John Mayall has played with them all; Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jack Bruce, Mick Fleetwood, Mick Taylor, Andy Fraser... the list goes on. Now, in his 80's, John continues to tour all over the world and perform to sell-out crowds. With an incredible blues career spanning over sixty years, which rightly earning him the title "The Godfather of British Blues," John shares his experiences and encounters in what will be a must read autobiography for any true blues fans.
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About the Author
For over 50 years, John Mayall has served as a pioneer of blues music, rightly earning him the title, "The Godfather of British Blues." In 2013, John signed with producer Eric Corne's label, Forty Below Records, and has since been experiencing a true artistic and career renaissance, including a Blues Hall of Fame induction in 2015. Joel McIver is a British author. The best-known of his books is the best-selling Justice For All: The Truth About Metallica, first published in 2004 and appearing in nine languages since then. McIver's other works include biographies of Black Sabbath, Slayer, Ice Cube and Queens Of The Stone Age, all published by Omnibus Press.
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KEY TO LOVE: MY FAMILY TREE
Let me introduce you to my family, with as much information as I can recall about them and their lives.
My dear maternal grandfather Fred Leeson, known to all as Grandad, died of a stroke in his beloved garden on May 29, 1964. He took a lifetime's worth of memories to the grave – but I'll always remember the stories he told us.
Born on February 12, 1877, Fred was one of the eight sons and two daughters of his mother Sarah and father Edmund, a country labourer. There was a ninth brother, but he drowned at an early age. Life was hard and there were many mouths to feed: only a strong belief in God kept Sarah going, as she tried to control her brood. Grandad told us that discipline was very severe, and for serious infractions of house rules or unruly behaviour, his father would not only beat them with his hefty leather belt, he would take them by their collars and hang them up on meat hooks, suspended from the kitchen ceiling, for hours on end. These seemed like medieval punishments to me.
Despite Grandad's rugged childhood, I never heard him complain about his early life. He was raised within sight of Mow Cop on the border of Cheshire and Staffordshire: this was an eleventh-century feudal fort built by the squire of the nearby parish of Lawton so that he could keep an eye on his barons and peasants from the lookout tower. Life in Lawton at the end of the nineteenth century hadn't changed a great deal in the intervening years, and young Fred used to walk to school across the village green.
In those days it was accepted that country children would finish school at twelve and go into an apprenticeship of some sort. Fred was taken in by a butcher, and he began to learn the trade by working long hours as an errand boy, delivering meat to the gentry on foot. Sometimes he had to walk several miles, which motivated him to be successful in his own right. As the years passed, he acquired enough practical experience to strike out on his own, and by the time he got married in 1902 he was a merchant with a huge country estate called Aidenswood.
According to all reports, Fred was a bit of a Casanova in his youth and was always in the company of the village lasses, but he put these affairs behind him when he met Rose Hannah Wilson and began a serious courtship. This was regarded as marrying above his station, as they used to say in those days, as Rose had been educated to be a genteel lady by her upwardly mobile parents, Samuel, a collier from Edinburgh, and Mary Ellen, a schoolteacher. Following in her mother's footsteps, Rose also became a teacher. I suppose Fred thought that he was coming up in the world. However, it ultimately proved to be a poor match, although he remained with Rose for the rest of her life.
It often bothered Fred in his later years that he hadn't married his former sweetheart, a local girl called Alice Band. In fact, I believe he once returned to Lawton and contacted her. She wasn't ready to put out the welcome mat for him, though, and that door remained closed. It hurt his vanity to be dismissed in this way, but she could hardly be blamed; he'd ditched her without a word of warning some years before.
The birth of a daughter improved the domestic chemistry between Fred and Rose. My mother was born on August 3, 1906 and was named Beryl Veronica Leeson. Fred now had a more receptive member of the family on whom he could bestow affection and love.
By coincidence, she happened to be born, as I was myself, six years before the outbreak of a World War. Each of us, in our own time, was able to experience a countryside childhood in a period of peace.
Beryl once wrote me a letter containing memories of her days at Aidenswood. What follows is fairly long, but I include it here for several reasons. The letter evokes a time and a place that no longer exist, and a memory which I loved; as one of the last remaining British musicians of my generation, I think it's important to record it for posterity. My mother's words also reveal the background against which I discovered American blues – music from an entirely different setting. For those reasons, Beryl's memories perfectly illustrate the events which followed later in my life.
This is what she wrote:
"I'm back in my childhood and I shed a few tears for my lost paradise. I was lucky enough to have been born in the heart of the English countryside in lovely Old England, born with a passion for flowers and the green fields – a child of the soil. Looking back on the sunny days of my childhood, I was wilful and unpredictable; a lone child but never lonely, loving life.
"I remember every stick and stone, every stream and field: even now the glorious perfume of lilac or the sight of a wood full of bluebells brings it all back to me. I see myself sitting in the grass making daisy chains, necklaces, bracelets and a crown for my head. I think of all the people I knew who by now are all dead. These were the golden days. I hadn't learned of the evanescence of life. Sorrow hadn't touched me.
"The house we lived in was very large, circa Queen Anne. It stood in its own grounds, surrounded by a thick belt of horse chestnut trees, laden with candles of pink and white in the late spring. In front of the house was a big lawn with a circular drive. Through the wrought-iron gates, the main drive went straight to the back of the house, to a stone archway that led into a cobbled courtyard, where there were stables and lofts. Behind the courtyard, a pergola of white and deep purple lilac – a breathless, beautiful sight – led into a walled kitchen garden. I used to stand under the arch, looking up and imagining that heaven must be like this.
"The kitchen garden was full of apple, plum and pear trees, as well as vegetables. I used to stand with my mouth open under a plum tree, waiting for one to pop in. Further on was a croquet lawn, then a tennis court and finally a wilderness of wild roses, bracken and blackberry bushes – a wonderful place to play in.
"This was Aidenswood, the first house to capture my heart. The roots are still with me. I often used to wonder who 'Aiden' was, and what became of his wood, but I never found out, alas. Inside the house, besides my parents, lived Alice the maid, a buxom country girl with the stamina of an ox. The kitchen was her special domain, with its gleaming kitchen range that had to be black-leaded once a week – a fearsome task. A young farmer's daughter came to help out, three times a week. I was fascinated by her bright red face and hands to match.
"Friday was baking day, when Alice would bake huge amounts of delicious pies, cakes and bread to last the whole week. The hall had a vast curving oak staircase, which was wonderful for sliding down. The bedrooms were too many for me to count at first. The one used as the apple room where all the fruit was stored was my favourite. The smell was delicious, of autumn leaves and cider.
"As I grew older, education had to be considered. The village school was miles away, so an angular spinster, Miss Moore, was detailed to give me lessons when I could be found, which wasn't often! I'm really sorry now that I made her life so miserable. I learned to read very quickly, for which I'm grateful to her. Books and the magic of English language and literature became very important to me. Arithmetic I never mastered, and I wasn't even prepared to try.
"I was only a baby when we first came to live at Aidenswood. I arrived sitting on Grandad's shoulders, the way he always carried me. Most men seem to want a boy first, but he always wanted a girl. Maybe that's why he spoiled me so outrageously – although, thinking back, when you were born, I think he realised what he had missed by not having a son to carry on his name.
"Life in the country miles from anywhere was wonderful, but it did mean that I hadn't any playmates. It didn't bother me at all – my playmates were the flowers and the trees. I lived in an imaginary world of people I made up. My doll 'Arabella Maud' – a name I thought most elegant – was a great help, but my greatest friend was 'Our Fan'. She didn't exist, of course, but to me she was very special. I can't even tell you what I thought she looked like, but we did everything together.
"Relatives who came to visit thought I was an exceedingly odd child, always talking to someone who wasn't there. Our Fan and I would sit together among the bluebells and ragged robin in the wood. I would be a princess and Fan was the prince rescuing me. At one time I was a little worried, because all the best princesses I had read about had long yellow hair and blue eyes, and I had neither. I asked Grandad about this but he said that princesses with dark curls were very rare: after all, Snow White was dark, so I felt quite reassured.
"I'm afraid, to my mother, I was a complete enigma. Although she loved me, she'd look at me sometimes and wonder how she could possibly have produced such a contradiction of all she expected a little girl to be. All she'd wanted was a well-behaved, nicely dressed and above all clean child, and what she'd got was a ragamuffin who tore her dresses and was never tidy. Then she'd say, 'Of course, you're just like your father,' which seemed to absolve her from blame."
My mother loved it when the gypsies came to the nearby fields, she told me.
"I loved playing with their children, with their brown skin, black hair and brown eyes. Like their children, the women were dark and most of them wore gold earrings, except one who wore a pair that had a stone in them that glinted and blazed in the light, like shafts of red fire. I watched them all the time and thought how lovely they were – you must have guessed, this was my first introduction to garnets. I had never seen anything so beautiful.
"We played wonderful games, sailing my socks and shoes in the stream, fishing with bent pins in the canal and climbing trees in the bluebell wood. I invariably mislaid one or both of my socks and shoes. We ate stewed rabbit and hedgehog and made blackberry tea over the campfires: life was such fun. I had a governess who used to say, 'If you're a naughty girl, I shall give you to the gypsies,' and I thought, 'I can't wait. When can I go?' I never minded the frequent smackings or the de-nittings I had to endure.
"Grandad was on good terms with them, even when they once sold him a blind horse! They really got the better of him that time. He went to them and they said they'd got a good one for sale, so he said, 'Fine, I'll come round and have a look at it.' He thought it was in great shape and so he bought it. It was only after he'd got it home that he noticed it didn't want to leave the stable, and so he had his friend Jack Connolly come over and take a look at it. It was then that Jack told Grandad that the poor bugger was totally blind and couldn't see a thing! He laughed about it so many times, blaming his own gullibility, yet admiring the gypsies' business prowess.
"At midnight on Christmas Eve every year, the church choir came to sing carols, with their lanterns to light the way. This was always a big occasion: Grandad always invited them in for port and refreshments. He would carry me downstairs and I would sit on his knee wrapped in a blanket, listening to their chatter and laughter as they ate vast quantities of pies and cake which Alice had spent all morning baking. I was asleep long before they went to their next call, and Grandad would carry me back to bed and tuck me in. It was a happy night.
"My mother was the most fastidious and particular person, who tried her absolute best to keep me looking clean and presentable. I'd be all dressed up in starched clothes, never a mark on me. Everything was white and all frilled and pleated, and I was never allowed to get dirty or play. She used to invite my cousin Sybil to come and stay at horribly regular intervals – a very dull child. She never got dirty or lost her hair ribbons: I suppose Mother hoped some of Sybil's goodness would rub off onto me.
"At the top of my roly-poly bank was the canal – a magical place of beauty. I knew many of the water gypsies, who languidly sailed along in their painted, horse-drawn barges, travelling from mysterious places to others that I'd never heard of. The canal was an endless source of amusement to me, picking wild flowers and fishing. I remember that one of my favourite games was playing Moses in the bull rushes, with the game based on King Herod and the Slaughter of the Innocents. I was Miriam and dear long-suffering Arabella Maud was Moses, which entailed me crouching amongst the bull rushes in my knickers, rather wet and muddy.
"Sometimes on rainy days I would climb into the loft, to roll about in the sweet-smelling hay and listen to the horses shaking their heads and jingling their harnesses. Alice would bring me great wedges of bread and jam which tasted so good.
"Life was so secure and predictable – until at one fell swoop my whole world collapsed. We were to leave to go to live in Manchester. Aidenswood was lost, and the years of happiness were over: it was almost more than I could bear. The city was hateful and ugly, with endless streets and houses. I fretted and grew thin, but as it is said, 'One door shuts, another opens,' and that is how it was for me. Through my door was the beauty of Wales, and the happiness at school which was my salvation.
"On to my schooldays and a new chapter. I was still a little girl around six years old, and I had been hurt – but the nuns at school healed that hurt."
I pick up the story with the assistance of some taped memories recorded in 1980. Coupled with my own occasional remembrances, my mother's tale emerges and moves forward.
The move to Manchester was apparently seen as a better opportunity for her father's business, and happened to coincide with the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914. There was a huge push for volunteers for the army: recruiters were ready and eager to grab up all the healthy young men they could lay eyes on. A great sense of patriotism was in the air and, because the fighting was predicted to be over by Christmas, there was no shortage of volunteers. Sometimes whole streets went happily to the recruiting stations, little realising that unprecedented slaughter lay ahead. Who could have known?
There were, however, many non-believers, and among them was young Fred Leeson, who did all he could to dodge the scooping up of Britain's male population. He told tales of hiding in side streets as the parades went by, with Lord Kitchener's finger pointing everywhere from the famous poster. He avoided the draft with bribes, or by claiming his importance to the country in keeping the meat supply moving to the home front.
In November 1918 the war ended, and everyone began the readjustment to peacetime. Unfortunately, Fred and Rose didn't have much in common. In fact, because he was an uneducated man, she was rather ashamed of him, and reluctant to tell her friends that he was on the lowest rung of the professions – a common butcher.
To give you an example, when my mother Beryl was happily farmed out to Loreto College, a convent school in Llandudno run by nuns, her mother would come to visit once a term and stay at the Grand Hotel: this was the poshest hotel in town, right on the seafront. However, her father was never allowed to come when she was there because he might 'let the side down'. It was amazing that he stood for this. There was an accepted social division between them that he did not challenge; this resonated with me when I started studying music of black origin, steeped as it was in racial tensions.
My mother missed her parents when she was away at school, but when she was with them, she found that together they were extremely tiresome. Whenever possible, she tried to avoid going out in their company, as they would invariably end up quarrelling and fighting over her. She rather enjoyed them separately, though; her father would always let her get dirty, go fishing and be naughty and free- spirited, while her mother would dress her up and take her out to afternoon tea in smart places.
Beryl knew that her mother had boyfriends. Rose was a very attractive woman back in the twenties, and was a great one for mixing with the upper classes. One of her boyfriends was an army major called Jimmy Reynolds, and there was another gentleman called Teddy Whittaker who was always hanging round with his hopes up and used to come to tea regularly. Rose always let Beryl know that if it hadn't been for her, she could have been in India as part of the ruling class. Perhaps that was a little harsh, in retrospect.
Beryl also suspected that her mother was having an affair with a wealthy potter from Staffordshire. On one occasion Rose went down to London and stayed for a month with the sister of Rab Butler, later the Chancellor of the Exchequer – so who knew what she'd been up to, given her access to any number of admirers?
Meanwhile, Grandad was also busy on the home front: there was hell to pay when Rose returned and discovered traces of semen on the hearth rug in the front room. She never let him live this down, which was perhaps a little unfair. After all, he got into trouble because he didn't cover his tracks properly, while Rose was careful enough to keep her dealings discreet. Apparently what was good for the goose wasn't good for the gander.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Blues From Laurel Canyon"
Copyright © 2019 Omnibus Press.
Excerpted by permission of Omnibus Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Key to Love: My Family Tree 3
Chapter 2 Brand New Start: Childhood Days 18
Chapter 3 Open up a New Door: War and the Blues 37
Chapter 4 Killing Time: National Service and Korea 52
Chapter 5 Ready to Ride: First Steps into Music 66
Chapter 6 Long Gone Midnight: London and the Flamingo Club 81
Chapter 7 Plan Your Revolution: Birth of the Bluesbreakers 96
Chapter 8 You Must Be Crazy: "London's Newest Raving R&B Sensation!" 110
Chapter 9 Full Speed Ahead: Upheavals and Blue Notes 128
Chapter 10 Moving On: Headed for America 140
Chapter 11 Good Time Boogie: Taking Giant Steps 156
Chapter 12 California: Letting the Good Times Roll 172
Chapter 13 I'm a Sucker for Love: Affairs of the Heart 186
Chapter 14 Howlin' Moon: The Brain Damage Club Is Open! 200
Chapter 15 Room to Move: Broken Bones - and a Fiery Tragedy 215