John Mayall – The First Generation 1956-1974 — 35 CD Career Retrospective – Studio Albums
Where to begin? A prolific career such as John Mayall’s is a task. 87-year-old Mayall’s role in British blues is pivotal in the careers of many famous musicians. Whether Mayall actually influenced many personally remains open. However, Mayall without a doubt has a distinctive blues vocal (as Canned Heat’s Al Wilson) & he maintained it during a 64-year career.
I can’t list all musicians cultivated by John but Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel, bassists Jack Bruce & John McVie, 12-string fingerstyle acoustic guitarist Jon Mark & saxist Johnny Almond – are a start.
This superb 5000 limited edition box is 35 remastered Decca/Polydor LPs (3 CD singles/8 previously unreleased/7 unreleased live & 28 unreleased BBC recordings/2 hardcover books/autographed photo/ posters & more (Madfish/Snapper Music – drops Jan 29).
Part 1 reviews studio LPs. However, due to space limitations, each isn’t reviewed in detail. Early LPs were produced by Mike Vernon, then Vernon & Mayall until later just John.
Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton has blues standards & originals. Many 1966 LPs aged well. Available in stereo (17 cuts/58-minutes) & mono (12 cuts). This commercially successful & critically acclaimed LP is a great intro to Mayall (keyboards/harmonica) with Clapton (lead guitar, later Cream), John McVie (bass – later Fleetwood Mac), Hughie Flint (drums – later McGuinness-Flint). Arrangements by baritone saxist Johnny Almond (later Mark-Almond) with Alan Skidmore (tenor sax) & Dennis Healy (trumpet).
Songs are British-infused blues-infused. It led to a long Mayall career that allowed vintage blues tunes to sound more palatable to England’s youth. Clapton’s lead became a signature & even more noticeable than Eric’s playing was his inspired creativity. McVie’s “Little Girl,” bass is distant thunder below Eric’s cruising leads.
Mayall excels on harmonica & plays with vigor (“Another Man”). He may not have played as “down & dirty” as the elders, but he spit-polished, buffed & refined the weather-beaten leather of the music.
If you’re a blues aficionado, the authenticity of white boy Mayall earned a seat beside the Delta & Chicago masters. John’s voice shows signs of thinness (his version of Ray Charles’ classic “What’d I Say”) doesn’t vocally challenge Charles’ R&B original or even the incendiary 1964 cover by Elvis Presley. But the tune is still British dynamic.
The only US blues band of this octane — the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. In Aug. ‘66 they already recorded the historic “East-West,” & “Walkin’ Blues,” (with extraordinary lead guitars of Mike Bloomfield & Elvin Bishop).
Clapton’s first recorded vocal — “Ramblin’ on My Mind” shows promise with a superb Mayall piano. His first British gold LP until “Turning Point,” (a live ’69 LP that charted US #32). John managed to chart consistently in England but only managed 2 Gold LPs. The Flamingo Club live bonus cuts are for purists.
A Hard Road – the 2nd Bluesbreakers (‘66 & released in ‘67 @ 37-minutes) was another well-received 14-tracks. New lead Peter Green (later Fleetwood Mac), Aynsley Dunbar (drums), McVie (bass), Mayall (keyboards/harmonica/5 & 9 string guitars), with reeds by Johnny Almond, Alan Skidmore & Ray Warleigh ignited. Engineer, the late Gus Dudgeon (later Elton John).
This LP had fewer blues covers & more originals by Mayall/Green. Firmly rooted & performed with exceptionally tight well-rehearsed musicianship Green asserts himself as a guitarist following in Clapton’s shoes. As a vocalist (on 1 cut & an instrumental “The Supernatural”) his leads drive. For a small unit, it plays full blues with confidence & is never tepid. He excels on “Dust My Broom,” & John’s otherworldly voice works hauntingly.
The LP is filled with Mayall’s creativity & piano. It’s not a traditional approach (“Another Kind of Love,” “Hit the Highway” & “Top of the Hill”) to show John wasn’t just emulating old blues classics. On these, his vocal shines as a true original. Did his homework.
Crusade — 13-cuts (49-minutes) followed in ‘67 with the extraordinary 18-year-old lead Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), McVie (bass), Keef Hartley (drums), Chris Mercer (tenor sax), Rip Kant (baritone sax) & Mayall (keyboards/harmonica/bottleneck guitar).
This fell back heavier on covers, tight cooking instrumentals & Mayall’s far bluesy vocals. The vivid production & clarity is exceptional. Some may have dated compared to modern technology but, “My Time After A While,” is a well-arranged, engaging bluesy song with polished sax. It’s Mayall’s first penetration into the US (#136).
If nothing else, John’s showcase is original. He seldom composes from a standard blues structure. He adds energy, bleeding notes, & sands his notes until smooth as a baby’s ass. He never does this at the expense of losing authenticity.
The original “The Death of J. B. Lenoir” is an example of haunting piano & saxes. Mayall could play any Southern black juke joint & few would object to his showcase. “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” has a bluesy ache & stroll, with boogie piano snap. Like a true piped piper, hard blues snakes would follow him.
“Checkin’ Up on My Baby,” finds John in a manner Greg Allman may have picked up on. The close-out bonus “Rubber Duck,” has a thunderous Dunbar drum solo & Peter Green (guitar).
1967 brought The Blues Alone – a percolating 47-minute Mayall solo LP (all songs were written/played by John) with drummer Hartley. 12 (+ 2 bonus cuts). The vocal remains bluesy but adds a seductive edge (“Brand New Start”). There’s more ambiance that dates some tracks & detracts a hair from the heavier mood of previous LPs. But the performance is solid.
Never at a lack of potency & diversification Mayall paints pictures with his delivery (“Down the Line”). But with “Sonny Boy Blow,” (my intro to John as a mere child) this is magnificent. Keyboards/harmonica gave me a belly full of electricity.
Mayall’s lovely blues piano is atmospheric (“Marsha’s Mood”) & manages to speak to you with no words. His manner includes instruments not often heard in standard blues. The redundancy factor is rendered null (“No More Tears”). He didn’t invent the blues but indeed exemplified what can be done to the blues to keep it fresh & exciting.
The Bluesbreakers return (last time) with Mayall & Mick Taylor on the 7-cut (+ 2 cuts) in ‘68’s Bare Wires. The 1st Mayall to break the US Top 100. Other members: Saxes — Chris Mercer & Dick Heckstall-Smith, Tony Reeves (bass/string bass), Henry Lowther (cornet/violin), & Jon Hiseman (drums). The unorthodox approach started with a Bare Wires 7-song Suite. Effective, but not exactly typical blues. This was a stretch. It’s well recorded, instruments include a violin. Easily appreciated by patient aficionados. Purists may not.
A harpsichord later in the suite isn’t the blues, Mayall offers a more cultivated stylish texture. This was a structure applied equally well by blues-rocker Lee Michaels (1969 LP side medley that fused genres with a marvelous thrust between Lee’s Hammond & Bartholomew Frost drums who inserted a rollicking, superb melodic drum solo). John’s sax players, a jazzy ensemble, enliven this medley.
With the inclusion of a wild sax interchange & pulsing drums, Mayall resuscitates the jazzy medley in a Manfred Mann Chapter 3/Vol. 2 styles. “I’m a Stranger,” is slinky, brassy, ala vintage Ray Charles.
The 1-hour LP has some excellence, but it adds up to a less than a stellar collection compared to earlier efforts. No one track stood out loaded & memorable. The bonus “Start Walkin’” while not superbly recorded is a live 8-minute electrifying performance. Originally from the Primal Solos LP.
Another ‘68 hour-long LP featured Mick Taylor (lead/pedal steel). Blues From Laurel Canyon with Colin Allen (drums), Stephen Thompson (bass), & Peter Green (lead – “First Time Alone”).
All 12 autobiographical originals (2 great bonus’) were cut with fades & segues into each song. The stereo technology is the vintage clear separation between speakers. Youngsters will find it entertaining. Guitars right, drums, bass & keyboards left with a little spill. An airplane engine effect on “Vacation” is gimmicks but John doesn’t overindulge.
More blues-commercial is “Walking on Sunset.” It keeps things exciting with drums/harmonica in gallop mode & ventures into far better bluesy tunes with expressive Mayall piano than Bare Wires. John’s vocals are intimate & warmer. The fiery “2401” segues into “Ready to Ride,” which keeps the momentum. Exciting listen. Good pacing. This has atmosphere, mood & diversification. “Medicine Man,” — not an average blues excursion is gripping.
A favorite of mine is 1970s Empty Rooms.Opening with the exuberant “Don’t Waste My Time,” a memorable good-time jam co-written with Stephen Thompson (bass). The Mayall harmonica touch is blessed by magical Jon Mark classical guitar applied to blues. Genius.
This LP has no drums & while Mick Taylor joined the Rolling Stones — Jon Mark brought his finger-style/12-string guitar & wrote 3 songs with Mayall. The late Johnny Almond (sax/flute – went on to form Mark-Almond with Jon after this LP).
The late Larry Taylor guests (bass/former Canned Heat/Monkees & later Tom Waits) plays a cool bass duet on “To a Princess” with Stephen Thompson (bass). Mayall (all other instruments) has returning musicians from his live Turning Point that preceded this studio LP.
While Jon Mark is a superb atmospheric vocalist, he wasn’t a blues singer. Mark’s contribution was his imaginative, well-articulated guitar in a whole new blues-showcase. Mark’s far more classical tendencies worked in the blues amazingly well. Songs are expressive, with an FM late-night delicate narrative in more emotive ballads (“Lying in My Bed,” “Waiting for the Right Time” & “To a Princess”).
You hear Mayall’s breath in your ear. Intimacy is relevant. This set leans heavily into an acoustic groove. Lyrically a bit hippie-oriented with a flute & is far from the best Mayall — but it’s the bravest.
“People Cling Together” is more commercial with zeal. John is never at a loss for approaching his material. A true blues fan may find some economical but “Many Miles Apart” is interesting.
USA Union – (1970/10 well-recorded 48-minutes) contained all originals. Still no drums. An all-American lineup Harvey Mandel (guitar), Taylor’s fluid bass, & Don “Sugarcane” Harris (violin). Mayall wastes no time re-establishing himself as a blues innovator. Harmonica supported by strong bass. Songs address the environment long before 70s environmentalists or “Nature’s Disappearing” a well showcased strong cut. At this time, deservedly so, the highest-charting US Mayall LP (#22). It charted better than in the UK.
Harris’ violin maintained a fresh sound & it was obvious John didn’t want to simply reproduce blues of the past. Mandel’s snaky guitar took a page from former guitarist Jon Mark’s — picking away with clean notes. The invigorating guitar interplay — Mayall & Mandell on “You Must Be Crazy,” & “Possessive Emotions.” Harris’ violin saws with smoke & replaces the previous saxes. “Crying” is a bluesy Sugarcane Harris violin. Satisfaction guaranteed.
Older listeners who missed this eclectic blues the first time should explore. It would be a good time to rediscover this genre steadily through the LP. John’s exceptional boogie piano is a pleasure.
1971 brought Mayall’s 2X CD Back to the Roots(18-cuts/8 bonus remixes/over 1 hour). It reunited Clapton & Taylor, Harvey Mandel & Jerry McGee (guitars). Taylor & Thompson (basses), Keef Hartley & Paul Lagos (drums), Sugarcane Harris (violin), & Johnny Almond (saxes/flute). Another favorite of mine with “Looking at Tomorrow,” — a jewel. Classic Mayall.
Mature songcraft, not in a traditional blues, with social issues, personal subjects (“Home Again” & “Marriage Madness”), censorship (“Mr. Censor Man”), & the media, “Prisons on the Road,” (traffic jams), drug topics (“Accidental Suicide”). Not always real blues – just basics (“My Children”). There were missteps (“Groupie Girl” has fine playing by Harris & Almond hampered by miscellaneous annoying garbled talk) but the instrumental “Blue Fox” redeems. “Force of Nature.” John sings Prince style before Prince existed — in falsetto. An entertaining footnote. By its 5-minute mark laborious.
Stalwarts will be satisfied, but disappointment comes in some of the production. Initially, muddy remastering fixed it. Throughout, musicians deliver consistently tight performances despite mediocre material (“Television Eye” – superb bass/sax solo). What Mayall needed was an editor. A blues song about what’s annoying about TV? Shallow at best.
Mayall understands the roots of blues as music but not always the naked ache & angst of the blues lyric. He has it when he does covers but his originals — hit ‘n miss. Despite considerable talent as a multi-instrumentalist some say John was always overshadowed by his musicians. I disagree. No matter who played with John the “sound” that surfaced was always Mayall. No one else. Others supported admirably but never stole the spotlight. However, Mayall did generously allow musicians to step 1-foot into his spotlight as in the exceptional “Full Speed Ahead.”
Late ‘71 brought the 10-cut 46-minute Memories– a mere departure. No drums or Sugarcane Harris. A small unit: Larry Taylor (bass), & Jerry McGee (guitar/former Ventures). Childhood memories, growing up provide music that never swings, is laid back & at times flat. The most blues-oriented is “Play That Harp.”
It’s a love/hate LP. What’s likable? It’s intimate, honest & introspective. Nothing aggressive.
The 2X Ten Years Gone (13 cuts/+ 5 Live) from ‘73 includes a new band: Freddy Robinson (guitar/vocal on “Undecided”), Victor Gaskin (bass), Keef Hartley (drums), Sugarcane Harris (violin), Blue Mitchell (trumpet/flugelhorn), & Red Holloway (saxes). It charted in the bottom US 200 & nowhere else.
CD 1 = 39-minutes/CD 2 = 44-minutes live. Features Fred Clark – saxes & the last 5 cuts at NY’s Academy of Music are elongated pieces. “Dark of the Night” is a good performance especially drums, bass & horns. Overall, the tunes were relatively casual, simple blues excursions of no exception.
1974’s 39-minute The Latest Edition concludes studio LPs with an upbeat R&B unit with lackluster results. Larry Taylor (bass), 2 lead guitars Hightide Harris & Randy Resnick, Red Holloway (saxes/flute), & Soko Richardson (drums). No charting. Possibly due to the more topical subjects: 70s gasoline lines, impeach President Nixon. A bit preachy. Material like this tends to date quickly.
“Gasoline Blues,” explores 70s gas rationing. An upbeat rocker tight & fun but that’s it. Melodies aren’t always memorable but Mayall delivers a fortified showcase of mediocre material. Unlike many artists it doesn’t provide tasteless sets, the musicianship always sparkles. If you can’t get a Hagen-Daz, Dairy Queen is still good.
Many songs here dabble in blues but the majority are blues/pop miles from the genre Mayall was known for. “One of the Few,” “Little Kitten,” & “A Crazy Game,” is solid with excellent instrumentation. But blues? No. Not this time. Maybe this was slapped together to satisfy a contract? It was the final Polydor. His next studio LP was on ABC Records (now defunct).
Along with Mayall at this time, the Graham Bond Organization existed (the late Bond was considered the Father of British Blues). Later Savoy Brown, Climax Blues Band, Colosseum, early Fleetwood Mac existed as well. The next review: BBC sessions, covers, compilations/miscellaneous live dates, & one EP with Paul Butterfield.