For the British blues master, music proves the fountain of youth

By Jeff Tamarkin

A towering figure among the progenitors of British blues, John Mayall’s dedication to his craft remains as strong as when he first discovered the music. Now 80, the blues pioneer still relishes the road—playing more than 100 gigs a year—and the recording studio. In fact, Mayall’s latest record, A Special Life, finds him as excited as ever—and that’s saying something for a guy who has more than 60 albums to his credit.

“I’m having a lot of fun because my band is so great,” he says. “There’s so much energy among the four of us that it’s always a pleasure. There’s so much material to choose from when we play live and so much improvisation that goes on. So when we went into the studio to do this album, everyone knew what everybody else was doing—and it only took us three days.”

The album is “a statement about enjoying my later years,” Mayall says, “but I don’t feel old. This kind of music demands full health and energy so you can get it across to the audience. They don’t want to see somebody sitting around in a chair with no voice left.”

The musicians on A Special Life—guitarist Rocky Athas, bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport—take their place among a rather elite grouping. Various lineups of Mayall’s bands have featured future rock icons—particularly his most celebrated group, the Bluesbreakers, which at one time or another included Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce (Cream), Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), and Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green and John McVie (Fleetwood Mac). “I’ve never been able to explain why I was able to find them all, other than the fact that I’ve been listening to music all my life,” says the Cheshire, England, native. “I know what to look for when I hear it. I find it very easy to know it’s the right person. A bandleader has that element in his being.” A longtime resident of Southern California, Mayall discussed his love of the blues—past, present and future.

How do you keep up at 80?

The fact that I haven’t abused my body with drugs or alcohol for the last 30 years or more is one thing that’s kept me in shape. I’ve had a healthy life, a special life—which is why I’ve named the album that. It’s difficult to say why I’m still so healthy, but I don’t feel the elements of age whatsoever. My bandmates are way, way younger than I am but we’re all probably in the same state of health. I haven’t found anything going wrong yet, and I’ll keep going till something different happens. We don’t have days off when we go on the road, so it all gets consolidated. We can do 100 shows with no problem. This year alone we’ve got 136 dates. I just love what I’m doing.

Do you prefer to record quickly?

By the time we get into the studio the songs are already chosen, so the day before we run through them and get the arrangements sorted out. When we go in the studio we’re there from noon to six—regular, sensible hours.

Why produce yourself?

I feel very comfortable with my band. We’ve been together long enough that we can read each other’s minds, and we have a lot of energy and fun. We’ve had producers in the past who’ve directed traffic, so to speak, but ultimately it’s always down to me musically.

“World Gone Crazy” is very political.

If you’re doing an album you should include one song that touches on the world around us. It’s good subject matter, and that’s what the blues is all about at its finest points—it should be talking about things people can relate to. Perhaps you’re putting the seeds of ideas into other people and giving them something to think about. When I’m about to do an album I think, “What am I going to write about?” “World Gone Crazy” is relevant because you only need to pick up the paper to see it’s nuts out there.

“Heartache” was on your first record—why rerecord it?

We started playing it live and developed it into something new, and it seemed like one that would fit the album—especially because there’s a 50-year gap between the two versions. It goes down very well in performances.

Mind playing fan favorites nightly?

No, because we play them differently. There’s so much creativity within this band that even if we play songs that are really old, we still bring up-to-date energy to them. We haven’t been playing “Room to Move” nightly in the past few years. But sometimes I’ll forget that it’s a different audience every night and the new people want to hear it, so I’ve been playing an abbreviated version. Instead of endless solos, I’ve trimmed it down so it’s just the tune at the front, harmonica breakdown in the middle, and then out. It comes down to about three and a half minutes, and we throw it in as an encore. And it’s worked very well for us.

Why list the key of each song?

I’ve always done that in liner notes because budding musicians appreciate it. For some reason many can’t figure out what key it is on their own, and they find it helpful. They can pick up a harmonica or a guitar and know what key to pursue. It’s something I get lots of comments about.

Were you a jazz fan before the blues?

Actually, a mixture of both. My father’s record collection was mainly jazz—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and others from the 1920s and ’30s. But also in there were Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang. Right from the very beginning I was listening to Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy and all these great bluesmen, so I’ve had a grounding in both blues and jazz.

Why was the blues so popular in the U.K. in the ’60s?

I think because Europeans didn’t have this music on their own doorstep, they tended to idolize the black musicians who were probably separated from the white population in America and were not appreciated as much here. Europeans held all these musicians in great reverence, and we lapped it all up. It was an incredibly stimulating time in Britain because the boom happened so suddenly.

How did you feel about bands like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds?

It was great. There was a feeling of camaraderie among all of the bands. Each band had a different slant on the blues, and it was exciting to hear everyone’s take on it. Dixieland jazz all basically had the same instrumentation and the repertoire was all the same, whereas all the people who came up with the blues sounded different from each other. We all appreciated the fact that we had an audience.

Was it surprising when Eric Clapton left to form Cream?

No, there was so much change going on with everybody. Everyone was young and still finding their way. Once a person wants to leave a band, obviously his heart’s not going to be in playing with you anymore. It happened very amicably.

Why do lineups change frequently?

Because Eric, Peter and Mick came and went in quick succession, people tend to think I change my bands a lot. But in fact when [guitarist] Buddy Whittington was in the band, he was in for 15 years. My current guitarist, Rocky Athas, has been with me for six years. That’s more than 20 years between those two. Overall, I’ve always had a very relaxed time because the musicians are best friends on and off the stage. You need that in order for the music to work. You’re traveling around together and you don’t want to be hating everybody’s guts. Otherwise it’s just a job. My bands are an adventure, not just a job.

What’s the future of the blues?

It’s quite obvious from the number of teens taking up the guitar and wanting to play the blues. When something like that happens, it keeps getting passed on from generation to generation. The blues can’t go out of fashion because it reflects what’s going on in the world. It’s universal.

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