Like so many intensely famous people many have never heard of, the name John Mayall either elicits instant recognition and respect or a scratch of the head. If you are of an age to remember the blues resurgence of the 1960s, you’ll no doubt be surprised that everyone doesn’t know him. Otherwise, you may wonder what’s the fuss?
Virtually anyone interested in popular music over the last decades, however, recognizes the names of musicians who have played with him and certainly recognize the bands they went on to form or join. Born in 1933, John was a bit older than many of the other musicians on the London blues scene in the 1960s. Though he’d played with numerous bands before hand, it was only in 1963, after having graduated art school the previous year, that he decided to move to London and have a go at being a full-time professional musician. He never looked back.
One of his earliest band members in London – the band he soon named the Bluesbreakers – was John McVie who would – over a decade later – become a mainstay with Fleetwood Mac. This early line-up toured with John Lee Hooker and John’s reputation as a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and band-leader began to grow. After a bit of unsuccessful recording in 1964, he made a pivotal move in April 1965 when he took Yardbirds guitarist Eric Clapton into the band. Eric would serve two stints and the two remain friends decades later.
During Eric’s break from the band Peter Green was added. He would later form Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, of course. Also added to the band at that point was Jack Bruce who would later play bass with Clapton when they, along with Ginger Baker, formed Cream. The album “Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton,” became a big success in 1966, rising to #6 in England. After Clapton’s second departure, Mick Taylor played with the band for a couple of years before joining the Rolling Stones for their excellent early 70s albums.
The subsequent decades have seen John continue to tour with ever-evolving lineups and sporadic releases of current material or material harvested from the 1960s. He’s showcased his guitar and harmonic prowess while some recordings, such as his excellent recent release, “Find a Way to Care,” (2015) focus on his prodigious keyboard skills, as well as his well-worn vocals. Incorporating horns into some of the songs, he covers a musical range from R&B to Chicago-style blues and New Orleans boogie-woogie piano similar to Fats Domino or Professor Longhair.
A touring line-up (and also his studio band) including Rocky Athas (guitar), bassist Greg Rzab and Jay Davenport on drums has worked consistently with John for the last seven years – probably the longest a line-up has remained stable for him in his career. Word has it they are at work on another album they plan to drop later this year.
What does all this have to do with Knoxville? Well, there’s a somewhat obscure historic connection – one of the heroes John lists whom he emulated as he learned to play guitar was none other than Knoxville’s own Brownie McGhee. And then there is the fact that he will soon make a rare Knoxville appearance at the Bijou Theatre, March 10. It should be a special night with a musical legend who has been at the epicenter of the blues revival and classic rock eras.
And you can be there. You may buy tickets ($28) at the link above, but you can also try to win a free pair. I’m giving away a pair of tickets to a randomly selected reader. You have until midnight Monday February 22 to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject header, “I Want to See a Living Legend.” Be sure to give me your name and a contact number and you’ll need to present ID at the ticket box office that night to pick up your tickets. Good luck, everybody.
I’ll leave you with a sample of what you might expect at the show. The first video was recorded about eight years ago and placed on youtube about four years ago during which time it has racked up nearly a half-million views, which tells you how much impact the guy still has. The second video is from 1968 and includes Mick Taylor on guitar as well as featuring a bunch of stoned audience members and a brief commentary in French. Enjoy.