A Story Of British Blues
LONG JOHN BALDRY
tribute by Andrew Darlington
LOOKING AT LONG JOHN
One night at... it might have been the Bag O' Nails, or possibly The Cromwellian, wherever it is the mid-1960s' bright young things graze. And Long John Baldry, one of the 'fathers of British blues' - is eloquently, and loudly mocking the Small Faces' for hitting #1 with Shalalalalee - a 'soul sell-out'. He's hitless of course, but therefore pristinely purer, vindicated by being untainted by crass pop. They know it too. For Long John is a tall, dapper, smart-dressed blues-shouter of impeccable credentials, growling out blues breaks long before it became the trendy thing to do - his roots as a folk and jazz singer, guitar, and harmonica, but mostly... voice, extends way back into the 1950s' clubs and coffee bars.
The origins of British blues go back a long way. Its origins can, for sake of argument, be precisely dated to the day Cyril Davies opens the London Blues & Barrelhouse Club with Alexis Korner as early as 1955. Still an obscure cult thing for hepcat beatniks and jazzniks, it plays Thursday-night sessions attracting and showcasing visiting US bluesmen. Some time in 1961 the duo form the UK's first amplified blues band, Blues Incorporated by gathering a startling array of obsessives who will graduate into defining the soon-come blues and R 'n' B underground, with a stellar line-up including - at different times, Art Wood (vocals), Charlie Watts (drums), Jack Bruce (bass), Graham Bond (organ), Phil Seamen (drums), and John soon-to-be 'Long John' Baldry (vocals). And just how long is 'Long'? How much stature do you need? For comic effect the music press once pose him alongside Brenda Lee, the diminutive original 'Miss Dynamite', but oddly the resulting shot resembles one of those anthropological pygmy and bushman studies of human physical extremes. Even stood on a chair she barely gets to eye-to-eye him. He's variously recorded as an imposing 6' 7" or even 6' 9", with fair usually short disciplined hair, and grey-green eyes. And sartorial fastidiousness is always a matter of no small importance to him.
Born John William Baldry on 12 January 1941 in East Haddon, Derbyshire, he endures education at Downer Grammar School in Edgware before graduating into work as a commercial artist. It's a promising career - but he's already seen Big Bill Broonzy in 1953, and, although he'll continue painting, his developing passion for Joe Williams, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Count Basie and Duke Ellington leaves little space for the uptight restrictions of the conventional world. A 1971 album-opener amusingly narrates a slice of nostalgia about how he once got hauled up before the local magistrates for busking and causing a public nuisance, this incident must have occurred around the time of his stage-debut at an Acton Town Hall Folk Concert in 1957. An inauspicious start, perhaps, but one followed by a knocking-about the folk club circuit tour with Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and his first professional appearance as teenage lead guitarist with Bob Cort's Skiffle Group in Denmark in November 1960, before he achieves his breakthrough set at the Richmond Jazz Festival only a year later. It's a burgeoning scene, and things are happening fast, he does his first radio shot on a 1959 edition of the BBC programme Easy Beat, then TV (The Acker Bilk Show in 1961). Then he's part of Blues Incorporated with Alexis and Cyril Davies, a landmark band referred to in hushed reverential tones to this day - even though he quits a few months after its formation in 1962 to tour German USAF bases with the Horace Silver Quintet hard-bop jazz band.
This pioneering blues thing is a fiercely competitive clique, riven by feuds and schisms, but it's also a community united by its shared adhesion to the primacy of its black American origins. It's intense riotous fun, simultaneously elitist in its purity, hoarding rare import albums and singles, yet evangelical in its energies, trading enthusiasms, sharing secrets of technique and style. While near-Stalinist in its extremist rigid pursuit of an authenticity that is - objectively, impossible to achieve for white youths in London. One such ideological schism, Cyril Davies' dislike of his shared outfit's sax-lead direction, provokes him to quit and launch his own more Chess/ Muddy Waters-orientated breakaway 'R&B All-Stars' with Nicky Hopkins (formerly of Screaming Lord Sutch's Savages). Long John joins up on his return... while the pop world beyond is still preoccupied with the catchy pop confections of Adam Faith and Eden Kane. It's Long John singing on Cyril Davies' rare and highly collectable single Country Line Special and its 'sequel' Preachin' The Blues, and somewhere around this time an unpromising newly-formed Rolling Stones provide support for the band at The Marquee. Until, on Davies' leukaemia-death on 7th January 1964, Long John renames the band the Hoochie Coochie Men and fronts it himself for the best part of the following year.
By now this upstart blues is grabbing moribund rock 'n' roll by its scruff, and - to mix metaphors, reigniting its flame as the skeletal 12-bar armature of all the evolutions to come, redirecting the erstwhile UK pop scene towards its eventual conquest of the planet. For Long John, there's a guest-slot playing Got My Mojo Working on Around The Beatles, a TV show renewing an acquaintance formed back at the Liverpool 'Cavern', and providing him with massive national exposure. It showcases a cool blues authority investing him with an effortless superiority that distances him from fellow guests P.J. Proby and Cilla Black. It's also the first time I get to see him perform, probably the first time I really become aware of him beyond seeing his name in club-date ads on the back pages of music papers. That same year, according to legend (recounted in the liner notes of Right To Sing The Blues), Long John stumbles across aspiring blues-growler Rod Stewart on the midnight platform of Twickenham railway station "playing harmonica under a pile of football scarves" and busking Muddy Waters. This unlikely encounter provokes Rod to switch from his night-job with Jimmy Powell's Five Dimensions to become second vocalist with the Hoochie Coochie Men. The blues family tree confusingly complexifies as - soon after that year, as the group break up, Rod takes time out to cut a solo single (Good Morning Little Schoolgirl for Decca, October 1964), only to rejoin Baldry who takes him forward into the new Steampacket project. It's now mid-1965, and Steampacket lasts a year as a kind of touring R&B revue. There's Brian Auger (keyboards), Rick Brown (bass), Mickey Waller (drums), with Long John and Rod as first and second vocalist. With guitarist Vic Briggs and Julie Driscoll waiting in the wings.
Powered by Chuck 'n' Bo, but also John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, and Muddy Waters, the rock-blues scene is escalating from hairy to hairier, on increasingly raw amplification and hoarser vocals. Yet within it all Baldry's husky timbre retains a sophisticated understanding and control of his genre rare among the harmonica-wailing amphetamine noise-merchants. Combined with an equally rare sense of sartorial style. And he's a conspicuous member of the in-crowd haunting the night-clubbing scene. I talk to Kink Dave Davies who recalls "Long John Baldry was a famous habitué of The Cromwellian and I enjoyed talking with him about Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, and music in general until the wee hours of the morning. One night, when I noticed that Long John had been drinking too much, I suggested he stay with me at the Ashburn (hotel). I didn't know that he was gay..." and they spend the night "sat talking, kissing, and holding hands. It was very beautiful." At the time, of course, Dave is riding high on the chart. The 'Stones too, with Long John acting as tour-compere for the band who'd once opened for him... Perhaps this is part of his impatience for greater visibility, to translate his undoubted prestige status into hits?
On the brink of these anticipations, there's a subsequent stint fronting Bluesology (from autumn 1966 to 1968), a line-up already capable of bragging its respectable track record of backing touring soulsters Major Lance and Billy Stewart - and it's an alliance that neatly takes Long John into his troublesome period of chart hits. While incidentally, the group's promising young keyboard player, Reggie Dwight thefts his new name from a fusion of sax-player 'Elton' Dean, and 'John' Baldry, to launch his own hits career. In fact, the Someone (Who) Saved My Life Tonight in his huge-selling future single, is none other than Long John! After Elton's gender-confusion suicide attempt in 1969 it's Baldry who sympathetically talks him through his problems and helps him to come to terms with his sexuality...
DON'T TRY TO LAY NO BOOGIE-WOOGIE ON THE KING OF ROCK 'N' ROLL...
Flipping through websites and obituaries now it becomes apparent that Long John is retrospectively defined by his associations - Rod and Elton, Mick and Charlie, Auger and Korner, which - of course, is all true, but tends to skew his real contribution. As one of the 'fathers of British blues' Baldry's vision was always purer, more 'academic' than it was commercial, more concerned with the authentic than it would ever be with winning over a mass audience. This is the spirit-legacy of the artful replications of Cyril Davies. But as blues became heavier and moves to dominate the mainstream those attitudes become diluted. Of course, no music can stay unchanged, it must evolve, otherwise it winds up a mere preservation heritage artefact, but it does need a persistent conscience to underpin it all, such is the touchstone Long John's continued presence provides. The later, and final, recordings - returning to Leadbelly, are entirely consistent with the vision that had ignited that fierce flame at the very start. The associations and the influences he inspired along the way were, and are, important. But it's that thread of truth we should be celebrating in his life.Meanwhile, back in the 1960s, it already begins to seem like Long John Baldry has been around forever. "I suppose I've been around so long they feel they can't ignore me," he confides to Record Mirror's Richard Green (November 1966). And later, to Melody Maker: "I try not to get too excited about success, or too desperate about failure" (4th November 1967). But that success/ failure ratio is about to go into overdrive. Like his contemporaries Van Morrison and Rod Stewart, John Baldry employs a smoky deep-blues voice with a genuine black resonance. But like Chris Farlowe, he does not originate material, and is hence dependent on a diet of pilfering authentic blues covers, or on the whim of other writers. For Farlowe, it is beat-compatriots Jagger and Richards' largesse that provides him with his #1 Out Of Time. While, although Long John does write B-sides and album tracks such as Hey Lord You Made The Night Too Long and I Thought I Heard A Train This Morning, he's essentially an interpreter rather than an originator of material. Which means, newly signed to Pye, he's tempted into the straightforward pop mainstream for the only hits of his career via an introduction to the Tony Macaulay and John McLeod hit-making song-machine. And so we - who care about such things as 'credibility', watch, horrified, as Long John's despairing tear-jerker Let The Heartaches Begin replaces Macaulay and McLeod's other composition Baby Now That I've Found You (by mixed-race soul-band The Foundations) as British chart-topper in November 1967, to spend no less than 13 weeks on the chart. He'd waited a long time for his hit. And ironically, just as other pioneers such as John Mayall are finally receiving their due credit, Baldry - suddenly becomes an unlikely pop star on Top Of The Pops, and is viewed as a high-profile sell-out. It could feasibly be argued that he's utilising the lushly orchestrated template of Ray Charles' slow-burning ballads with The Raelettes' sing-along sweetening - after all, there's an undeniable Ray Charles influence present since the very start of his career... but no, the record is merely an embarrassment. Although his dry husky voice invests it with a certain authority, despite his best efforts it remains the kind of lightweight MoR fluff that might have been passed over by bouncy toothsome Herman's Hermits, or the soporific snooze-along balladry of Englebert Humperdinck. An October 1970 album The Tony Macaulay & John MacLeod Songbook for the Marble Arch label places Baldry alongside other beneficiaries of their joint pen, The Foundations' Bad Bad Old Days and Pickettywitch's That Same Old Feeling! Hardly the company his blues pedigree would suggest. Steve Marriott & Co maintain a dignified silence.
Yet worse is to come. Of his four Macaulay and McLeod penned chart entries the BBC theme for its coverage of the 1968 Olympic Games guarantees Mexico a nightly visibility, and for sharp-suited Long John, it provides a return to the top 10. But after such excess the 1970s will prove to be a confusing period. Slipping off the credibility-radar, there's the scampi-and-chips, chicken-in-a-basket crooner nostalgia-circuit his pop celebrity now entitles him to, lucrative, but hardly something that ever comes easily to him. And whether his sarcastic words about the Small Faces sell-out comes back to haunt him during such forays we'll never know. "Maybe I just don't care about England anymore," he grumbles bitter and desolate to Melody Maker's Roy Hollingworth, "maybe I just don't care. They still think I'm playing the bloody Batley Variety Club!" (July 1972). Caught in limbo, he seems unsure whether it's even possible to fight back for his endangered blues credibility. "John Baldry's still Long" Hollingworth argues back, and "talent like that doesn't die, it's just forgotten for a while" (Melody Maker, 28th August 1971). Yet even then, at his career low-point, "he has all the airs of some big-time movie star. He hangs his body like maybe Charlton Heston does." His hair longer, in rusty beard and straw hat, he earns a grudging return to favour, a renaissance assisted by former colleagues, Roddie Stewart and Bluesology's ex-Reggie Dwight, now Elton John, who produce well-received new albums for him. He also tours in America where his reputation remains untainted by success, and where such patronage provides an edge. He plays Greenwich Village, and visits the real blues meat, "there's an auditorium in Chicago, and even at the Carnegie Hall. The pressing of 2,000 people against you, and the smell of those old, old boards. It's then that I'm at home." But the heartaches are still far from over.
There are tales of mental health problems leading to a brief mid-1970 period of psychiatric institutionalisation. After a spell living in New York - putting his deep-toned English accent to use for a four-part radio documentary The History Of British Rock, there's a restless relocation to L.A. (1978). Eventually he winds up moving to Vancouver in the early-1980s, recording a fine series of late albums for the Edmonton Alberta-based Stony Plain label, supplementing his income with commercial voiceover work. Bizarrely he contributes a track to the Disney label's Winnie The Poohsoundtrack CD, donates his voice to the Ewoks TV show, and also becomes Dr Ivo Robotnik on the Sonic The Hedgehog computer game. "I can do the voice and it is such an easy way to earn money. Honestly, you just go into a studio, idly chatter away in one voice or another, pop something down on tape and collect a cheque. What could be simpler?" There's even a final hit record, his duet version of You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling with Kathi McDonald in 1980 which charts in many territories, reaching #5 in Australia. Meanwhile, he takes Canadian citizenship, living contentedly with long-term partner Felix 'Oz' Rexach, playing clubs and issuing further modest, if well-received albums suffused with the tonal and structural ghosts of the blues. Until a severe chest infection and respiratory complications puts him in the ICU at the Vancouver General Hospital, where it ends on Thursday night, 22nd July 2005. In an affectionate Radio 2 tribute, blues contemporary Paul Jones recalls how Long John's sartorial fastidiousness always remained a matter of no small importance to him, even when faced with the mud of a rainy blues festival, and even while wearing a white suit...