BRITISH BLUESMAN John Mayall is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But his progeny are.
At 71, Mayall is father of six and grandfather of six, as well as godfather to a dozen British blues-rock musicians for whom his band, the Bluesbreakers, was part-finishing school, part-jumping-off point. Take the remarkable succession of lead guitarists who played in that band in the mid-'60s -- Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor. Clapton left to form Cream with Jack Bruce, who also played briefly with Mayall. Green hooked up with the one-time Bluesbreakers rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood to form the original Fleetwood Mac. A teenage Taylor replaced Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones in time for "Exile on Main Street," "Sticky Fingers" and "Let It Bleed."
They're all hall of famers, while their mentor remains better known as -- their mentor. "That's very strange, isn't it," Mayall muses from his home in Los Angeles, without a hint of anger or frustration. "As each year goes by, I keep wondering about that, but these are all things beyond your control. I don't understand it, but I also don't understand why I've never had big record sales. Many years ago I ceased to get upset about it.
"On the good side," Mayall says, "I've always had total freedom to be as expressive as I wanted to be with the music. And the people who do love my music are truly dedicated; they're lifelong followers, which is better than somebody who's got a hit record, and then [listeners] lose interest just as quickly when the next one comes along."
Although Cleveland may not recognize Mayall, London's calling: Later this month, he will fly to England to appear at Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth will bestow on him the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his contributions to music, as well as for his work reducing poverty.
Mayall's star-studded 70th birthday concert benefiting UNICEF "didn't hurt any," he suggests, saying of the OBE, "I'm very happy to get it."
Though America's rock history gatekeepers have been slow to honor Mayall, graduates of his institution have always done so. In 1982, Taylor and McVie helped him re-form the original Bluesbreakers for a tour, and on 2001's "Along for the Ride," the original Fleetwood Mac lineup reunited for the first time in 30 years to back up Mayall. Also along for that ride: guitar-slinging Mayall fans Steve Miller, Jeff Healey, Gary Moore and Billy Gibbons, who had never recorded apart from ZZ Top. Gibbons and Mayall met at a Houston jam session in 1968, "long before ZZ Top was formed," Mayall says. "I was playing with Billy Gibbons and didn't know it."
In recent years, Mayall, who'll play harmonica, keyboards and guitar Friday at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, has shared stages with Green, who is making a comeback after a long period of inactivity. And Taylor and Clapton joined Mayall at that 70th birthday bash. "It was a great thrill to get Eric," Mayall says. "I kind of completed the set by having him on that concert.
"I can't think of any friendships that haven't remained," Mayall says of a career creeping up on the half-century mark. "It's the nature of the music. We all feel that we're part of the same family, doing the honors to the music."
Mayall grew up in rural Cheshire, son of a semipro guitar player whose extensive collection of 78s favored traditional jazz and vocalists. "The Mills Brothers, Spirits of Rhythm, Django Reinhardt, Eddie Lang, Lonnie Johnson -- there was a lot of blues influence in those things," Mayall says. "So I guess that's how I got started listening to it. Because [my father] was a guitarist, everything was sort of geared to guitarists. When I was a little older, I started listening to boogie-woogie, and that seemed to be the way to go for me."
Besides the 78s, there was shortwave radio at home, and later, at college, where Mayall studied to be a graphic artist. On his new album, "Road Dogs" (his 55th!), Mayall recalls that inspiration on "Short Wave Radio," name-checking Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Maceo, Albert Ammons, Muddy Waters and Little Walter; another remembrance, "Awestruck and Spellbound," gives shout-outs to Freddie King and Otis Rush.
"When I mention people in my songs, it is with a view to bring people names that they might want to check out. It's the same way I found out, as well as through reading books. If you liked Albert Ammons, you'd read who his influences were and where they came from, and gradually you build up a roster of names. It enlarges your listening vocabulary."
The British blues boom began in the late 1950s and took off in the early '60s with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organisation. (Bruce and Ginger Baker both played with Bond before joining Clapton in Cream.) After playing in such local bands as Powerhouse Four and Blues Syndicate, Mayall moved to London on Korner's advice, forming the first Bluesbreakers in 1964, playing mostly Chicago-style electric blues.
The Bluesbreakers broke big with the 1965 recruitment of Clapton from the Yardbirds (the blues-loving guitarist thought them too pop) and the 1966 release of "John Mayall: Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton." The seminal British blues album made Clapton a star (that's when the "Clapton is God" graffiti started appearing in London) and opened what came to be a revolving door with the guitar spot in the Bluesbreakers lineup. Other alumni included Andy Fraser (Free), Jon Mark and Johnny Almond (Mark/Almond), Aynsley Dunbar and Keef Hartley.
Almost from the start, Mayall wrote most of his own material, albeit in the blues idiom.
"I realized very early on if I was listening to someone I liked, or particular songs, it would invariably be someone singing about their own experience, something that happened to them or something that was going on around them, and the reality of it was the core of it," Mayall explains. "If I was going to be a musician, I shouldn't be singing about cotton fields, which I had no experience of, but things that were going on in my life. I always felt that was the way to go."
A place to go, it turned out, was the United States. After recording 1968's blues-jazz fusion album "Bare Wires," Mayall dropped the Bluesbreakers name and, retaining only Taylor, moved briefly to Los Angeles, where he made "Blues From Laurel Canyon." When Taylor left for the Rolling Stones, Mayall moved to Laurel Canyon and formed an American band with ex-Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor and guitarist Harvey Mandel, adding violinist Don "Sugarcane" Harris.
"It was the climate, really," Mayall says, recalling his first U.S. tour. "As soon as I landed in Los Angeles, it was the place that attracted me most, though not necessarily for the music. Wherever I would go, the music would be self-evident."
Starting with the drummerless acoustic live album, "The Turning Point" (featuring his signature harmonica workout, "Room to Move"), Mayall continued to record and tour widely. He still does about 100 shows a year.
"That leaves two-thirds of the year to be at home, which is better than average for most people in the workforce," Mayall says.
The 1982 Bluesbreakers reunion tour led Mayall to reclaim the band name, this time featuring two hot lead guitar players, Coco Montoya and Walter Trout. The current Bluesbreakers feature the band's longest lasting lineup. Drummer Joe Yuele just passed the 20-year mark ("we presented him with a gold watch," Mayall says), and Texas guitarist Buddy Whittington has been with him since 1993. "He's the mightiest of the mighty," Mayall gushes. "Without a doubt, Buddy's the most complete guitar player that I've ever worked with. His versatility and creativity are without equal."
On the other hand, if Mayall ever needs another replacement guitarist, he'll know where to look. His 2002 album, "Stories," included "Kids Got the Blues," a paean to the younger generation of blues musicians and fans, and Mayall revels in renewed interest for the genre, "especially at outdoor festivals, which are all ages and where you get families with young kids."
That's where Mayall met budding guitarist Eric Steckel.
"He was at a festival and had gone on before we got there, but his father asked if he could sit in with us," Mayall says. "With nothing to lose, Eric came on for the encore and matched Buddy lick for lick -- quite extraordinary. I took him on a tour to Norway when he was off school, and he killed them over there! He's so good, I gave him a track on the new album, and he was only 13. He's 14 now, but he's remarkable on 'Chaos in the Neighborhood.' "
The Rockin' Blues Revue that brings Mayall to George Mason University's Center for the Arts also features solo acoustic bluesman Eric Bibb and guitarist Robben Ford. "I've covered two of Eric's songs on separate albums, and he's a great songwriter as well as performer," Mayall says. After Bibb's solo spot, "Robben comes out and they do a duet, then the Bluesbreakers come on and back Robben for his set. Then I do a set, and all three of us come back for a jam session on a slow blues. 'Rockin' Blues Revue' really sums it up."
Clearly, Mayall's not anticipating a Rockin' Chair Blues Revue.
"I think it will always be fresh," he says of the blues. "I've never learned to read or write music, so everything I do is all by ear or by touch, just an extension of my feelings, really. To play with great musicians who are also creative people, I can't see any end to it, really."
JOHN MAYALL -- Appearing Friday at GMU's Center for the Arts with Eric Bibb and Robben Ford.