Artist Lookback – John Mayall’s Blues Breakers: The Guitar Hero Trilogy 1966-1967

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Ah, the blues. I must admit, when it comes to classic rock, my first love was and always will be the Rolling Stones. I picked up ‘Some Girls,’ my first album ever and it was the beginning of a life long obsession. The Rolling Stones, in many ways, were a gateway drug for me into the broad array of rock music in the world. The Stones led me to Zeppelin, then to the Beatles, Black Sabbath and beyond. It wasn’t long before I was in the basement of seedy used record stores looking for out of print Faces albums or Springsteen bootlegs. I made my friend Doug go to a used record store in a strip mall in Dallas after he’d just broken up with a girlfriend so I could look for the out of print Buckingham Nicks LP… a trip he still hasn’t forgiven me for, although it may be his unpleasant memories of that trip unrelated to “Buckingham Nicks.” I wasn’t musically sophisticated enough to understand what the root of my musical infatuation was. I didn’t understand that the common thread that links all the music I love is the blues.

By the 1960’s the blues was an underground music in the United States, segregated like so much was, in the black community. It took some groovy English youth to rediscover and reawaken interest in the blues in the States. Much of what came out of the British Invasion was what is now described as “blues rock.” There were so many key figures, people you don’t hear about any more, that were critical to that early blues rock movement. ¬†Alexis Korner was a guy that was at the center of a lot of it and he helped fan the flame of blues in London. If time travel is ever invented, you’ll know where to find me… 60s swinging London.

Another name that I don’t hear much any more is John Mayall, leader of the intrepid Blues Breakers. I posted about these British blues rock pioneer’s American cousins, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, who were also 60s era masters of the blues, a few months ago. In the comment section, Moulty58 (whose blog, The Future Is Past is phenomenal, check it out) mentioned Mayall and the Blues Breakers. In the ensuing conversation he mentioned the album Mayall did with Peter Green, ‘A Hard Road.’ The only Mayall & the Bluesbreaker album I’d ever heard or heard of was the masterpiece, “Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton.” Could I have missed something? As a musical spelunker, I pride myself on owning anything I consider critical in music. Oh sure, I have some blindspots, like say, jazz, but I own most the LPs in the “Must Have” canon. I’m that weird guy who buys the live solo Gregg Allman albums or the solo Lowell George of Little Feat LP… Maybe I have a problem, but as Van Morrison sang, “it’s too late to stop now.” Perhaps I needed to give Mayall’s catalog another look.

In retrospect, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers could be looked at more as a musical collective than a band. They changed personnel more often than Yes, and that’s saying something. Almost every band has a connection to the Blues Breakers. Just on bass guitar alone, John McVie, Jack Bruce and Andy Fraser of Free fame all played with them. On drums, amongst a large number of people, Mick Fleetwood and Aynsley Dunbar both played with Mayall. I think Dunbar played in every band ever… I think he was even in Journey for a while. Mayall actually sang, played keyboards (mostly piano), guitar and harmonica. The thing about the Blues Breakers that is probably the most remarkable is the guitar talent that went through this band. Not only did Eric Clapton play with them but so did Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), and a very young Mick Taylor (The Rolling Stones). Those are just the big names. Rick Vito (Fleetwood Mac) and Jimmy McCulloch (Wings) also played with the Blues Breakers, just to name a few. Paul Butterfield even shows up playing harmonica on one album. It’s quite an impressive roster. It seems if you were a British rock band in the 70’s and needed a player, you looked no further than the Blues Breakers. It was like a British Prep school for guitarists.

I quickly began an investigation of the Blues Breaker’s catalog and found that I had indeed missed a couple of essential LPs, beyond “With Eric Clapton.” There are really three albums that I consider “essential” for blues or blues rock fans. As you might guess, it’s the three albums featuring the three greatest of the Blues Breaker’s guitarists. With all due respect to fans of “Blues From Laurel Canyon,” which does feature Mick Taylor, I consider that a John Mayall solo album. The Blues Breakers moniker had been abandoned by that time. Without further adieu, here are the three John Mayall and the Blues Breaker’s LPs every fan should check out:

Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton (1966)

When Eric Clapton, who judging by his autobiography was an enormous twat, left the Yardbirds because they were veering away from his “blues purist” view of music, there was a lot of speculation about what he’d do next. He joined the Blues Breakers and their popularity began to soar… just as that looked like it was going to peak, Clapton runs off to Greece with a group calling themselves “The Glands.” They must have been a group of teenage boys with a wanker name like that. Jeez, Eric. Anyway, he realized he’d made a mistake and came back to rejoin Mayall and the Blues Breakers. This album was the result and it’s a tour de force. I love Cream, but I truly think this was the best lead guitar playing of Clapton’s career. He plays with a strength and confidence I rarely hear. This album is considered a blues rock milestone. I read in Rolling Stone magazine that this record and Clapton’s solo LP, “From the Cradle,” taken together are Clapton’s greatest blues achievement. It’s hard to argue. The instrumental “Hideaway” is simply amazing. “What’d I Say,” the Ray Charles cover is inspired. “All Your Love” is the perfect blues tune. Clapton does his first vocal on Robert Johnson’s “Rambling On My Mind” one of his first and best Robert Johnson covers. Clapton split after this record to form Cream with Jack Bruce (also a Mayall alumni) and Ginger Baker. It’s a shame we don’t have more of Mayall and Clapton together, because it’s one of the greatest albums of all time.

A Hard Road (1967)

How do you replace a messianic guitarist (well, they did used to scrawl “Clapton is God” as graffiti) like Eric Clapton? You find Peter Green. I don’t know anybody outside of Ozzy Osbourne (Randy Rhoads, Jake E Lee, Zakk Wylde) with a nose for guitar talent like John Mayall. I was surprised when I first heard this record that the Blues Breakers, despite line up changes and losing Clapton didn’t miss a beat. This is a great blues/blues rock album with inspired guitar work. The Peter Green penned instrumental “The Supernatural” is worth the price of the LP alone. I may be crazy but I hear the seeds of “Black Magic Woman” in that tune. Great, great guitar work. Green’s guitar sound is different than Clapton’s and this may sound weird, but I almost feel like Peter Green’s guitar sounds… well, sadder. The guy really conveys emotion in the way he plays. Where Clapton was more powerful, Green is more expressive. Just one man’s opinion, and I don’t play guitar. I absolutely love the Elmore James’ cover, “Dust My Blues,” and the incendiary slide guitar Green plays. They also do two great Freddie King covers, the instrumental “The Stumble” which is another stand out and “Someday After While (You’ll Be Sorry)” that blew me away. “It’s Over,” the opening track is a great John Mayall penned tune as well. This is just a spectacular album that I never heard about. You definitely hear the seeds of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac on this album, which makes sense because after this record Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood split to form Fleetwood Mac… I guess the formula in the 60s was, do one album with Mayall, split and form a legendary band of your own… At least there was some additional material Peter Green recorded with Mayall that turned up on the remastered, “bonus track” version of the album that came out years later.

Crusade (1967)

What do you do when you’ve lost not one, but two legendary lead guitar players. Apparently if you’re John Mayall you discover a teenage Mick Taylor. I had always known Taylor had gotten his start in the Blues Breakers but I’d never dug deep enough to check out his record with them. Actually, he stuck around for three albums, unlike Clapton and Green, before being recruited to join the Stones as Brian Jones’ replacement. “Crusade” is just another blues rock classic in the same vein as it’s two predecessors. The album kicks off with “Oh Pretty Woman” (not the Roy Orbison tune) and it’s again as if nothing has changed with the band. Although I will say I can tell Taylor’s guitar is different than Green’s. Mick Taylor had such an amazingly melodic way of playing the guitar. Even on these blues recordings I can hear how his lead guitar would mesh with Richard’s ragged rhythm guitar. There’s an instrumental on here “Snowy Wood” which is just fabulous playing (do I hear “Can You Hear Me Knocking” here?). Mayhall had employed a horn section on his previous LP, but never this prominently, they’re all over this record. I like the sax, harmonica interplay on “Man of Stone.” I love, love the version of “I Can’t Quit You Baby” the old Willie Dixon tune that was also done by Led Zeppelin and years later the Rolling Stones, post-Taylor. “Driving Sideways” sounds like a tune a blues band would open a show with… This is just another great blues guitar album.

If you’re a fan of the blues, blues rock, Cream, the pre Buckingham Nicks Fleetwood Mac or the glory years of the Rolling Stones, there is a hell of a lot to like here. A lot of people own ‘With Eric Clapton’ and if you enjoy that record I can’t more highly recommend ‘A Hard Road’ and ‘Crusade.’ Mayall went on to have a long, storied career but other than ‘Blues From Laurel Canyon’ you’re not going to find better blues/blues rock than these three albums. Any fan of guitar will absolutely fall in love with these albums.

This isn’t cry in your beer blues, this shuffle around, chooglin’ music. Pour yourself something strong, dark and murky and start moving, baby!

Cheers!

Analysis: Clapton’s Late Career – Is He Making Amends?

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I’ve almost always liked Eric Clapton. And, like his recently titled album suggests, “I still do.” However, I won’t be reviewing his new album for BourbonAndVinyl. For me, “I Still Do” is just another mellow strummer along the lines of “Back Home,” “Old Sock,” or “Clapton.” Sure, “I Still Do” has better production than most of his LPs, but I still have no interest. I have to admit to a bit of frustration with Eric Clapton. Here’s a guy who made his reputation on fiery guitar solo’s in the 60s with such history-making acts as John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream. His playing earned him the graffiti tag: “Clapton Is God.” Now it appears he’s turned his back on that sort of guitar virtuosity in favor of a very mellow and often over-slick, produced sound. It’s just not interesting to me at all. At this point I’d even settle for a little of the blues fire he showed on “Slowhand,” my first Clapton album purchased with my own money. I also purchased “Just One Night” his live album from that era and I think it’s the best live album he’s ever done. Do yourself a favor and check that one out.

I heard Keith Richards say of Clapton in an interview years ago, “Eric is ok, but he’s just so afraid.” I chocked it up to Keith being stoned and rambling, but I’m beginning to think he may be right. Clapton seems downright afraid of letting loose with his guitar. Similar to Robert Plant, it seems Clapton wants no part in living up to his past. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I’d like to think he wouldn’t so actively flee from it. I saw Clapton in Dallas about 10 years ago or so, and he ended the rather weak show with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I’m still pissed. I mean, really? He’s always had an affinity for the “Great American Songbook,” but come on, man.

I was thinking about Clapton’s work in this millennium the other day, really everything since “From the Cradle,” trying to make sense of it. It suddenly occurred to me, Clapton is also rather famous for being a recovered addict. He managed to somehow kick heroin in the 70’s. I’m not sure when he finally won the battle against alcohol but he’s been sober quite a while now. I typically don’t trust someone who doesn’t drink, but I always respect the recovered alcoholic, so good for Eric. We all make that choice every day. Clapton famously founded the Crossroads Rehab center and does (I believe) an annual concert in Chicago with all the guitar firepower in the world performing. I’d actually like to attend that festival but the Rock Chick doesn’t share my affinity for 70’s guitar-blues-rock (maybe she’d go for the shopping?). When thinking about Clapton’s late career it suddenly occurred to me, maybe he’s making amends. Perhaps he associates the blistering guitar solos of his youth with his drug and liquor addictions hence he’s turned his back on that part of his skill set.

According to what I’ve read, “Making Amends” is defined by the 12-Step Program as the attempt to “make direct amends to such people (I’m assuming that you’ve harmed), wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” I believe this is Step 9 and it led me to this theory of Clapton’s late career. To understand my theory you really have to look at his collaborations. Clapton’s late career is chock full of collaborations. Could it be that he’s making amends with these people? I read his autobiography a few years ago and I have to admit, I’ve never read someone’s autobiography and come out liking the person less afterward. It seems he was a colossal asshole when he was on the sauce.

  1. George Harrison – as early as 1992 Clapton went on tour in Japan with Harrison. He attended/helped organize the Harrison Tribute concert. Let’s face it, he stole George’s wife… so there was a lot to be sorry for there.
  2. B.B. King – “Riding With the King,” his collaboration with B.B. is one of the better collaborations he’s done. Not sure why he’d need to make amends with B.B. Everybody loved and respected B.B. King. Maybe he felt bad about exploiting and/or stealing from the old blues masters. You’re really looking for something to feel bad about if that’s your motivation.
  3. Cream – the 2005 Reunion Concerts/Live LP – Clapton’s stormy relationship with Jack Bruce (bass), and Ginger Baker (drums) are the thing of legend. In the end they’d just go on stage and jam while ignoring each other. From the smiling faces and mellow performances one could suggest Clapton succeeded in “getting the healing done.”
  4. Steve Winwood – 2009 Madison Square Garden Concerts/LP – From everything I read, Winwood was hoping for a lot more collaboration and leadership from Clapton when they were in Blind Faith. Unfortunately Clapton quietly faded into the woodwork. Maybe this joint concert was an attempt to show us what might have been. I love this live album. Winwood appears to be one of the few people who can coax a little fire out of Clapton’s guitar. Clapton provides a solo on Winwood’s fabulous tune “Dirty City” that makes you think, “where the fuck has this sound been?” “Dirty City” is a must-buy.
  5. Glyn Johns – “I Still Do” – Clapton read Johns’ autobiography and in it Glyn describes his initial collaborations with Clapton which were not positive. Johns was brought in to work on “The Rainbow Concerts” album and Clapton wouldn’t show up for “touch-up” recording sessions for that live album. Johns went on to work with Clapton later and it went a lot better, maybe Eric was sober finally, and he wondered in his book if they were still friends. Suddenly, Clapton is bringing Glyn to produce “I Still Do.” That smacks of “amends” in my book.
  6. J.J. Cale – “The Road to Escondido” – Clapton has recorded more J.J. Cale songs than just about anybody. He recorded this collaborative album in 2006 and did a tribute album when Cale sadly passed in 2014. Heaven knows what Clapton has to make up for here.
  7. Wynton Marsalis – “Live From Jazz at Lincoln Center” – again, no idea what amends would be made here but this is a critically acclaimed live album.

It may be a stretch to say that Clapton has mellowed out and stop playing fierce guitar as a reaction to his sobriety. However, if you look at his collaborations, you could make the case that he’s out there making amends. It’s produced better music than his solo albums, so I’m not complaining here. He did cover Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine” a tune which has an air of remorse and confession about it. Of course the Wynton Marsalis, J.J. Cale, and B.B. King collaborations seem to be more of a joyful thing, so I could be wrong. I often am. But I felt this was good food for thought.

I would still advise checking out some of these collaborations. I believe you’ll find them more satisfying than “I Still Do.” And yes, I still do like Eric Clapton, blazing solo’s or not.

Cheers!