Nightline Playlist: John Mayer

The star shares the songs and artists that have influenced his career.

Aug. 10, 2007 — -- When John Mayer was a boy, he fell in love with the guitar.

It was entirely Michael J. Fox's fault.

While watching Fox's character Marty McFly belt out "Johnny Be Good" in the '80s classic "Back to the Future," a young Mayer became enthralled. Soon after, his infatuation led him to pick up the instrument at the age of 13.

"My father rented an acoustic guitar from the music store," Mayer said. "I remember looking at the guitar going, 'Well, if I knew how to play you, I would play you.' And it was that simple. It was just like, I'm not gonna stand for not knowing how to play this. And I still don't."

Mayer, now 29, has held strong to his youthful determination. Since Mayer's debut album, "Room for Squares," was released in 2001, his work has garnered multiplatinum sales, critical acclaim and five Grammys including three best male pop vocal performance honors. The guitarist has also used his success to expand his influence outside the realm of music.

In 2002, Mayer started the Back to You Fund, a nonprofit organization that raises money for a variety of organizations dealing in health care, education and the arts by auctioning off different Mayer memorabilia. This summer he performed in one of the North American Live Earth concerts in order to raise awareness about global warming.

Mayer even had his own column in Esquire magazine entitled "Music Lessons With John Mayer," the topics ranged from analyzing the music on the shuffle feature of his iPod to challenging readers to write music for his unreleased lyrics.

So what songs does such a thriving artist listen to when trying to relax between gigs?

"Um. … Geez, I don't know," he said. "You're asking a musician to make a list. You're asking a musician to get all numeric. Can't I just draw my visual interpretation of what a Top 5 looks like?"

Despite his struggle, Mayer managed to come up with a few choice tracks.

With just two years of practice under his belt — and against his parents' wishes — Mayer began playing in local bars and clubs while still in high school. It was there that he continued to develop his guitar skills, as well as his growing love for the blues and soul music.

A young and impressionable Mayer gained a wealth of musical education from his experiences at these small venues, but they were nothing like Filmore East, the so-called "Church of Rock," where one of his playlist choices was recorded.

'Who Knows'

"Now I gotta get soulful," Mayer said. "Now I gotta get, uh, street with it so … maybe I'll put in Jimmy Hendrix … 'Who Knows' from the live at the Filmore record."

The live album, "Band of Gypsys," was recorded at the famous Filmore East, where Hendrix's new band debuted on New Year's Eve 1969. The album was released just five months before Hendrix's death in September 1970 and is said to have the definitive versions of several of the rock legend's songs. The Filmore recordings make up Hendrix's only live album, a record that reached No. 5 on the U.S. charts and later became one of his best-selling records.

While Mayer certainly doesn't consider himself of the same caliber as Hendrix, his impressive guitar skills have become a signature of his style. His developing mastery of the instrument coupled with a fusion of pop, rock and R&B are what define Mayer's sound. He is aware that some critics may chastise his blend of genres as "watered-down" music. He just doesn't care.

"I have my pop side and I have my blues side," he said. "Then what I'm really focusing on is the marriage between the two. That's when it's really interesting, when a whole — a world of different people can listen to the same song and each approach it from their own direction."

In recent years Mayer has collaborated with a wide range of artists, from rappers Kanye West and Common to guitar legends Eric Clapton and B.B. King. So it should come as no surprise that a variety of genres are represented in his playlist.

'Wrapped Around Your Finger'

Mayer says that "Wrapped Around Your Finger" by The Police is a must-have song for him. The Police were also known for merging a wide array of music genres; when their debut album, "Outlandos d'Amour," was released in 1978, their brand of rock was praised for its mix of jazz, reggae and punk music.

Although frontman Sting left the trio to pursue solo projects in 1984, effectively dissolving the group, The Police had by then recorded five different platinum or multiplatinum albums. "Synchronicity," their fifth and final album released in 1983, rocketed to No. 1 on both the U.S. and U.K. charts, went eight times platinum and featured four hit singles, including "Wrapped Around Your Finger."

"I need a Police song in there so I'm going to put 'Wrapped Around My Finger,'" said Mayer. "Music to me is more revealing than photographs are when it comes to looking at your past. When I listen to 'Wrapped Around Your Finger,' I listen to my childhood. I hear the first time I ever heard notes in a progression that moved me."


Of course, Mayer also included some more contemporary pop music on his list.

"Some awesome Ben Folds Five song…" Mayer said. "I want something from 'Whatever and Ever Amen.' … So I'm gonna go for, like, oh 'Fair.' That's a good song."

Ben Folds Five, the deceptively named trio formed in 1994 in Chapel Hill, N.C., quickly became central figures in the indie-rock world before breaking up in 2000. The song Mayer chose, from their second album released in 1997, was recorded in Folds' hometown in North Carolina. The record broke the Top 50 on the Billboard charts and is widely considered to be the group's best work.

"Pop music does have its kind of well-known, well-worn progressions," said Mayer, "but the vocabulary is a lot larger and a lot, in some ways, less complex."

'Givin' Up Food for Funk'

In keeping with his eclectic taste, Mayer moves from the biggest names in rock and pop to the "Godfather of Soul." James Brown and the J.B.'s were the next artists to squeeze into his Top 5.

"And now I want to go instrumental 'cause I need to cleanse," said Mayer. "So I'm gonna go right in between instrumental and singing … like 'Givin' Up Food for Funk.'"

The single was released in July 1972 and featured music by the J.B.'s, Brown's band for most of the '70s. The J.B.'s was more than just a backup group, however. It recorded several of its own albums, which Brown produced and frequently contributed to, and scored a number of chart hits throughout the '70s.

"Givin' Up Food for Funk" was just one of an endless series of hits for the self-proclaimed "hardest working man in show business." Brown's moniker is not without merit — he had a No. 1 single in each of the '50s, '60s and '70s.

Another highlight of Mayer's playlist comes from a singer-songwriter who was at the height of his popularity in the mid-1990s, an artist who much like Mayer sought to infuse his music with a wide range of genres.

'Last Goodbye'

"I have to put a Jeff Buckley song in there," Mayer said. "Maybe I'll put in 'Last Goodbye.'"

The song is featured on Buckley's debut album, "Grace." When the record was released in 1994, many considered Buckley one of the most promising artists of his generation. Sales of the record were low, but the album garnered widespread critical acclaim.

"Buckley's got huge ears and an even bigger record collection. He jumbles jazz, R&B, blues and rock references with such apparent nonchalance that he can seem like a showoff…" said Rolling Stone. The sixth track on the album, "Hallelujah," was named "one of the great songs" by Time magazine and was included in Rolling Stone's "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time."

Tragically Buckley was never able to release a sophomore effort. He drowned while swimming in the Wolf Harbor River near a house he was renting in Memphis, Tenn.

Last year Mayer released his third album, "Continuum," a record he said is an effort to perfectly merge the pop music he is famous for with his love for the blues. The record also includes what he considers his favorite of his own songs.

"'Gravity' is everything I've ever wanted a song to be," Mayer said.

So where does he go from here?

"When I finished 'Gravity' … it was kind of bittersweet because it was like, well, this is amazing," Mayer said. "This is how I want to be. This is the song I always wanted to write. And then it's also kind of a downer because it's like, well, this is the song I always wanted to write and now I've written it. So it's just a matter of going out and kind of increasing the capacity to feel and be so you need to write a more important song."

Click here for much more "Playlist" coverage, including everything on The Edge's list.