It is said, only somewhat sarcastically, that the only things Americans invented are skyscrapers and the blues.
So how did a young man from Manchester, England — a whole world away from the American South and the troublesome socioeconomic elements that contributed to the musician form — become drawn to the blues, a music that was born of African spirituals and work songs?
“I don't know how to explain that,” says John Mayall, now 71, who rose out of the London club scene in the late ’50s and early ’60s to become a legend now mentioned in the same breath with American blues masters Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and Howlin’ Wolf.
“It was the music I grew up listening to, from my father being a musician, and I felt like any musician — they start because they have an interest in the music. I had a pretty good record collection — way before LPs I had 78s — and there was plenty there to learn from if you knew what to look for.”
A precocious youngster who got his first press in England when he moved out of his parents' home to live in a treehouse, Mayall taught himself guitar, harmonica and piano, and after a hitch in the British army and a stint in art school, Mayall moved to London at age 30 and began gigging sporadically before the blues began catching on in clubs.
“After years of semiprofessional work, there was enough work there to warrant going pro,” Mayall explains. “(Fellow British blues pioneer) Alexis Korner kind of paved the way for us, helped us make contacts in the clubs and get established. It was a wonderful period, that time — everybody was jumping into the clubs and playing together.”
Once entrenched in the clubs, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers began to influence countless young English kids who would go on to form such bands as the Rolling Stones and the Animals, and Mayall became a mentor to a “who's who” of musicians who played with the Bluesbreakers before moving on to form their own successful bands. As Mayall's reputation grew, he began to back his own idols, legends such as John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson as they toured across the pond.
“That was a great thrill, of course,” Mayall says of jamming with his heroes. “Playing with other people really helps you — you can't help but pick up things like dynamics from those great players.”
Mayall moved to the States in the early ’70s and began playing with a younger generation of American musicians like guitarist Harvey Mandel (who once tried out for the Stones) and bassist Larry Taylor from Canned Heat.
“Ever musician of any worth has got their own style,” Mayall says of English musicians and American players’ interpretations of the blues. “They all draw from the same source, and everybody plays their own way.”
Mayall, who has a new album, “Road Dogs,” in stores, says he listens to all types of music but still keeps his eye on the younger blues players coming up who will lead the blues into the future.
“The youngest one who has come along is (14-year-old Pennsylvania guitar phenom) Eric Steckel,” Mayall says. “He's pretty exceptional, but it does show you that there is a definite interest among the younger generations to pick up this music a lot earlier, perhaps, than at any time before. “The blues keeps growing, and we've got the younger generation now who are very much into it, so that bodes well for the future.”