Tough is the name of John Mayall’s new album, and that’s a fitting description of the blues legend. At age 75 this pillar of the ’60s British scene — mentor to Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor — seems tireless.
He makes roughly an album a year and tours for months at a stretch. His high shivery voice, although a bit drier for age, retains the same capacity to chill the soul he displayed so compelling on his 1967 solo masterpiece The Blues Alone. And he can still leap off a festival stage to blow a blustery harp solo or scratch out the rhythm of one of his new tunes like the churning, guitar-fired “Train to My Heart” whenever he pleases.
Mayall started his first blues band in 1956, inspired by the records of guitarists Leadbelly and Eddie Lang, and pianists Pinetop Smith and Albert Ammons. After six years playing pubs around Manchester he was taken under wing by Alexis Korner, the granddaddy of British blues, who urged Mayall to become a full-time musician and move to London.
Since then Mayall has played a similar mentoring role to scores of players. His best-known disciples are guitarists. The list reads like a who’s who of top-notch blues six-stringers. The latest is Rocky Athas, who turns numbers like Tough’s topical “Tough Times Ahead” in simmering epics. His predecessors include Coco Montoya, Walter Trout, Robben Ford, Sonny Landreth, Buddy Whittington, Jimmy McCullouch, Harvey Mandel, Roger Dean, and, of course, the Les Paul-stoking trinity of Clapton, Green, and Taylor.
Two more trinities — a set of highly influential albums and a trio of iconic instruments — are associated with the tenures of Clapton, Green, and Taylor in Mayall’s Bluesbreakers band. They are:
Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton — Mayall’s band came together with the defection of Clapton from the Yardbirds, who Clapton left in protest of their abandonment of blues for pop. Clapton played a cherry sunburst 1960 Les Paul Standard with Mayall and forever established the sonic marriage of Gibson and Marshall with his biting, fluid, mids-heavy sound on this 1966 LP. Clapton’s take on Freddie King’s instrumental “Hideaway” became the litmus test for budding blues guitarists in the ’60s and ’70s. And Clapton made his recorded vocal debut singing Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind.”
A Hard Road — A year later Clapton had moved on and Peter Green, who’d subbed for Slowhand on three gigs, was brought in as his replacement. Mayall’s band lost nothing in the transition. Like Bluesbreakers, A Hard Road balanced a mix of Mayall originals with classics like Willie Dixon’s “The Same Way,” which Green sang, and “The Stumble,” another Freddie King instrumental. But the hallmark was a three-minute Green improvisation in D-minor called “The Supernatural.” Employing the resonant qualities of his sunburst ’59 Les Paul (later owned by Gary Moore) to perfection, Green’s melodic excursion sailed on perfectly sustained, overdriven notes that flirted with feedback. The song illuminated the way for Carlos Santana, who covered Green’s “Black Magic Woman,” as well as other tone kings to come.
Crusade — Green had a short tenure with Mayall. His replacement was a fresh-faced kid named Mick Taylor, whose next stop would be the Rolling Stones. Taylor entered Mayall’s radar when he filled in for Clapton on a night E.C. failed to show up at a Bluesbreakers gig in the London suburbs. He was was 17 when 1967’s Crusade was recorded. While tunes like “The Death of J.B. Lenoir” showcased Mayall’s growth as a writer, Taylor’s floating tones on “Oh Pretty Woman” and his lacerating leads on “Driving Sideways” — yet another Freddie King tune — cemented his reputation as a Les Paul man, which continues to this day. It’s unclear exactly which instrument Taylor used to record Crusade, but shortly after joining the band he followed in Clapton and Greens’ footsteps by acquiring a sunburst Les Paul Standard — his second Paul.