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Laurel Canyon

Blues From Laurel Canyon by John Mayall

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All the pretty women
Never seen a better crop
Music all around
The flashing lights will never stop
Laurel Canyon c 1924
When we think of the blues, we think of the United States. The blues is a distinctive style of music which began in the Deep South through the suffering of the African American slaves. There are different styles of the blues including the well-known 12 bar blues, and it even has its own blues scale. Early performers included Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton.

So it's a little unusual for a white Englishman born near Manchester, England, in 1933 to become a fine exponent of the blues. Mind you, John Mayall got a flying start due to his father's love of jazz. Young John taught himself to play guitar, piano, and harmonica and grew up loving the music of Leadbelly and Pinetop Smith, among others.

Mayall trained as a graphic artist but kept playing in bands with his most successful being The Bluesbreakers. When 'the' Eric Clapton joined the band, it began to get noticed. It's hard to believe now, but in the early '60s, some of the songs from The Bluesbreakers were recorded on a two-track tape recorder owned by John Mayall. When the band toured Britain and mainland Europe, Mayall would record the gigs on his trusty tape recorder. Back home in the UK he had over 60 hours of music, and from these recordings was able to make up the albums Diary of a Band Volumes 1 and 2.

You wonder about relationships between the musicians, because the line-ups changed so much and quite often. Eric Clapton was in and out of The Bluesbreakers and once started rehearsing on the quiet while playing with Mayall, and then left when the secret rehearsals of Cream, his new band, were announced in the music press. Some 40 years later, Clapton and Mayall teamed up to play together for a charity concert.

Mayall released his album The Blues Alone in 1967 and half the tracks feature only Mayall – he plays every instrument. But soon after, his band The Bluesbreakers split, and in 1968 Mayall released a new album called Blues from Laurel Canyon. Mayall wrote all the songs on the album and played guitar, organ, and harmonica, and sang, as well. It was recorded in London, England, and released on Decca Records.
Harper Estate at foot of Laurel Canyon, c 1902
The dateline here gets a little convoluted. Rumor has it that the Laurel Canyon album was written during Mayall's time spent in Laurel Canyon. In fact, Mayall didn't move there until 1969 - a year after the album's recording date. As it turns out, Mayall had visited Laurel Canyon, went home and wrote a series of songs about his visit there and the folks he met along his way. Several of the songs refer to people such as Frank and Moon Unit Zappa, the group Canned Heat, and Catherine James, groupie extraordinaire. It was certainly an intriguing way of introducing himself to the locals before taking up residence for ten years.

The Laurel Canyon portion of Los Angeles is interesting. The main road in the area is Laurel Canyon Boulevard and from it are many no-through roads. This gives an enclosed feel to the region. The album Blues from Laurel Canyon has some unusual aspects, as well. For instance, several of the tracks are not given the usual separation or division, but blend from one to the other. Then the opening song begins with the sound of jet aircraft taking off, a noise which dissolves into the rhythm of the music.

Intriguing music for what must have been a very intriguing time in his life. Should you ever find yourself in Los Angeles, be sure to drive through Laurel Canyon; you too could come away with an album's worth of writing material in one short visit.
~ Cenarth Fox

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