King of the British Blues: John Mayall Reflects on His Special Life

Photo by Maureen Clark

There are blues legends and there are blues masters, and then there’s John Mayall. Long acknowledged as the father of the British blues scene that emerged in the heyday of the ’60s and the man who helped school the guitarslinging likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Coco Montoya, and Buddy Whittington, the 80-year-old Mayall shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. “You have no other choice, really,” he says matter-of-factly. “You set your feet on your path, and that’s what you stick with. It’s the only thing that you know to do.” His latest album, A Special Life (Forty Below), carries on the rich blues tradition, thanks in no small part to Mayall’s rapport with his band, led by a Texas-born guitar ace (Rocky Athas) and anchored by a Chicago-bred rhythm section (bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport). “Never plan to fade away,” Mayall sings in the title track. Dear John: We’re going to hold you to that.

Mike Mettler: One thing that continues to astound me about you when I was listening to A Special Life is your voice. It’s as good and true and real as ever. How do you keep it in such great shape?

John Mayall: I don’t know. I’m just a pretty healthy individual. I haven’t had any signs of deterioration in the vocal category, so I continue to have a great time singing, and I want to give it the best in the studio if it’s a permanent record for something. Every time I go into the studio, which isn’t very often, I want to make sure it’s on top form.

Mettler: I cued up “All Your Love,” from 1966 [from John Mayall and the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton] and then played A Special Life right after it, and the vocal character is still pretty consistent.

Mayall: Yeah. Aren’t I lucky? [both laugh]

Mettler: Did you ever have any vocal training, or is it all by feel?

Mayall: It’s all by feel. I haven’t had any kind of training in any musical capacity. I’m self-taught on all of my instruments. The same with the voice. I wasn’t one to take direction from another person. It’s not something I’ve ever really been attracted to.

Mettler: Growing up, you listened to your dad’s 78s, which is how you started getting into music. Were those jazz recordings?

Mayall: Jazz and blues. That was the only way to listen to music back then — with your wind-up gramophone, and all these things that people of this generation don’t even know what they are. [laughs]

Mettler: Gramophone — that’s an app I can get on my phone, right?

Mayall: Hah, a gram-o-phone, yes!

Mettler: When you’re recording, how do you know when the sound quality is right?

Mayall: The technology today can capture anything that you play — as long as you’re in the right studio with a good soundboard and the right engineer. Eric Corne was the right engineer for A Special Life, and he was very, very helpful. He knew all the technical stuff in order to capture what we were doing in the studio live. [A Special Life was recorded at Entourage Studios in North Hollywood, California, on November 5-10, 2013.]

Mettler: In terms of physical placement in the studio, were you all in the same room and able to maintain eye contact? How were you set up?

Mayall: It was one big room, and we were all there looking at each other when we were recording the tracks together. There were no barriers. I did a scratch vocal when we were playing the tracks, but the finished vocals were overdubbed. That live feel — I mean, you can’t get that if you’re doing everything piece by piece. You’ve got to have that interaction. The first track on the album [“Why Did You Go Last Night”], with Clifton [C.J. Chenier, vocals and accordian], that was a first take. And he only played it once. We flew him in from New Orleans, and he arrived at the studio at about 11 o’clock and hadn’t even met the guys before that. By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, his part was done, and he went back home that night.

Mettler: It’s pretty amazing that you got it so quick.

Mayall: Well, you know, that’s the way I like to work. If it doesn’t gel together in that first hour, then it’s not going to work.

Mettler: You’re not a fan of laboring over recordings.

Mayall: It’s my experience that if you labor over a track and keep trying to get it right, it’s really not going to work. It really has to have that magic when you play it. It’s got to be in everybody’s mind that you’re on the same page with it. If it feels natural, then it’s real.

Mettler: People can play the feel right out of a track if you play it 30 or 40 times in the studio. The magic has to be there upfront and you need to capture it before it’s gone.

Mayall: It’s the only way I’ve ever worked, so I don’t know how other people manage to do what they do. The bigger groups that have notoriously spent weeks and months and sometimes years to come up with an album — that totally baffles me. I don’t know how that can possibly be. [chuckles]

Mettler: You can tell when you listen to certain records — they sound “produced.”

Mayall: Yeah, yeah. And the blues is a thing that has to be real.

Mettler: Inside the CD package, you list the different key each song is in.

Mayall: Fans have always appreciated that, and fellow musicians have complimented me on that because it’s very helpful to let them know what’s going on. [laughs]

Mettler: Do you choose the album sequencing based on the keys?

Mayall: Yeah, because each key has a different flavor and mood to it. It really helps to keep those things moving along, the contrast — one track ends, and the next one is kind of a surprise.

Mettler: That’s a good point. I still view an album as something that takes me on a journey as a listener. From beginning to end, you as an artist chose a specific path for me to follow, and I should respect that all the way through to get all the nuances of where you’re going. When “Floodin’ in California” goes into “Big Town Playboy,” that seems like a natural move to me.

Mayall: Yeah, exactly. I’m pretty much old school in that regard. [laughs]

Mettler: The infamous Blues Breakers record with Eric Clapton — that was originally recorded in mono, right? Did you have a preference between mono and stereo?

Mayall: I don’t think stereo had really come about too much. But there were only 4-track tape machines, so you had to combine them. You had to put the bass and the drums on one track, then on the two track you’d put the keyboards, number three would be the guitar, and then you’d combine those tracks to make another one. It was very clever, really, but there were only four tracks to play around with, so you’d keep combining them.

Mettler: That record was cut in the early days of being “allowed” to use distortion in the studio. It was unheard of then.

Mayall: When we recorded that album, Eric was just playing at the same volume he was using during live gigs. We were playing just like we were on the road. It was kind of a new thing.

Mettler: Would any of the engineers in the studio tell you, “Hey, we can’t record it this way”?

Mayall: That’s just what the engineer in the studio at Decca said [possibly Gus Dudgeon], but the producer [Mike Vernon], said, “No, that’s the way it’s supposed to sound. Just get the tape rolling.”

Mettler: And that must have been what you wanted to hear, because that’s how you were playing it live.

Mayall: Yeah, exactly. We had a gig in the evening, and that session was in the daytime, so it was, “Hurry up and get this done.” [chuckles]

Mettler: Right; those really weren’t long sessions. You got done pretty quickly. Could you tell it was coming together right away when you were making it?

Mayall: I think so. It’s the only way I know how to work. All of the tracks for the Crusade album [1967, with Mick Taylor on guitar] were recorded in 7 hours. Some of the musicians were like, “Can we do that again?” “Nope, we’ve got to move on.” [laughs]

Mettler: When it’s feel, you’ve got to do it right. You’ve said you like giving people the freedom to do their thing, but in your context. And letting people be themselves lent to better songs.

Mayall: You’ve got to capture that magic feeling of spontaneity; that’s the whole point. Once you start doing something over and over, you start to lose the quality that makes it exciting in the first place.

Mettler: Of your performances on the Blues Breakers record, “What’d I Say” feels exactly as it should. Is there a particular song from that album you still feel is the one, the standout?

Mayall: “Have You Heard” is the one that immediately comes to mind, because it’s such a great guitar solo and a great mood. And I’m still singing and playing that one today. It’s stood the test of time. I enjoyed singing on that one. And having Alan Skidmore on it — I always enjoyed his tenor sax playing. All of those elements I think make “Have You Heard” as probably the one closest to me right now.

Mettler: I have to say I like hearing “I’m Your Witchdoctor” being played regularly on the Underground Garage channel on SiriusXM.

Mayall: That was Eric, one of the first feedback guitar solos. It’s funny, because when we used to play that live, he didn’t always feel like doing that. It was the middle part when we played it live, and sometimes it would be empty because he didn’t feel like doing the feedback. [laughs]

Mettler: Getting feedback in the studio — do you feel like that was a revolutionary thing?

Mayall: Back then, yes, it definitely was. Eric was one of the pioneers at the time, along with Pete Townshend. It was very, very new.

Mettler: And you embraced it.

Mayall: If it feels natural, it’s a sound that’s unique.

Mettler: Finally, is there anybody you never got a chance to play with who you wanted to, or would still like to?

Mayall: Not really. I think the album Along for the Ride [2001] was an example of me gathering as many people together that I had worked with before and also people I’d admired and hadn’t worked with before — people like Billy Preston, Billy Gibbons, Shannon Curfman, Jonny Lang, Jeff Healey, Otis Rush. I got to round everybody up, and they all got a piece of the album. Quite an army of people, and they all had a go at one track. That was an exact example of what you’re talking about. So I don’t think I need to do that again. [chuckles]

An extended version of this interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site, soundbard.com.

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