Posts Tagged ‘Harvey Mandel’

Canned Heat

In 1968, psychedelia was exploding and even blues-loving avatars of the era like Cream and Jimi Hendrix were increasingly eschewing their roots in favour of paisley pastures. But one band was perfectly positioned to keep the blues on board for the turned-on generation.

Canned Heat are one of the most beloved live bands of all time. They command a following every bit as dedicated as those Dead Heads who live in vans and follow The Grateful Dead from show to show. Also like the Dead, Canned Heat are one of those bands whose live show changes with the wind. One moment they can be tearing into a full-tilt blues boogie, the other they can shred into a drawn out solo. The only constant is that it’s always amazing.

If you went by the status allotted to them these days, you might assume Canned Heat was just another bunch of hippie-era biker boogie merchants. Nothing could be further from the truth. With prodigiously bearded 300 pound singer Bob “The Bear” Hite and gawky guitar virtuoso Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson up front, the unlikely rock stars were both true scholars and raw-boned practitioners of the blues. Turning up the Heat at crucial cultural watersheds like the Woodstock and Monterey Pop festivals, they brought the blues not only to the flower children but to the mainstream, accomplishing what would previously have been regarded as unthinkable by bringing tunes deeply rooted in 1920s blues to the Top 40.

Bob Hite was a Southern California kid born into music; his mother had been a singer with a big band and his father was a trumpeter. He immersed himself in his parents’ record collection from an early age, quickly branching off to explore his burgeoning love of the blues. Hite would roam far and wide in search of old blues 78’s and eventually amassed thousands of them.

By the time he met up with a recently arrived guitar player from Boston named Alan Wilson in 1965, the hefty, garrulous Hite had fully assimilated all those blues records and become a commanding, charismatic singer in the process. Hite ended up jamming with fellow bluesologist Wilson, who brought along another guitar-playing pal, John Fahey. At the time, Fahey who would go on to change the face of acoustic guitar music—was a UCLA student at work on a paper about Charley Patton. But what was initially intended to be an unplugged jug band quickly headed towards plugging in and turning up, and Fahey made an abrupt exit.

By the time they played their first gig, at storied L.A. folk club the Ash Grove, they were calling themselves Canned Heat, after Tommy Johnson’s 1928 delta blues tune “Canned Heat” Blues

In Johnson’s era, “canned heat” was the term for drinking Sterno cooking fluid for a cheap but dangerous high. The line-up for the group’s debut was Hite on vocals, Wilson on guitar and harmonica, Kenny Edwards of Linda Ronstadt & the Stone Poneys on guitar, Ron Holmes on drums, and Stuart Brotman on bass.

Hite earned his ursine nickname for his imposing size, his hirsuteness, and his growl of a singing voice. His buddy Blind Owl, so dubbed for his extreme near-sightedness, was his perfect foil and could not have been more different than Hite. Where The Bear was larger than life in every sense of the term, Wilson was a troubled, bookish introvert who did his best to disappear into the background at every available opportunity. The fact that he was a preternaturally gifted guitarist, singer, and harp blower, however, tended to complicate this compulsion. The personal and musical push and pull between Blind Owl and The Bear was the engine that made Canned Heat move.

By the time they cut an album’s worth of demos for Liberty Records in ’66, Henry “Sunflower” Vestine was Wilson’s six-string sparring partner and Frank Cook was on drums. The sessions were overseen by legendary bandleader and producer Johnny Otis, who was behind classic singles by the likes of Etta James and Big Mama Thornton, as well as scoring a slew of R&B hits himself. Canned Heat mostly recorded straightforward, convincing takes on blues staples by heroes like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, et al.

The demos were released in 1970 as Vintage after Canned Heat’s star had already risen.

Canned Heat (1967)

Canned Heat is the 1967 debut album by Canned Heat. It was released shortly after their appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival and is a blues cover album. Canned Heat is the 1967 debut album . After bringing in new bassist Larry “The Mole” Taylor, who plays in the band to this day, Canned Heat started working on their debut album, but in the midst of the process, they took part in what many consider the Big Bang of ’60s counterculture, 1967’s Monterey Pop festival. The festival itself and the D.A. Pennebaker-directed documentary that arrived the following year weren’t just the warm-up act for Woodstock; they were most people’s first real glimpse of what the Summer of Love and the blossoming hippie movement looked and sounded like.

1967 – Monterey Pop Festival

This was the festival that broke the band on a big scale. Prior to this, Canned Heat had mainly played smaller gigs around the L.A. underground scene – a scene that was bubbling, and threatening to erupt at the time. Monterey was the eruption. This footage was shot by famed director Pennebaker (who directed Dylan’s legendary ‘Don’t Look Back’ film) and a rave review of their set in popular music rag Down Beat gushed: “Technically, Vestine and Wilson are quite possibly the best two-guitar team in the world and Wilson has certainly become our finest white blues harmonica man.”

The twin shot of this performance and a debut album the following month saw the band quickly rise to fame.

Of course, flanked by flower-power figures like The Mamas & The Papas and Jefferson Airplane, the rough ‘n’ ready Heat looked like they’d just stopped off for a jam in between their shift at the gas station and their biker club meeting. But the raw power in The Bear’s voice and Vestine and Wilson’s guitars as they tore into “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ served notice that raw, real, old-school blues were still an undeniable presence in the new Aquarian age. Sure, the similarly inclined Paul Butterfield Blues Band was present at the festival as well, but they didn’t make the film’s final cut. So it was Hite and company who became the new ambassadors of the blues was released just weeks later, the timing couldn’t have been better. The record was produced by Calvin Carter, who had been the house producer for famed Chicago blues hub Vee-Jay Records, and had worked with Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, and more. With Carter in their corner, Canned Heat turned out a tough, unadorned love letter to their influences on the all-covers album, bringing a fierce-but-faithful take on Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, et al into white middle-class homes across America.

In October, the band was involved in an incident that moulded their destiny in multiple ways. They were staying at a hotel in Denver, where the local authorities at the time were cracking down hard on the quickly rising hippie drug culture. When Canned Heat—who were just as fond of illicit substances as they looked—rolled into town, the cops had it in for them. The authorities allegedly forced a “friend” of the band to plant pot and hash in their room. Next thing the guys knew, they were facing down a 10-year rap. In desperation their manager Skip Taylor made a deal with Liberty to trade the band’s publishing for their $10,000 bail.

The band’s lawyer pleaded the case down to a misdemeanor, but Taylor’s deal basically meant that no matter how well they did, the band would be financially screwed in perpetuity. And the publicity from the incident cemented the heavy-drugging band’s growing reputation as hard-living outlaws, leading to their embrace by the biker community that was fast becoming the dark side of the era’s underground culture.

Boogie with Canned Heat (1968)

In early ’68, Canned Heat released an album that became a touchstone of the era. “Boogie with Canned Heat” contained mostly original tunes, though the sound was still heavily informed by traditional blues, especially the song that helped ensure the band’s immortality. This is a classic! Recorded in 1968 by reinventors of the blues boogie, Canned Heat made a fantastic record, every track a killer! This is the earliest record by the line-up that was its greatest with Alan Wilson, Bob Hite, Henry Vestine, Larry Taylor, and Fito De La Parra. It has great blues, great boogie, great innovation, and some of the greatest playing you will hear either before or after. Alan Wilson’s harmonica is second to none, the rhythm section comprising Larry Taylor on bass and Fito on drums is tight and brilliant, lead singing by Bob Hite is strong, fun, and inviting, while lead guitar by Henry Vestine is both hypnotic and powerful. Such a great sound that sounds fresh on each and every playing. The CD has six bonus tracks that are really interesting too. This band is still really underrated after all these years but they are brilliant exponents of the blues and have combined the blues with an edgy rock that makes a synthesis that after almost 50 years has not been bettered. Brilliant!”

“On the Road Again” was based on the 1953 tune of the same name by Chicago bluesman Floyd Jones (which in turn was an adaptation of the 1928 delta blues song Big Road Blues by Tommy Johnson. Blind Owl turned it into a moody, hypnotic cut that blended deep blues with Indian modality and a trippy, psychedelic feel that somehow meshed organically with the track’s intense earthiness. The Heat’s new drummer, Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra—a Mexican new to L.A. who would be the only mainstay in the line up for the rest of the band’s career added a sensual, almost primal pulse that spoke directly to the body. Wilson’s ghostly vocal embodied the sense of alienation the troubled guitarist suffered from, creating an ethereal vibe that provided a magical contrast with the visceral groove. Ironically, the song was the b-side of the “Boogie Music” single, but somewhere along the line somebody decided to flip the 45 over. “On the Road” ended up exploding across the globe, bringing the band to the upper rungs of the pop charts in America and all over Europe. Canned Heat toured the continent and made appearances on European TV. The boys from L.A. helped give new life to the blues around the world.

Living the Blues (1968)

But the band’s next album contained another Wilson-led track that would raise Canned Heat’s profile even further. Released in autumn of 1968, “Living the Blues” included the sunny-sounding “Goin’ Up the Country” the band’s reboot of the 1920s tune Bull-Doze Blues by Henry Thomas, with new lyrics by Wilson. Not only did the song become an even bigger international hit than “On the Road Again,” it ended up turning the band into countercultural standard-bearers.

“Fantastic set from the Heat. This album shines in the recordings of Canned Heat. Great songs absolutely great musicianship. The star of the set is “Going Up the Country” a song which is in the American lexicon of TV commercials now. But Bob Hite’s song “Sandy’s Blues” is an absolutely stunning tune. “Walking By Myself” is another tune which is super, and one covered by Gary Moore much later. “Parthenogenesis” is a long cut, divided into nine parts highlighted by Alan Wilson’s harmonica and jaw-harp, John Mayall’s great piano and Henry Vestine’s great guitar. This song gives the Heat a chance to get a little psychedelic. Disc two consists of two tracks “Refried Boogie (Part I) and Refried Boogie (Part II)” which allows the Heat to play extended jams, Fito’s drum solo is great. Worth snapping up if you’re a Boogie fan!”

1969 Woodstock

Shortly after replacing Vestine—whose drug problems had become too much even for Canned Heat—with Harvey Mandel, the band played at the Woodstock festival in August of ’69. Though the band’s actual performance wasn’t included in Michael Wadliegh’s landmark 1970 documentary of the epochal event, allegedly on account of record company politics (it turned up years later in the director’s cut and an outtakes collection), the studio version of “Goin’ Up the Country” appeared in the film as the soundtrack to a montage of happy hippie revelers. The placement, dovetailing with the tune’s sprightly flute hook and child-of-nature lyrics, made the grungy bad-boy crew (with Wilson admittedly being the relative naif) unlikely avatars of the hippie era forevermore.

The band’s biggest hit, at the most famous festival of all time. Woodstock is often used as a shorthand to describe the merging of youth culture, drugs, music, sunshine and the optimistic attitude rushing through the late ’60s. Canned Heat’s blistering, narcotic rendition of ‘On The Road Again’ was the perfect soundtrack to an era of wide open roads and limitless possibilities.

“John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat” In the spring of 1970, Mandel and Taylor left the band, and Vestine resumed his old spot. With new bassist Antonio de la Barreda on board, Canned Heat fulfilled their blues-fan dreams by making an album with John Lee Hooker. The Hook, for his part, was quite impressed with the Heat, heaping particular praise on Wilson for his harmonica work. Hooker ‘n Heat, which would be released early the following year, wasn’t the band’s only meeting with their musical heroes.

In 1968 they worked with Chicago blues master Sunnyland Slim on ‘Slim’s Got His Thing Goin’ On’. In 1970 they joined with Memphis Slim on the sessions for what would be released four years later as “Memphis Heat” And in ’73, they worked on Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s “Gate’s on the Heat” album. And before he had even moved to L.A., Wilson had already helped aging, tremor-ridden delta blues legend Son House relearn his old repertoire so he could cut his 1965 comeback album, ‘Father of the Folk Blues’, which featured Wilson’s accompaniment on a couple of cuts.

 Future Blues (1970)

Canned Heat released a new album of their own in August of 1970. ‘Future Blues’ was recorded with the band’s previous line-up, and would mark their last sessions with Wilson. “Let’s Work Together” a cover of a recent tune by ’50s R&B hero Wilbert Harrison, became the Heat’s third and final U.S. Top 40 hit, but in characteristic fashion, the band held off on the song’s release as a single until after Harrison’s own version had its run.

“Let’s hear it for “Future of the Blues”. This is a fine blues album, probably better than Boogie With Canned Heat; and a little surprising Harvey Mandel did not play (guitar) with the band longer. “Sunflower” Vestine would return for the next Canned Heat album.
The band’s best post-Woodstock studio album,1970’s “Future Blues” also marked a commercial peak of sorts. Their hit single remake of Wilbert Harrison’s Let’s Work Together (a chart hit for him the previous year) drove the original LP’s successful chart run and probably exposed these FM radio stalwarts to a wider audience due to the single’s Top 40 airplay. The album seems more focused and less boogie-fied than prior Canned Heat efforts, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This reissue features five most interesting bonus tracks, including the tighter mono single version of Let’s Work Together.

Around this time, the deeply depressive Wilson’s inner struggles deepened to the point where he made a couple of unsuccessful suicide bids. He spent some time convalescing in a mental hospital and re-joined the band when he got out, but the dark cloud following him around did not lighten. In September the band was scheduled to depart for a tour of Europe, but Wilson went missing, which Hite subsequently noted was not unusual for the moody, mysterious guitarist.

This video quality isn’t the best, but this is an important historical document — albeit a bittersweet one — as it is the last known footage of co-founder and singer Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson. He died just over a month after this concert was recorded. Here he sings his great composition, ‘Human Condition’ Live in Kralingen

The rest of the band was forced to fly ahead without him, and on September 3rd, Skip Taylor found Wilson dead of a barbiturate overdose. The consensus was that the incident was intentional. Blind Owl became the first American rock star in the ill-fated “27 Club” of artists who passed unnaturally at that age. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix would join the ill-starred club within weeks, and Jim Morrison the following year.

Live at Montreux 1973
Canned Heat wasn’t taken down by the loss of one of their main creative forces. They continued on with new guitarist Joel Scott Hill and released 1971’s ‘Historical Figures and Ancient Heads’. In the years to come, the band would see a dizzying swirl of personnel changes, though they went on to make some worthy records and remained a vital live unit, as seen on the 1973 Live at Montreux concert video. But on April 5th, 1981, The Bear—who never backed off from his hard-living ways—died after allegedly mistaking a vial of heroin for cocaine. Hite had escaped the “27 Club” but he was still just 38. Some genius has uploaded an entire 1973 Stockholm concert , and the band have adapted well to the shock loss of their vocalist Alan Wilson, adding guns James Shane and Ed Beyer. The band were firing on all cylinders here, sharpened by years on the road.

Ever since Hite’s passing, de la Parra has kept the band going, with a multitude of line-ups that would eventually include a returned Larry Taylor and Harvey Mandel. Canned Heat made several post-Hite albums and toured endlessly; they can still be found out on the road today. Their long time drummer ended up telling much of the band’s tumultuous story in his memoir “Canned Heat: Living the Blues”.

Between Canned Heat’s heady heights and desperate lows, their tale could easily be the stuff of sensationalistic rock biopics. But the important thing to keep in mind, half a decade after some of the band’s biggest accomplishments, is how much they did for the blues. Before British bands like Led Zeppelin began making big coin with their amped-up, chest-beating take on the tradition and shafting some of the originators in the process, Alan Wilson’s spectral, Skip James-like moan and stinging slide guitar and Bob Hite’s Big Joe Turner-on-a-Harley vibe breathed loving new life into America’s musical birthright when it was most in need.

A 35 Disc Deluxe Box Set from the Godfather of the British blues : There are box sets and then there are BOX SETS. John Mayall’s ‘The First Generation 1965-1974 set sits firmly in the latter category, being substantial both in the artefacts contained within and the superb music it encompasses. It is the first time a set of this size has been released documenting John Mayall’s influential early years and, not only does it have all the albums from his much lauded formative career, but it also contains unreleased tracks aplenty.

Featuring Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel, Blue Mitchell, Jon Mark and many more outstanding musicians, this mammoth package contains 35 CDs plus a beautiful hardback book and much more. Not for nothing did John Mayall earn the moniker ‘The Godfather of British Blues’. For a short but compelling time in the ‘60s and ‘70s he recognised raw talent when he saw it, he took it in, he nurtured it, and everyone thrived and benefitted as the result.

Says a press release describing the collection: “It is the first time a set of this size has been released documenting John Mayall’s early years and not only does it have all the albums from his much-lauded formative career but it also has unreleased tracks aplenty. Many of the best musicians of the period passed through the hallowed ranks of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and all are on show here in a stunning set crammed with musical highlights. Put together with John Mayall’s full co-operation, the full list of contents is as follows:- 35 discs, including 3 CD Singles & 8 previously unreleased discs, alongside newly remastered versions of the original Decca & Polydor albums.

The press release continues with further details: “Not for nothing did John Mayall earn the moniker ‘Godfather of the British Blues.’ For a short but compelling time in the ’60s and ’70s he recognized raw talent when he saw it, he took it in, he nurtured it and everyone thrived and benefitted as the result. Many of the best musicians of the period passed through the hallowed ranks of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and all are on show here in a stunning set crammed with musical highlights. 

Music from seven unreleased gigs (including Windsor 1967, Gothenburg 1968, Berlin 1969 and San Francisco 1970 and others).- 28 unreleased BBC tracks featuring guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor.- Individually signed photograph.- Hardback book including many rare photos and memorabilia plus a full gig listing for the period.- Separate book including fan club letters and correspondence.- Two replica posters – Ten Years Are Gone and tour poster from 1968.- Replica press pack for John Mayall Plays John Mayall.

For a short but compelling time in the ’60s and ’70s John Mayall recognised raw talent, took it in, nurtured it, and everyone thrived and benefitted as a result. Many of the best musicians of the period passed through the hallowed ranks of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. All are on show here in a stunning set crammed with musical highlights.

The unreleased concerts include Windsor 1967, Gothenburg 1968, Berlin 1969 and San Francisco 1970 and the 28 unreleased BBC tracks feature none other than Eric ClaptonPeter Green and Mick Taylor!

This box set will be limited to 5,000 copies worldwide and is released on January 29th, 2021 on the Madfish label through Snapper Music.

Pre-Order the Box here: https://JohnMayallMusic.lnk.to/TheFirstGeneration

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Arguably, no bandleader in modern history has attracted more sterling guitarists to his line up than John Mayall. During the ’60s and ’70s, Mayall hired and shaped some of the most distinguished axemen of all time, including Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Jon Mark and Harvey Mandel. In a frenzied, fourteen month period, between 1966 and ’67, Mayall released the seminal “Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton” album, followed by “A Hard Road”, which showcased the string-bending talents of Peter Green right before he formed Fleetwood Mac, chased by “Crusade” , which introduced the world to later Rolling Stones’ guitar wiz Mick Taylor.

And it’s not just guitarists who are drawn into Mayall’s orbit. In addition his ever-shifting bands have included such vaunted bass players as John McVie, Jack Bruce, Andy Fraser and Tony Reeves, while, on drums, he nurtured the classic stickmen Mick Fleetwood, Aynsley Dunbar, Keef Hartley and Jon Hiseman. To boot, he provided early showcases for British sax icon Dick Heckstall-Smith and fusion violin pioneer Don “Sugarcane” Harris.

“I guess I’ve got good taste,” said Mayall, with a laugh. He’s also got longevity. At 83, Mayall still tours widely and puts out albums, including a crisp and toned new one, Talk About That

John Mayall Talk About That

The music on the album honors, and reemphasizes, the star’s more than half century devotion to the blues. Two cuts feature contributions by Joe Walsh. “Apparently, it was on [Joe’s] bucket list to play with me,” Mayall said. “I didn’t know his qualifications as a blues guitarist, to be honest. But he fit right in. He was only with us a few hours but it was a magical experience.”

Much the same could be said of Mayall’s many collaborators over the years. Few of them tarried long in his band, but each left an indelible impression. After more than half a century of talent scouting, it’s high time to celebrate everything John Mayall did with, and for, the star musicians he nurtured.

If you ask Mayall what he brought to all these axemen in their formative phases, he’ll answer with one word: freedom. “If I hire somebody to play with me, I’m hiring them because I love their playing,” he said. “I don’t want to usurp that by saying ‘you must play this and you can’t play that.’ I gave them the freedom to help them develop their own style.”

Mayall’s age helped him assume that mentor role convincingly. He was already thirty when he got his first record contract and began his storied hiring spree. His father had also been a guitarist and jazz fan, though John leaned closer to the blues as a teen after hearing artists like Lead Belly and Pinetop Smith. Armed with a guitar and a harmonica, Mayall played in blues bands during his time at the Manchester College of Art. Years later, the visual flair he honed at school would allow him to design some of his early album covers. In 1962, Mayall formed the group Blues Syndicate, mixing that genre with jazz, a balance inspired by Alexis Korner’s band. Korner convinced Mayall to move to London where, in 1963, he formed his first version of the Bluesbreakers, featuring John McVie on bass. Mayall himself sang lead vocals and played rhythm guitar. The group secured gigs at the Marquee Club, which led to a contract with Decca Records. In 1964, Mayall’s band received an amazing opportunity—to back John Lee Hooker on a British tour of clubs and festivals. “We learned a lot from playing with him,” Mayall said. “The first thing we noticed was that, where all the English bands were playing as loudly as they could, there was a different dynamic from the American blues greats. From them, we learned all about dynamics and volume.”

Mayall believes that the British and European musicians had more respect for the roots players than their American brethren did back then. “There were two separate societies in America at the time because of the color bar,” he said. “When the black jazz and blues musicians came over here they were treated like Gods. So it was inevitable that Europeans would eventually come to the blues line of work themselves.”

While some accused the British players of ripping off American blues stars, in fact they brought a different level of velocity, virtuosity and abstraction to the form. Essentially, they applied the expansions of free jazz to the chord structures of the blues. “Everybody found their own style within that structure,” Mayall said.

John Mayall Plays John Mayall

Not that the older generation in the music industry understood what these young bucks were doing. Mayall says his label, Decca, hadn’t a clue what he was up to on his debut work, John Mayall Plays John Mayall a live album released in 1965. On the disc, he sang and played harmonica, organ and 9 string guitar, while Roger Dean served as the band’s first lead guitarist. “Decca washed their hands of me after that first album,” the musician said. “It didn’t sell well enough for their executives. But Mike Vernon, the producer, talked to them and, they thought, ‘if it’s okay with Mike, then.. Still, things might not have been okay for long had Mayall not made a crucial change in his band that year. On the small London music scene, he had heard buzz about a young guitarist in the band The Yardbirds—one Eric Clapton. At first, Mayall wasn’t interested. When The Yardbirds made that first big single, “For Your Love” it didn’t impress me very much,” Mayall said. “But it had a B-side, “Got To Hurry” which was an instrumental. That was the thing that knocked me out.”As it turned out, Clapton felt much the same way. He hated the pop direction of “For Your Love” enough to ditch the band. “I approached him to see if he wanted to join my band,” Mayall said. “All we were doing was playing blues and that’s exactly what Eric wanted.”

Clapton replaced the departed Roger Dean and the refigured band began to cut their teeth in the London clubs. Unfortunately, Clapton proved to be a mercurial soul, prone to moodiness and hard to control. Mere months after cutting some sides with the Bluesbreakers, he announced he was running off to play with a bunch of virtual amateur musicians he had met in a group called The Glands. The unflappable Mayall told Clapton he could always come back if he changed his mind. In the meantime, the band leader subbed in another promising young, blues-obsessed guitarist from the scene: Peter Green. By November of ’65 Clapton came to his senses, pushing Green out. The next year the reconstituted band recorded that first Bluesbreakers release, an instant classic. Mayall said he considered the album just “a nice opportunity to go into the studio and put down what we were doing live. We never realized it would have the success that it did.”

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Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton

‘Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton’ shot to to No. 6 on the U.K. Top Ten. The material on it included some original pieces by Mayall, who played keyboards and sang on the album. But mainly the repertoire emphasized covers of blues songs by artists like Otis Rush, Mose Allison and Little Walter. Clapton’s solos dominated the disc, fully earning the star billing he received on the cover. It was Mayall’s idea to highlight his impeccable contribution right on the album sleeve.

The album struck such a deep chord with the public, it inspired that famous graffiti scrawl in London, “Clapton Is God.” It also set the template for all the rock guitar heroes to come over the next decade. Some fans believe ‘Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton’ contains the most fiercely emotive work of the guitarist’s career. At the time of its release, however, Clapton had already met bassist Jack Bruce who, together with drummer Ginger Baker, had a notion for new kind of band—a power trio. Clapton formed that group Cream without telling Mayall, who found out the way everyone else did—by reading about it the music press.  One can hear the very direct influence of Buddy Guy and a handful of other American bluesmen in the playing. And lest anyone forget the rest of the quartet: future pop/rock superstar John McVie and drummer Hughie Flint provide a rock-hard rhythm section, and Mayall’s organ playing, vocalizing, and second guitar are all of a piece with Clapton’s work. His guitar naturally dominates most of this record, and he can also be heard taking his first lead vocal, but McVie and Flint are just as intense and give the tracks an extra level of steel-strung tension and power, none of which have diminished across several decades.

Remarkably, Mayall considered the surprise defection of his star attraction no big deal. “It was inevitable,” he said. “Eric and Jack wanted to do something different and Ginger Baker was there to talk them into it. From my point of view, this has always been simple. If somebody left the band, I found a replacement. And it seemed there was always somebody out there that I’d like to work with. As a bandleader I had the privilege to hire anybody I wanted.”

Mayall rallied by asking the 20 year old Peter Green to come back to the fold one year after he’d been shown the door. “He was a bit reluctant to trust that this job would be reliable,” the bandleader said. “Peter had the opportunity to work with The Animals and go to America. But because of his love of the blues, he decided he’d rather play in my band.”

John Mayall Bluesbreakers A Hard Road

Again, the chance to stick with pure blues became Mayall’s selling point for his young players. The result paid off with another Top Ten album, the critically hailed ‘A Hard Road,’ out in February of ’67. It featured two songs written by Green, and two sung by him. Green had a more economical style than Clapton, with a tone so sweet, B.B. King later said that it brought him to tears. Original pieces dominated ‘A Hard Road,’ most of them written by Mayall. As with Clapton, Green only remained with Mayall for a year, but when he left, he inspired a major defection, taking with him then drummer Mick Fleetwood—and bassist John McVie not soon after. Together, they formed Fleetwood Mac.

Even with so with another huge a blow to his band, Mayall kept an even-keel. It helped that he soon ferreted out another six-string master—18 year old Mick Taylor. Finding three such amazing players in a row makes Mayall seem like the brains behind Menudo, an act which subbed in new kids every time one got too old. Only in Mayall’s band, age wasn’t a factor and every young guitarist he hired turned out to be a genius.

John Mayall Crusade

The reborn band’s debut, ‘Crusade,” released in September of ’67, followed its predecessors path by shooting straight into the U.K. Top Ten. The music found Taylor in a commanding position. “He has a very elegant sound,” Mayall said. “He was more jazz influenced than Peter or Eric. but no one sounds like Mick, even today.”

The final album of an (unintentional) trilogy, Crusade is most notable for the appearance of a very young, pre-Rolling Stones Mick Taylor on lead guitar. Taylor’s performance is indeed the highlight, just as Eric Clapton and Peter Green’s playing was on the previous albums. The centerpiece of the album is a beautiful instrumental by Taylor titled “Snowy Wood,” which, while wholly original, seems to combine both Green and Clapton’s influence with great style and sensibility.

While it seems amazing that Mayall surfed so smoothly through all these fast changes, brisk switch-up weren’t at all unusual in the ’60s or early ’70s. The culture itself was moving at warp speed. Each year brought a whole new look, sound, and sensibility to the culture. The tender age of Mayall’s proteges also played a part. “They hadn’t much experience in playing,” he said. “They were in the process of finding their own style and finding out what they wanted to do in music. Being with my band helped them to develop rather more quickly than they might have done otherwise.”

“When one looks back you can see that speed,” of the changes, Mayall said. “But when you’re involved in it, you’re just doing a job, playing seven or eight gigs a week. You don’t have time to notice the big picture.”

John Mayall Bare Wires

To momentarily stave off more changes, Mayall pulled a fast one himself. He cut his next album The Blues Alone nearly entirely himself, penning all the songs and playing all the instruments save the one manned by drummer Keef Hartley. The album contains a rare example of Mayall playing lead guitar. It didn’t pay off commercially, but the bandleader rebounded strongly on 1968’s Bare Wires, his first album to crack the U.S. charts (reaching No. 59). “Wires” devoted a full side to a single suite, gave new reign to Taylor’s fluid guitar and provided a showcase for saxist extraordinaire Dick Heckstall-Smith.  The album began with a 23-minute “Bare Wires Suite,” which included more jazz influences than usual and featured introspective lyrics. In retrospect, all of this is a bit indulgent, but at the time it helped Mayallout of what had come to seem a blues straitjacket (although he would eventually return to a strict blues approach). It isn’t surprising that he dropped the “Bluesbreakers” name after this release.

Blues From Laurel Canyon (Remastered)

‘Wires’ marked the final album credited to the band name Bluesbreakers, but that wasn’t the strongest break Mayall made at that time. Late in ’68, he left England to take up full time residence in what was then the newest hotbed of musical creativity—Laurel Canyon. While that locale gave rise to the whole singer-songwriter renaissance, as well as to the CSNY axis of creativity, Mayall says he didn’t participate much in the scene. “The only person I met there was Frank Zappa,” he said. “But I fell in love with the place. It was everything I hoped America would be.”

Turning Point,

Mayall trumpeted that love on Blues From Laurel Canyon, a seamless work which ran all the songs together in rootsy reverie. Soaking up the mellow L.A. atmosphere had an even greater impact on his next album, aided by a key loss. In June of ’69 Taylor bolted to replace the just-deceased Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. The jolt brought out something revolutionary in Mayall. For his next work—the aptly named The Turning Point.

Mayall ditched high-octane, top volume blues for an acoustic-based band that featured no drummer. “I just got tired of the same instrumentation,” the bandleader said. “With a drummer-less band, there are more dynamics and no one gets drowned out. People who heard about the album were very skeptical. Promoters were horrified that they were booking a band that had no drums. But I went ahead anyway.”

Mayall had key help from folk guitarist Jon Mark. A sensitive player, Mark had previously been part of an overlooked gem of a band, Sweet Thursday, which included piano wiz Nicky Hopkins and future Cat Stevens collaborator Alun Davies. For the new project, Mayall amped up the role of a sax and flute player he’d already collaborated with: Johnny Almond. Mayall’s inspiration for the radical project was the record The Train and The River by Jimmy Guiffry, which featured just guitar and sax. To nail the immediacy of his new approach, Mayall cut ‘The Turning Point’ live at The Fillmore East. One song, Room To Move became an FM staple, prized for its brisk rhythm and wild mouth-organ flourishes.

Empty Rooms

In this incarnation, the group put out one studio album, 1969’s Empty Rooms, Immediately afterwards, Mark and Almond broke off to form their own acoustic-jazz group, inventively named The Mark-Almond Band. Some thought they ran off with Mayall’s idea but the magnanimous bandleader prefers to view MAB simply as “a continuation” of the style. Either way, the defection paved the way for yet another creative leap, this one involving the dexterous guitarist Harvey Mandel (late of Canned Heat) and fusion violinist Don “Sugarcane” Harris. The latter had made key contributions to Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats as well as to great Mothers’ albums like Weasels Ripped My Flesh The new band issued USA Union in 1970, pushing the sound deeper into jazz while retaining the drummer-less motif. “For me, jazz and blues have always been intertwined,” Mayall said. “There’s no dividing line.”

Back to the Roots

As a perfect capper for Mayall’s classic era, he released Back To The Roots. in 1971, a work which briefly reunited him with Clapton, Taylor, Almond, and other great players from his past. Mayall says he has maintained good relationships with all of his starry graduates of his group in all the years since. Taylor, for one, has often returned to play with him. The bandleader harbors no jealousy for the successes his proteges have achieved with other bands, most of them far greater than his own. Mayall’s insistence on sticking with the blues, rather than moving into more pop friendly sounds, accounts for the disparity. He believes he had no choice in that. “Blues is the only thing I know how to play,” he said.

Over the past few decades, Mayall’s blues-rooted bands have given platforms to other significant, if less celebrated, guitarists, including Coco Montoya, Walter Trout and Buddy Whittington. His current band has no lead axeman at all, the better to let the three players shine. At 83, Mayall still tours 100 days of the year and records regularly. The latest album ranks as his 41st. “There’s never a shortage of ideas,” he said. “I just love music, and so I always want to explore it.

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