Blues From Laurel Canyon
2019, Omnibus Press
Written in 2020 for Blues Music Magazine
Most often called, “The Godfather of the British Blues,” one would be hard-pressed to recognize any other band-leader than John Mayall within the United Kingdom, or anywhere else to match his many ensembles’ recorded legacy.
Today at 86, he is still making music a staggering 60-years plus later, at an age where most players, if they’ve lived to see that advanced year, have long-since retired to rest on their recorded laurels. Under his own name, or with The Bluesbreakers, Mayall can count at minimum 40-LPs under his still-svelte belt.
Mayall is one of the legitimate progenitors of the British Blues, along with seminal figures such as Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies, Graham Bond and a very few others. His legendary genius as a Blues talent-scout has allowed him to grace his band at various (and sometimes miniscule) times with household names of the British & American Blues elite. (Think Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Coco Montoya, Harvey Mandel, Walter Trout, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Keef Hartley, Larry Taylor, Andy Fraser, Robin Trower, Aynsley Dunbar, Mick Fleetwood, Don “Sugarcane” Harris, John McVie, John Almond, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and a ton more.) And that’s just a few names to get one to start to understand the important musical stepping stone the Bluesbreakers have afforded to those and many other gifted artists.
“Blues From Laurel Canyon” takes a fairly traditional, lineal approach as most auto-biographies do. The book begins by surprisingly recounting many life stories of both sides of his great-grandparents, as well as his paternal and maternal grandparents and of course, his beloved mum and dad.
Born in 1933 outside of Manchester, in Macclesfield, England, he, to a textile heir and she at one time, a vacuum-cleaner salesperson. Mayall’s parents were lively, adventurous and very libidinous individuals.
The book follows Mayall’s journeys through school, with his coming of age during war-torn England’s darkest hours. A youth of multiple abilities he matriculated as a teen in art school and learned to draw and paint. (He designed and photographed many of his albums over the past 60-years.)
He was drafted into service within the British Army in immediate post-war Korea as a clerical worker, and he recounts many chilling and hilarious times of both hardship and resolve. Throughout his post-Korean service, he had odd-jobs in department stores, advertising agencies and as part of a team of store window dressers.
His first and main instruments were banjo, piano, pump organ, harmonica and of course, guitar. As a youth, he had built a sizable tree-house in his parent’s backyard with studio-size dimensions, where he would practice for the proverbial hours and hours, self-teaching himself valuable chops in what he was to become. He even lived there after his three years of Army service.
Mayall’s transition from being a dedicated music fan to his becoming a semi-pro, multi-instrument musician, and of course professional band-leader is recounted in great detail. Throughout BFLC, he waxes profusely of his appreciation for musicians of all genres. But certainly, his gravitation toward Blues was always with an ear for jazz, as his voluminous catalogue will attest.
Certainly, music was part of his life at an early age, as his (chronically-alcoholic) father Murray, an amateur musician and record collector in his own right, gave young John all the impetus he needed to learn to play at an early age. Mayall gravitated toward his dad’s jazz records, especially those of the great Gypsy guitarist, Django Reinhardt. He as time would tell, was also, almost mystically drawn to music of Black America with an especial affinity toward American Blues.
Mayall’s main influence in Blues harmonica was through Sonny Boy Williamson II. Readers will have an eye-opening experience in reading about his encounters with that great and irascible Bluesman. Later in ’65, his band backed up John Lee Hooker, Eddie Boyd & T-Bone Walker for many separate European dates.
The chapter on Eric Clapton and his dissatisfaction with the direction of the group he was in (The Yardbirds) and of Mayall’s luckily finding Peter Green, twice, is illuminating.
Although Clapton helped Mayall create an international Blues LP classic, (in three days and with just a four-track recording no less,) Eric quit the Bluesbreakers within a year of joining them to form Cream. Green stayed around for a year and a half before moving on to found Fleetwood Mac.
In 1969, Mayall and family moved to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles which tragically burned to the ground around ten years later with almost all of his instruments, thousands of tapes, photographs and possessions.
In 1971, Mayall had the privilege of producing and writing a full-album’s worth of material for an album by Albert King, that finally saw the light of day fifteen years later and named, “The Lost Sessions.”
Mayall has always seen his bands as continual musically-changing outfits as he wants and demands of himself to have a fresh sound and energy. He has been a stickler for that change, going through what seems like hundreds of players over the years, encompassing many, many unique combinations of instruments and styles of Blues and jazz both.
Throughout the book, Mayall remembers a plethora of famous musicians he ran across, and delightfully, has no compulsion against naming names, recounting many, many vices, nasty habits. He non-salaciously tells all of it with wit, humor and sometimes enduring pain. Readers will also be intrigued by nearly fifty black & white and color photographs of Mayall, his large family, and the many incarnations of his bands over the years. They add a great deal to the appreciation of Mayall’s colorful, energetic and musically-restless life.
The old John remembers the life of the young John with a precision of memory and feeling uncommon among most artists’ written remembrances.
Toward the end of the book, Mayall states, “I’m proud of my catalogue, which I think is important, because it’s going to last and that’s something that I hope will continue as times goes by. My music is always from the heart. Life is good.”
The book is a fairly quick 221-page read, and at all times a rewarding journey, not a hard road. Blues From Laurel Canyon will go a long way toward readers’ understanding of the seminal British Blues scene of the 60s, and especially Mayall’s complete and tireless dedication to his craft and prolific muse.