IT AIN'T EASY
Long John Baldry and the Birth of the British Blues
By Paul Myers
GreyStone, 269 pages, $24.95
Picture a 6-foot, 7-inch English dandy who could bawl the blues like Lead Belly. That was Long John Baldry, a legendary figure in the early British blues scene - born in the blitz in East London in January, 1941, died in Vancouver in July, 2005, as a Canadian citizen, a beloved mentor and performer, and one of the music world's great eccentrics.
Baldry's passion for the blues was authentic. While postwar England tuned in trad jazz and skiffle, he was among the few who sought out imported blues records, then sat mesmerized by the voices of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. By his late teens, Baldry had learned the style and was singing in his big, raspy voice to enraptured crowds in dank English jazz cellars. He was idolized by aspiring musicians, a surprising number of whom went on to riches and fame. Baldry never reached those heights, too often, as one contemporary put it, "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." Still, he was a vivid, gifted and much-loved figure. "When Baldry sang," says Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, "even in the noisiest, booziest pubs in the land, you could hear a pin drop."
His story is told briskly and well in journalist and musician Paul Myers's It Ain't Easy: Long John Baldry and the Birth of the British Blues. The biography is likely to be definitive. The important voices are here: friends, family, famous protégés. It's an affectionate account, part glimpse into a vibrant music scene, part life story of a talented but troubled man. Baldry had a droll wit and an aristocratic mien, and could command a stage with power and flair. Cheerfully eccentric, popular, in love with music and sharp clothes, Baldry was a late-night fixture in London's hip clubs in the sixties. He could never resist a party or a drink.
Baldry was also gay, a criminal offence in Britain at the time, and a definite challenge to his publicists.
Myers's biography captures the exhilaration of an extraordinary time when a new raw music took centre stage in Britain. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks - Long John shared billing with all of them, from the famous Star Club in Hamburg to London's Marquee. His rhythm-and-blues combos were often the talk of the town. (Baldry was also a convincing soul singer with a keen ear for talent.) He invited a youngster he heard playing blues harmonica into the late-night fog at Twickenham Station into the Hoochie Coochie Men, and made a lifelong friend of Rod Stewart. He added keyboard wizard Reg Dwight to Bluesology before Reg changed his name to Elton John, partly in tribute to the towering Baldry.
But while his protégés went on to become arena-rock megastars, Baldry's career stalled. Blame bad advice, too much nightlife and love of drink. He did have a number one hit in Britain - a cheesy ballad called Let the Heartaches Begin, which alienated his blues fans. Feeling unwanted at home, he made a splash in North America with a Rod- and Elton-produced album called It Ain't Easy. The hard-driving title tune was a delight, so was Long John's droll storytelling about his early busking days on Don't Try to Lay No Boogie Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll. It was enough to put him briefly into U.S. arenas as an opening act, but he rose no higher. "There was probably a point in his life," Rod Stewart tells Myers, "when he must have thought. 'Fuck it. Everybody and everything has left me behind.' "
Baldry soldiered on, beset by bad luck, poor and sometimes dishonest management and his own self-destructive tendencies. Drugs and depression confined him briefly to a mental asylum. He responded with an album called Baldry's Out! (the title made his gay fans smile). By the 1980s, he was living in Canada, where he'd always felt welcome, eventually settling in Vancouver with his long-time partner, Felix (Oz) Rexach. He did voiceover and stage work, toured occasionally and made blues albums for the Edmonton-based Stony Plain label. He never tired of telling stories of "the old days," and Rod, Elton, Mick Jagger and others kept in touch. Health problems eventually set in, but Baldry never lost his ability to command a stage or his mighty trademark voice.
Who was he? He was the theatrical blonde giant who strolled London's Muswell Hill with his pet goat. He was an idol to teenage girls by day and a gay sybarite by night (often in the company of Oliver's Lionel Bart). He was a deep lover of the blues who sat with Willie Dixon as the great bluesman lay dying. Difficult, temperamental. "There was a darkness to him. I could sense that the guy was troubled," Eric Clapton recalls. A generous and loyal friend. "A near-genius IQ," says his sister Margaret, "and not an ounce of common sense."
In the end, in Myers's entertaining and colourful account, he is remembered with great affection and held in high esteem ("unique style ... great presence ... a lovely man," Paul McCartney recalls). There is a sadness to this tale, and wistfulness pervades much recent writing on the classic 1960s artists as they pass into history. Producer Joe Boyd's recent White Bicycles comes to mind, as does John Colapinto's New Yorker profile, McCartney at 64.
For all the exhilaration of Long John Baldry's early years, he gathered pain and hardship as his life went on. Still, Baldry loved the stage and earned his place on it. He will be remembered. "Let's be marvellous," he would say. "Let's let our hair down. There's too much boredom around."
Peter Feniak is a Toronto writer, consultant and pop culture commentator. He recommends Baldry in '65 with the Brian Auger Trinity on YouTube as well as longjohnbaldry.com.