John Mayall’s career spans decades. This film examines his impact on the blues and features contributions from the guitarist, his family, fellow musicians, colleagues and friends.
In the 1969 documentary “The Turning Point,” guitarist Peter Green describes how his former mentor John Mayall put a band together. “John usually chooses the people he wants; he chooses very carefully. He knows what he wants, and he usually gets it. How long he keeps what he gets…that’s a different matter.”
That quote neatly sums up Mayall’s pivotal but curious role in British rock ‘n’ roll. He chose musicians so astutely that the third, fourth and fifth lead guitarists he ever recorded with were Eric Clapton, Green and Mick Taylor, respectively. They each stayed in the band for two years or so and then went on to bigger and better things: Clapton to Cream, Green to Fleetwood Mac and Taylor to the Rolling Stones.
This raises some important questions. How was Mayall, himself a musician of solid but unspectacular skills, able to recognize such nascent talent? How did he persuade them to join his band, the Bluesbreakers? How good was the music they made while they were there? And why did they inevitably leave after a short stay?
Answers arrive in the 24-minute “The Turning Point” (1969) and the 59-minute “The Godfather of British Blues” (2003). It’s easy to understand why Green and Taylor joined; they were nobodies when it happened. Green was a pal of Mayall’s bassist John McVie, and Taylor was a 17-year-old kid answering an ad in the Melody Maker newspaper. For them, Mayall offered a real band that was making records and filling rooms. Whatever else he was, the singer was a savvy businessman who knew how to run a band and keep it in the black.
It’s also worth noting the generational divide; Mayall was 12-16 years older than Clapton, Green, Taylor and McVie. But before he joined Mayall, Clapton had already had a Top 10 hit in both the U.K. and the U.S. with “For Your Love” as a member of the Yardbirds. It was that pop-rock hit, though, that made “Slowhand” leave the group and sign up with Mayall, who promised to play nothing but Clapton’s first love: the blues.
It was that immersion in the blues that allowed Mayall to recognize those who played with feeling more than mere technique.
That’s the other thing the older man offered: a single-minded focus on African-American tradition that still seemed exotic and hypnotic in 1965 England. And it was that immersion in the blues that allowed Mayall to recognize those who played with feeling more than mere technique. As Green implied, Mayall had trouble holding onto the prodigies he recruited. As Mick Taylor says in “The Turning Point,” “Playing the sort of music John plays, it gives you a lot of opportunity to develop your own ideas in the blues framework.” But when your ideas extended beyond that format, there could be problems. “He was only difficult to work with,” Taylor adds, “when I veered off to other things.”
“The Turning Point” was filmed while Mayall was touring England and laying out the artwork for the 1969 album of the same title. That was the band with guitarist Jon Mark, saxophonist/flutist Johnny Almond and bassist Steve Thompson. But the filmmakers also got interviews with Clapton, Green, Taylor, McVie, Aynsley Dunbar and more. The film is an obvious imitation of the grainy, black-and-white cinema verité that D.A. Pennebaker used so successfully in the 1967 Bob Dylan documentary, “Don’t Look Back.” Yet the Peter Gibson/Alex Hooper team never achieves Pennebaker’s narrative clarity, and it’s often confusing who is talking or what their relationship to Mayall is.
“The Godfather of British Blues” proves to be a more conventional, easier-to-follow documentary. Shot in color with subtitles identifying each interviewee, it presents a much more coherent picture of Mayall’s career. The climax of the film is the band leader’s 70th birthday celebration with a 2003 concert in Liverpool, where his current band was joined by such guest stars as Clapton and Taylor. There’s also a video from the recording sessions for the 2001 album, “Along for the Ride,” which finds Mayall reunited with Green, McVie and Mick Fleetwood and joined by Steve Miller.
The later movie includes big chunks of black-and-white footage from “The Turning Point” to flesh out the story that traces Mayall’s life from his 1930s childhood in Cheshire to his 1940s obsession with boogie-woogie piano and his 1950s membership in hybrid trad-jazz-blues bands that proliferated in London. When he committed to hardcore Chicago and Texas blues in the 1960s, he joined Alexis Korner as England’s blues pioneers. Then his knack for talent-scouting helped turn him into a modest star on a major label.
Clapton acknowledges he left Mayall rather abruptly and awkwardly in a feud over a girl they both fancied. He also admits he never properly recognized his mentor’s crucial influence.
“I abused his hospitality to launch my own career,” Clapton says. “I wanted to sit and let him know how much he meant to me. He’s a great man.”
Geoffrey Himes wrote about pop music on a weekly basis in the Washington Post from 1977 to 2019 and has served as a senior editor at No Depression and Paste magazines. He has also written about pop music, jazz, theater, film, art and books for Rolling Stone, Oxford American, The New York Times, Smithsonian, National Public Radio, DownBeat and other outlets. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2016), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards. His book on Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.,” was published by Continuum Books in 2005. He’s currently working on a book for the Country Music Hall of Fame.