The persistence of John Mayall

The first time I saw John Mayall had to be at Bunky’s in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1970s, and I’m pretty sure Harvey Mandel was with him. I don’t remember the last time but it had been a while, so long, I’m afraid, that I came dangerously close to embarrassing myself when I walked into City Winery Monday night (Mar. 21) and almost asked the old man at the merch table if Mayall might be hanging out after the show–said old man, of course, being Mayall himself, getting in a few pre-show CD sales.

Compounding the near embarrassment was the fact that even at 82, John Mayall looks pretty much the same as he did at Bunky’s, hair shorter and whiter perhaps, but that’s about it. He definitely sounds as good, even without Mandel; here he had a couple other excellent Chicago players in bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport, and ace Texas guitarist Rocky Athas. He also retained his unusual set-up of two keyboards–Hammond organ on his right, Roland electric piano on his left-lined next to each other horizontally in the middle of the stage as he stood behind them facing the audience, alternating between them when not playing guitar or harmonica, or in some cases harp with one hand, keyboard with the other.

Remarkably, too, Mayall still plays as good as he sounds on all instruments–spry on keys, crisp on guitar and harps. It made perfect sense that he played “Dancing Shoes,” from his 1999 album Padlock on the Blues (love that title!) that featured John Lee Hooker. Hooker, old bluesers remember, played with Canned Heat, and Mayall also performed his ode to that great blues-rock band, “The Bear,” from his 1968 album Blues from Laurel Canyon. He went even deeper into his catalog with the slow Chicago blues-styled “Have You Heard,” from his 1966 album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton–Clapton, if you don’t know, being merely one of a myriad of future legends besides Mandel who came up through Mayall blues bands.

From 1967’s Crusade (which featured the likes of future Rolling Stone guitarist Mick Taylor and future Fleetwood Mac founding members Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green and John McVie) came the train song “Streamline,” and from 1970’s USA Union came the ecology-minded “Nature’s Disappearing,” which came out, incidentally, the same time that Chicago’s Siegel-Schwall blues-rock band took a similar tack on “Do You Remember.”

Mayall introduced “Big Town Playboy” as a cut from “one of those new albums” (2014’s A Special Life, to fill in the blank), and from his latest album Find a Way to Care–from late last year–were “Ain’t No Guarantees” and the Lonnie Brooks cover “I Want all My Money Back,” for which he switched from Hammond to Roland during the instrumental break.

But he was equally impressive in switching from the Chicago blues harmonica style to rhythmic country/folk blues chording–what he termed “chicka-chicka” during the lead-in to “Room to Move” on his 1969 album The Turning Point. And he in fact ended the set with “Room to Move”–now a true harmonica classic–after noting how people call it out every night, but that he doesn’t always do it, and that he wouldn’t do it the next night (the second of two at City Winery) since it would be an entirely different set.

“There are some oldies in the house tonight! I saw you come in the door!” he had said at one point, referring to those in the crowd who went all the way back with him–and no doubt me in particular. As I took one last look at him as he signed CDs at the merch table after the show I thought of my conversation with Jennifer Warnes from a few nights earlier.

“My generation of artists has been hit pretty hard,” she said. “For those of us who survive, there’s an urgency to keep on going. Look around at all our peers who have passed like Joe Cocker [her duet partner on the 1982 hit ‘Up Where We Belong’]. The antidote to the horribleness, if you know how to be a beautiful, decent, good and capable professional, is for God’s sakes, do it–and do it on a pedestal so that young people can see you! Write a sentence, paint a beautiful painting, cook a beautiful meal–it must be done. The most revolutionary thing you can do is persist in doing things well.”

I’m not sure there were a lot of youngsters at City Winery, but John Mayall’s band members are certainly younger, and I’ve actually got a ways to go before I catch up with him. I just hope I persist as well as he clearly has.

In memoriam, 2014

Once again I’m looking back at the little “appreciation” pieces I wrote in 2014 and recall those who moved me then and now–here, however, on a more personal basis.

The sad dates of the year began early, January 3, with the passing of Phil Everly. I met Phil once, briefly, at a Nashville Songwriters Association Awards banquet in Nashville. But I was lucky enough to see the Everly Brothers live twice. Whatever their personal relationship, on stage they remained perfection.

A week or so later Amiri Baraka, too, was gone. I had his classic 1963 book Blues People: Negro Music In White America, published under his former name LeRoi Jones. But aside from his influence, it should also be noted that he was accused of racism and anti-Semitism, and was in fact a 9-11 truther. At the other end of the humanitarian spectrum was Pete Seeger, whom I knew a bit, as did probably a million others. I had his phone number, which I used on occasion. A few weeks after he died, Leo Kottke told a wonderful and representative story of how Pete had drawn a map to his house for him, he was that accessible.

Frank Military was another great guy, a music publisher and song-finder for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. I sat with him and Tony when the New York chapter of the Recording Academy presented him with a “Heroes Award.” Tony was on my right, Ahmet Ertegun, who was presenting the same award to Tom Silverman, on my left. Always drawing, Tony drew a portrait of Ahmet, handed it to me to pass to him. Ahmet was thrilled.

I didn’t know Christian music A&R luminary Norman Holland, but everyone in that end of the business loved him. Much loved, too, were rock photog Leee Black Childers and singer-songriter Jesse Winchester.

And I didn’t know Loudilla Johnson well, but a lot of old-line country stars like Loretta Lynn did, since Loudilla and her sisters Loretta and Kay, set up her fan club operation, and then IFCO, the International Fan Club Organization.

Jerry Vale, of course, was a quite well known 1950s pop vocalist, while Herb Jeffries, “the Bronze Buckaroo,” was a rare black country singer and actor, who also sang jazz with the likes of Duke Ellington. Calypso singer Maya Angelou I did know, but as Dr. Maya Angelou—thanks to Ashford & Simpson, with whom she recorded, performed, and emceed the poolside entertainment at their fabled July 4th “white parties.”

I used to say hi to my favorite pedal steel guitarist Weldon Myrick at the Grand Ole Opry, where he was part of the house band. I never met Gerry Goffin, but I did meet his ex-wife/writing partner Carole King. And Cajun country/Opry star Jimmy C. Newman was a dear friend, for whom I wrote CD liner notes.

Bobby Womack and Tommy Ramone were both Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and the latter was a friend, in fact, of all the Ramones, he was probably the nicest and most respectful of me—having been a friend of the band since the beginning of my writing career and author of the first book on the band. I stayed in touch with Tommy throughout his later career as a bluegrass musician, and can’t get over the fact that all four of the originals have now passed on.

I met Elaine Stritch once. When I told her I was a writer, she immediately demanded that I write something about her, which I did the day she died. Shortly after seeing Johnny Winter’s last birthday performance at B.B. King’s, I wrote about him, too, with help from my friend Jon Paris, who played bass with him for many years.

I knew the beloved country music agent Don Light, but not the great rock ‘n’ roll songwriter/producer Bob Crewe, who died the same day as New Orleans studio owner and recording engineer Cosimo Matassa. Opry star George Hamilton IV I knew very well as one of the nicest guys, like Jimmy C., that you could ever hope to meet.

I met the Indian mandolin maestro U. Srinivas, but not Howard Stern Wack Packer Eric the Actor—though I was an equal fan of both. I never met Paul Revere, but know Raiders’ lead vocalist Mark Lindsay and put them all into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon. And I never met Jan Hooks, but was a huge fan of hers since she was the breakout star of Atlanta Superstation WTBS’s Tush—the great Bill Tush being a dear friend.

Studio musician, projects coordinator and freelance A&R Ann Ruckert, too, was a dear friend, not just to me but to probably everyone in the entire New York music scene, and for decades. I didn’t know the great Morells/Skeletons bassist/vocalist/songwriter Lou Whitney well, but always loved talking to the “the elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll in the Midwest,” who was also very much loved by fellow musicians. I think I met Manhattan Transfer founder Tim Hauser, and definitely met Cream’s Jack Bruce—both extremely important in their respective pop-jazz vocal and rock genres.

I was a huge fan of Mr. Acker Bilk, England’s esteemed “trad jazz” clarinetist, whose 1962 pre-Beatles instrumental “Stranger On the Shore” was the first British recording to top the charts in the rock era. I liked Motown’s Jimmy Ruffin of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” fame better than his younger brother David Ruffin of The Temptations. I was inspired to write about Ray Sadecki, who won 20 games pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals when I was 12, when it made me reconsider my youth and own mortality.

I wrote about Claire Barry, who with younger sister Merna were the Yiddish pop singing duo the Barry Sisters, because I knew they influenced Neil Sedaka, who gave me a quote. Likewise, I knew Stanley Rashid of Brooklyn-based Arabic music/video supplier Rashid Sales could say a few words on “incomparable” Lebanese singer of Arab pop, classical and folk music Sabah.

Most everyone knew rock greats Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan—both of whom I met—who died within a day of each other in December. Most everyone should have known about Dawn Sears, Vince Gill’s wonderful backup signer, who also sang in Nashville swing band the Time Jumpers.

I loved “Wind Beneath My Wings” co-writer Larry Henley, but more so for his “Bread and Butter” falsetto screech as lead singer of ‘60s vocal group The Newbeats. And we all loved Joe Cocker, who died on Dec. 22. I’m glad I got to interview him and meet him.