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Happy Birthday, John Mayall!

Considered one of the godfathers of British Blues -- a distinction he shares with late Alexis Korner -- vocalist and multi-instrumentalist John Mayall gave a jumpstart to that particular idiom well before it took hold with the masses in the latter part of the '60s through bands like Fleetwood Mac,...
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Considered one of the godfathers of British Blues -- a distinction he shares with late Alexis Korner -- vocalist and multi-instrumentalist John Mayall gave a jumpstart to that particular idiom well before it took hold with the masses in the latter part of the '60s through bands like Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, Taste, and others of that ilk. Given that he turns 78 today and shows no signs of slowing down, he deserves to be ranked alongside the old masters he emulated originally. Indeed, when he was awarded the prestigious Order of the British Empire honors in 2005, it served to confirm Mayall's influence and importance among his musical peers. 

Mayall's career originally took flight in the early '60s with his definitive outfit, the early Bluesbreakers. At a time when the English music scene was synonymous with punchy pop melodies, affable beat bands, and all things Merseybeat, Mayall was pursuing a course that was scholarly, reverential, and clearly unconcerned with commercial rewards. His was a sound that was aimed toward purists, while taking it beyond the restrictive parameters that had earlier hindered its popularity. Consequently, albums like Blues From Laurel Canyon, Bare Wires, and Turning Point are now considered classics of that early era.

Equally important, Mayall gave many musicians initial exposure and the first hint of public prominence. It's a legacy for which we should all be grateful. To bring it into prospective, here's a list of players Mayall drafted for membership in his various bands and mentored along the way. One word of caution, however; considering the ongoing parade of musicians that have shuffled through Mayall's various outfits, you may find it difficult to keep track of the players without a scorecard. 

• Eric Clapton - A desire to stay true to the blues caused Clapton to become the first of Mayall's top-flight guitarists when he joined the Bluesbreakers in 1965, in the aftermath of his tenure with the Yardbirds. Clapton had already acquired a substantial fan following, and the "Clapton Is God" graffiti had become a common sight around swinging London throughout the mid-'60s. Obviously aware of the marquee power he brought to the band, Mayall gave him shared billing on an eponymous album and even held his spot in the band when the guitarist went off to Greece on an extended sojourn. Clapton then stayed onboard for nearly a year until superstardom beckoned with Cream. Unfortunately, when the music press announced Cream's formation, it posed a problem for Clapton, as he hadn't told his boss of his intention to leave. Ironically, it was drummer Ginger Baker's guest appearance at a major Mayall gig that led Clapton and Baker's initial discussion about eventually joining forces.
• Jack Bruce - Mayall had more to do with the creation of Cream than he may have initially realized. Prior to transitioning to a trio, bassist Bruce and his soon-to-be-colleague Clapton played together under Mayall's auspices for a brief series of live gigs, later documented on the retrospective sets Looking Back and Primal Solos

• Peter Green, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood - Mayall also played an integral role in the formation of Fleetwood Mac, especially considering the fact that the band's primary principals all played critical roles in the Bluesbreakers. Guitarist Peter Green subbed for Clapton during the latter's hiatus but was dismissed once Clapton returned to the fold. Later, when Clapton left for Cream, Green was invited back. For his part, John McVie played bass in the band during Clapton's stay. Later, Green, McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood became the backbone of the Bluesbreakers until Green announced his intention to start his own outfit and took Mayall's rhythm section with him. 

• Mick Taylor - After firing founding member Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones had the unenviable task of trying to find his replacement. They focused their attention on Mick Taylor, who had been recruited for the Bluesbreakers at age 18. Taylor remained with the Stones for about five years -- he made his debut at a free Hyde Park concert in July 1969 -- and later left to play the purer blues he had earlier made with Mayall. 

• Jon Hiseman - A formidable drummer, Hiseman played a role in four influential outfits in the '60s and '70s -- the Graham Bond Organization, Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Colosseum, and Tempest -- helping spur the development of a new British blues/jazz hybrid. 

• Dick Heckstall-Smith - Heckstall-Smith became one of the foremost saxophone players at a time when guitar, bass, and drums were the standard instrumental regimen. Heckstall-Smith also played with Graham Bond, performing alongside Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in their initial pairing prior to Cream. When he was with Mayall, he and Mick Taylor helped shift his band's direction into the jazzier realms characterized by Mayall's landmark Crusade album. He later performed on several of Bruce's solo albums and became a leading figure in English avant-garde circles. 

• Andy Fraser - Fraser was a mere 15 when he joined Mayall's band. However, he enjoyed only a short tenure with the group, opting instead to help form the band Free. 

• Keef Hartley - The only other player aside from Mayall on the album The Blues Alone, drummer Keef Hartley later went on to lead his own outfit, the Keef Hartley Band. Doomed to obscurity, they nevertheless played Woodstock but suffered the misfortune of having to follow the fiery performance by Santana. "We had our set list sorted and started with a slow number," Hartley recalled years later. "It went downhill from there." 

• Jon Mark and Johnny Almond - Mark and Almond helped instigate Mayall's most drastic makeover, an acoustic outfit that eschewed the traditional role of a drummer. Mark's previous credits included a role as Marianne Faithful's guitarist and, later, participation in the band Sweet Thursday, which also included famed session pianist Nicky Hopkins and Cat Stevens accompanist Alun Davies. Almond had previously played with Mayall and Clapton on the aforementioned Blues Breakers and Eric Clapton album, and he also enjoyed a stint with ex-Animals keyboard player Alan Price. Mark and Almond were featured on the Turning Point and Empty Rooms, two albums that provided the template for Mark-Almond, the band they formed after setting out on their own. They later made the American charts with the supple hit "What Am I Living For?" 

• Hughie Flint - Drummer Hughie Flint was among Mayall's first recruits, playing on the albums Crusade, A Hard Road, and So Many Roads. He went on to form an early British Americana group called McGuiness Flint with former Manfred Mann guitarist Tom McGuinness. Later the two men partnered in the bluntly named Blues Band. 

• Harvey Mandel - One of America's most revered guitarists, he played with Mayall on the albums USA Union and Back to the Roots while helping to facilitate Mayall's transition to a Stateside set-up. He later auditioned to replace Mick Taylor in the Stones and ended up playing on two tracks included on their album Black and Blue, "Hot Stuff" and "Memory Motel." 

• Don "Sugarcane" Harris - An exceptional jazz violinist, Harris co-authored such standards as "Farmer John," "Justine," "Leavin' It All Up to You," and "Big Boy Pete," minor '50s hits for other artists. Following his tenure with Mayall, he played extensively with Frank Zappa. He passed away on November 30, 1999. 

• Walter Trout - Like Mandel, Trout got his start with Canned Heat before Mayall came calling. Today he's a respected blues guitarist who helms his own band.

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