John Mayall – Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton – Classic Music Review

We’d just returned from a lovely vacation to Chile, and after taking a day to sleep off the jet lag and pisco sour/vaina hangovers, we visited my parents to hand out the traditional gifts and share the traditional pictures. Show over, we sat down at the dinner table and my beloved old fart father immediately got on my ass.

“I think you’ve given Clapton short shrift,” said Dad.

There was no response from his usually loquacious child. From a father’s perspective, he saw a daughter with a quizzical look on her face and assumed he needed to elaborate on his original statement.

“I know you don’t like his solo work, but geez, there’s still the Blues Breakers album, Fresh Cream, Derek and the Dominoes . . .”

No response.

“Earth to Sunshine, Earth to Sunshine. Hello, Sunshine!”

The term of endearment yanked the daughter from her reverie, and looking directly into her father’s eyes, she asked the question that had initiated the break from the here-and-now.

“What’s a shrift?”

“What?

“You said I gave Clapton short shrift. What’s a shrift?”

“It’s a—uh—hell, I don’t know—it’s just a phrase.”

“I’m going to look it up.” I returned to the dinner table in less than a minute, accompanied by Merriam-Webster.

“‘Shrift’ means ‘a confession to a priest,” and ‘short shrift’ means ‘barely adequate time for confession before execution.’ Now that we’ve gotten rid of the death penalty in most civilized parts of the world, the meaning has morphed to give something or someone ‘little or no attention or consideration.’ So, you were saying . . . ”

“You’ve given Clapton short shrift.”

“You’re right.”

“What?”

“You’re right. I’ve given Clapton short shrift.”

Dad narrowed his eyes to communicate suspicion. “Wait a minute. What’s going on here?”

“What do you mean?”

“You never say I’m right. What are you up to?”

“I’m not up to anything. You mentioned some Clapton albums—which one do you want me to do?”

“It’s gotta be Blues Breakers. When that album hit the streets—I can’t begin to describe what an impact it had on every guitar player I knew. Within a few weeks, all the bands in town were messing around with “Hideaway” and “Steppin’ Out,” trying to get the riffs down, trying to get that sound.”

“Okay.”

“Okay what?”

“I’ll do Blues Breakers. Sounds like fun.”

Dad narrowed his eyes again. “What the fuck? Why are you being so goddamned agreeable all of a sudden?”

“Dad, you didn’t have to work that hard to get me to do another John Mayall album.”

He finally managed to put two and two together. “You were planning to do that album all along, weren’t you?”

“First thing on my to-do list when I came back!”

“So I really didn’t win, did I?”

“No, dad,” I said with a sigh. “I wish you’d just accept the fact that you belong to an inferior gender and that you’ll never, ever win.”

“Yes, please do,” added my mother.

*****

Before I shower Eric Clapton with encomia, allow me to point out that there were a few other guys who had something to do with making Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (BBEC from now on) one of the most enjoyable blues records around. The rhythm section of Hughie Flint and John McVie is rock-solid, handling the in-flight rhythm changes featured in several tracks with relative ease. Many of the rhythmic changes appeared in the original version of the cover songs, but here they help enhance a pattern of sonic diversity that characterizes the album, where each track serves as one tile in a multi-faceted mosaic of varying dynamics, tempos, instrumentation and recording approaches. Blues Breakers has far more diversity than the typical blues album, and if you ever get into an argument with someone who claims the blues is a highly limited form of music, this is the album you want to use to counter that argument. In the right hands, blues is a happy marriage of the familiar and the unexpected, and Blues Breakers reminds you of the innate flexibility and extensive possibilities of the genre.

Though Clapton has garnered well-deserved attention for his contributions, much of the credit for the album’s timeless listenability goes to the master of ceremonies, Mr. John Mayall. Doing his best imitation of Peter Sellers, Mayall played multiple roles—songwriter, arranger, organist, pianist, lead singer, harmonica player, second guitar, facilitator—and he was also the guy who thought it was a good idea to bring in a horn section on a few tracks to strengthen the links to Chicago blues. His unflagging enthusiasm for the music infuses the album with energy while setting a high bar for excellence in execution.

And speaking of excellence . . . BBEC was more than Eric Clapton’s coming out party. When you listen to the track that convinced Mayall, McVie and Flint that Clapton would be a good fit for the band (The Yardbirds’ “Got to Hurry”), you hear a highly competent, comparatively nimble lead guitarist who has obviously spent some time studying the work of the great blues guitarists—a solid performance but hardly game-changing. On BBEC, the power and clarity of his sound is shocking, especially when considered in the context of his times; the only comparison I can offer is the early solo work of Louis Armstrong with the Hot Fives, where the cornet sounds like full-on sunshine breaking up a dark, cloudy day. Just as jazz would never be the same after Armstrong, Clapton’s work here redefined and expanded the role of lead guitarist, leading to multiple generations of guitar heroes (and a whole lot of wannabes). The sound from that Les Paul plugged into a prototype Marshall on overdrive was stunning in itself, but even more importantly from a musical perspective was the quantum leap in Clapton’s phrasing skills—like the great lead singers, he frees himself from the tempo and plays to the feel of the song instead of always trying to be a good student and hit the right notes at the right time.

One note about the source recordings: the album was recorded during the time of transition from stereo to mono. The original album came out in mono; there was a stereo release in selected countries a few years later. I personally don’t think you get all that much from the stereo version, as Mike Vernon did a fabulous job producing the album, but they’re your ears, so go with what sounds best to you.

The Otis Rush piece “All Your Love” serves as a good warm-up number, delivered in a slower tempo than the Rush original and without the horn support that makes Otis’ version an incredibly sexy dance number. Without the horns and the more assertive drums of Rush rendition, it falls upon Clapton to shoulder the load, and he starts out with straight-up supporting fills in response to Mayall’s vocal. His moment in the sun is counter-intuitive—he gives his nimble left hand a rest and gives us a deliciously slow, lingering arpeggio in the luscious, thick tone made possible by the Les Paul-Marshall combination. The sound is so fascinating that Clapton actually slows down, falling behind the beat, savoring each and every note like he’s sampling a vintage Château Margaux, letting each sustain fully run its course until the full chord slide that heralds the ending of this magical moment. The band then shifts to double-time, where Clapton snaps out of his sonic reverie and lets it rip.

“All Your Love” is just the foreplay that leads to the orgasmic experience of “Hideaway,” the Freddie King number that inspired young Eric to take up the guitar. Both the original and the tribute are instrumental masterpieces designed to brighten your mood and get you to shake your fanny, legs and whatever else you’ve got. The essential difference between the two is in the attack—Freddie takes a more laid-back approach, leaving more room for the rhythm section to drive the song, whereas Clapton sees it as his opportunity to leave it all on the field. After years of intense practice and deep study of guitar and scales, and following the ultimately dissatisfying experience with The Yardbirds, Clapton finally found someone in John Mayall who was more than willing to give him the chance to release his incredible potential. On “Hideaway,” Mayall made sure that the rhythm section (Mayall on organ, McVie on bass, Flint on drums) provided a solid foundation while doing nothing to draw attention to themselves, rather like the foundation of the house that does its work with invisible efficiency. This is Clapton’s moment in the spotlight, and he fucking nails it.

The solo integrates the prominent patterns of the original, all presented with more oomph thanks to the Les Paul-Marshall sound. The first verse is pretty close to Freddie’s version, but Clapton’s greater dexterity is clearly audible in the additional notes contained within the runs and the quick full chord downslide that doesn’t appear in the original. At this point, I’ve already concluded that the teenage guitar players of my dad’s era who wanted to emulate Clapton after hearing “Hideaway” were the most hopelessly naïve human beings our species has ever produced: they simply didn’t have a fucking chance. In the second verse, Clapton follows Freddie’s lead and clips his notes; the difference is that Clapton not only varies his attack but produces a greater number of notes to clip. When we arrive at the “catchiest” phase of the song, Clapton plays the slower boogie-woogie variant riff with absolute precision, letting the fat sound carry the load. When we return to the verse structure, the two versions take different paths, with Freddie staying down low and Clapton letting it rip. On the next verse, Clapton plays tribute to the original by duplicating the partial chord attack but while Freddie disappears into the rhythmic support role, Clapton uses those bars to add a set of very tasty riffs. Mayall’s band executes the boogie-woogie stutter on the next segment with greater precision than Freddie’s combo, with Clapton backing off to reproduce the main theme. At this point, Freddie repeats the first verse pattern whereas Clapton launches an all out assault that leads to some of the sweetest high note bends on record, finishing up with yet another extraordinary rush high on the fretboard. I invariably want to scream when this piece ends because it’s so damned short (a little over three minutes) and like a great orgasm, I wish the experience would go on forever.

In the Mayall original “Little Girl” we hear some of the best band work on the album, spiced with a couple of in-transit duets that knock my socks off. The first is the opening duet featuring Mayall on organ and Clapton on lead where they match each other note for note before heading in separate supporting directions. The second comes at the start of Clapton’s solo, when John McVie steps out of the shadows and supports Clapton’s pizzicato attack with some of his own before both guys start flying all over their respective keyboards. McVie remains prominent for the rest of the song, and lo and behold, Hughie Flint slipped in some shimmering cymbal work while Mike Vernon wasn’t looking (Vernon had allegedly instructed Hughie to stick to the high hat). All things considered, “Little Girl” is probably the best ensemble number on the album.

Unfortunately, it’s also one of John Mayall’s most regrettable compositions. This is one of two rescue songs on the album, both written by Mayall, and both display to varying degrees the obtuseness of the unenlightened men of the era who never really got their heads around the immense socio-cultural impact of The Pill. “Little Girl” is the worst offender, and how you measure its offensiveness depends entirely on whether or not you insert or omit a comma between the words “love” and “child.”

I’m gonna give you a love, child, you won’t feel bad again
OR
I’m gonna give you a love child, you won’t feel bad again

Since the magical effect of one fuck is unlikely to last a lifetime, the more plausible interpretation dispenses with the comma, because when you have a kid, well, it’s a lifetime kind of thing. Here are the full lyrics, sans comma:

You’re gonna be mine, little girl, you’ve been through 18 years of pain (2)
I’m gonna give you a love child, you won’t feel bad again

You’ve been mistreated, little girl, but I swear, I swear it’ll be outgrown (2)
I’m gonna give you a love child, something you’ve never known

You’re gonna be mine, little girl, even if I can’t have you by my side
You’re gonna remember the love child, that made you satisfied (2)

Wait . . . what? Let me try to get my head around this. You’re going to cure my PTSD—no doubt the result of a lifetime of male-initiated abuse—by knocking me up and then hitting the road? So, going through the physical trauma of childbirth and becoming a single mother with non-existent self-esteem and no source of income is supposed to make me feel better? Really? You really think that? Well, sonny, you better hit that fucking road right now because I’m about to kick your nuts so hard you’ll never make an appearance inside any woman’s pussy as long as your sorry ass inhabits this earth . . . which I hope won’t be for very long.

Even if you insert the comma, it really doesn’t change the interpretation much. Any man who thinks he’s such a stud that he can transform a woman’s future with a one good fuck is a narcissistic asshole who deserves a good whack in the balls as much as the love child guy. We have too many of those assholes in the gene pool already.

Mayall does much better when he changes the subject to the cherished Southern tradition of sending black men to jail on little more than a racist whim. “Another Man” is extreme Delta style—harmonica, vocal and hand clapping, no guitar. The song conjures up the image of a man crouching in the cotton fields sharing the latest news with his friend once the overseer is out of sight—“another man done gone . . . he’s on the county farm . . . I didn’t know his name” are all the words we need to put the story together, a tale of intimidation and oppression where your best chance of survival means knowing nothing and saying less. We’ll hear a second exploration of this theme on Side 2 with “Parchman’s Farm,” but this is a brilliant little piece by Mayall that earns him partial forgiveness for whatever the hell he was thinking when he wrote the words to “Little Girl.”

“Double Crossing Time” was allegedly written in response to Jack Bruce’s sudden flight to Manfred Mann. Rock star gossip aside, Mayall does an excellent job tinkling the ivories, with just the right amount of touch and sensitivity to the rhythmic flow. Clapton opts for a contrasting aggressive approach, bursting out of the background with a screaming solo featuring exceptionally long sustains. Mayall’s vocal mirrors Clapton’s anger, resulting in a solid and intense performance that probably helped them get over the Bruce fiasco pretty quickly.

Producer Mike Vernon really didn’t want Mayall to do “What’d I Say,” feeling that going up against Ray Charles was a losing proposition—and he really resisted the idea of a drum solo for Hughie Flint. Hughie wasn’t keen on the idea either, but Mayall argued that the song always elicited a positive response from a live audience. If that’s the case, they should have done a live recording, because this piece goes nowhere in the studio. Mayall is competent on the organ, and Hughie’s solo isn’t that bad, but it lacks the exciting spontaneity of the Ray Charles original.

Side 2 opens with a bright horn combo, the intro to our second rescue song, Mayall’s “Key to Love.” Unlike “Little Girl,” the guy isn’t itching to saddle a broad with a kid, but seems more like the hanger-on who thinks the babe will eventually change her mind and spread. My main quibble here is that the horns bury a brief Clapton solo, which contradicts the notion of Clapton as featured artist. Next up is a version of Mose Allison’s adaptation of Bukka White’s “Parchman’s Farm,” a euphemism for the Mississippi State Penitentiary. It’s actually John Mayall’s adaptation of Mose Allison’s adaptation, as Mayall chooses to drop the key closing line in Allison’s version where the convict admits he killed his wife and replace it with a repetition of the closing line of the first verse: “ain’t other done no man no harm.” I suppose that could imply “but I have done women harm,” but Mayall’s translation clearly calls out the injustice of the too-frequent occurrence of the innocent black man winding up in jail. Mayall’s musical interpretation is actually light-hearted, a speedy run through the spare tale featuring high-speed harmonica—and I love hearing John Mayall defy the physiological limits of human breathing as he attacks a harp.

The horns that open “Have You Heard” are absolutely first-rate, featuring a marvelous high-end tenor sax solo from Alan Skidmore that stretches the scale and threatens to go free-form from time to time. The horns shift to unison in Stax mode during the second verse, and unlike “Key to Love,” they balance out Clapton’s fills without drowning him out. When Clapton steps up for his solo, he is in full command of the instrument’s voicing, expressing all the pain and anguish of lost love with a combination of soul-ripping attack and high-end bends. This would compete with “Little Girl” for best ensemble piece on the album had the horns actually played with the rest of the band, but I will compliment Mayall and Vernon for some damned solid post-production work.

Eric Clapton’s debutante moment also featured his first lead vocal. Unfortunately for those who like their triumphs to arrive free of flaws and disappointments, Clapton chose to do Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” a song requiring far more vocal talent than Clapton would ever develop. I appreciate his deep admiration of the King of the Delta Blues, but I wish he’d chosen a different way to express that admiration. Nobody does Robert Johnson like Robert Johnson.

Fortunately for the listener, Clapton steps away from the mike, grabs his Les Paul and leads the band through Memphis Slim’s “Steppin’ Out.” Here there can be no comparison to the original since Memphis Slim was a piano player, so Clapton has only the musical structure to guide him on his journey. He takes a spirited approach in contrast to the late-night naughty tone of the original, with a dazzling variety of bends, off-rhythm phrasing, licks within licks and complete command of the blues scale. Of the two songs on the album mentioned by my dad as practice pieces for budding guitarists, I think “Steppin’ Out” is the more useful lesson because of its relative faithfulness to the blues scale. Master the opening riffs and you’ve learned half of two blues scales (C and G) in one sitting! And guess what? If you keep moving your fingers up or down a fret and play the same notes, you have the essence of all the major blues scales! Amazing! It would be a really good idea if you took the time to master all the scales in their entirety and ponder how the structure of the scale gives a song a certain feel, but if you just learn the two scales on the intro, I guarantee that you won’t embarrass yourself the next time you jam with the gang and someone shouts “Blues in C!” And with lots and lots of practice, you may be able to duplicate Eric Clapton’s agility and broad understanding of music just about the time old-age arthritis sets in. Good luck!

I don’t know if it’s true that no blues album would be complete without a least one Little Walter number, but I’d be fine with that criterion. “It Ain’t Right” was a high-speed rocking blues Little Walter put together when his Chess mate Bo Diddley was making a name for himself in rock ‘n’ roll circles, and the Mayall version is pretty faithful to the original. The guitar on both versions is a frantic, barreling boogie riff that requires tremendous discipline, fast fingers and intuitive knowledge of the fretboard—a difficult proposition indeed. Clapton, of course, nails it with ease, committing himself fully to the supporting role. Mayall has a great time trying to emulate one of his harp heroes, and manages to get pretty damned close to a very high bar.

Wow! This was fun! BBEC is certainly an uplifting experience, an album of good vibes, great energy and best-in-class musicianship. John Mayall is all about the music, and I always approach a Mayall album with a positive orientation because I know he’s going to give it all he’s got and bring in musicians willing to do the same. And though I abhor the whole Clapton-is-God thing as much as he does, his performance on BBEC changed musical history, so the adulation is somewhat understandable . . . but I think the story is much more meaningful if we attribute the result to the hard work and absolute dedication of a living, breathing human being.

2 responses

  1. Very enjoyable article on a vital record!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review. Thanks. As your father pointed out, it was a watershed LP for many guitarists of that era. For many of us the album that provided the spark toward the blues was released a year earlier, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which featured the stellar guitar work of Elvin Bishop and Michael Bloomfield (who I know is one of your faves). Fun to revisit those times…

    Like

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