Sunday, September 12, 2010

Don't try to lay no boogie woogie

As a teenager in Germany, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service had one channel of each to listen to. And, aside from the news and a couple of half-hour local-interest things, everything was syndicated and brought in from America.

I have no idea what the show was, but I first heard Long Tom Baldry on the radio, sometime after I was supposed to have been in bed, singing a song that I had only heard once until this week. But I have always remembered it.

He was a British-born singer who later became a Canadian citizen (there you go, Nicole - a reason to like him). At 6'7", you can see how he earned the name "Long Tom." He was one of the first British vocalists to sing the blues, and actually, listening to him now, his voice is most similar to (of all people) Welsh-born Tom Jones.

He performed with many of the best blues and rock (and pop, technically) musicians of the Sixties British scene - he was friends with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Paul McCartney, and opened for or played in TV specials with both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
In 1963, Baldry joined the Cyril Davies R&B All Stars with Jimmy Page on guitar and Nicky Hopkins playing piano. He took over in 1964 after the death of Cyril Davies. It became Long John Baldry and his Hoochie Coochie Men featuring Rod Stewart on vocals and Geoff Bradford on guitar. Stewart was recruited after Baldry heard him busking a Muddy Waters song at Twickenham station after Stewart had been to a gig at Eel Pie Island.

In 1965, the Hoochie Coochie Men became Steampacket with Baldry and Stewart as male vocalists, Julie Driscoll as the female vocalist and Brian Auger on Hammond organ. After Steampacket broke up in 1966, Baldry formed Bluesology featuring Reg Dwight on keyboards and Elton Dean, later of Soft Machine, as well as Caleb Quaye on guitar. Dwight adopted the name "Elton John," his first name from Dean and his surname from Baldry.
And the song I've always remembered, having only heard it once?

It was his biggest US hit, from his album It Ain't Easy. Well, let's go to Crawdaddy magazine and writer Paul Myers.
In order to fully appreciate Long John Baldry’s 1971 album, It Ain't Easy, it helps to know a little about the events leading up to its release. At the dawn of the 1970s, the British blues pioneer was sitting on the sidelines of rock, pondering his imminent plunge to the bottom after two wild rides to the top in the UK. His career had begun in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the 6’7”, white, gay Englishman had become the unlikely father of the British blues, helping to promulgate the African-American art form in the London clubs with Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies’ Blues Incorporated, and later discovering Rod Stewart, whom Baldry featured in his band the Hoochie Coochie Men. Next came England’s "first supergroup," the legendary, if ephemeral, Steampacket, starring Baldry and Stewart with Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll. Additionally, Baldry directly inspired Mick Taylor, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones to form the Rolling Stones and even demonstrated to a young Eric Clapton that white English boys could in fact play the blues.

Then came a bittersweet misstep; he transformed himself into an Engelbert Humperdinck-styled balladeer and went, literally, to Top of the Pops in 1967 with a sappy hit called "Let the Heartaches Begin." While it probably netted him a few pounds, he all but stained his blues legacy in Britain forever, becoming the darling of housewives and schoolgirls, an audience he secretly had little time for. In the meantime, John Mayall, Clapton, and others stole his blues mantle out from under him. After the demise of his band, Bluesology—which launched the career of Reggie Dwight, the future Elton John—Baldry’s career soon dissipated into in a boozy haze of artistic and commercial recession.

By 1971, a despondent Baldry sat in his Muswell Hill, London flat, feeding his pet goat and finding himself suddenly in the rearview of history at the precise moment when his protégés, Rod Stewart and Elton John, were catapulting to rock stardom in the US.

To save himself, Baldry signed with Faces manager, Billy Gaff, who urged him to get back into the blues-based rock business, with not a moment to waste. Gaff enlisted Baldry’s two star protégés, Stewart and John, to pay back their mentor by producing what would become his American debut.

It Ain’t Easy features balls-up bluesy rave-ups with electric guitars screeching, back beats thwacking, and gospel-tinged female vocalists surrounding your charismatic host, Long John Baldry—a charming English sophisticate who sang like a man with a throat full of Mississippi gravel.

Stewart and John each produced one side of It Ain't Easy. in separate studios and on opposing schedules. This gave the album, in its side-segregated vinyl form, a slightly schizophrenic feel. The Rod Stewart side is more in keeping with his Every Picture Tells a Story album, while the Elton John side works with the piano-fied sonic palette he had employed on his own Tumbleweed Connection.

The first thing you hear, however, is the barrelhouse boogie of pianist Ian Armitt, vamping behind Baldry’s autobiographical spoken word soliloquy, "Conditional Discharge", in which Baldry recounted his late ’50s arrest for busking in London’s Wardour Street. He then slams seamlessly into the album’s rocking manifesto, "Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie Woogie on the King of Rock & Roll." It’s one of the great one-two punches in the history of recorded rock, and FM and underground radio frequently played the two as one long song.
John William Baldry died on 21 July 2005 in Vancouver, Canada, of a lung infection. Most people alive today are more likely to remember him as the voice of Dr Robotnik, in the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, or one of his many other cartoon voiceovers.


John_Baldry-Conditional_King_of_Rock_&_Roll from"
h/t Devon306 (2 years late) on

Update (11/21/10): Well, went out of business. Probably due to the additional drag of this song from their bandwidth. I can't seem to find a legal audio version of the song anywhere, and don't feel like downloading it. Instead, here's the same song off Youtube, with a picture of his album cover.


Anonymous said...

When were you a teenager in Germany and where?

I grew up a military brat too...

Three years in Ansbach, three in Pirmasens and three in Frankfurt...

Nameless Cynic said...

'76 through '78ish in Baumholder, '78 through '81 in Heidelberg. Senior prom in the Heidelberg castle.

Oh, and as a (relative) adult, from '90 to '97 in Spangdahlem, for that matter.

The Real World said...

That is an amazing song. But why have you always remembered it?

TAO said...

The Heidelberg Castle....been there many times...

Nance said...

Love the quirk!

Warren Zevon has a tendency to haunt my brain. "Roland, The Headless Thompson Gunner," for instance.

The autopsy will be amazing.

Nameless Cynic said...

Well, obviously the intro (actually known as "Conditional Discharge"), but it was the piano line behind him, that kicked into high gear along with the actual song. (And these days, the irony of a boogie woogie piano line on a song called...)