When it comes to British blues, all roads lead to John Mayall. As a multi-instrumentalist, he delivered a shot of pure Chicago-style directly to the heart of the nation’s capital, jumpstarting a movement that re-defined the genre. As a bandleader, he mentored some of the biggest names in rock history.
Having honed his craft backing Delta greats Johnny Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williams on their first English tours in the early 1960s, Mayall added his daring artistic spirit and amped-up wattage to his own band, the Bluesbreakers. The seminal group became a cornerstone of the burgeoning blues scene in London, providing a vital apprenticeship for future guitar gods Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor—who would move on to respectively join Cream, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones by the latter half of the decade.
Now 83, Mayall continues to work tirelessly to spread the blues gospel. He has 130 tour dates on the books this year, and has just completed his 66th original album, Talk About That. The 11 tracks offer a master class in contemporary blues, topped off with a helping of Mayall’s trademark lyrical wit and even a guest appearance by Joe Walsh.
Mayall spoke to PEOPLE about his remarkable past, and how he’s keeping the blues legacy alive in the 21st century.
You’ve just completed Talk About That—your 66th album by my count!
Yes, that’s right, of the original albums. I keep on working. There’s plenty of ideas available, and fortunately I have people who allow me to record. So there it goes, it all adds up.
I’m curious about your writing process. Do you develop the seeds of ideas when you’re improvising onstage, or do you sit down and compose from scratch?
It’s different each time, I think. You have to have subject matter, because the subject will tell you what the mood of the music will be. It’s a simple operation for me, it just takes place. I think if the story has a mood to it, then you capture it in music and words. It’s mostly on the keyboard, that’s where I do most of my composing. But if you have an idea and you put your finger on the notes, it just comes together. It’s pretty hard to explain, but for me it’s pretty simple because music tells a story.
Joe Walsh plays guitar on “The Devil Must Be Laughing” and “Cards on the Table.” How did he get involved with the project?
The album was recorded in three days, which is the usual thing for us. And on the second day we heard that [Walsh] knew the people at the studio and he wanted to come and play with us. So that was a bit of a surprise. I didn’t know very much about his blues chops, but I said ‘Sure, come along.’ And I was very pleasantly surprised because he put such a great bit of guitar playing into it. They were both first takes. He was only with us for about two and a half hours. I like to get that live feeling to the tracks, so it has that freshness. He had a great time and I’m very glad he did it.
What is it that you look for when you’re seeking out musicians to play with? Is it virtuosity, a deep knowledge of musical history, or just getting along with them?
I don’t have to seek anyone out, because Jay Davenport and Greg Rzab are in the band all the time. We’ve been together 10 years in the current band. We know each other backwards and have a great time creating.
You’ve released many live albums over the course of your career. Do you prefer the spontaneity of a live recording to the controlled setting of the studio?
They both have definite things going for them, and different approaches. When you record live before an audience you’re creating something on the spot, and that’s a special thing. But if you’re in the studio you get to shape the music that you’re making because it’s being preserved permanently on disc.
Taking it further back for a moment, if I may—how did you first become exposed to your blues influences like Albert Ammons or Pinetop Smith?
I started collecting eclectic blues records when I was about 10 years old. And this was before LPs were invented, everything was on 78 [RPM discs]. There was plenty of blues stuff available. The first records I bought in the boogie-woogie line were all Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Leadbelly. They were all available on the 78s.
What was it about the sound of American blues that resonated with you, Eric Clapton, Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies and others in your circle?
The reality of it. And there’s a certain magic about the history of America and its music. I think all Europeans were very enamored, right from the ’20s, listening to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. My father had a big 78s collection of all the people from the ’20s. They were very much revered when they came over to Europe. There was no [racial] color ban there, so they found a great audience in Europe.
You played with many of them, like Johnny Lee Hooker?
Yeah, he was the first one to come over and do a club tour. We worked every night with him, all up and down the country. We did a whole month with him. And then the next one we worked with was T-Bone Walker. I’ve worked with Sonny Boy Williamson, Freddie King, Albert King, all these guys. It was all great for me—and for them, too!
They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes—do you think that’s true? Did they live up to your expectations?
The magic that attracted you in the first place through the records was there in the flesh when you get to meet them. So that same magic was there. It was a great thrill and an honor to work with these guys.
Has the blues changed much since you began your career, or is it by design the bedrock on which so many other forms are built?
It always follows the natural progression of things. At any given time it represents the mood of society and the things that are going on around people. It’s music that is there trailing on, keeping up with the times.