The Father of British Blues

John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers


John Mayall should have nothing to be sad about. But for the last forty years, this kid's got the blues. Instead of cake for his 70th birthday this year, he ate a live concert DVD. OK, he didn't eat it, but he made one and is touring to promote it.

Mayall's known as the Father of British Blues, but his role in music has been pivotal and influential in other genres as well. And his story is like none other.

Mayall was born in 1933 in Macclesfield, a small English town near Manchester, and a town with no hint of American blues culture. His father was a guitarist with an extensive collection of jazz records and Mayall felt drawn to the blues as a tyke. At 13 he taught himself to play the blues with a neighbor's piano, borrowed guitars and secondhand harmonicas (yuck, that's devotion).

Until 1962, Mayall was a part-time musician. Then Alexis Korner, a catalyst in the blues revival of the 1960s, pioneered what was known as The British Blues Boom of the late '60s. With all the activity, Mayall moved to London to go pro as John Mayall's Bluesbreakers.

Soon Mayall met a young fella named Eric Clapton, who had quit the Yardbirds for bluer pastures. This historic union bore a hit album for the Bluesbreakers and created worldwide legends. When Clapton left, the Bluesbreakers had attained notoriety as a starting point for some of the greatest blues artists of the time. In and out went the musicians. Mayall became equally known for discovering new talent as for his core interpretations of the Chicago-style blues with which he'd grown up.

The rotating selection of Bluesbreakers included Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, who became Fleetwood Mac; Andy Fraser who formed Free; and Mick Taylor who later joined a wee band called the Rolling Stones. Eric Clapton once stated, "John Mayall has actually run an incredibly great school for musicians."

Mayall and his current lot of Bluesbreakers (Tom Canning, Hank Van Sickle, Joe Yuele and Buddy Whitington) are swinging through Boise Sunday, May 16 to promote the DVD.

The DVD was filmed July 19, 2003, in Liverpool, England. It was Mayall's 70th birthday party and all of his friends came for the festivities, including Clapton and Mick Taylor. The concert also benefited UNICEF's fight against child exploitation.

If the show is like the DVD, which has been called "one of the finest nights of blues this millennium," it will surely be a vicious and impressive blend of puritanical fervor.

"I felt truly overwhelmed by not only the response of the four and a half thousand blues fans ... but with the fun we all had on stage," Mayall says.

The show begins with "Southside Story" and blazes through several standards, classics and contemporary ditties. The climax comes when Clapton joins Mayall on stage for the first time in 38 years.

The fact that a 70-year-old is still rocking and rolling and touring the globe to boot isn't the only stirring thing Mayall has going. As remarkable is his ascent to icon status. Because when Mayall first embraced the blues, it was with a sadness that in its country of origin, blues had not yet reached the same celebratory level.

"We were all so dedicated to where this music came from and the injustice that it was not appreciated in America. We were damned if we were going to let it go on being unnoticed," he says. "We were communicating our love for this music and the universality of it—and it spread."

Blues hit highs and lows over the decades. "During the '50s, England was dominated by the traditional jazz bands of the day," according to Mayall. "And, as there was no indication that the blues would ever have an audience, I played only for my own satisfaction."

By 1979, the public appreciation for blues was at an all-time low, and Mayall's passion met struggle. Motivated by nostalgia and fond memories, Mayall reformed the original Bluesbreakers with Mick Taylor and John McVie in 1982 and took the genre on a cultural upslope with continuous touring and a steady flow of new albums (over 50 to date).

If not for John Mayall, blues fans today might be extra blue if the style had wilted years ago. But even they can be happy now because Mayall, at 70-years-old, shows no indication of slowing down. Only plans to keep dishing the blues for years to come.

John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Sunday, May 16, doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m., $16, Big Easy, 416 S. 9th, tickets at Ticketweb.