When you think of bands that produced legendary guitarists, most people automatically default to the Yardbirds. The legendary triumvirate of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page rank in the top ten in Rolling Stone magazines most recent greatest guitar players of all time poll. All of them went on to greatness and set the standard for modern blues rock guitar playing. But another band, not so well known, also produced at least three legends of the six-string just as important and trend setting, John Mayall and his Bluesbreakers. From July of 1966 to September of 1967, John Mayall released three of the most important and influential albums in the history of rock. Even though a different player was featured on each album, Mayall and his band mates still managed to scale the very heights of Mt. Olympus for blues based rock.
When Eric Clapton got fed up with the commercial direction that the Yardbirds management seemed determined to take them in, he just walked away from the band, just as it was achieving its first real fame. Ironically, one of the last songs he played on before leaving became their first hit single. He drifted off to Greece for a quick working vacation and then returned to England without having anything certain in his future. Hearing that Mayall might have a job and always having admired him for his purist blues leanings (a refreshing change after the Yardbirds pop sensibilities) Clapton arranged a meeting. After being assured that Mayall’s group was indeed a blues based band, Clapton decided to join.
After a mere two weeks of rehearsal, Mayall felt comfortable enough with his new player to arrange a recording date. Originally, John Mayall intended for the album to be recorded in a club in order to capture Clapton’s fierce live playing. Two shows were recorded at the Flamingo Club with his future band mate in Cream, Jack Bruce, sitting in on bass. Unfortunately, the recordings of the concert were of bad quality (lots of distortion and feedback) and the project was dropped.
With the original plan of a live album now shelved, Mayall took the band into Decca Studios, West Hampstead in April of 1966. Clapton had recently changed guitars and was now using a Gibson Les Paul for the first time along with a powerful new compact Marshall amp. He immediately got into a huge fight with the studio engineers who kept insisting that he turn the volume way down. This was a time when studio engineers still wore white lab coats and all had degrees in electrical engineering and knew nothing of how to produce or record a rock album.
Clapton stormed out of the studio twice, but finally, Mayall intervened and reached what seems in hindsight like such a simple compromise solution. Putting the microphones on one side of the studio and Clapton’s amp on the other allowed Clapton to play with the volume all the way up. The resulting sound changed the way everyone played electric guitar. Rich, lush and powerful, dripping with overtones and harmonics, Clapton dominated the album from start to finish. As soon as anyone played the first cut on side one, a searing version of Otis Rush’s “All Your Love” followed by what has become a tradition for all Mayall guitarists, a cover of a Freddie King instrumental, in this instance “Hideaway”, players everywhere started trading in their guitars for what up until then had been a very obscure and undesirable instrument, the Gibson Les Paul. Something about the sound of those twin humbuckers played thru a true high gain tube amp like a Marshall, created a sound that swept all before it. This album also features Clapton’s first vocal, a cover version of Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin On My Mind” which began his lifelong passion for Robert Johnson’s music that culminated in a recent album entirely devoted to Robert Johnson.
Clapton stayed in the band only five months before leaving for another extended Greek vacation, returning when Mayall threatened to fire him and then only playing intermittently for another six months. In July of 1966, Mayall had finally had enough and replaced him.
How does one go about replacing Eric Clapton? How do you replace a legend? During one of Clapton’s jaunts to Greece with a bunch of relative musical amateurs as the band Glands, Mayall was forced to audition several other guitarists. John Weider, John Slaughter, and Geoff Krivit all attempted to fill in as a Bluesbreaker guitarist, but finally, at a small club one night a relative unknown took the stage and by the end of the first set was offered the job. Peter Green. Green had the opportunity to fill in for Clapton for three concerts until Eric got wind of the fact that there was a new young kid who was capable of taking his place in the band and immediately dropped everything to return to England.
Two months later, after a row with Mayall over personnel in the band, Clapton left for good. Soon after, Peter Green became a full-time member of Mayall’s band. After only a few weeks of rehearsa,l the band was forced into the studio to meet Mayall’s obligation with Decca for a new album. Mike Vernon, a producer at Decca at the time recalls Peter’s debut with the Bluesbreakers:
As the band walked in the studio I noticed an amplifier which I never saw before, so I said to John Mayall, “Where’s Eric Clapton?” Mayall answered, “He’s not with us anymore, he left us a few weeks ago.” I was in a state of shock, but Mayall said, “Don’t worry, we got someone better.” I said, “Wait a minute, hang on a second, this is ridiculous. You’ve got someone better??? Than Eric Clapton???” John said, “He might not be better now, but you wait, in a couple of years he’s going to be the best.” Then he introduced me to Peter Green.
Green made his recording debut with the Bluesbreakers on the album “A Hard Road” which featured two of his own compositions, “The Same Way” and “The Supernatural”. The latter was one of Green’s first instrumentals which would soon become trademarks of his. And the traditional cover of a Freddie King instrumental, this time “The Stumble”. So proficient was he that his musician friends bestowed upon him the nickname “The Green God”. Green’s playing on the album was marked with idiomatic string bending and vibrato and a full rich rounded tone with a thick reverb on his rhythm playing giving way to a keening, crying, molten, lead style. Throughout the album, he too played a Gibson Les Paul to great effect. But Peter Green gave notice shortly after recording the album and soon started his own project, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac which eventually was to include all three of Mayall’s Bluesbreakers at this time: Green, McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood
In the summer of 1968, within the span of two weeks, my uncle’s record labels house guitar player, the late Barney Kessell, a man with a big ears when it came to discovering talented young players and one of the few jazz greats that didn’t turn up his nose at rock and roll, kindly took me to see two different guitar players that had aroused his curiosity. The first was Jimmy Page, then touring as the lead guitar player for the Yardbirds on what was to be the final US tour with the other founding members. Jeff Beck had just left and Jimmy was allowed to stretch his wings for the first time as the sole guitarist.
The next weekend we went to go see Peter Green’s new band Fleetwood Mac, who were opening for Jethro Tull. It wasn’t even a close contest. As good as the young Jimmy Page was, Green handily wiped the floor with him. Barney and I both came away highly impressed with Fleetwood Mac, Barney saying “those guys could really be something”. Neither of us thought much of the Yardbirds. I was especially disappointed because I had been really looking forward to seeing them after watching them perform as the swinging London club band in Antonioni’s movie “Blow Up”, a film that my aunt appeared in as one of David Bailey’s models.
So in May of 1967, Mayall was once again faced with the prospect of finding a new guitarist, only this time he had to find an entirely new band since Green had taken John McVie and Mick Fleetwood with him as well. Mayall auditioned several guitarist and even resorted to placing an ad in Melody Maker magazine before he remembered that a year or so earlier, on one of the many nights that the notoriously unreliable Clapton had failed to show up, that he had been approached by a young 16 year old asking if he could sit in with the band.
Mayall had been impressed with the lad and remembered that they had exchanged phone numbers and after some rummaging around called his house, only to reach his parents who explained that as he was only 17 at the time, that they really didn’t think it was a good idea for their young son to be running around the country in a “boom shicka-shicka band”. They finally relented though and Mayall had his next outstanding player, the great Mick Taylor.
Taylor made his debut with the Bluesbreakers at the Manor House, an old blues club in North London. For those in the music scene the night was an event. “Let’s go and see this 17-year-old kid try and replace Eric and Peter”. He silenced all of the critics with two sets of white hot slide and tasty lead work.
Mayall quickly found himself in the studio again with another young hotshot guitarist to record the album that became “Crusade”. Just 18 years old at the time, Taylor maintained tradition and played the now obligatory Freddie King cover song, this time “Driving Sideways” as well as a smoking version of Willie Dixon’s and Otis Rush’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” the latter having more than a few ideas and phrases taken from it by Jimmy Page for his version later recorded with Led Zeppelin. Shortly after recording “Crusade,”
Mayall decided he had enough of England and relocated to Los Angeles where he regularly played all of the clubs and began mentoring another group of young musicians. When he lived up in Laurel Canyon I got to know him and he graciously gave me autographed copies of all three of these albums as a birthday present one year. The benefit for being in L.A. for Mick Taylor was that he got lots of exposure and built a solid reputation as a reliable and talented player. When the time came for the Rolling Stones to finally replace Brian Jones, he was the obvious choice. In July of 1969 he officially let Mayall know that he had accepted the Stones offer. He had just turned 20.
So, three albums in less than 14 months with three different guitarist, all of whom left the band after one album (or were pushed out) the first one taking the bass player with him to form an obscure little band named Cream, the second one taking the bass player and drummer to found another small time group, Fleetwood Mac (in my opinion the finest British blues band of all time) and the third leaving at the ripe old age of 20 to join a band that had achieved a little success along the way, the Rolling Stones.
Suffice it to say that by this time Mayall had earned his reputation as the headmaster at the finishing school of rock guitar. Many other great guitarists have played with him and left in the ensuing years, some of them equally great (Jon Mark, Harvey Mandel, Coco Montoya, Walter Trout, Buddy Wittington, etc.) but none has achieved the acclaim or exerted as much influence as those first three.
Merry X-mas to all and we will see you in the new year!!