"It's very expensive to be on the road and play at small clubs, reaching only a handful of people," Mayall says from a tour stop in Ohio. "My biggest hope is to have a record that's a hit, something that will elevate me out of the lower class."
Mayall was a Chicago blues purist before Eric Clapton and Keith Richards found Elmore James and John Lee Hooker. Mayall tattooed a twelve-bar hurt on a series of now-legendary musicians without ever scoring a hit himself. He doesn't say it, but it's unlikely that Mayall, at 68, fancies opening arena shows for his former charges (assuming they'd ask). It's a fair vanity that nevertheless leaves him in the seniors' ghetto of dates playing for a hundred people a night.
Besides Bruce and Clapton (who formed Cream in 1966, just a couple of weeks after Mayall's landmark Bluesbreakers disc with Clapton was issued and Slowhand quit), the bandleader fostered future Rolling Stone Mick Taylor; Fleetwood Mac founders Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie; and various members of Colosseum and Canned Heat. What most of his protégés have in common is that they lingered under Mayall's tutelage just long enough to collect the gumption to form their own bands.
Clapton had gone back to construction work after the Yardbirds grossed him out with "For Your Love"; the lone album for which Mayall recruited Clapton cemented his premier status almost overnight even as he moved on. Green replaced Clapton, and Green was followed by Taylor. After toiling for nearly a decade as the purest of the British blues purveyors, Mayall graduated three Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarists in two years before moving to California and experimenting with jazzier forms, living below critical and commercial radar ever since.
Mayall is not in the hall of fame, and if he ever gets there, it likely will be as an influence rather than as a musician. An eccentric, rudimentary guitarist and journeyman harp player, Mayall's endless string of albums remains noteworthy for the contributions of his well-chosen sidemen. Though Mayall's voice has achieved an agreeably crusty authority, the law on his forthcoming Along for the Ride, credited to John Mayall and Friends, is enforced by a charity concert's worth of talent. Billy Preston sits in on electric piano and sings on one song. Mayall rubs beards with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons for a track. Chicago giant Otis Rush nails "So Many Roads." Taylor shows up. Green, Fleetwood, McVie and Steve Miller form the instrumental axis of a laid-back "Early in the Morning" and "Yo Yo Man," a woefully underwhelming song that nevertheless sizzles in their care. Half-pint whizzes Shannon Curfman and Jonny Lang stop by, though it's hard to say who's stamping whom with approval. Guitarist Andy Fairweather Low acts as proxy for frequent collaborator Clapton, predictably absent.
Since Mayall emerged as a recording artist critics have complained that his chief liability is predictability, a refusal to risk departing from a tested formula. Along for the Ride demonstrates that he remains comfortable in his niche, but his curt answers to questions suggest a man weary of explaining his adherence. His tone is diplomatic, but his words are frustratingly abbreviated. The words "every record is special to me" escape his lips without obvious embarrassment. The players on Ride either "go back a long way" with Mayall or, like Lang and Curfman, are "pretty unique." He says the selection of Ride's thirteen songs with producer David Z. (the former Prince sidekick who has nurtured Lang on disc) was accomplished in an hour and that his criterion for choosing guests is what it always has been: "an understanding of the music."
Mayall kept detailed journals for decades before losing them -- and those of his father, an amateur musician and record collector who instilled in Mayall a love of the blues -- in a fire that claimed his home in 1979. He now updates his Web site only sporadically. Mainly, www.johnmayall .com is a clearinghouse for two self-released projects. One collects recordings Mayall made from 1957 to 1962; the other captures a recent concert with the current Bluesbreakers, David Smith, Buddy Whittington and Joe Yuele. Fans post messages to the site (most of them seem to regard the need for Mayall to play in Australia), and Mayall responds politely and utterly without insight. It is as though whatever depth of focus he was capable of devoting to his craft and legacy were written in the journals and burned up in the fire.
"The music we play live is the finest you could possibly hope for," Mayall says of his 2001 Bluesbreakers. Asked what defines that finest music for him now, he says, "great excitement and improvisation." Asked whether he still bristles at criticism that he has too often repeated himself, he says, "I don't know. There's so much written about me."
But there isn't. Critical guides offer perfunctory overviews of his stature as a talent scout and the length of his career without devoting much space to the music itself. Some entries come close to dismissing Mayall outright. And the few interviews Mayall has granted major publications over the years reveal a bare minimum of his technical, emotional and professional approach to the blues.
In a 1970 issue of Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs reviewed Mayall's USA Union, one of the only discs of Mayall's most commercially successful period that earned notice without the presence of a serious emerging talent. "John Mayall seems like a real nice guy," Bangs wrote. "That said, we are forced to proceed to the less pleasant task of assessing Mayall's music. The basic components worked with by Mayall and his sometimes brilliant juxtapositions of sidemen have remained so static that nobody even expects them to change. Safe, soothing, nontoxic ... and very specific." And so it is in 2001. Even in a blues market mostly denuded of grit (see last year's Clapton/B.B. King snoozer, Riding With the King), Mayall's is an exceptionally shallow, nice, specific blues. Nice guy Mayall's close-up might only end up a postage stamp on Robert Johnson's postcard from hell.