When the electrifying guitarist Wilko Johnson left Dr Feelgood in 1977, the pub rockers who lit the punk rock fuse looked to be in serious trouble. From their inception in 1974, Johnson had been a mesmerising foil to the manic lead vocalist Lee Brilleaux, and the group’s primary songwriter. Yet his eventual replacement John “Gypie” Mayo rose to the seemingly impossible task of replacing the guitarist whose staccato playing and stage presence had influenced the Stranglers, the Sex Pistols and the Jam.
A gifted and creative player, Mayo proved an excellent addition to the line-up with Brilleaux and the other two original members, bassist John B Sparks – “Sparko” – and drummer John Martin, “The Big Figure”. He could help Dr Feelgood perform the seminal rhythm and blues material from their first three studio albums that their fanbase expected but also proved a sterling contributor on the songwriting front as they made headway into the singles charts.
His five-year tenure coincided with something of a purple patch for the band as they scored their first Top 40 hit in autumn 1977 with the adrenaline-fuelled “She’s A Wind Up”, written by all four members, and reached the Top 10 in early 1979 with the short, sharp, morning-after tale of “Milk And Alcohol”, co-written by Nick Lowe. With his feather cut hairstyle and his penchant for alternating between a Gibson 335 and a Fender Stratocaster, Mayo cut a striking figure and was eventually accepted by the group’s hardcore fans.
However, he left in 1981, blaming the punishing touring schedule and a need “to move on musically.” In the mid-1990s he joined another legendary band, the Yardbirds, and again delivered on the expectations of thousands of guitar aficionados eager to hear the repertoire associated with the band’s erstwhile guitar heroes, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
Assembled by two founder members, drummer Jim McCarty and rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, the reformed Yardbirds became mainstays of the international touring circuit. In 2003 they released Birdland, an album combining original material and revivals of several of their hits, on which Mayo more than held his own alongside stellar guests such as Beck, Brian May, Slash, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. He left in 2005 and moved to Bath, where he taught guitar and played the occasional restaurant gig.
Born John Philip Cawthra in London in 1951, he was one of many teenagers enthralled by the Shadows and the Beatles. At 13 he bought a cheap Russian-made acoustic guitar, and began playing along to Beatles and Rolling Stones records. Though he was basically self-taught, he also drew on the classical music he had listened to with his father and fell under the spell of Peter Green. “I saw him play in 1967, just before he quit John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and my life was never quite the same after that,” he said of the guitarist who made his reputation with Fleetwood Mac in the late 1960s. “I had never fully realised just how expressive and exciting guitar playing could be. I also saw Jeff Beck, Mick Taylor and David O’List [of The Nice]. I’m sure they all influenced me to some degree.”
Not academically-minded, he was expelled from school and worked in a printing shop for three years. In 1969 he took up the stage name John Mayo and joined a blues band, White Mule. Over the next few years he played wildly contrasting styles of music, ranging from psychedelia and funk via traditional Irish, a versatile grounding that would stand him in good stead when he was recruited into Dr Feelgood.
Accounts differ as to whether Johnson was pushed or quit after arguing with Brilleaux over the inclusion of the Lew Lewis composition “Lucky Seven” on Sneakin’ Suspicion, the Feelgoods’ third studio album recorded at Rockfield Studios in Wales. By the time it had reached the Top 10 in June 1977, they had done a few concerts with the Irish guitarist Henry McCullough, of Wings fame, but were looking for a permanent replacement. Mayo jumped at the chance.
“I’d had enough of obscurity and they were high-profile at the time,” he said. “My main memory of that period is amazement that I had teamed up with such an unique and unusual bunch of guys. All the bands I’d been in were very earnest about playing music. The Feelgoods, on the other hand, seemed to regard playing as pure fun. They didn’t take themselves too seriously, which is why people loved them.”
Given the surfeit of Johns in the band and his tendency to complain about minor ailments, Brilleaux observed that the new recruit always seemed to have “the gyp” and the “Gypie” nickname stuck. Mayo made his bow on the album Be Seeing You, named after The Prisoner cult TV series catchphrase which the hard-working band had made their own. Produced by Lowe, it contained not only “She’s A Wind Up” but also a barnstorming version of the Otis Clay soul standard “Baby Jane” which inexplicably missed the charts.
The band’s headline tour of the UK in autumn 1977 showed they had lost none of their urgency and had arguably increased their pulling power with the punk crowd. Fresh from producing Blondie’s first two albums, Richard Gottehrer helmed Private Practice, their next album, which included the Mickey Jupp song “Down At The Doctors” as well as “Milk And Alcohol” and a wonderful cover of ‘Night Time’, the ’60s garage rock classic Gottehrer had co-written when in the Strangeloves. The guitarist also excelled on the concert recording As It Happens, released in June 1979, their last album to make the charts, and the next two studio albums, Let It Roll and A Case Of The Shakes, the latter reuniting them with Nick Lowe.
Mayo was replaced by Johnny “Guitar” Crippen of the Count Bishops. Following the departure of both Sparko and The Big Figure, Brilleaux fronted various Dr Feelgood line-ups until his death in April 1994. The group has since continued under the auspices of manager Chris Fenwick.
Between his tenures with Dr. Feelgood and the Yardbirds, Mayo played with the Inmates, Geno Washington and Pete Gage. In January 2007 he participated in a session with the Barcodes for the Paul Jones blues show on Radio 2. He told the Dr Feelgood website he’d like to be “remembered as an inventive, tasteful and exciting guitar player.” He certainly will be.
John Philip Cawthra, (“Gypie” Mayo), guitarist and songwriter: born London 24 July 1951; married Lesley (one son); died Bath 23 October 2013.