So Long, Long John

Blues legend Baldry was a natural front man, pushed to the back.

By Steve Burgess 25 Jul 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Long John Baldry, my TV announced on Friday evening, is dead at age 64. It probably came as an unpleasant surprise to a lot of people, but perhaps the most surprising part for me was the second half of the sentence. Mentally I counted backwards to the mid-80s when I interviewed the legendary British bluesman during an Edmonton engagement. With a shock I realized that, when I met him, Baldry must have been in his mid-to-late 40s. Twenty years ago, Baldry was already a guy with some miles on the odometer.

To put it another way, 20 years ago Baldry was already into his third decade as a legend. A major figure on the London blues scene of the 60s, he subsequently enjoyed and endured the fate of a performer whose fame is eternally tied to names more famous than his own. No matter how many records he released, how many shows he gave, Baldry would always be known as the man who discovered Elton John and Rod Stewart. It was a proud accomplishment but a difficult burden. 20 years ago, he seemed understandably conflicted about it.

As I entered Baldry’s hotel room I could hear him in the bathroom. He seemed to be in the process of losing a lung. I’d never heard anyone hack like that in my life. As Baldry wandered out to greet me in his bathrobe, clearly having gotten out of bed at the sound of my early-afternoon knock, it was an unofficial snapshot of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle I had not previously been granted.

But if I was left with the impression of an older man, it was not just the weather-beaten look and coal miner’s cough. By that time, Baldry was already well established in his role as a musical elder statesman. His long, lean, well-tailored look provided the lordly air that completed the impression. Long John Baldry had seemed regal even in his prime.

What a band

That heyday included a mid-60s London group called Bluesology. Toiling behind Baldry was a pudgy keyboard player named Reg Dwight. Dwight’s first step on the road to re-invention would be a new stage name combining Baldry’s first name with that of saxophone player Elton Dean. To his credit, Long John never told me that he saw in the newly-rechristened Elton John the future of 70s pop music. It would have taken Nostradamus’ smarter cousin to spot the future Captain Fantastic in that shy Midlands lad.

The music business does have its unpredictable twists, as Baldry would prove repeatedly. His early collaboration with Alexis Koerner in Blues Inc., the seminal British white blues band that employed Mick Jagger on background vocals; his unlikely discovery of young Rod Stewart crooning on a subway platform in the early 60’s; Baldry’s own 1968 reincarnation as an Englebert Humperdink type, crooning the #1 British hit “Let the Heartaches Begin;” a performance before the Queen; and his eventual eclipse, deep in the shadow of his two superstar protégés.

Baldry knew that every radio station interview would sooner or later come to dwell on his famous friends. I, at least, could pepper him with a fan’s legitimate questions about his classic early 70s album It Ain’t Easy, a record my brothers and sisters and I had listened to obsessively in our youth. But soon, I too was asking about Elton and Rod, and Baldry seemed only too happy to respond, speaking of them with evident fondness.

Vitriol on stage

Thus, it was a bit of a shock when Baldry took the stage that night at Edmonton’s now-defunct cabaret, the Wintergarden Showroom. His polished show paused occasionally for Baldry’s pointed stand-up patter—routines frequently targeted at one of his old pals. “Did you hear about the time someone jumped out of the audience and punched Rod Stewart?” Baldry bantered. “It was the first time in history that the fan hit the shit.”

“What’s the difference between a bull and the Rod Stewart Band?” he asked later. “With a bull, the horns are in front and the asshole’s at the back.”

None of this hostility had been evident during our interview. Later interviews were equally polite, leaving me to assume that Baldry’s fit of bitchy pique must have been a passing storm.

Surely the man was allowed to be a little touchy. If occasional slights from his former band mates cut deep, if bitterness bubbled forth from time to time, it was understandable. He was a natural front man, relegated by pop historians to a supporting role. His considerable eye for talent will likely be remembered when his own recordings are forgotten.

But 30-odd years ago in our family basement, Long John Baldry’s It Ain’t Easy stood as tall as Elton's Tumbleweed Connection and Stewart’s Gasoline Alley. Plus, the man had style to burn. Vancouver was lucky to have him.

Steve Burgess is critic at large forThe Tyee.  [Tyee]

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