You won’t believe who’s second.
John Mayall is a true blues phenomenon – an extraordinarily dedicated carrier of the blues torch.
He was one of the very first to introduce electric blues onto the English music scene.
Indeed, Mayall’s legendary bands, including his famous Bluesbreakers, influenced blues musicians across the UK and Europe from 1963 onwards.
Now nudging an impressive 83 years-of-age, the multi-instrumentalist Mayall is still touring and recording, while the list of his former lead guitarists for the Bluesbreakers reads like a Who’s Who of world blues guitar greats.
So who do you reckon are John Mayall’s favorites, from all of those lead guitarists he’s played with?
Your choice includes Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green, the Rolling Stones’ Mick Taylor, and Canned Heat’s Walter Trout and Harvey Mandel. Brilliant blues guitarists all.
As an aside, I hear you ask, why two Canned Heat guitarists? Canned Heat bassist, Larry Taylor, incidentally, also played with John Mayall.
To answer that, may I take you back to a 1968 John Mayall album I once owned called “Blues From Laurel Canyon”. The LP was later stolen at a party in 1970 after we locked ourselves in a room for an illicit smoke. Some immoral gatecrashers ran off with my record collection. Perhaps this was karma for being selfish.
One of the tracks on Laurel Canyon still plays in my head today. It’s called ‘The Bear’ with lyrics that go:
“I’ve been living with the Bear in a big house full of blues
Going back through the years, hear any record you choose
The sun is shining down, and the Bear is rolling in the shade
Everybody is gonna boogie, blues roll night and day
Turn on all of the people who got no place to stay
All the men of Canned Heat are part of my family
I’m gonna remember the things they did for me
I got to be moving. They call me Wandering John
I’ll see you, old Bear, I’ll be back ‘fore long.”
The Bear, of course, was Canned Heat’s larger-than-life founder and singer, Bob ‘the Bear’ Hite. Bob died, aged 38, in 1981, apparently after mistakenly snorting heroin. The line, ‘all the men of Canned Heat are part of my family’ will no doubt explain why so many Canned Heat band members later played with John Mayall and his bands.
So who would Mr. John Mayall O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) choose as his favorite? One of the Canned Heat boys? Clapton? Peter Green? Mick Taylor?
Of course, it would have to be Eric Clapton. But I have it on good authority that John Mayall’s second favourite blues guitarist was a little-known American called James Quill Smith, famously known in musical circles as ‘Smitty’.
The good authority comes from The Bloody Nerve bass player, Bobby Blood, a one-time band member with Quill Smith.
Their band was Sylvester and The Hot Band, whose 1973 album of the same name has been described as “a HARD rockin’, bluesy, gospel-tinged soul stomper of a romper.”
Trumpeter Bobby played in The Hot Band with James Quill Smith, of course, on guitar. They even had The Pointer Sisters on their debut album as their backing singers. And, brother, could The Hot Band cook up a storm. Just listen to the early funk and musicianship in this barely remembered track from 1973.
Sylvester and The Hot Band: My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.
How’s that for guitar shredding. James Quill Smith’s guitar playing on that track reminds me of the great Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, who I once knew in London, and who played guitar with Graham Bond, Brian Auger and Miles Davis in his earlier days.
Backing up Bobby Blood’s acknowledgement, the New York Times once quoted John Mayall as saying, “James (Quill Smith) is the best guitarist I’ve had since Eric Clapton.”
Clapton was just 20 when he played in the Bluesbreakers and, to me, played hard electric blues with such a young man’s fire and fury, it took your breath away. “Have You Heard” was one of my favourite Clapton tracks with Mayall. Eric must have been a hard act for the equally young Mick Taylor to follow
While Clapton went on to join Cream, Derek and the Dominoes and Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, before carving out a successful solo mainstream career, Quill Smith would join Three Dog Night, Dr. John, Billy Joel and Byrd’s founder Roger McGuinn’s band.
Smitty had earlier played in the band Pollution with the singer Dobie Gray, who in 1973 – while Quill Smith was guitarist for The Hot Band – had the U.S. Top Five hit, “Drift Away”.
My point about bringing James Quill Smith to your attention is to highlight yet another gifted musician about whom music lovers in general know little about. James Quill Smith is someone else whose talent deserves to be better known. Here’s another clip of Smitty’s guitar playing, shot in 1999 in a concert to benefit flood victims in Las Vegas. You’ll see he’s also a pretty decent blues harp player as well as a great guitarist.
Now this is where blues trivia gets fascinating, so please read on. While Smitty, Bobby Blood and the rest of The Hot Band were straight white males, their leader and vocalist, Sylvester, was a flamboyant black transsexual (as you may have guessed from the YouTube pic earlier). After The Hot Band opened for David Bowie, at the height of his glam rock period, in San Francisco in 1973, Bowie remarked that the city “don’t need me. They’ve got Sylvester.”
Eventually The Hot Band ran its course but guess what happened to Sylvester? He went solo, turned to disco and had two number one dance smashes in the United States in 1978 with “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”.
And he kept on having dance hits right up to 1987.
Sylvester James died of AIDS in San Francisco in 1988 aged 41.
Smitty was last heard of by this writer in Boulder City, Nevada, where he formed the James Quill Smith Band.
Former Dr. John and Elvin Bishop guitarist, Stevie Gurr, based in San Francisco during the Hot Band Era, told me that, apart from being a top guitarist, Quill Smith “seemed to be the glue that held any band he was in together.”
I’ve also heard, since, how Smitty was a good family man. He seems to have a social conscience too. There’s a Water Conservation Song Quill Smith wrote for children on the net copyrighted, ‘2016 Southern Nevada Water Authority’. So hopefully James is still going strong. A far cry from the wailing blues of John Mayall, and funk of The Hot Band, the song is still worth a listen if you can find it. The server said it couldn’t locate it when I tried to post the link here.
And while we’re on the subject of conservation and kids’ books, I wrote one too back in 1999. I see a hardback now costs $21.35 on Amazon, but I won’t get a red cent of that, such is the book industry. Much less expensive on Kindle at $2.13, it’s called ‘Teddy Cool Cleans Up’ – if you’re up for Googling it. Again the server couldn’t locate its link when I tried to post it here.
Bobby Blood, as mentioned earlier, plays bass and trumpet for the Nashville-based blues rock band, The Bloody Nerve, led by his son, the Texan guitarist Stacey Blood and vocalist Laurie Ann Layne.
End note: RIP Smitty
Sadly, James Quill Smith passed away in Laurenceville, Georgia, on April 28th, 2018, aged 74. RIP Smitty. See obituary below.