned, and thatís the way we have it.
BH) Though Freddie King songs are some of the best blues ever recorded, are you inspired by their instrumental attribute more than the melody and verse?
JM) Itís the whole package really. You canít really separate them. I mean, Freddie had a great personality, and his chops were terrific. He was a great singer, great guitar player, and very inspiring really.
BH) How did you go about choosing the songs for this album?
JM) Well, you know, he had such a large catalog. From the early days, all of the stuff he did on the Federal label. I suppose it was with the view of getting radio play on AM stations, leading all the way up to where he got together with Don Nix and Leon Russell, and then to the more modern ones, which were healthy material and extended cuts. So, it wasnít really all that hard to pick the material. I just went with the ones that had the most different feel from each other so there wasnít any repetition of tempos or keys, moods or whatever. It kind of fell into place fairly quickly.
BH) Speaking of keys, I like the fact that you put the key to each song in the album CD booklet.
JM) Yeah. Itís sort of a guide for people who are interested in trying to follow along. Itís something Iíve always been keen to do.
BH) The Robben Ford song, "Cannonball Shuffle", is a nice addition.
JM) We did a tour with Robben and he enjoyed us. The Bluesbreakers backed him on a little package tour we did a couple of years ago. That was one of the songs he wrote in tribute to Freddie. He and the Bluesbreakers played it quite regularly on that tour, so I wanted that one in there, too.
BH) "You Know That You Love Me" is an interesting start to the album. It kind of flaunts the whole band individually.
JM) Yeah. Well, itís a good kicker. It gets your attention right away.
BH) "Going Down" is a nice addition to the album as well.
JM) Yeah. Thatís probably Freddieís most well known song, outside of "Hideaway". Itís a great Don Nix piece.
BH) Buddy Whittington is amazing on "Palace of the King".
JM) Yes. Heís been with me for fifteen years now. Theyíre all so much of a well oiled machine, and heís quite an exceptional guitar player, a great addition to the Bluesbreakersí history.
BH) He does fit nicely, into that Bluebreaker guitarist alumni.
JM) Oh, yeah.
BH) Youíve been quite successful at choosing guitar players. Is there a process involved, or something you look for?
JM) Well, if you think about it, there hasnít been that many; apart from the early days, in the sixties, when Clapton, Green, and Taylor were in the band for about a year each, before going on to their own careers and so forth. I think what Iíve always done was indulged my own musical taste with people who turn me on and excite me. Thatís been the criteria.
BH) Walter Trout and Coco Montoya, both whom Iíve had the pleasure to interview over the past year or so, have credited you with having amazing bandleader qualities, especially on the road during a grueling tour. You were more like a father than a boss to them, and you kept everything cool and together.
JM) I think if you have the right people who feel part of a musical family, then we generally get along. There are a few ups and downs here and there, but nothing really serious. I think if you pick the right people, the right personalities, there doesnít seem to be too much trouble. Iíve always enjoyed getting musical people together, also personality wise.
BH) Mick Taylor has been known to say that thereís no better way to learn how to play blues guitar than with John Mayall. Do you think thatís because of your understanding of the blues or your understanding of blues guitar?
JM) I think itís a bit of both really. First and foremost, if you pick the right people, I think the whole idea of picking them in the first place is for what they can contribute to the band, and also for how they can grow as musicians in the freedom of the structure of the band. You start to see some amazing stuff come out.
BH) Is it exciting for you when guys like Clapton, Taylor, Trout and Montoya get onstage with you and the Bluesbreakers today?
JM) Yeah. Theyíre great musicians, and theyíre always exciting and stimulating to listen to.
BH) In your opinion, has Claptonís style changed much since the Beano days?
JM) I donít think so. He has wonderful tone and a recognizable sound all his own. His chops are a lot more complex perhaps, but in a way, the simplicity is always there, the basis of his playing.
BH) Talk about John Mayall the guitarist. Where does the instrument actually fit in with you, alongside the others?
JM) I enjoy playing the guitar, but as with all instruments, I pick the one that most suits the song. If a song is more guitar based, then thatís what Iíll play. But it does depend upon the song.
BH) Do the guitarists in your band inspire you?
JM) Sure. The whole thing about playing with the guys is that we all stimulate each other. Weíve been together so long that itís a great unit for improvisation and creating good blues.
BH) Do you have a personal favorite Bluebreakers album?
JM) No. I only release an album when it represents the best that I can do. Theyíre all very personal to me, obviously, whether I write the songs or whether I choose the songs. In other words, if I pick an album to listen to, and it goes back maybe twenty years, ten years, or whatever, itíll mean something to me because it will bring back the times or emotions that went into creating it. Itís kind of a musical diary for me, listening to something and bringing back those times.
BH) Talk a little about your gear of choice, when it comes to guitar.
JM) The guitar itself doesnít really make much difference to me, but I always play it through a Roland Jazz Chorus. Thereís nothing fancy about it or anything, no pedals; I just plug in and play.
BH) Would you like to say anything else about "In the Palace of the King"?
JM) Itís the latest one, and itís a tribute to the music of Freddie King. It has his feel all over it I think. Thereís some great horn playing on it that Lon Price put together with Lee Thornburg, so that really enhances it. And of course, our regular recording man on organ is Tom Canning. So, thatís it; thatís the whole package.
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