Graham Reid | | 4 min read
They didn't call him Long John for nothing. Standing more than 2m tall, John Baldry was a towering figure in British r'n'b during the 60s.
Alongside John Mayall, Long John Baldry was a kingmaker whose various groups included the young Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, later of the Rolling Stones, and the 16-year-old Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin). Rod Stewart, whom Baldry spotted playing harmonica in Twickenham station, was invited to join another of his bands, the Hoochie Coochie Men.
The list of talent that Baldry spotted, nurtured or played with is lengthy: Jeff Beck was invited to join the Hoochie Coochie Men (his wife wouldn't let him quit his day job, however), Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll were in Steampacket alongside Baldry, and the unknown singer Marsha Hunt - who went on to fame with Hair - was featured in The Long John Baldry Road Show of the mid-60s.
A young pianist called Reg Dwight - aka Elton John, who took the second half of his name from Baldry - was keyboard player in the singer's Bluesology.
As a rollcall of fame it is impressive, but today Baldry is the least-known of them all. His '67 hit Let the Heartaches Begin is a staple of British classic hits radio and was a top 20 hit here in January '68, but Baldry's career is a footnote in music encyclopaedias.
But time hasn't diminished the power of his voice, as is evident on his recent tribute album Remembering Leadbelly.
He recently toured Britain for two months with the Manfreds (an ersatz Manfred Mann band without Manfred) and was still singing Heartaches in its original key "which is funny because it's a fairly rangey song".
Baldry is full of anecdotes about those whose paths he crossed. But having lived in Canada for 20 or so years puts him outside the mainframe, especially since Heartaches was a hit everywhere but North America. He tours regularly, playing smoke-free clubs and at folk and blues festivals, and isn't unhappy joining nostalgia tours with the likes of the Manfreds.
He even laughs, at 61, about wanting another hit.
"One day, just to prove to myself I am still capable of it. The one's I've had in the past have all been by accident. I'm actually thinking of re-recording Heartaches because I can still sing it, and although on the original we had a 64-piece orchestra, these days it sounds very thin. Today you can get a fatter sound, which it requires, from just three or four instruments."
Suggest to Baldry these sound like the musings of an old man and he laughs.
"No, having a hit is not necessary to what I do because I have reached that point where I'm regarded as the British elder statesman of roots music - I prefer the term 'roots' to 'blues' - and I'm respected in North America because now I have reached a venerable age. And I'm still capable of getting up on stage and creating a storm.
"I have a following that will never go, and I make a decent living. I tour when I feel like it, but as a career mine is pretty haphazard."
But scan that impressive CV for the 60s - it gets rather more thin between the 70s and 90s - and you feel here is a man whom history sidestepped. He knew everyone of his era, had hits, appeared on television, toured the States, but the enormous fame that his colleagues attracted passed him by.
He says he never made the money he should have, as dodgy record companies didn't pay royalties: "Everyone has screwed me, but I've got a company of lawyers and detectives out there trying to get these things.
"I've got to think in terms of an old-age pension because I wouldn't get much from the Government, they could go bankrupt, so it's down to me to take my hands out of my pockets and I'm after several record companies right now."
Baldry doesn't sound bitter, but it seems fair to ask: Any regrets John?
"Oh no, a lot of it is being in the right place at the right time. Luck constitutes a great part of whether one becomes successful or not. Rod [Stewart] had a lot going for him and in a bizarre way was an attractive fellow and sexy to women."
But who would have thought that of little fat Elton with his myopic lenses squatting at a piano?
"He was a lucky bugger, although he worked hard. He's obsessive about everything he does and was obsessive about learning his craft and becoming a star."
And Baldry was on the road with earlier generations of history-book bluesmen such as Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and Sonny Boy Williamson.
"The Hoochie Coochie Men were the band of choice that everyone wanted to play with. Much has been made of Sonny Boy playing with the Yardbirds, but he musically disliked them. Everyone's favourite band was mine, with the result we went on the road with Jimmy Witherspoon, Hubert Sumlin, Howlin Wolf, Little Walter ... the list goes on."
When Baldry speaks about his experiences you can't help feel the man shouldn't be a footnote in a music encyclopaedia. The man is an encyclopaedia himself.
Long John Baldry died in July 2005. Tributes followed by a who's who of British and American musicians. He was 64.