Long John Baldry

Singer and guitarist who influenced the 1960s rhythm and blues scene

Long John Baldry's influence on the 1960s rhythm and blues scene was considerable. As a performer, he had commercial success in 1967 with his singalong pop hit "Let the Heartaches Begin", and he also gave Rod Stewart and Elton John their first breaks. Stewart remarked, "In those days the only music we fell in love with was the blues and John with his wonderful voice was the first white guy singing it."

John Baldry was born in Haddon, Derbyshire in 1941. Even as a baby, he was nicknamed "Long John": he measured two feet at birth and eventually grew to be 6ft 7in tall. When eight years old, he saw a BBC television programme, Kaleidoscope, and became intrigued by the blues music used to accompany an experiment with ultra-violet lighting, Sonny Terry's "Stone Fox Chase".

By the age of 12, he was listening to Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy and learning 12-string guitar. He made his first public appearance in 1956 and began accompanying Champion Jack Dupree and Memphis Slim. The publicity for a concert with Dupree in Bradford called Baldry "The World's Greatest White 12-String Guitarplayer".

The London rhythm and blues scene at the time centred around Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies and their group, Blues Incorporated. The fluid line-up included Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Charlie Watts, alongside such guest vocalists as Baldry, Mick Jagger, Paul Jones and, now sadly confined to oblivion, Hogsnort Rupert. Baldry had three vocals on the album R&B From the Marquee (1962).

In 1962 Baldry toured Germany working with the vibraphonist Gunther Hampel and his Quartet. He returned to find Korner and Davies at loggerheads; Davies had decided to leave Blues Incorporated and form a new band, the All-Stars. Baldry said, "Both Alex and Cyril were anxious for me to join their bands, and I joined Cyril on the toss of a half-crown." When in 1964 Davies died, Baldry assumed leadership, renaming the unit Long John Baldry and the Hoochie Coochie Men. The musicians ranged from 19 to 48, the youngest of whom was Rod Stewart. "Yes, you can say I discovered Rod Stewart," Baldry reflected,

It was Twickenham Railway Station, 7 January 1964, and he was playing the harmonica riff from "Smokestack Lightnin'". I thought it sounded pretty authentic and I said, "Do you want to have a jam on Tuesday?" and he said, "Sure".

Baldry needed a harmonica player and someone to sing occasionally, in order to give him a break during an evening's performance.

His mum rang me and said, "Are you paying him?"

"Yes."

"And will you make sure he behaves himself?"

"Yes, Elsie, yes."

The Hoochie Coochie Men was short-lived, but soon Baldry, Stewart, Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll formed Steampacket. The band did well at the Richmond Jazz and Blues Festival and on tour with the Rolling Stones, but there were management problems over recording contracts. Baldry was looking for another new band, but did not want the rigmarole of forming another line-up. He recalled,

I was at a gambling casino on the Cromwell Road opposite the V&A, the Cromwellian Club. There was live music in the basement and this night it was Bluesology with Reg Dwight playing keyboards, and I gave them the job en bloc.

Baldry's rich voice was appreciated by two songwriting producers at Pye Records, Tony Macaulay and John MacLeod. They gave him a polished pop/soul ballad, "Let the Heartaches Begin". Macaulay remembered, "Long John Baldry sings it extraordinarily well, thanks to three-quarters of a bottle of Courvoisier." The record climbed to the top and Baldry performed it on the Royal Variety Performance in 1968.

Baldry had further hits with "When the Sun Comes Shinin' Thru", "It's Too Late Now" and "Mexico" ("That was done for the Olympic Games in 1968 and it was constantly on the radio," said Baldry, "I wanted to scream every time I heard the damn thing. Talk about overkill . . .") The albums Let the Heartaches Begin (1968) and Wait For Me (1969) include some excellent cover versions, such as "Stay with Me and "Man Without a Dream".

When Reg Dwight told Baldry that he was leaving Bluesology to pursue a career as a singer and songwriter, the band decided to give him a new name. They took "Elton" from their saxophone player, Elton Dean, and Dwight added "John" as a tribute to Baldry. Baldry had once prevented Dwight from committing suicide, and this later became the subject of the Elton John song "Someone Saved My Life Tonight".

In 1971 Baldry released the album It Ain't Easy, produced by Elton John and Rod Stewart. He promoted it in North America and liked Canada so much that he moved to Vancouver. A witty and friendly man, he quickly became acclimatised to their musical scene. He had a Canadian hit with "Don't Try to Lay No Boogie Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll" and he recorded several albums there, including Baldry's Out (1979, following a spell in a psychiatric hospital), It Still Ain't Easy (1991), Right to Sing the Blues (1996) and Remembering Leadbelly (2001). His main income came from lending his deep voice to commercials and to cartoon characters, including Dr Robotnik in Sonic the Hedgehog.

The inevitable question to ask Long John Baldry was how tall he was. When I met him on a UK tour with the Manfreds in 2002, I did so and he replied,

Sadly, I'm shrinking, as I have osteoporosis of the spine and I'm getting a buffalo hump. I have to be very careful about getting out of the bath as if I broke my hip it might take forever to repair. I'm Shrinking John Baldry now, but I was 6ft 7in.

Spencer Leigh

Comments