Gaz Mayall: still rockin’ after all these years

Who says you can't make the scene after 50? Not Gaz Mayall. Guy Kennaway profiles the deejay, promoter and modern-day dandy

You hear the term renaissance man depressingly often but, for once, it is not misapplied when describing Gaz Mayall, 53: DJ, singer, promoter, producer, memoirist, coarse fisherman, music historian and dandy. His core activity is collecting: classic records, vintage clothes and a wide assortment of people.

His vinyl collection, which comprises more than 10,000 discs (“Not enough,” he says), goes back deep into the first muffled, hissing, blues recordings and follows every tributary of black music up to ska and into reggae. His adoration for blues, r ’n’ b and rock ’n’ roll is a family trait; his father John Mayall is the famous bluesman, and his brother Jason is a music promoter of high standing.

But for Gaz the passion came from hunting down long-lost tracks and bringing them back to the people. To possess a collection of compilation cassettes Mayall made in the early Eighties was a sign of being well on the scene. Jools Holland says: “He had a university-level knowledge of music, so I had to buy the lot.”

start quoteI don’t care what people think so I don’t have to conform like most people do. If I think I look good it makes me feel goodfinal quote

Gaz started his career collecting vintage American clothing and selling it in a stall in the now-defunct Kensington Market. “The place was crowded every day,” he remembers. “Famous bands like Madness and The Clash would visit and peruse. It was one long party up there.”

Characteristically, he was doing this at the time of punk, but swimming against the cultural tide has never worried Mayall. Pop fashion comes and goes, but he boldly carves out his own way.

As for his collection of people, he assembles them at his Soho one-nighter, Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues, which has hummed to the same blend of ska, rock-steady and blues every Thursday since its inception 30 years ago, when he visited a seedy run-down joint called Gossips in Meard Street and told the owner he could fill it with his friends. He was given the chance, and packed the place out with his customers from the market, made more money in one night than he could in a week selling clothes, and promptly switched career.

During the three decades of Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues’ existence, the music Mayall plays has come in and out of style, but he doesn’t judge the club by the takings in the till. (As one of the songs that brings the punters to its cramped and packed dancefloor goes: “Your cash ain’t nothing but trash.”)

No, he judges it by the crowd. Joe Strummer once brought down Robert De Niro, and Ian Dury called it one of his favourite places in London. Jagger and Bowie were regulars, and Tracey Emin looked after the coats on the hat-check.

The night has now moved to the St Moritz club in Wardour Street. So if you’re strolling up that way on any Thursday night after midnight and see a queue snaking along the pavement – delinquents, dandies, thieves, aristocrats and drug-store cowboys, all looking like they own the night – then you’ll know you’re passing Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues.

You may see a tall, rangy man with a wide-brimmed fedora and slick suit, polished shoes and co-ordinated accessories. That’ll be Mayall, eyeing the queue, chatting with his clientele, charming the girls with a glint of his gold tooth, and lifting the rope for his many loyal friends.

What makes us seem the age we are is not just our appearance but our cultural associations. (A friend who recently had a facelift said the hardest thing about looking ten years younger is pretending she only has a sketchy knowledge of The Beatles and the Who.) But Gaz has never been interested in contemporary pop culture, and that gives him his timeless, youthful quality. When he was 20, he dressed like a 50-year-old.

“I don’t care what people think so I don’t have to conform like most people do,” he says. “I just know that if I think I look good it makes me feel good.”

He never wears high street clothes, never sets foot in supermarkets, eschews junk food, would never pick up a gossip mag – and his obsession with retro seeps into every part of his day. In July this year he took his girlfriend, the DJ and graphic artist Elinor Fahrman, on a 1930s-themed picnic. They dressed in Thirties clothes, put their bicycles and fishing rods on the train and got off at Marlow to picnic on their catch on the banks of the Thames, before bicycling back to the station.

Inevitably, the mainstream has tried to assimilate Mayall. He has his own venue at Glastonbury, where he introduces the festival crowds to his brand of entertainment. It’s surely only a matter of time before he’s given his own stage to programme.

At his hugely popular set-up at the Notting Hill Carnival there is always a queue of big-name musicians trying to get on to the stage. Last year Johnny Borrell and Razorlight wanted to perform, but Gaz only gave them permission if they played classic covers, which they agreed to. It was the first time they had ever played covers in public.

If Gaz has a weakness, it is his tendency to take things a little too far, which is surely only an excess of enthusiasm. I have seen him attempt to serve road-kill buzzard to a table of hungry and frankly unimpressed friends. He often claims there is no meat that cannot be eaten, even if his fricassee of badger proves the opposite.

And although he has mellowed of late, if you went on a bender with him in the past you had to write off the next three days of your life (and chalk a year off its end). His memoir, Gaz’s Rockin Blues: The First 30 Years, was published early last year and includes every single flyer the club ever produced – hundreds of them – when an edited selection would have had much more impact.

So what is the secret of being Gaz Mayall? “It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing,” he says. “Then you cannot go wrong.”

Now watch At home with Gaz Mayall