“Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton” by John Mayall (1966)
Contrary to legend, Eric Clapton didn’t have quite a household name when he decided to leave the Yardbirds in 1965.
The band had experienced some success around the nascent London blues circuit, but the members and their management eventually learned they’d have to extend their repertoire a bit if they were looking for major success.
And so came “For Your Love,” the Yardbirds’ breakthrough hit. The primary instrument is the harpsichord, played by freelancer Brian Auger. Clapton’s guitar appears only in the bridge, and even then it’s kind of buried in the mix under Keith Relf’s multitracked vocals.
Keep in mind that “Slowhand” still was a teenager at the time, and he was none too happy about his role in the band being usurped. And so he bailed out, making his spot available for another teenage guitarist, named Jeff Beck. The rest, as they say … well, who needs to spout clichés?
The B-side of “For Your Love” was an instrumental called “Got to Hurry,” which probably contained the most accomplished lead guitar heard to date in the United Kingdom: Clapton’s fretwork screams out against a relatively routine 12-bar-blues backing, begging for discerning listeners to take notice.
One of those listeners was John Mayall, who’d been cultivating his own version of the British blues to a modicum of success. His Blues Breakers backed up John Lee Hooker on a U.K. tour, and his band’s single “Crawling Up a Hill” made a bit of noise on the charts.
Mayall snatched up Clapton for the Blues Breakers, and they promptly cut a couple of tracks for a 45. The A-side, “I’m Your Witchdoctor,” while not a hit, gave knowledgeable listeners a bigger hint about Clapton’s guitar capabilities.
Clapton and Mayall cut another single, just the two of them: “Lonely Years” backed with the Eric-penned instrumental “Bernard Jenkins,” before the guitarist decided to go hang out in Greece and play in a band called the Glands. He eventually returned to the fold after Mayall briefly brought in a replacement guitarist named Peter Green.
Mayall, Clapton, bass player John McVie – yes, where half of the name “Fleetwood Mac” came from – and drummer Hughie Flint then went about laying down tracks for the bandleader’s first studio album. Recorded in March 1966 with Clapton playing a 1960 Gibson Les Paul, “Blues Breakers” – also known as the “Beano” album, because that’s what Eric is pictured as reading in the cover – amply demonstrates the prowess he already commanded just shy of his 21st birthday.
The album opens with a cover of Otis Rush’s “All Your Love,” during which Clapton doubles on the song’s signature riff while weaving sinewy leads around the main theme. During a mid-tune rave-up, he shows why his nickname “Slowhand” is anything but derogatory.
One of Clapton’s biggest influences in his early days was Texas six-string giant – in physical stature, along with instrumental ability – Freddie King, and Slowhand rips up the classic instrumental. In doing so, he provides the first hint that British guitarists might just be able to keep the pace with their American counterparts.
The Mayall original “Little Girl” follows, and while its lyrics are a bit hackneyed, the song boasts a killer riff and more stellar Clapton fretwork. Mayall also takes credit for “Another Man,” which actually is a traditional blues and serves as a showcase for his harmonica work. (For an acoustic guitar workout, check out the version of the song on Jorma Kaukonen’s “Quah.”)
The languid blues “Double Crossing Time” features Clapton playing a lead that lays the groundwork for his work with the band he’d help form later in 1966, Cream. The first side of the LP wraps up with a spirited version of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” although much of the track is taken up by a relatively pedestrian Flint drum solo.
The horn section on “Key to Love” foreshadows Mayall’s work circa 1968-early 1969, and “Parchman Farm” is a harmonica-driven take on the oft-covered Mose Allison tune. (Two years later, Blue Cheer would do a proto-metal version for “Vincebus Eruptum.”) At nearly 6 minutes, Mayall’s “Have You Heard” is the longest track on the album, and it gives Clapton plenty of opportunity to further hone his blues mastery.
The next two songs became stapes of the Clapton catalogue: “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” in which he performs his first lead vocal while bringing the legend of composer Robert Johnson to the musical masses, and James Bracken’s instrumental “Steppin’ Out,” which later stretched out to epic proportions during Cream concerts.
“Blues Breakers” wraps up with harmonica master Little Walter’s “It Ain’t Right,” which ostensibly features Mayall but has Clapton underpinning the song with furious riffs throughout.
The album climbed to No. 6 on the U.K. charts while inspiring the notorious “Clapton is God” graffiti around London. By that time, he was well on his way to becoming an ex-Blues Breaker, combining forces with Jack Bruce (also a Mayall alumnus) and Ginger Baker on a project that further entrenched him as one of rock’s top few guitarists.
Mayall became renowned as a bandleader whose sidemen went on to carve their own niches in rock history: Green, McVie and Mick Fleetwood with Fleetwood Mac; Mick Taylor with the Rolling Stones; Andy Fraser with Free; Jon Hiseman, Tony Reeves and Dick Heckstall-Smith with Colosseum; Flint with McGuinness Flint; Keef Hartley with the Keef Hartley Band (which played at Woodstock); Aynsley Dunbar with the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation; and Jon Mark and Johnny Almond with Mark-Almond (not the Soft Cell guy!).
At age 79, Mayall still has a heavy touring schedule, with numbers from “Blues Breakers” included, of course.