John Mayall has devoted his life to spreading the gospel of the blues, but he knows his own limits.
Ask the godfather of the 1960s British blues movement how taunting a task it would be to gather all the musicians that have played in his Bluesbreakers band on one stage for a reunion concert and he laughs heartily.
“People ask me that a lot, believe it or not,” Mayall said recently from his Los Angeles home, where he has lived for the past 30 years. “It’s almost totally impossible. It would be beyond my control, because things like that can only happen from the top down.
“So, from that point of view, it would have to be something that was spearheaded by Eric Clapton and his management and his record company and a thousand other people who would stand in the way of something like that.”
In other words: not bloody likely.
Still, it would be a testament to Mayall’s influence on a generation of rock musicians to see so many of his discoveries in one spot: Clapton, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Peter Green, Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), Jack Bruce (Cream), Andy Fraser (Free), Aynsley Dunbar (Frank Zappa/David Bowie/Journey/Jefferson Starship), Jon Mark and John Almond (Mark-Almond), Harvey Mandel (Canned Heat), Hughie Flint (McGuinness-Flint).
The Mayall family tree stands tall and proud. The 63-year-old blues pioneer, however, prefers the here and now.
“Musically, there’s no guarantee that such a reunion would be any near as good as what you hear when we get on stage now,” Mayall said of his current lineup, “because we play together all the time. We know each other’s moves, backwards and forwards. The excitement between four people is a building thing.”
For Mayall, part of that construction has gone toward “Blues For the Lost Days,” his third recording for Silvertone Records. Due April 15, the John Porter-produced album is infused with spirit, skill and an obvious passion for the blues, from the hard-edged opener “Dead City” to the respectful ode to blues legends, “All These Heroes.”
Mayall laments that many of today’s musicians don’t dig nearly deep enough into the blues’ back pages.
“There’s a slight tendency not to go far enough back, where they should be drawing from inspiration,” he said. “There’s a lot of great emotion that comes across in those early times. Of course, they’re not talking about the same subjects, but the topics and feelings are common to any age.
“The blues is very much alive today. That in itself tells you a lot, that it’s so accessible to so many people. That was never so in the early days. Now is the time for those who are getting turned on by the blues to try and enlarge their repertoire.”
Mayall has certainly done his part. Born in Manchester, England, in 1933, he first played guitar at age 12 and formed his first group, the Powerhouse Four, when he was 15. After graduating from art school, he moved to London and started the Blues Syndicate, which evolved into the Bluesbreakers.
Many great musicians came and went with the Bluesbreakers. Mayall was never one to hold them back from seeking greater fame and fortune.
“But that’s the joy of being a band leader,” he said. “You get to choose the musicians who mostly turn you on. And I’ve been very fortunate over the years.”
What does it take to get into the Bluesbreakers?
“First of all, there has to be a vacancy, and that doesn’t happen all that much anymore,” Mayall said, with a laugh. “Joe (Yuele), my drummer, has been with me for 11 years. (Guitarist) Buddy (Whittington) has been with me going on four years. Just for guitarists alone, there’s only been two in the past 14 years.
“To get into the band, you have to be socially compatible. You have to be really good friends. That’s more important than the music, in so many respects, because you’re on the road for so long. In the course of the day, that on-stage portion is only a small part of it. As long as everyone’s on the same wavelength and has the same ideals and the love for the music, that’s what it’s really all about.”
With the recent addition of bassist John Paulus, the Bluesbreakers, as always, are all on the same page, Mayall said.
“I wanted to make an album of songs that were close to me,” he said. “The overriding theme was just the way the world is today – life in the cities, urban decay and so forth, and also to draw attention to some of the early blues heroes who sang about their own troubled times.”