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”).
And attention must be paid to violinist/guitarist Don “Sugarcane” Harris, also a former Bluesbreaker. Sugarcane started out in the 1950s as half of the legendary Don & Dewey, whose song “I’m Leaving It All to You” became a hit a few years later for New Orleans duo Dale & Grace (and later, incredibly, as a country song for Donnie & Marie Osmond). Sugarcane’s playing on Don & Dewey’s “Justine” still gives me chills. I remember and love Sugarcane Harris, who passed away several years ago, and I thank Mayall for bringing him to a wider audience.
Don’t get the idea that Mayall’s best days are behind him, either. He continues to record and tour. The current Bluesbreakers lineup includes the dazzling Buddy Whittington on guitar, Joe Yuele and Hank Van Sickle on drums and bass (a rhythm section up there with Mayall’s best), and fine keyboardist Tom Canning – his twin-keyboard work with Mayall is a set highlight.
Whether by good fortune or good planning, Mayall and the Bluesbreakers have a new album coming out today. Mayall, who apparently first gained notoriety as a teenager living in a tree house, made it to Buckingham Palace today. We doubt he will be the kind of “officer” who can conduct criminal investigations. (If you are, sir, please investigate the Downing Street memo.) But we’re know he’s a gentleman, and we offer our congratulations.