Peter Green is regarded by some fans as the greatest white blues guitarist ever, Eric Clapton notwithstanding. Born Peter Greenbaum but calling himself Peter Green by age 15, he grew up in London’s working-class East End. Green’s early musical influences were Hank Marvin of the Shadows, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Freddie King, and traditional Jewish music. He originally played bass before being invited in 1966 by keyboardist Peter Bardens to play lead in the Peter B’s, whose drummer was a lanky chap named Mick Fleetwood. The 19-year-old Green was with Bardens just three months before joining John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, whose rapidly shifting personnel included bassist John McVie and drummer Aynsley Dunbar. A keen fan of Clapton, Green badgered Mayall to give him a chance when the Bluesbreakers guitarist split for an indefinite vacation in Greece. Green sounded great and, as Mayall recalls, was not amused when Clapton returned after a handful of gigs, and Green was out.
A Hard Road When Clapton left the band for good six months later to form Cream, Mayall cajoled Green back. Fans were openly hostile because Green was not God, although they appreciated Clapton’s replacement in time. Producer Mike Vernon was aghast when the Bluesbreakers showed up without Clapton to record the album A Hard Road in late 1966, but was won over by Green’s playing. On many tracks you’d be hard-pressed to tell it wasn’t Clapton playing. With an eerie Green instrumental called “The Supernatural,” he demonstrated the beginning of his trademark fluid, haunting style so reminiscent of B.B. King.
Mr. Wonderful When Green left Mayall in 1967, he took McVie and Fleetwood to found Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan shortly afterward gave Fleetwood Mac an unusual three-guitar front line. Green was at his peak for the albums Mr. Wonderful, English Rose, Then Play On, and a live Boston Tea Party recording. His instrumental “Albatross” was the band’s first British number one single and “Black Magic Woman” was later a huge hit for Carlos Santana. But Green had been experimenting with acid and his behavior became increasingly irrational, especially after he disappeared for three days of rampant drug use in Munich. He became very religious, appearing on-stage wearing crucifixes and flowing robes. His bandmates resisted Green’s suggestion to donate most of their money to charity, and he left in mid-1970 after writing a harrowing biographical tune called “The Green Manalishi.”
The End of the Game After a bitter, rambling solo album called The End of the Game, Green saddened fans when he hung up his guitar, except for helping the Mac complete a tour when Spencer suddenly joined the Children of God in Los Angeles and quit the band. Green’s chaotic odyssey of almost a decade included rumors that he was a gravedigger, a bartender in Cornwall, a hospital orderly, and a member of an Israeli commune. When an accountant sent him an unwanted royalty check, Green confronted his tormentor with a gun, although it was unloaded. Green went to jail briefly before being transferred to an asylum.
In the SkiesGreen emerged in the late ’70s and early ’80s with albums In the Skies, Little Dreamer, White Sky, and Kolors, featuring at times Bardens, Robin Trower drummer Reg Isidore, and Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks. He reprised the Then Play On Mac standard “Rattlesnake Shake” on Fleetwood’s solo 1981 album, The Visitor. British author Martin Celmins wrote Green’s biography in 1995. Psychologically troubled, on medication, and hardly playing the guitar for most of the ’90s, the reclusive Green resumed sporadic recording in the second half of the decade. He surfaces unexpectedly from time to time, most prominently January 12, 1998, when Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In a rare, perfect moment, Green jammed with fellow inductee Santana on “Black Magic Woman.”
As the elder statesman of British blues, it is John Mayall’s lot to be more renowned as a bandleader and mentor than as a performer in his own right. Throughout the ’60s, his band, the Bluesbreakers, acted as a finishing school for the leading British blues-rock musicians of the era. Guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor joined his band in a remarkable succession in the mid-’60s, honing their chops with Mayall before going on to join Cream, Fleetwood Mac, and the Rolling Stones, respectively. John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Andy Fraser (of Free), John Almond, and Jon Mark also played and recorded with Mayall for varying lengths of times in the ’60s.
Mayall’s personnel has tended to overshadow his own considerable abilities. Only an adequate singer, the multi-instrumentalist was adept in bringing out the best in his younger charges (Mayall himself was in his thirties by the time the Bluesbreakers began to make a name for themselves). Doing his best to provide a context in which they could play Chicago-style electric blues, Mayall was never complacent, writing most of his own material (which ranged from good to humdrum), revamping his lineup with unnerving regularity, and constantly experimenting within his basic blues format. Some of these experiments (with jazz-rock and an album on which he played all the instruments except drums) were forgettable; others, like his foray into acoustic music in the late ’60s, were quite successful. Mayall’s output has caught some flak from critics for paling next to the real African-American deal, but much of his vintage work — if weeded out selectively — is quite strong; especially his legendary 1966 LP with Eric Clapton, which both launched Clapton into stardom and kick-started the blues boom into full gear in England.
When Clapton joined the Bluesbreakers in 1965, Mayall had already been recording for a year, and been performing professionally long before that. Originally based in Manchester, Mayall moved to London in 1963 on the advice of British blues godfather Alexis Korner, who thought a living could be made playing the blues in the bigger city. Tracing a path through his various lineups of the ’60s is a daunting task. At least 15 different editions of the Bluesbreakers were in existence from January 1963 through mid-1970. Some notable musicians (like guitarist Davy Graham, Mick Fleetwood, and Jack Bruce) passed through for little more than a cup of coffee; Mayall’s longest-running employee, bassist John McVie, lasted about four years. The Bluesbreakers, like Fairport Convention or the Fall, were more a concept than an ongoing core. Mayall, too, had the reputation of being a difficult and demanding employer, willing to give musicians their walking papers as his music evolved, although he also imparted invaluable schooling to them while the associations lasted.
Mayall recorded his debut single in early 1964; he made his first album, a live affair, near the end of the year. At this point the Bluesbreakers had a more pronounced R&B influence than would be exhibited on their most famous recordings, somewhat in the mold of younger combos like the Animals and Rolling Stones, but the Bluesbreakers would take a turn for the purer with the recruitment of Eric Clapton in the spring of 1965. Clapton had left the Yardbirds in order to play straight blues, and the Bluesbreakers allowed him that freedom (or stuck to well-defined restrictions, depending upon your viewpoint). Clapton began to inspire reverent acclaim as one of Britain’s top virtuosos, as reflected in the famous “Clapton is God” graffiti that appeared in London in the mid-’60s.
Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton In professional terms, though, 1965 wasn’t the best of times for the group, which had been dropped by Decca. Clapton even left the group for a few months for an odd trip to Greece, leaving Mayall to straggle on with various fill-ins, including Peter Green. Clapton did return in late 1965, around the time an excellent blues-rock single, “I’m Your Witchdoctor” (with searing sustain-laden guitar riffs), was issued on Immediate. By early 1966, the band was back on Decca, and recorded its landmark Bluesbreakers LP. This was the album that, with its clean, loud, authoritative licks, firmly established Clapton as a guitar hero, on both reverent covers of tunes by the likes of Otis Rush and Freddie King and decent originals by Mayall himself. The record was also an unexpected commercial success, making the Top Ten in Britain. From that point on, in fact, Mayall became one of the first rock musicians to depend primarily upon the LP market; he recorded plenty of singles throughout the ’60s, but none of them came close to becoming a hit.
A Hard RoadClapton left the Bluesbreakers in mid-1966 to form Cream with Jack Bruce, who had played with Mayall briefly in late 1965. Mayall turned quickly to Peter Green, who managed the difficult feat of stepping into Clapton’s shoes and gaining respect as a player of roughly equal imagination and virtuosity, although his style was quite distinctly his own. Green recorded one LP with Mayall, A Hard Road, and several singles, sometimes writing material and taking some respectable lead vocals. Green’s talents, like those of Clapton, were too large to be confined by sideman status, and in mid-1967 he left to form a successful band of his own, Fleetwood Mac.
The Turning PointMayall then enlisted 19-year-old Mick Taylor; remarkably, despite the consecutive departures of two star guitarists, Mayall maintained a high level of popularity. The late ’60s were also a time of considerable experimentation for the Bluesbreakers, who moved into a form of blues-jazz-rock fusion with the addition of a horn section, and then retreated into mellower, acoustic-oriented music. Mick Taylor, the last of the famous triumvirate of Mayall-bred guitar heroes, left in mid-1969 to join the Rolling Stones. Yet in a way Mayall was thriving more than ever, as the U.S. market, which had been barely aware of him in the Clapton era, was beginning to open up for his music. In fact, at the end of the 1960s, Mayall moved to Los Angeles. Released in 1969, The Turning Point, a live, all-acoustic affair, was a commercial and artistic high point.
Blues Express In America at least, Mayall continued to be pretty popular in the early ’70s. His band was no more stable than ever; at various points some American musicians flitted in and out of the Bluesbreakers, including Harvey Mandel, Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor, and Don “Sugarcane” Harris. Although he’s released numerous albums since and remained a prodigiously busy and reasonably popular live act, his post-1970 output generally hasn’t matched the quality of his ’60s work. Following collaborations with an unholy number of guest celebrities, in the early ’80s he re-teamed with a couple of his more renowned vets, John McVie and Mick Taylor, for a tour, which was chronicled by Great American Music’s Blues Express, released in 2010. The ’60s albums are what you want, though there’s little doubt that Mayall has over the past decades done a great deal to popularize the blues all over the globe, whether or not the music has meant much on record. Continuing to record and tour into his eighties, Mayall released A Special Life, recorded at Entourage Studios in North Hollywood and featuring a guest spot by singer and accordion player C.J. Chenier, in 2014. The album was universally celebrated as one of his best.
Live in 1967 A live archival recording of the Green, McVie, Fleetwood-era Bluesbreakers was released in April as Live in 1967. Meanwhile, the bandleader, his co-producer Eric Corne, and his seven-year old group — Rocky Athas, guitar; Greg Rzab, bass; Jay Davenport, drums — were in the studio. They emerged with Find a Way to Care, a set that showcased Mayall’s highly underrated keyboard playing on a set of originals and vintage covers including Percy Mayfield’s “The River’s Invitation.” The album was released in the late summer of 2015. Talk About That, Mayall’s second album for Forty Below, arrived in late 2017.