In 1971, Rod Stewart and Elton John each produced one side of Long John Baldry’s It Ain’t Easy, the album designed to make John William Baldry better known in the states. The album was long overdue. After all, Baldry was already an established legend in the U.K. For example, along with Alexis Korner—who shared a similar growling, graveling vocal style—Baldry appeared on R&B from the Marquee, the first ever amplified British blues album in 1962. The band was Blues Incorporated, a loose ensemble of revolving blues enthusiasts also including the likes of Mick Jagger, Jack Bruce, and Charlie Watts.
Then, in 1964, Baldry formed Long John Baldry and his Hoochie Coochie Men, later named Steampacket, which featured an up-and-comer by the name of Rod Stewart. In 1966, Baldry formed Bluesology with a piano player called Reg Dwight. Dwight, of course, later adopted the stage name Elton John, the “John” taken from Baldry. It was Baldry’s intervention in John’s personal life that inspired the 1975 song, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”
In the late ’70s, Baldry emigrated to Vancouver, Canada, and began a long career there in both music and voice acting. After working with other labels, from 1991 to his death in 2005, Baldry recorded for Stony Plain Records, and it’s that era which is captured on the new The Best of the Stony Plain Years.
The good news is that the quality of the selections on The Best of the Stony Plain Years is top-notch from start to finish. By this point in his career, Baldry’s singing was honed to deep-bucket perfection with almost theatrical enunciations, perhaps an outgrowth of his audio acting. He swings so much, more than once there are obvious echoes of Louis Prima and Satchmo. Baldry’s guitar playing, especially on the 12-string, had become more precise and clean. Never a slouch as a bandleader, the various small ensembles he led from 1991 on provided rock solid support for the material. The bad news is that Stony Plain was far from generous with this package, giving us a mere 11 tracks on a single disc. That’s a skimpy representation of Baldry’s seven albums for the label.
Produced by Tom Lavin (Powder Blues), It Still Ain’t Easy (1991) was Baldry’s debut on Stony Plain, here represented by “Midnight in New Orleans” featuring longtime Baldry guitarist Papa John King and Butch Coulter on acoustic guitar and harmonica. We also get Willie Dixon’s scorching “Insane Asylum” which is one of many numbers produced over two decades that showcased Baldry with the belting voice of former Ikette (of Ike and Tina Turner) and latter-day member of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Kathi McDonald.
Deservedly, we get several choice cuts from Remembering Leadbelly (2001) like the upbeat opener, “Good Morning Blues,” the New Orleans-flavored “Midnight Special,” and a countrified “Gallows Pole,” the same song Led Zeppelin covered in 1970. (Don’t let the archival passage from an old Baldry tape fool you on “Good Morning Blues”—wait a verse, then the song kicks out the jams.) We also get three songs from Right to Sing the Blues (1997), namely the jazzy, percussive “I’m Shaking,” the very Louis Armstrong-inspired “Easy Street,” and the slow, low-down “Midnight Hour Blues.”
Albums not represented include Long John Baldry-On Stage Tonight (1993), Baldry’s first live album, his second being Live (2000), both recorded at gigs in Hamburg, Germany. Fans of Baldry will no doubt note the omission of “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie Woogie on the King of Rock n’ Roll,” Baldry’s signature song captured quite nicely on On Stage Tonight.
If you already own all the Stony Plain releases, there are several new songs to add to your collection. In particular, the closing number is a duet recorded live with Jimmy Witherspoon, “Time’s Gettin’ Tougher Than Tough” (1995), supported by the Duke Robillard band. Likewise, “Dimples” is a previously unreleased 1998 taste of John Lee Hooker from the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. While the folk song “Black Girl” (also featuring McDonald) is listed as appearing on Rock with the Best (1996), liner notes say the version used here was from a promo sampler issued the same year. Perhaps there were two takes from the same session?
In the end, The Best of the Stony Plain Years is itself a good promo sampler that’s ideal for introducing new listeners to Baldry or jump-starting interest for listeners who’ve not been paying attention since It Ain’t Easy (reissued by Stoney Plain in 2012). Down the road, perhaps, Stony Plain will issue an expanded, two-disc anthology that will really be a “best of.” ‘Till then, this release is mainly a very tasty hors d’oeuvre to whet our appetites.