Digitally remastered at MCA Music Media Studios, North Hollywood, CA.
THE ABC YEARS
By 1975, John Mayall had firmly established his standing as the father of British blues. Following more than a decade of recording for London Records and its parent company Polydor, John's contract expired and he was recruited by ABC Records in Los Angeles.
The shift to ABC Records represented a new chapter in Mayall's career. With his position in the marketplace secured by the landmark Bluesbreakers albums he made with Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor, subsequent Polydor albums such as The Turning Point and USA Union had earned him his broadest commercial acceptance.
Rather than simply mine a single successful formula, Mayall's restless creativity had served him well. As the sound and momentum of the British blues boom evolved, so did Mayall, successfully incorporating elements of jazz and rock into his blues core. Such adaptations found favor with a widening audience, eager to discover the British legend.
These ongoing musical transformations had never been an obstacle for Mayall, who viewed himself as a modern day band leader in the tradition of Count Basie or Duke Ellington. As rising stars such as Clapton, Taylor, Jack Bruce, and others left for greener pastures, Mayall's assignment was to chart a musical course and recruit the best possible players to help successfully navigate this journey.
Mayall's 1975's ABC debut, the aptly titled New Year, New Band, New Company signaled another dramatic evolution of his sound. The most striking characteristic was the inclusion of vocalist Dee McKinnie. For the first time in his storied career, Mayall's distinctive vocals would be blended with a second lead voice. The inspiration for this bold maneuver came courtesy of Don Nix, who had produced Mayall's 1973 album Ten Years Are Gone. "Don Nix had invited me down to Memphis for a week," remembered Mayall. "Pianist Jay Spell was leading a band with Dee as the lead vocalist. Jay had worked on a lot of Don's records, and he recommended him highly to me. It was a natural fit."
Rounding out the new Bluesbreakers were bassist Larry Taylor and drummer Soko Richardson, retained from Mayall's previous edition. Taylor recruited guitarist Rick Vito, while violinist Don "Sugarcane" Harris, half of the legendary R&B duo Don & Dewey and a veteran of several Bluesbreakers albums, filled out the lineup.
The uptempo "Sitting On The Outside" set the tone for the album, continuing the embrace of rock which 1974's The Latest Edition, his final album for Polydor, had made clear. Rather than the two guitar attack favored on the previous album, Jay Spell's piano and clavinet work neatly countered Rick Vito's spirited lead guitar work. The main difference, however, came from the spark provided by Dee McKinnie whose vocals lifted Mayall's energy and performance level throughout.
Much of the album's lyrics were motivated by Mayall's love for the rustic atmosphere of Laurel Canyon and the great outdoors. "'Can't Get Home' and 'Match The Wind' were very much Laurel Canyon love songs," explains Mayall. "They were about my home life in Laurel Canyon. 'Drivin' On' was my homage to all of the good times we had camping in Arizona. We would load up the car with our tent and camping gear head out for the sun." "Step In The Sun," edited and issued by ABC as a single from the album, was underscored by Rick Vito's inspired country guitar picking. As Mayall and McKinnie traded verses, the lyrics amusingly detailed Mayall's desire to skip his household chores to step out instead "in the sun."
True to form, Mayall's next album, Notice To Appear, boasted an entirely different sound and approach, trading the rock and blues feel of New Year, New Band, New Company for sophisticated New Orleans funk. This sudden departure had been set in motion by Mayall's management and ABC Records. Mayall's advisors had strongly proposed that he collaborate with a producer for his next album. Their inspired choice, New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint, would have a decided impact on Mayall's trademark sound.
While Mayall was thrilled by the prospect of collaborating with the respected singer, songwriter, and producer, the terms of the arrangement were never clearly defined. With the best of intentions, Mayall traveled to New Orleans and installed the Bluesbreakers at Sea-Saint Studios, the recording facility owned and operated by Toussaint and partner Marshall Sehorn. Unfortunately for Mayall, the creative partnership he envisioned failed to materialize. For the first time in his career, Mayall was not looked upon to create the music or even compose lyrics for the new album. Instead, the band leader felt relegated to serving simply as a vocalist.
"I was exported to New Orleans with the band," Mayall recalls. "It was a very laborious and unusual thing for me to be involved in. On paper, the idea sounded fine. But I tend to work very quickly in the studio; the band knows what to do and we get it done. Allen's way of working was totally different. We would be waiting for hours and hours and sometimes days for him to come downstairs and show his presence. Then he would just sweep in with these wonderful ideas. His instructions were very specific; you do this, you do that, play it note for note. We were really just pawns in this whole thing. It was frustrating. My guys were questioning me as to why I had stranded them out here in New Orleans. They kept looking at me wondering when they would be going to work?"
Despite Mayall's deep admiration for Toussaint's skills, his patience ran thin as the producer struggled to serve dual roles, composing all new original songs and organizing the recording of the album. "At one point, I got so fed up just waiting around I said let's do something," explained Mayall. "I recorded 'Old Time Blues' without Allen because we wanted to get a blues track on there. We were there just way too long and ultimately we just had to bail out. We had concerts lined up that we had to do. After we left, Allen continued working on the album with his own musicians. Dee and I were later brought back to do the singing on the tracks."
Toussaint rallied to pull the album together in Mayall's absence. Drawing on the skills of his vaunted local session regulars, including the celebrated pianist James Booker, tracks such as "Hale To The Man Who Loves Alone" and "Lil Boogie In The Afternoon" were swamp funk delights.
"Notice To Appear was a good album," Mayall admits. "But it really was an Allen Toussaint album, not a John Mayall album. Nonetheless, I want to make this very clear, I was and remain a big Toussaint fan, but it was just one of those things. I wish I had understood what was expected of me and the band before we started."
Determined to wrest back control of his sound, Mayall returned to more familiar territory, reuniting with old friends to create 1976's A Banquet In Blues. "People were always putting proposals forward for me to do reunion albums with the people I had played with," he recalls. "In my mind, I had already done this with [1971's] Back To The Roots. A Banquet In Blues was my shot to pick all my favorite people and track for track make a varied album, not just in songs and tempo but the personnel as well. That became the theme of the album."
The prospect of reuniting with celebrated alumnus such as Jon Mark, Johnny Almond, and John McVie did not deter Mayall from his vision. Mayall's vibrant life experiences would again serve as the motivation for the album's lyrics. Such broad insertions of his private life into his musical compositions had long been a Mayall trademark. Mayall crafted lyrics from the center outward, freely sharing his vibrant diary with his audience. Mayall's observations and opinions were threaded throughout his songs. The defiant "You Can't Put Me Down" drew its inspiration from a civil suit Mayall considered a nuisance. "Somebody was suing me and that song was a backlash against that," states Mayall. "It was basically my way of saying, 'How dare you?'."
"Lady" and "Seven Days Too Long" were further examples of this creative device. "Both of those were road songs," detailed Mayall. "They were about being away from home and your lady. With 'Seven Days Too Long' I also really wanted to feature two different time signatures and showcase Larry Taylor's playing."
As Mayall embarked upon a tour in support of A Banquet In Blues in 1976, ABC Records approached him about recording a live album. The Turning Point and Jazz Blues Fusion had been two of Mayall's most commercially successful albums for Polydor, and ABC hoped to capitalize on Mayall's momentum with a similarly styled live recording.
A major component of Mayall's success with live recordings was his dogged resistance to use them as mere filler between new studio albums. Previously, Mayall had shifted personnel and composed new material for each new live album and his preparation for Lots Of People would prove no different. The energetic "Traveling Man," "Play The Harp," and "Changes In The Wind" were the highlights of the four set Bluesbreakers stint at the Roxy in Los Angeles. For the occasion, Mayall expanded the Bluesbreakers to fifteen pieces, including a full horn section led by respected tenor sax master Red Holloway.
Despite the warm reception accorded the live recordings with the expanded ensemble, Mayall used the sessions for 1977's A Hard Core Package to recast the Bluesbreakers once more. "I wasn't satisfied with the horn section and wanted to go back to the drawing board," explains Mayall. "I missed the days of the quartet. I wanted Larry Taylor to remain in the band, but he felt he needed a break from touring. In his place, I recruited bassist Steve Thompson, who had played with me on Blues From Laurel Canyon and The Turning Point. In addition to Steve and Soko, I asked James Quill Smith to play lead guitar. James had played with Sylvester, Three Dog Night, and a number of other artists."
Recalling past triumphs, A Hard Core Package was the band leader's strongest ABC effort to date. "I loved that album," states Mayall simply. "It epitomized my bachelor lifestyle at that time. I was in between two long term relationships and spent much of that partying. I was roaring around partying and having a grand old time. It was a freewheeling, romantic period and just great fun."
Inspired by the success of the new quartet, Mayall took the Bluesbreakers on the road for an extensive period of touring. That ambitious undertaking would result in the gritty 1978 album Last Of The British Blues, a collection of live performances from New York, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. For the legion of Mayall's loyal followers, albums such as Last Of The British Blues provided a window into the band leader's road life. "A lot of my wild rebellion and drinking days come across in Last Of The British Blues," laughs Mayall. "With that album having been recorded live, it captured exactly what had been going on at that time."
Not long after the release of Last Of The British Blues, rumors began to swirl about the impending downfall of ABC Records. Their resulting demise jolted Mayall, leaving him stranded without a recording contract. "ABC abruptly fizzled out and that knocked me out of business for awhile," remembers Mayall.
With loyal fans still supporting him and a consistent sales profile to his credit, Mayall eventually found a suitor in British music publishing magnate Dick James. James, who had amassed an enormous fortune via his contacts with such artists as The Beatles and Elton John, had recently formed DJM Records.
Unfortunately for Mayall, unlike the relatively hands-off creative posture ABC had adopted during his tenure there, DJM had specific ideas about the album they wanted Mayall to prepare. "This deal turned out to be a nightmare," says Mayall wistfully. "In order to get the deal, DJM required that we hire a big name producer. So vast sums of money were misspent on doing that. It was just absolutely crazy. There were all of these top of the line studio musicians from NY and California waiting around as the budget just kept climbing and climbing. In the midst of it all, I didn't even get to play any instruments on it. I just did my vocals. I rode it out while all of this megalomania was going on. The bottom line of all that was the album was universally condemned by my audience as a disco album. That led to tours where we were nearly booed off stage in Europe. It was dreadful, an expensive disaster. I don't know if I alone was responsible, but the label went bankrupt fairly soon after."
Mayall would issue two subsequent albums, No More Interviews and Road Show Blues, but each struggled to find distribution and satisfy Mayall's bewildered fan base. Late in 1981, however, a chance meeting with former Bluesbreakers John McVie and Mick Fleetwood would engineer a reversal of fortunes for Mayall. "I was talking one night with Mick and John," recalls Mayall. "They were at the height of their Fleetwood Mac fame. They were talking about how great it would be to get back into the clubs and enjoy that freedom. We decided to get together and fly Mick Taylor over from England. At the last minute, Mick Fleetwood dropped out because he was essentially managing Fleetwood Mac and couldn't spare the time. So I called Colin Allen, who had played with Mick and I previously. In January 1982, we played a few shows in the San Francisco area and then took off for a tour of Australia. That was where we really came together as a unit."
Led by Taylor's superb guitar work and first major touring since his departure from the Rolling Stones, the Bluesbreakers enjoyed acclaim from both critics and fans alike as they crossed the US. Once again, Mayall developed exciting new material to blend with favorites such as "Room To Move" and "Walking On Sunset".
Billed as the 'Reunion of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers', the tour culminated with the filming of a special blues summit at the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey. Mayall and company were joined by blues pioneers Buddy Guy, Jr. Wells, Sippie Wallace, and Albert King for a special performance. This once in a lifetime showcase was preserved as Blues Alive, a television and home video release.
To further document the reunion tour, Mayall also recorded the Bluesbreakers June, 1982 concerts in Washington D.C. Four songs from those concerts, "Hard Times Again," "My Time After Awhile," "Howling Moon," and "Looking Out For Willie" are included on this compilation. "'Hard Times Again' was a number I wrote to feature the harmonica and serve as the opening number for the set," explains Mayall. "It was very much conceived to open the live show with my harmonica and Mick Taylor's guitar in mind."
"My wife Maggie wrote the words to 'Howling Moon' and I composed the music. 'Looking For Willie' was a funky favorite of mine. It got stronger as the tour progressed and we loved to play it."
The Bluesbreakers reunion tour successfully energized Mayall's followers throughout the world. A 1983 European tour continued his forward progress, as did later albums for Island, and more recently, Silvertone Records. As he nears the close of his fourth decade fronting the Bluesbreakers, Mayall continues to satisfy and entertain fans throughout the world.
These ABC recordings document an important chapter in Mayall's storied career. More importantly, these songs serve as an articulation of his life at home and on the road. "All of these recordings reflect my life at that given time," admits Mayall. "Together, they form an indelible mark, and I love it. When I listen to any track from those years, it all comes back to me, and I can remember exactly what life was like at that time. I can recall exactly who the people I was involved with, the friendships, the touring, the shows, everything. It's really a wonderful thing to have. I am very fortunate that I have this musical diary that documents everything I've ever done. It is something I really treasure."
Special Thanks to John Mayall
"Hard Times Again", "My Time After Awhile", "Howling Moon" & "Looking Out For Willie" courtesy of Hibiscus Music.
MCA Music Of America, a Universal Music Company
(P) © 1998 MCA Records, Inc.
Universal City, CA 91608
Warning: All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws.
0 0881 2 7