In the late 1950s and early 1960s, young English musicians were putting together bands to play music that most of them had no experience with outside of records they had picked up in the shops. There just weren't that many opportunities to see bluesmen from Mississippi and Chicago performing live in London and Lincolnshire in those days. Now a days they're all household names, but back then Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, John Lennon, and the rest were unknowns playing anywhere they could get gigs.
Aside from their love of blues and American music one other thing that most of those young men had in common was the patronage of the man Rod Stewart refers to as the "first white guy singing the blues (in England)", Long John Baldry. Baldry wasn't really much older then the others, but he had experience. He had toured with Ramblin' Jack Elliot and sung with Muddy Waters, and was working professionally when the Beatles were still only playing sets during intermissions at The Caravan in Liverpool. It was Baldry who gave most of today's old veterans their first gigs by hiring them to play in his band; Ginger Baker, Jeff Beck, Brian Jones, Elton John, Ron Wood, Charlie Watt, Keith Richards, and Rod Stewart all played with Baldry early in their careers. He was so important and respected by all of them that when The Beatles did their first international television special in 1964 they insisted that Baldry be included on the bill singing Muddy Water's tune "I've Got My Mojo Working".
Baldry never became famous; it doesn't appear he wanted fame that much, and according to Rod Stewart he was content to play bars and sing the blues where and when he felt like it. Not that he didn't have his share of troubles, as he battled with alcoholism for long a while, but unlike others he won that war and came out the other side. He was also an incredibly brave man, as long before it was popular, or even safe, he went public with his homosexuality, and was probably the first openly gay music personality of any repute. I remember hearing him being interviewed somewhere around that time, the mid-eighties, and he sounded like a man at peace with himself. He had left England in the early 1970's and moved to Canada where he began a third career as a folk and blues artist signed to the Stoney Plain label who he was with until his death in 2005. His last release was Remembering Leadbelly in 2001, a tribute to his first inspiration, Huddie Leadbetter.
Long John Baldry was distinguished by two features on stage; his towering presence – he was six feet seven inches tall (where did you think he got his name from?) and his deep, mellifluous voice that was made to sing the blues. Stony Plain has kept quite a few of his releases in stock, including some reissues of work from the late sixties and early seventies if you're interested in checking him out. Even better though is the opportunity being offered by MVD Video on September 26th when they will be releasing the DVD It Ain't Easy: Live At Iowa State University. Recorded in 1987 it features Baldry playing a small club on campus backed by a five piece band and supported by vocalist Kathi McDonald.
While this represents a rare opportunity to see Baldry perform, it's not what I'd call an ideal situation. The sound quality is fine, as is the picture, in fact, given the age of the recording it's a lot better than anyone has any right to expect. The problem is that who ever did the original filming only recorded eight of the songs that the band performed that night, and two of them, "Respect" and "Natural Woman", are sung by Kathi McDonald, without Baldry even being on stage. Don't be fooled by the running time of eighty-five minutes, as only fifty or so are of the actual concert, while a good chunk of the remainder seems to be taken up with promoting other releases on the Quantum Leap label. The backstage interview with Baldry is a truncated affair that starts in mid sentence with him talking about when he met the Beatles in Liverpool and his appearance on the 1964 television show and then ends just as abruptly.
However the six tracks we do get of Long John singing are vintage Baldry. One moment his voice is as smooth and thick as slow poured molasses, only to have him switch gears into a low growl that reverberates through your ear canal. The disc opens with an extended version of "Going Down Slow" which allows him to feature each member of his highly skilled band. Special mention has to be given to Joseph Ingraio on keyboards and Papa John King on lead guitar. Ingraio is not only a skilled blues piano player, he's versatile enough to play some really good boogie-woogie for Baldry's signature "Don't Lay No Boogie-Woogie On The King Of Rock 'N Roll". John King proves to be an inventive guitar player, not only doing a fine job with the slide when needed, but making full use of the fret board to play leads that aren't your usual run of the mill, "see how close I can get my fingers to the pickups" that so many people think are special.
While Baldry plays acoustic guitar on the opening track, from there on in he focuses solely on vocals. His version of "Everyday I Have The Blues" is great as he delivers it with a sly smile that belays any suggestion that having the blues is a negative experience. You can't help but enjoy yourself watching Long John perform as he's having so much fun that he just picks you up and carries you along with his enthusiasm. Of course there's also the site of him shimmying his six foot seven inch frame across the stage. He might be a tall man, but he's also very graceful, and moves around the stage with an elegance that's a treat to watch.
Unfortunately just as you're starting to get into his performance Kathi McDonald joins him on the stage and I found her to be a distraction at best, and a pain at worst. She of the school of vocalist who seems to think that if you spit your words out like a machine gun firing off rounds and shout at the same time that it will pass for emotional intensity. It wasn't so bad when she was backing up Baldry, as his voice went a long way to smoothing over the more jarring aspects of her performance. However, I couldn't sit through her renditions of "Respect" and "Natural Woman" when she soloed. Thankfully Baldry closes the show with great versions of the old classic "Iko Iko" and his previously mentioned signature tune, so the disc ends on an up note and you can easily forget her performance.
Long John Baldry was a marvellous singer and a great performer, but unfortunately It Ain't Easy: Live At Iowa State University barely scratches the surface of what he had to offer. Of course a little Long John Baldry goes a long way, and even this small sampling is enough to understand just how great a talent he really was. It may not be the longest or the best examples of his work, but any Long John Baldry is a damn site better than a lot anybody else has to offer.