father knows best

John Mayall. Photo by David Gomez.

All you need to understand the musical legacy forged by John Mayall is a fresh listen to three of his earliest albums, all of which were cut over a half-century ago.

In the fall of 1967, the long-revered “Father of British Blues” issued an album titled “Crusade” featuring a teenaged Mick Taylor on the guitar. Less than two years later, Taylor would defect to the Rolling Stones and remain a member through what many consider the band’s most creative recording era.

Earlier that year, Mayall released “A Hard Road,” which introduced guitarist Peter Green to the world. Before 1967 was done, Green, Mayall drummer Mick Fleetwood and, eventually, band bassist John McVie would form the core of a new group called Fleetwood Mac.

Back up to 1966 and you have the album that forever changed the blues world, “Blues Breakers.” Handling principle guitar duties was a young Eric Clapton. Just after the record’s release, Clapton left Mayall to rock civilization with the power trio Cream.

Those are the familiar yet still-ridiculously impressive first chapters in a career that has never looked back. Today, at age 85, Mayall continues to perform over 100 concerts a year while maintaining a remarkably prolific recording run that has seen the release of over 70 albums (excluding numerous anthologies). Through it all, his brand of the blues has been revolutionary, from the choice of instrumentation (highlighted by Mayall’s distinctive drummer-less bands of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s) to a sensibility that has attracted world class instrumentalists, especially in the guitar category.

So what does the artist whose initial albums launched the careers of three of England’s most celebrated guitar heroes look for when forming a band?

“I just enjoy people’s originality, regardless of what instrument they’re playing,” said Mayall, who makes a rare regional appearance this week for a sold-out performance at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort. “That’s always something I’m looking for. I’m thrilled to play with different people that I admire. The main thing musicians should aim for, especially the new musicians on the scene, is something of your own, something original, rather than maybe copying somebody else.”

Curiously, Mayall took a fresh approach to that philosophy on his newest album, “Nobody Told Me.” Rather that seek out an underdog guitarist to joining his long-running trio featuring bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport, Mayall sought more familiar names. But instead of enlisting specific players, he sent out a casting call-like invitation to artists that might be interested in working with him.

Accepting the offer – and, subsequently, appearing on “Nobody Told Me” – was a varied company of all-star players, several of which were not readily associated with blues music. They included pop/prog maestro Todd Rundgren, E Street lieutenant Steve Van Zandt and Rush mainstay Alex Lifeson. Augmenting the crew were contemporary blues stylists Joe Bonamassa, Larry McCray and the Texas guitarist currently touring with the Mayall trio, Carolyn Wonderland.

“That was the theme,” Mayall said. “So I put the word out that I wanted to try different guitar players as guests. That they aren’t all known as blues players was one of the nice things about not actually sending out for specific people. Those are the ones who came through, so I was delighted. I was very interested to see what they were doing.”

The casting call approach is the latest chapter for an artist who capitalized on an early ’60s blues scene in England that history has regularly overlooked in favor of a well-documented British fascination with American R&B.

“There was a change in what people were listening to at the time,” Mayall recalled. “Prior to the blues invasion, if you want to call it that, the roost had been ruled by trad jazz bands led by people like Chris Barber and Humphrey Lyttelton. It was time for a change. (Blues artists/bandleaders) Alexis Corner and Cyril Davies put the whole thing together and gave people a taste of what electric blues was all about. It happened very quickly at a time when people were ready for something new.”

“The music has always been at a good place for me since then because we have the total freedom to play what we want. People have always accepted that with me, too, which is a very good indication of the awareness to what we’re doing. The records, they are all personal expressions about what I was thinking about at a particular time. They serve as documentation of my life.”

John Mayall performs at 7:30 pm. Aug. 5 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. The performance is sold out. For info, go to grandtheatrefrankfort.org.



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