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Long John Baldry 7/2005

July 21, 2005 – Long John Baldry  was born on January 12th 1941 in London*, England. (*Conflicting evidence exists about Baldry’s birthplace. Some say he was born in the village of Haddon. VH1’s profile of Baldry states he was born in the village of East Maddon, while states he was born in London. The documentary Long John Baldry: In the Shadow of the Blues states that his mother escaped London during The Blitz to give birth in Northampton, making East Haddon his most likely birthplace.)

Long John begun his career playing folk and jazz in the late 50s, he toured with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott before moving into R&B.

His strong, deep voice won him a place in the influential Blues Incorporated, following which he joined Cyril Davies’ R & B All Stars. After Davies’ death, Long John fronted the Hoochie Coochie Men, which also included future superstar Rod Stewart, who later joined Baldry in Steam Packet.

After a brief period with Bluesology (which boasted a young Elton John on piano & keyboards), Long John decided to go solo and record straightforward pop. Already well known on the music scene, he nevertheless appeared an unusual pop star in 1967 with his sharp suits and imposing 6 ft 7 inch height.

An English gentleman, a dandy and quietly yet confidently gay, Baldry’s blues enthusiasm and booming baritone voice in the late 50s and 60s inspired The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, while also discovering the young Rod Stewart, whom he chanced upon playing harmonica at a train station, and a chubby piano player named Reginald Dwight, who ended up changing his name to Elton John, partly in tribute to Baldry.

Like Cliff Richard, Chris Farlowe, Slade, Blur, and eel pie, Long John Baldry is one of those peculiarly British phenomena that doggedly resists American translation. As a historical figure, he has undeniable importance. When he began singing as a teenager in the 1950s, he was one of the first British vocalists to perform folk and blues music. In the early ’60s, he sang in the band of British blues godfather Alexis Korner, Blues Incorporated, which also served as a starting point for future rock stars Mick Jagger, Jack Bruce, and others. As a member of Blues Incorporated, he contributed to the first British blues album, R&B at the Marquee (1962). He then joined the Cyril Davies R&B All Stars, taking over the group (renamed Long John Baldry and His Hoochie Coochie Men) after Davies’ death in early 1964. This band featured Rod Stewart as a second vocalist, and also employed Geoff Bradford (who had been in an embryonic version of the Rolling Stones) on guitar.

In the mid-’60s, he helped form Steampacket, a proto-supergroup that also featured Stewart, Julie Driscoll, and Brian Auger. When Steampacket broke up, he fronted Bluesology, the band that gave keyboardist Reg Dwight — soon to become Elton John — his first prestigious gig. He was a well-liked figure on the London club circuit, and in fact the Beatles took him on as a guest on one of their 1964 British TV specials, at a time when the Fab Four could have been no bigger, and Baldry was virtually unknown.

Ironically, his greatest commercial success came not with blues, but orchestrated pop ballads that echoed Engelbert Humperdinck. The 1967 single “Let the Heartaches Begin” reached number one in Britain, and Baldry had several other small British hits in the late ’60s, the biggest of which was “Mexico” (1968). Yet none of these made an impression in the U.S.

The commercial success of his ballads led Baldry to forsake the blues on record for a few years. He returned to blues and rock in 1971 on It Ain’t Easy, for which Rod Stewart and Elton John shared the production duties. The album contained a tiny American chart item, “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock’n’Roll,” and Stewart and John split the production once again on the 1972 follow-up, Everything Stops for Tea. Baldry never caught on as an international figure, though, and by 1980 had become a Canadian citizen. He continued to record, and did commercial voice-overs as well as the voice of Doctor Robotnik in children’s cartoons.

After battling a severe chest infection for several months, Long John Baldry passed away on July 21, 2005, while hospitalized in Vancouver. He was 64.

• The Making of a Legend by Rod Stewart (Reader’s Digest/Dec/ 2004)
Long John Baldry launched me on my musical career. I was 18 and playing harmonica and singing a Muddy Waters song in a railway station, when Long John Baldry ran over to me from the other side of the tracks. I had just been to see him play at a club; he was one of the top Bluesmen in England. But John didn’t sing Muddy Waters songs – he knew Muddy Waters, had performed with him and with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott too.

And now he was asking, ” Would you like to join the band?” For me, just shaking his hand – knowing all the great musicians whose hand he’d shaken before – was mind-blowing. But so was John. Picture this elegant man with a proper English accent, never without a tie, a towering six-foot-seven. I was a huge fan and I was intimidated by his offer. Rod Stewart wasn’t in demand in those days; no one was interested.

I immediately said yes. John had a knack for discovering talent. Ginger Baker, Jeff Beck and Brian Jones all worked with him early on. Elton John played piano in one of his bands, other Rolling Stones too – Charlie, Ron Wood, and Keith.

In 1962, when The Rolling Stones were just getting started, they opened for him in London. Eric Clapton has said many times that John was one of the musicians that inspired him to play the Blues. And for their internationally televised special in 1964, The Beatles invited John to perform his version of ‘I Got My Mojo Working’.

In those days the only music we fell in love with was the Blues, and John was the first white guy singing it, in his wonderful voice. It was the true Blues and everyone looked up to him. I wasn’t very good on the harmonica, but my gravelly voice caught his attention. He was the first person of any stature to tell me, “You really have the gift. You have what it takes”.

He turned some of us into musical legends, but it was never what he expected from himself. You didn’t hear John on the radio or see him on TV. He just played these clubs that I started going to when I was 16. At the time I hadn’t thought much about performing except as a way to meet girls. John put me on an amazing wage, close to $100 a week, which in the early ‘60s was an astronomical amount.

I remember thinking, “If this lasts for 6 months I’ll be able to buy a little sports car which I’d been saving for. Of course, that would help me get some girls”. We didn’t rehearse before my first performance with John’s band and I was very nervous so I had a few drinks. John introduced me as an ‘up-and-coming’ new singer and I sang John Lee Hooker’s classic ‘Dimples’, which died a death!

There was a horrible silence after my performance. But John was great. He’s one of the kindest guys, reassuring and positive. He just said, “Well come away, don’t worry about it.” Then he had me come to his apartment the next day and go through some songs on the guitar to get the keys worked out.

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