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American Routes Shortcuts: John Mayall

John Mayall
John Mayall

John Mayall and his band the Bluesbreakers pioneered British blues-rock, introducing it to a large audience. They included musicians who went on to join legendary bands like Cream, Fleetwood Mac, and the Rolling Stones. Mayall moved to the States in 1968, and today has a discography of 70 studio and live albums. Now 88 and retired from touring, John calls Los Angeles home and his favorite climate for living, but it was in Macclesfield, Cheshire where he first heard the blues.

John Mayall: Well my father had a good record collection, so I guess there was always music being played in the house. He had a guitar, so bit-by-bit I learned how to play guitar in a rudimentary fashion, and you know, life goes on. I never considered that it would be something I could earn a living at, but it was a hobby.

Nick Spitzer: I know you’ve got a song called “Shortwave Radio.” It sounds like listening on the shortwave gave you a way to hear music from far away.

JM: Well it was an access point where I could listen to music. There was very little on the British radio that was of a blues nature, so you know, that was the one place that I’d be able to listen to music.


NS: I guess the question would be: at what point in your hobby interest do you turn to, you know, making a living playing music?

JM: Well, I was thirty years old when Alexis Korner and Cryil Davies started off the Blues movement in London, so this was the kind of music that I’d always listened to privately. It was like a clue for me to get started, and Alexis helped me to meet people in London, and that’s the way it all came about.

NS: Tell me a little bit about how you formed the Bluesbreakers.

JM: Well I think when you put a band together, you just pick friends that have an interest in the same kind of music that you have, so yeah we weren’t a hit parade type of material. I was a bandleader who liked to play, and it was a very good situation for me–not necessarily one that would make you more popular, but we enjoyed playing together, and I picked the musicians that I wanted to share music with.

NS: Well some of your early band mates include Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, John McVie–what’s your sense of what the Bluesbreakers had that made the band so popular and attracted so many great players to work with?

JM: The blues was something that took off; I mean you had bands forming all up and down the country. The Animals were up in Newcastle, and there’s so many bands between there and London, so it was the start of a movement where people were getting interested in listening to blues music.

NS: How did you come up with the name Bluesbreakers?

JM: Breaking through is the main thrust of the song and the title of the band, so that’s what we were doing. We were doing the best we could to draw people’s attention to blues music.


NS: Why blues?

JM: The blues is something that people can relate to because it talks about real events in their lives and that they can connect to. It’s a personal story that is transmitted through the music to people, so that’s what the blues is all about.


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