The Development of the British Blues, show 21-22-2014
Long John Baldry
Much of Cyril Davies’ short history was given in the Alexis Korner information from two weeks ago. He was born outside London in 1932 and was a more than competent 12-string guitarist and banjo player, but he was to make his mark as by far the most dominant blues harmonica man in the country. While working days as owner of an auto body repair shop, he put in four years of nights playing banjo in the Trad Jazz band, Steve Lane’s Southern Stompers. It was later, in 1955 when he ran the Skiffle club, that he began to learn the 12-string guitar.
Where we left off last show, Davies had split with Alexis Korner, who kept the name Blues Incorporated, to form his own band the All Stars in November of 1962. Their original lineup included four members from Lord Sutch’s Savages: Bernie Watson on guitar (although Jimmy Page is also mentioned as having a very brief spot to start), Ricky Brown on bass, Carlo Little behind the drums and Nicky Hopkins on piano, plus Long John Baldry handling most of the vocals. They quickly recorded two Davies originals for their first single in February 1963 for the Pye label, Country Line Special and Chicago Calling, followed in August by Preaching the Blues and Sweet Mary, and somewhere along the line they recorded Someday Baby, which Pye apparently did not release at the time, and Not Fade Away, possibly for another label.
In January ’63 to positive critical acclaim, the band added The Velvettes, a South African vocal trio who had just completed a London engagement of the musical King Kong, for at least a couple of gigs For the first month of Davies’ Thursday night Marquee engagement, the Rolling Stones played during the intermissions but were let go by the club when they asked for more money. The All Stars’ rhythm section of Little and Brown had gigged with the Stones on occasions during December and January and the Stones even offered Carlo membership in the band, but he chose to stay with Davies because the Stones appeared to be going more towards a Chuck Berry style than the All Stars. Besides, Davies was better known.
But the band did not stay intact much longer. Nicky Hopkins became ill in May of 1963 and had to be replaced by Keith Scott. Brown left in June to rejoin Lord Sutch as did Little soon afterward and Watson left to join Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. That amounts to the entire band save Baldry and Davies. Page returned for another brief interlude, but soon the new cast was assembled with drummer Mickey Waller, bassist Cliff Barton and guitarist Geoff Bradford joining Scott on piano. By the time Davies would pass away, Johnny Parker had taken over the piano role and Bob Wackett was doing the drumming.
Towards the end of 1963, Cyril was suffering from pleurisy and increased his intake of alcohol to manage the pain while not significantly decreasing the band’s playing schedule to get more rest. He would die at the age of 31 in January 1964, officially of endocarditis but also often mentioned as resulting from leukemia.
We took our music for the Cyril Davies sets from two CDs listed as Alexis Korner featuring Cyril Davies. The first set contained selections from the CD Blues from the Roundhouse, which contains not only the three original releases of that title but also all the other early Korner / Davies recordings through 1957, including all four songs from the Beryl Bryden sessions as well as the Ken Colyer Skiffle releases (which were just prior to Davies coming into the picture), following up later with another set taken from their historic 1962 album R&B from the Marquee (which also features vocals by Long John Baldry). Why was Alexis given top billing? Perhaps Korner was more influential as far as picking the rest of the band, but of the two founding members, Cyril was the better vocalist and musician, generally considered the best Blues harp player in the country.
Sandwiched between these, we jump ahead to March 4th 1964 for three songs featuring Long John Baldry backed up by Chris Barber’s band and including Chris’ wife Ottilie Patterson and Rod Stewart joining him on the vocals, although Stewart is only on Up Above My Head, a song firmly in the repertoire when Rod and Long John would get together. We immediately move on to the 1964 single of Willie Dixon’s You’ll Be Mine leading into selected tracks from the 1965 debut album Long John Baldry and his Hoochie Coochie Men. This comes from the first of two discs, the cream of the CD Looking at Long John Baldry, The UA Years 1964-1966; the second disc is almost entirely not to my taste.
We return to Baldry later in the show with songs from the 1965 Steampacket album plus a few from the two later albums It Ain’t Easy and Everything Stops for Tea. I expect to have enough time to wind up the show up with a couple of studio tracks Davies recorded with his All Stars, Someday Baby and Not Fade Away.
At six foot seven inches tall, Long John Baldry was a standout in just about any crowd and when you stack him up alongside the singers who made the Blues popular in Great Britain, he is still the same imposing figure. Baldry, born in January of 1941, began accompanying himself on 12-string guitar around the coffee houses of London and soon did it well enough to impress visiting piano players such as Memphis Slim and Champion Jack Dupree into inviting him to back them on their late 1950s concert tours of Britain. Later, in February 1962, he joined Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies in Blues Incorporated as their lead singer until, in July, he opted to tour Germany with the Swiss Storyville Hot Six, among other groups. Korner wanted him back so badly after the breakup with Davies that he paid Long John’s fare back home. When he got back, Baldry sang with both Blues Incorporated and the All Stars until he opted for Davies’ group near the end of January, saying he went with Davies because, “Alexis was too hospitable to other musicians and I didn’t want to share the stage with twenty other singers”, but also claimed the decision was made on the toss of a coin. When Davies passed away prematurely early in 1964, Baldry kept the band together and changed their name from the All Stars to the Hoochie Coochie Men because another Muddy Waters tune appeared to work well as the name for the Rolling Stones.
The original Hoochie Coochie Men are all heard on the album Long John’s Blues, although it doesn’t quite match up with my understanding of the All Stars at the time of Davies’ demise. They include Billy Law, one of many drummers that would drift through the band; bassist Cliff Barton, who had turned down an offer from John Mayall in favor of Davies’ All Stars; pianist Ian Armit, who did not appear to be in the All Stars but would oftentimes accompany Long John through 1972; and guitarist Geoff Bradford. Conspicuously missing from the album is Rod Stewart, but he is heard on Up Above My Head with Ottilie Patterson and the Chris Barber Band. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that when Stewart and Baldry sing together, it is more often than not a Gospel tune, as with this Sister Rosetta Tharpe example.
A longtime friendship was forged between Baldry and Stewart after Long John heard Rod singing a Muddy Waters tune at West London’s Twickenham station following a performance by the Hoochie Coochie Men at the Eel Pie Island nightclub in 1964(?). Rod was with him in 1965 when vocalist Julie Driscoll and organist Brian Auger joined the band and transformed it into Steampacket. (I have nothing to confirm this yet, but the only brief reference I have found made it sound more like a transition than a whole new band.) The band broke up in 1966 and Long John then began another friendship, this time with Elton John, known then by his real name of Reginald Dwight, as the band Bluesology was formed. Dwight combined the first names of guitarist Elton Dean and John Baldry to form his new stage name.
Baldry had long been known to be gay by his friends and associates, but stern British laws kept him from making it public until his 1979 album Baldry’s Out celebrated that fact and also his release from a mental institution where he had been briefly detained for mental problems in 1975. In the meantime, Bluesology had broken up in 1968 but Baldry, now embarking on a solo career, was there to support Elton John when, in 1969, he attempted to commit suicide over a relationship with a woman. Elton John was found by his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin and Baldry and the two convinced him not to marry the woman. Elton’s song Someone Saved My Life Tonight came out of that situation.
Baldry’s 1971 LP It Ain’t Easy had Rod Stewart and Elton John each producing a side, as they did again on the 1972 follow-up, Everything Stops for Tea. It Ain’t Easy was well received in the U.S., making the top 100 album list, and its song Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll became his best known hit.
Baldry had other hits, but none as big. In 1967 he had hit number one in the British pop charts with Let the Heartaches begin and the next year’s top twenty number, Mexico, became the 1968 UK Olympic team’s theme song. His duet version of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling with Seattle songstress Kathi MacDonald barely made the US charts but ran up to #5 in Australia in 1980, although the same Wikipedia article says it reached #2. MacDonald toured with Long John for decades afterwards. His album Right to Sing the Blues won a 1997 Juno Award in the category of Blues albums. I recently purchased the album and I can easily see how they came to that opinion. John went all the way back to his earliest musical inspiration for what would be his final album, 2002’s Tribute to Leadbelly.
Baldry spent some time in New York City and Los Angeles but, in 1978, found my birthplace of Vancouver, British Columbia more to his liking and became a Canadian citizen. Wikipedia lists his last live show being in Columbus, Ohio, on July 19th 2004, at Barristers Hall with guitarist Bobby Cameron, but also says his final UK Tour as 'The Long John Baldry Trio' concluded on November 13th 2004 at The King's Lynn Arts Centre in Norfolk, England. The trio consisted of LJB, Butch Coulter on harmonica and Dave Kelly on slide guitar. Last time I looked at my calendar, I thought November came after July. Oh well ….
Baldry died on 21 July 2005, in Vancouver of a chest infection. In addition to his musical career, he also voice over’s for animated projects and, I believe, documentaries. One thing I gleaned from an interview on the Right to Sing the Blues CD was that he shared vocals with Willie Dixon in Willie Dixon’s Dream Band right before Willie passed away with the impressive cast of Mose Allison at the piano, Carey Bell on blues harp, Al Duncan sitting at the drums, Rob Wasserman playing bass and Cash McCall on guitar.
Here I would like to add a little more about bandleader Chris Barber before we get too far removed from his relevance. Although very little of his music has appeared on these shows, so many of the musicians we have thus far discussed appeared in his bands and it was while under his tutelage that their decisions to go more deeply into the blues became firmly grounded. This multi-talented music man (trombone, bass trumpet, bass, vocalist, composer and arranger) set up his first band in 1948. He attempted a merger with Ken Colyer in 1953, but as George Melly stated, “the whole band was sacked or sacked Ken, depending on who was telling the story”. Key members of the early band were his future wife and vocalist Ottilie Patterson, guitarist Lonnie Donegan, trumpeter Pat Halcox (who stayed with him for decades) and clarinetist Monty Sunshine. Sunshine’s Petite Fleur did much to establish the popularity of Trad Jazz, much as Donegan’s version of Rock Island Line did for Skiffle, both numbers having been recorded as part of the Barber ensemble.
Barber’s appreciation for the Blues and his willingness to incorporate it into their routine, and before that Skiffle, helped him to maintain his audience even in the face of competition from the new force in British music headed up by the Beatles. He was not averse to putting rock musicians alongside his Jazzmen (such as drummer Peter York after his time with the Stevie Winwood era Spencer Davis Group) while continuing with his Jazz projects including, in the 80s, a collaboration with Dr. John on Take Me Back to New Orleans which included recording and concert appearances.