by RJ Eskow, Night Light
A profoundly sane gesture in an insane age: Queen Elizabeth is recognizing the accomplishments of John Mayall, who in Japan would have long ago achieved the status of "living national treasure." The bluesman is now an OBE, or "Officer of the British Empire." I don't know if that means he's a "Sir" - as an American (and therefore a commoner), I don't know an OBE from an OB/GYN. But I think I know a musical hero when I hear one. The Queen, God save her, has acted wisely.
Mayall sings, writes, and plays keyboards, guitar, and harmonica. He is a blues archivist and a bandleader (the 40-year-old Bluesbreakers) with an unerring eye for under-recognized talent. He is also a gentleman: In a time when musicians sought attention and mystery, Mayall was brave and confident enough to reject both. He consistently fought to bring the attention back to his heroes, seminal geniuses like Otis Rush, J. B. Lenoir, Freddy King, Sonny Boy Williamson. In a democratic gesture I remember to this day, he printed the keys for his songs on an album cover - along with the blues harpists' appropriate "cross key" - so that aspiring harmonica players could play along and learn. Through his music he helped guide and educate many young musicians, including this writer.
He was brave enough to share the spotlight with the young musicians he hired and nurtured ... And who were those Bluesbreakers? Eric Clapton (who I understand has done rather well since then), British guitar legend Peter Green, future Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, the Fleetwood Mac rhythm section of McVie and Fleetwood, guitarist Harvey Mandel, bassist Larry Taylor ... how much time do you have?
His live acoustic-tinged album Turning Point was a breakthrough in sound and texture, and stretched young harp players everywhere as they struggled to learn "Room to Move." It also introduced guitarist Jon Mark and flutist Johnny Almond to a wider audience. (They later formed the band Mark/Almond - not to be confused with 80's rock sensation Marc Almond, who as half of Soft Cell made a mega-hit out of an obscure Supremes song called "Tainted Love").