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John Mayall’s Blues Breakers

Born in Macclesfield, Cheshire, in 1933, John Mayall attended Manchester School of Art where the blues so captured his imagination that by the time he left to work for an advertising agency in 1949, he had painstakingly taught himself boogie-woogie and related styles on the piano.

Chucking in his agency job, he was a window dresser when he made his debut in a trio at the city’s Bodega Jazz Club in 1950.

This took place a year before Arkansas blues crooner Big Bill Broonzy’s London concert marked the British blues movement’s sluggish conception ‘down south’.

Meanwhile, the War Office, concerned about the stalemate that the British Army – supporting the Americans – had reached against the North Koreans, sent for John Mayall.

As a clerk in the Royal Engineers, Private Mayall’s contacts with US soldiers and the American Forces Network on the radio broadened further his understanding of blues, jazz, swing and general Americana.

On a visit to Japan, he bought a guitar. After demobilisation, a full-time college course in graphics gave him time to find his feet musically.

In days when advertisements for amplifiers ‘with a 10-watt punch’ appeared in Melody Maker, John struggled with record player amps and no bass player, as well as DIY-ing some of his own instruments – including a 9-string guitar customised from his Japanese purchase.

Mayall formed his first proper group, The Powerhouse Fourin 1961. Renamed Blues Syndicate they were invited by Alexis Korner to move to London. They received £20 a night between them for playing at Blues City in Tottenham Court Road or Klook’s Kleek in West Hampstead – where Mayall would cut his first LP, John Mayall Sings John Mayall, in 1964.

Having added harmonica to his keyboard, guitar and vocal abilities, Mayall’s London opening was preceded by publicity comparing him to multi-instrumentalist jazzman, Roland Kirk.

Labouring in graphics design, Mayall played clubs in the evenings. A typical weekend would take him to Manchester’s Twisted Wheel on Saturday, with Sunday evening at The Palace in Stoke-on-Trent. In February 1963, John Mayall’s group – now re-named Blues Breakers – cautiously went pro.

John Mayall’s Blues Breakers were a permanent fixture. Oblivious to commercial considerations, Mayall pursued his chosen music (blues) through thick and thin, watching a succession of brilliant guitar players – including Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor – join and leave his band.

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Around the time that John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton was released in 1966, graffiti started appearing around London proclaiming “Clapton is God”. He had recently quit the chart-friendly Yardbirds in search of a purist outfit, and in Mayall he found both a bandleader who shared his tastes, and a father figure.

In the studio with bassist John McVie and drummer Hughie Flint, the aim was to reproduce the energy of the band’s live performances. This was achieved from the first track, a smouldering cover of an Otis Rush song, All Your Love, which hustles along on its Hammond and splintered guitar lines.

The next track, Hideaway, was an unforgettable slice of Clapton grandstanding – on this instrumental version of Freddie King‘s classic, the young guitarist let rip with everything he had, delivering a storming performance with zest and assurance.

Mayall’s own contribution was no less a part in the album’s success. His original songs, such as Little Girl and Key To Love epitomised the jubilant Sixties. After slogging around the clubs for many years, Mayall began to achieve album success and finally moved to Los Angeles, where he continued to record.

Among outfits that The Blues Breakers spawned were Fleetwood Mac and Colosseum, while The Rolling Stones, Free and McGuinness Flint all turned to Mayall when vacancies arose.

John Mayall received an OBE in 2005 for a lifetime of service to music.