“My name is Gaz Mayall, and I am a musicaholic,” confesses the dapper, effervescently-youthful 47 year-old Boho, over grilled Salmon at his regular table in Portobello’s legendary Spanish eaterie, Galicia. Son of pioneering British bluesman John Mayall, who launched the careers of Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, Gaz was born into his addiction, fondly remembering hassling a Santa-costumed John Lennon at an Apple Christmas party back in the 1960s, and watching Paul McCartney tickling the family ivories way past his bedtime. But Mayall Junior has never rested upon his father’s laurels.
“I’m like a musical farmer, I like to rotate the crops,” Mayall grins. He’s a label owner (Gaz’s Rockin’ Records), producer, singing musician in his own ska band, The Trojans, and has assembled acclaimed ska and rhythm’n’blues compilations. But he’s most fondly famed for his long-running club night, Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues, 25 years old last July. The Pogues, The Stray Cats and Fishbone have graced its tiny stage, while celebs like David Bowie, Boy George, and even Bruce Willis (who grabbed a mic to sing soul standards) have all soaked up the vibe, as Thursday night bleeds messily into Friday morning. A Soho institution and regular attraction at the Notting Hill Carnival, it’s a rough-at-the-edges celebration of Mayall’s passions: ska, blues and rock’n’roll.
Mayall’s first spoken words were “boogie woogie”, but it wasn’t until his parents divorced and his father moved to the hippy utopia of California’s Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s, that he truly caught the music bug.
“I found this box of old boogie 78s my dad had left behind,” he remembers, “And I got a real taste for it. Then I moved onto old rock’n’roll. I was obsessed, scouring Portobello market for boxes of cheap records.”
Coming across a box of Bluebeat records, he mistook the early Ska imprint for a rock’n’roll label and chanced 50p on the find, soon falling for the likes of Prince Buster’s joyously foul-mouthed ‘Big Five’. Reggae’s R’n’B-influenced ancestor, Ska was omnipresent over the PA systems at snooker halls and football grounds through the 1970s. It quickly became his new obsession.
His mother soon remarried and relocated to the Cumbrian idyll of Llanddewi Brefi, location for TV’s Little Britain. Mayall dropped out of school at 14, living in the basement of their rented-out Notting Hill home. Selling sharp vintage clothes at Kensington Market, his loyal clientele thrilled to the rock’n’roll and ska constantly spinning on Mayall’s Dansette record player.
The punk scene did little for Mayall, turned off by its aggression, and its often-fatal affection for heroin. But the subsequent Two Tone movement, fusing punk’s energy and ska’s skank, suited him perfectly. Violent football hooligans had closed Oxford Street’s Two Tone club, where Gaz sometimes DJ’d, but Vince Howard, owner of Gossip’s (a nightclub on Mead Street which began life as a seedy drinking den called The Gargoyle frequented by Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon) offered the Hillbilly boho a home in Soho. On July 3rd 1980, Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues was born.
Mayall delights in Soho’s grubbily colourful history. “My dad played blues all-nighters in the early 60s, at Wardour Street’s Flamingo Club. The owners, Rick and Johnny Gunnell, paid off the police every week so they could stay open until 6am, refilling regulars’ colas with illicit whiskey from under the bar.”
The Gunnells also managed British soul sensation Georgie Fame. “When Georgie had a hit with ‘Yeh Yeh’, he tried to switch management. Rick stole the keys to Georgie’s brand new Jaguar, and rammed its repeatedly into the pillars of an underground car park. He handed Georgie the keys back and said, ‘If you leave me I’ll do the same to your fingers and you’ll never play the piano again!’”
The Gunnells knew they were small fish in a big pond, however. “One night, some bruiser got drunk and caused trouble, so Rick threw him out of the club and gave him a hiding. At closing time, hoods grabbed Rick and bundled him, blindfolded, into a car. They drove him to a deserted warehouse where the Krays informed him that the drunkard was one of their lads. Sensing he was in deep schtumm, Rick told them the lout had been out of order. The Krays apologised, had the bloke’s jaw broken, and set Rick free.
“People talk about sacred places and ‘leylines’,” Mayall continues,“ Soho is like that for me. It’s the heart of London. Thank God these buildings have preservation orders, so all that history that survived the Blitz won’t be replaced with glass and steel shopping malls, like in Shepherd’s Bush.”
Gaz himself fell foul to such ‘urban regeneration’ in the early 1990s, when Gossip’s went ‘upmarket’ and banned live musicians, for graffitiing the dressing room. Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues promptly moved a road down to St Moritz, a Swiss restaurant with a basement club steeped in nightclub history.
“People who came here when it was a mod club in the 60s, or a jazz joint in the 30s, come back to visit,” marvels Mayall, “And they all swear it’s never changed. The owner, Sweetie, is a real Soho legend. Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash band, the 101ers, played here and wrote a song complaining about him, ‘Sweetie Of The St Moritz’, that’s on my new compilation album… If you check the wall by the stairs in the club, Sweetie’s got Joe’s original lyrics framed on the wall.”
St Moritz is the perfect home for Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues. A perennial in this decidedly here-today, gone-tomorrow field, Gaz’s ponders the New Romantic scene dominating clubland when the Rockin’ Blues started up.
“It was all so pretentious, I wanted to offer an alternative to that,” he smiles. “We do what we want. Where else will you hear Little Richard, and old ska, and drum’n’bass, and some Louis Armstrong record from 1928? We’re like musical chefs, mixing the ingredients.”
He laughs, and stifles a sleep-deprived yawn. “The late nights, the loud music, the smoky atmosphere, all this ‘bad’ stuff keeps me fresh and bubbling. It’s good for me!”(c) Stevie Chick 2006