I was having a conversation with my stepdad not too long ago, after the unfortunate passing of Jack Bruce. These kinds of conversations are much more likely to happen with him than with my father, for whom music starts and ends with Motown, Motown, and Motown only. Anyway, my stepdad was telling me about some of his favorite memories of his times growing up, listening to Cream’s music back in his days as a teenager in Brooklyn. He found the music so passionate, exciting, thrilling. A lot of people felt that way about Cream, and why not? Three music stars banding together to play the blues-rock music they truly loved, considered by many to be the greatest musicians on their instruments, well, maybe ever in rock history. The music they were playing was true art, full of insane guitar solos and all around great musicianship, grounded deeply in the hardcore blues music that the band’s members felt they couldn’t play in more pop oriented contexts. Clapton, for instance, felt that The Yardbirds were too artistically constraining for him when he left that band. So in the midst of this conversation, I asked my step-dad what he thought about a classic album that preceded the days of Cream, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton. My stepdad shook me off with his head. “No. Before my time.” I laughed to myself. Before your time? Fresh Cream was released on December 9, 1966. Blues Breakers? July, 22, 1966. Hardly a different era.
Cream has enjoyed an incredible reputation here in the United States, but far fewer people are overly familiar with the Mayall / Clapton classic. Some critics have said that the album, and, Mayall in general, are criminally underrated on this side of the pond. I think that’s true, especially for those of us who are into blues-rock specifically. For many people, Cream is really the starting point of the genre, but while Mayall’s album may not be the very first blues-rock album, it’s certainly one that helped the genre break on through to the other side of smash success. Mayall himself is such an interesting character: here’s this little British kid, born in Macclesfield, England in 1933, the son of a jazz-loving man,who develops a passionate interest in roots music blossoming in America, much of which was not even available for purchase in England. He literally had to mail away to America to collect many of the blues music records that he coveted. He took up music himself, first guitar, and then boogie-woogie piano. He started playing more seriously in college and really began considering a career in music. Mayall started playing with people such as Alexis Korner of Blues Incorporated; he was always considered quirky, with one booking-agent describing him once as, “a nice fellow, he makes his own musical instruments, he lives up a tree and drinks vegetable juices.” After Clapton quit The Yardbirds, Mayall hunted him down and convinced him to join the Blues Breakers, paving the way for the creation of this studio masterpiece.
Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton was John Mayall’s first studio album, but not his first album overall. That would be the live album John Mayall Plays John Mayall, which was recorded at Klooks Kleek on December 7, 1964. This initial album featured a guitarist named Roger Dean rather than Clapton. Like Mayall’s first album, With Eric Clapton was supposed to be a live set in order to capture the essence of Clapton’s playing live. A show was taped at the Flamingo Club, featuring future Cream member Jack Bruce on bass. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how badly you would have wanted to hear the live album versus the actual classic that we have, the tapes came out terribly and the band decided to record in the studio.The Blues Breakers is known as a band through which “thousands” of musicians have passed through. Excuse the hyperbole, but it’s certainly the case that the lineup was, should we say, fluid. This particular iteration of the band featured Mayall on vocals, piano, organ, and harmonica, Clapton on vocals and guitar, John McVie on bass, and Hughie Flint on drums. McVie, of course, would go on to find massive fame himself as a member of Fleetwood Mac, the “Mac” of which was named for him by Peter Green. The album is a combination of classic blues covers and some originals penned by Mayall (and one song written by Mayall with Clapton), and the seamless blend of the two types of material works perfectly; Mayall was extremely comfortable writing in this Chicago-influenced idiom.
Here are some of the other interesting facts about the record:
- Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton is also known as the “Beano” album, due to the fact that on the album cover, Eric Clapton is reading a copy of the children’s comic book Beano. Clapton apparently felt like being uncooperative during the photo shoot for the album jacket. Not sure if Clapton was a regular reader of Beano or if this was a special occasion but there it is. (Incidentally, Joe Bonamassa knows the number of the issue of Beano that’s featured on the album cover. Someone knows his blues-rock history).
- On the album, the guitar Clapton uses is a sunburst 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard with two PAF humbucking pickups. It has been referred to as the “Blues Breaker” Les Paul and the “Beano” Les Paul, but unfortunately it was stolen in 1966 and has not been recovered. What a big jerk, whoever stole it. For the album, the guitar was famously paired up with an overdriven Marshall amplifier, to help Clapton establish his signature distortion on this record. This combination became a kind of instant sensation and has been imitated by countless musicians since, due to the impeccable sound of Clapton on this record.
- The album’s producer was Mike Vernon, a major player in the production of 1960s British blues albums. In addition to this and other Mayall albums, he produced music for David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green as a solo artist, and Chicken Shack. The band has credited Vernon with being a major contributor in enabling them to achieve the sound they were looking for.
- Jack Bruce quit playing with the Blues Breakers to play with Manfred Mann. In response, Mayall wrote a song called, “Double Crossing Man,” but the title was changed to “Double Crossing Time.” The song is the fifth track on the album.
- Clapton’s first lead vocal on a record is the 10th cut of the album, a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Rambin’ On My Mind.” Mayall claims that Clapton was “a little reticent about singing it, but I had no doubts whatsoever.”
And the music itself is positively jamming. I initially wasn’t completely sold on Mayall’s voice, but it’s really grown on me since my first spins of this record. Right from the first track, an Otis Rush cover, “All Your Love,” Clapton’s playing is crisp, biting, addictive. You can tell why this guy was in such high demand after The Yardbirds. This track has some great tempo changes as well, that get you from a slow groove to a fast shuffle and back again, really contributing to the song’s dynamic sound. “Hideaway” is an uptempo instrumental that allows Clapton to really cut loose and get those hands dirty above some groovy bass playing from McVie and swinging organ from Mayall. The song itself is a Freddie King cover, an artist who both Mayall and Clapton were crazy about. Track 3, Little Girl, is one of my favorite cuts on the record,with its catchy hook and its shuffling drum beat. The fourth cut, “Another Man,” is one of the most interesting on the record. Taken and arranged from field recordings of prison work songs, the tune is basically vocals, handclaps, and harmonica soloing influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson. For those who believe that this album is all about Clapton, this track should prove that Mayall is a musical force in his own right. Other top moments on the album for is the very welcoem drum solo on the Ray Charles cover, “What’d I Say,” Clapton’s vocal turn on “Rambin’,” and the guitar masterpiece “Steppin’ Out.” The blues on this album is authentic, vital, and great fun. While the record should be recognized as the important piece of blues history that it is, the music is as fresh and vibrant a listen today as I imagine it was back in 1966. I think I’ll be playing it for my stepdad tonight.