The British electric blues sound came to Winnipeg on Thursday, March 6, 1969 when the granddaddy of the U.K. blues boom, John Mayall, brought his Bluesbreakers to the University of Manitoba's UMSU gym for a sold out concert. But that concert almost didn't happen.
Mayall was the real deal -- a guy steadfastly dedicated to preserving the American blues idiom for younger audiences. His various Bluesbreakers lineups had included the likes of guitarist extraordinaire Eric Clapton. Mayall's revolving door of personnel spawned blues purveyors like Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Free, and Coliseum.
When Clapton joined up with Mayall, from the Yardbirds, in 1965, it elevated both to the blues frontlines. Their 1966 album, known as the Beano album for its cover photo of the band with Clapton reading a Beano comic book, was groundbreaking.
When Clapton bolted that year to form Cream, Mayall recruited Peter Green, an equally skilled blues practitioner, to carry the blues banner. Green left Mayall in 1967 to assemble Fleetwood Mac and the stalwart bandleader once again pulled out a plum, discovering 17-year-old Hertfordshire whiz kid Mick Taylor.
Taylor was already turning heads with his talent and style, making his vinyl debut on Mayall's 1967 album Crusade. He also appeared on Bare Wires and Blues From Laurel Canyon the following year. Mayall was touring in support of the latter when he and his current Bluesbreakers - 20-year-old Taylor, bassist Steve Thompson and drummer Colin Allen - arrived in Winnipeg.
As Special Events Chairman for the university, Grant 'Rhaps' Boden had booked the group for the one-off concert for $8,500. The band was on a lengthy North American tour beginning in January. Their reputation preceded them as tickets sold briskly. Just about every guitar player in the city with the night off was there. The four musicians arrived on a flight from Toronto, where they had played the Rockpile club three nights earlier. Taylor had used the layover to visit a girlfriend in St. Louis and was rejoining the others for the Winnipeg gig before the group headed off to Chicago the next day.
Boden was tasked with picking up the group and transporting them to their Pembina Highway hotel and later to the gig.
"John Mayall was in the front with me," Boden remembers, "and the other three guys were in the back." Various guitars and suitcases were in his trunk. Taylor sat directly behind Mayall. A short discussion ensued about the venue, equipment, stage set-up and dressing rooms before Taylor brought up the subject of his additional flight expenses in rejoining the others.
He demanded Mayall reimburse him. "Mayall exploded," Boden recalls, "and refused to pay the extra cost. They were yelling and screaming at each other back and forth. I was driving and freaking out. Then Taylor tells Mayall, 'I quit.' I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Here we were on the way to the hotel with the gig a few hours away and one of the guys isn't going to play. It was an intense experience to say the least. I've never sweated nor pleaded so much in my life."
Boden managed to calm the two down (the other two band members had remained silent throughout the fracas) as they pulled up to the hotel.
When Boden returned a few hours later to transport the four musicians to the gig he was relieved when they all got in the car. Soon after however, the argument resumed with Taylor insisting his boss pay him back for his extra flight. "Mayall was twisted in his seat so he's basically facing me as he screams at Taylor once again seated behind him. 'I'm not paying for your bloody excursion,' Mayall shouted back at him. Taylor's screaming that he'll quit and doesn't need this anymore. Again another 10 or 15 minutes of this. If I wasn't driving so fast I think Taylor would have jumped out of the car."
As Boden pulled up to the gym, the four disembarked and headed to the dressing room without speaking to each other. Not long after, they were onstage to a rousing welcome and proceeded to mesmerize the adoring crowd. Taylor, clad in jeans, cowboy boots and a denim shirt, was the star of the show, with Mayall merely a supporting player in his own band. Playing a red Gibson SG guitar through a simple Fender Super Reverb amp with no pedals, gizmos or gadgets, Taylor was dazzling, bringing the Clapton school of blues guitar to our city. Throughout the 75-minute concert he never once looked at Mayall nor spoke to the audience, standing motionless to the right of the stage, his emotion expressed in his playing and the occasional arching of his back during solos.
"What I remember about that concert," says Ken Jenkins, "was that big raw electric blues guitar sound coming from a tiny amplifier."
"Mick Taylor was brilliant that night," recalls guitarist Danny Casavant. "His phrasing was fluid with vibrato from heaven and a great slide guitar player, too. It was an important show for me as a young guitar player. Afterwards, a buddy of mine got me backstage and I actually met Mick Taylor and saw John Mayall in the flesh! I was only 17. Mick didn't seem much older but he was already a major guitarist in the British Blues Royalty."
Though Taylor didn't quit that night, two months later, on May 14, he was invited to audition for none other than The Rolling Stones. After impressing the bad boys of rock, he was given the job of replacing founding member Brian Jones. Taylor made his debut as a Stone at their July 5 Hyde Park outdoor concert in London before several hundred thousand people. He remained with the band until 1974.