I don't know. Maybe the blues just ain't fair. It's not like anyone with a harmonica or a guitar and a dream was ever promised a fair shake. But it just seems sometimes the cream doesn't rise to the top. Cream like British blues legend John Mayall.
Mayall has been playing the blues for over 40 years. And just about anybody that counts in British blues has passed through the hallowed halls of his Bluesbreakers. Peter Green, John McVie, and Mick Fleetwood got their feet wet with Mayall before forming Fleetwood Mac (initially a way-cool, chick-free Brit-blues outfit). Mick Taylor went on to join The Rolling Stones during arguably their best and most raucous period. Andy Frasier broke free to form Free. Before (ex-Yardbird) Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce went psychedelicly heavy with Cream, they too were Bluesbreakers. Some pretty heavy history, yet Mayall concedes now is the time for the Bluesbreakers. This is the best line-up.
"It's the best band I've ever had," he says from his home in Laurel Canyon, California. "Proven by the fact we've been together so long. It's like a well-oiled machine." A machine that plays over 120 shows annually.
Mayall was first hipped to it all through his dad's record collection. Six-string cats like Eddie Lang, Lonnie Johnson, Django Reinhardt, and others turned him on. By age 13 he was teaching himself to play on borrowed guitars and secondhand harmonicas. But after going to college for art and a stint in the British Army, Mayall began a successful career as a graphic designer. He served raw-boned Chicago blues through the English fog strictly on the side.
"I never intended to make a career out of it," he says. "It was just a hobby until I was 30 and then the whole movement started with Alexis Korner in London. That was the trigger."
At a time when the blues in America was generally black and ignored, white, European artists like Mayall helped bring it to the gentry, leaving a profound and lasting effect on the blues as well as its many bastard offspring.
This movement took American black blues, retooled it, and ultimately resuscitated it. It was also during this period that Mayall backed up the heroes he emulated like T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, and Sonny Boy Williamson.
"It was really great to be in the presence of your heroes and learn such a lot from them by playing with them," Mayall says. His laidback approach and reverence for the blues have obviously come from these influences, proving influential in his style and his dynamics.
"I think there was a tendency at the beginning where everybody plays flat out at full volume. You start to play with those guys and you realize it doesn't have to be loud all the time. You can be more effective."
Mayall recently celebrated his 70th birthday in a star-studded concert. The resulting recording, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers And Friends, is now available on a double CD and DVD. It serves as testimony to Mayall's talent and historic significance, despite being perhaps overlooked.
"Well that's something one has no choice over," he concedes. "We don't decide what we do and what's popular, and what our position in the world is. We just do what we believe in and hope for the best."
John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers with guests The White Devils play Thursday, March 18, at Milestones, 170 East Avenue, at 8 p.m. Tix: $18 to $20. 325-6490