On his latest album, the Godfather of British Blues, even at the ripe old age of 80, refuses to rest on his laurels
BY TOM CALLAHAN
Well, here is some news that is guaranteed to make you feel old: last November John Mayall celebrated his 80th birthday. That’s right. He is closing in on 81. And he is doing a world tour this year. On A Special Life (Forty Below Records) he proves that he is still a vital musical force. And as an aside how wrong Pete Townshend was when he penned the immortal line: “hope I die before I get old.”
Mayall of course is called “The Godfather of British Blues.” A half century ago he formed his first band: the Bluesbreakers. Back then in England, many great American blues artists—starving for work in their own county—went to England to make a living. The Bluesbreakers ended up backing people like John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and Sonny Boy Williamson. When a guitarist named Eric Clapton quit the Yardbirds, Mayall offered him a spot in his band. What resulted was one of the classic albums of all time, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton. It is hard to imagine any rock music fan that does not have that album in their collection.
And Mayall established that an apprenticeship with him was essential training for upcoming British rock stars. Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood left him to form Fleetwood Mac, Andy Fraser created Free and Mick Taylor was hired by the Rolling Stones. In the 1980s he would do something similar in America for guitarist like Coco Montoya and Walter Trout.
Through it all and beyond, Mayall kept making albums and refining his own blues.
A Special Life is Mayall’s first studio album in five years. It kicks off, which might surprise some, with a zydeco song written by the great Clifton Chenier and performed by his son CJ as a guest of Mayall’s band. The album also includes covers of Jimmy Rogers’s classic, “That’s All Right” along with covers of songs by Albert King, Sonny Landreth and Eddy Taylor.
But it is on the three songs Mayall wrote that he proves that he still has what it takes. “Just A Memory” is a slow and smoky piano blues that might be one of the best blues songs written by anybody in recent years. At 80, John Mayall could have rested on his many accomplishments and brought in others to play his classic songs and just grab another payday. Instead, he produced a damn good and vibrant album. In the process he shows us that he learned something from those old blues masters he backed half a century ago. He learned that you never give up on your music no matter what numbers appear on a calendar. You play your blues until you die.