Thirty years ago today—on September 8, 1985—I did an interview with Long John Baldry, who had recently moved to Vancouver from Toronto. I've retyped that old story for all the fans of the beloved bluesman, who died in 2005 from a severe chest infection at the age of 64.
Long John Baldry is a giant among British blues-rockers–and that’s not only because he stands 6 feet 7-1/2 inches tall. In his 26-year career the singer has played with stars such as Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, and Elton John, among many others, and performed on over 30 albums. In the early sixties he became good friends with John Lennon and Paul McCartney; at one point the Beatles would open for his band at the famed Cavern Club in Liverpool.
Baldry was a prime motivator in the development of white electric blues, and he’s still laying down the “boogie woogie” today. Vancouver fans have the opportunity to see the man live at the Commodore Ballroom this Saturday (September 14). He’ll be joined by a knockout band that includes longtime Baldry bassist George Ford, guitarist “Papa” John King, saxophonists Wayne Kozak and Davie Norris-Elye, keyboardist Joe Ingrao, harp player Butch Coulter, and a new drummer, 20-year-old Randy Cooke, who Long John calls the best of all the drummers he’s had over the years (which includes Mickey Waller, drummer for Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, and Charlie Watts of the Stones!).
Also appearing will be vocalist Kathi McDonald, who’s been part of the Baldry clan for ten years. She’s an amazing singer in her own right, and has been featured on records by Joe Cocker (Mad Dogs and Englishmen), Leon Russell (Shelter People), Elton John (Tumbleweed Junction), and the Rolling Stones (Exile on Main Street).
Long John Baldry recently took up residence in Vancouver, shifting his home base from Toronto. The Straight talked to him about the move, his musical plans, and his lengthy career in R&B.
Why the move to Vancouver?
Oh, to get away from the Ontario winters more than anything else [chuckles]. I’ve been living in Toronto for some years now but in February of this year, when that really enormous blizzard hit Ontario, I was out stuck in the streets with no transportation, and I had to walk home about three and a half miles–which is no big deal in weather like this, but if you’re in the middle of the worst blizzard of the year… And I made my mind up then. I said, “Vancouver, here I come.”
But I’ve always loved Vancouver very much, and it’s always been on my mind to move out here.
What will you be doing here?
Uh, living. I don’t intend to be any more a part of the music scene that I am at the moment. I wouldn’t want to be doing any more than, say, four things a year here–which is usually what I’ve done in Vancouver in the past. I’ll be commuting from here to wherever.
Are you going to be recording here?
Yes. The next album will be recorded–99 percent sure–at Mushroom Studios. And as I live a stone’s throw from Mushroom, that makes me very happy. I think to be able to live so near to a recording studio is just great.
When will you start work on it?
Umm…soon as I’ve got various things out of the way, including the Commodore, which is this weekend. Then I’ve got a college tour in the east to deal with. I would guess that we would be starting work on it mid-October onwards, but I’m in no rush because I don’t intent to release anyway until the end of April, beginning of May.
Are you on a record label?
Uh, no–not at this moment. But I have material now prepared that’s in very good preparatory state to present to a label. I did some stuff with Jimmy Horovitz, who did the Baldry’s Out album with me. Did six tracks with him down in Los Angeles a month or two back, and we’re using that as a tool, you know, a shopping thing.
What do you think of the Vancouver music scene? Do you get out and see bands much?
I like what I see and hear. Of course I’ve been out to see quite a few of the bluesy-type people. There’s a lot of very good musicians here locally. And I’ve been to see one or two of the, you know, the new wave, pop-type bands as well. I like the Images in Vogue band. In fact I was present at one of their very first gigs ever, about three years ago in Edmonton. We shared the billing there, and I’ve become quite friendly with the guys in the band. I was down at Dale Martindale’s thing at the Luv A Fair a week or two back when he had his Naked In The Garden band on. That was quite interesting.
It says in your press kit that Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters were your biggest influences when you were starting out.
Yes, they were the very first blues players I ever heard in my life. And they still play an important part in how I think and do music.
Who are your favourite blues people these days?
Oh I like Stevie Ray Vaughan very much. Unfortunately I missed his performance at the Commodore last week. I hear it was a great evening, but sadly I missed it. I got down to see B.B. King on Wednesday though.
It also says in your bio that Eric Clapton got the urge to pick up guitar after he saw you performing.
That’s right. In fact, Eric makes mention of that in a recent Rolling Stone interview—the issue with David Letterman on the front that came out a few issues back. And he makes quite heavy mention of myself in the beginning. So that was rather nice, because a lot of what I say to the media very often is sort of regarded with cynicism, skepticism, whatever. And that was an instance where the proof was there, in Clapton saying it himself.
Is it true that at one time Jeff Beck was going to join your band, The Hoochie Coochie Men?
Yes, that would have been back in about 1964. But his wife at that time didn’t agree with people playing music full time, and she said, “Nonono”. He had a daytime job then.
Were you surprised when David Bowie did a version of your hit “It Ain’t Easy” on his Ziggy Stardust album?
Yes [chuckles]. Very much so. In fact when I was on tour in ’72 or ‘3 with the Faces in England, people were yelling at me “What are you doing David Bowie songs for?” And although I didn’t write that song myself–it was written by a man from Tacoma called Ron Davis—I was the first person to record it. And of course it did subsequently get covered by a number of people actually. Three Dog Night did a version as well.
Did you write “Don’t Try to Lay no Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll”?
Partially. I wrote it with a guy called Jeff Thomas from Atlanta, Georgia. People who saw the movie Nine to Five will know Jeff’s face, because he played Dolly Parton’s husband in that movie.
In “Don’t Try to Lay no Boogie-Woogie…”, is that referring to you as the king of rock and roll?
No! No, no [chuckles]. Not at all. It’s very embarassing that, because very often people who are promoting me or advertising me put “The King of Rock and Roll, Long John Baldry”. And I’m sure there are many many others far more deserving of the title than me. It’s purely just a part of a song.
That song did pretty well for you.
Oh yeah, it’s still a song that people identify with me. From that whole early ’70s party atmosphere—I guess that was the main party record that everyone listened to back then.
One of my favourite songs that you do is “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”, from the Baldry’s Out album of ’79.
Well I actually did record it back in 1964, when I was with United Artists, on an album called Looking At Long John. And when I was preparing for a tour in ’78 here, which kicked off at the old Cave, I sas saying to Kathi “Oh let’s revive ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ and see how it works on stage.” And the song was received so well–the way Kathi and I did it onstage—that we thought “Well, this is definitely a song we should record on the album.” So it was very much by public demand that that song got put on the Baldry’s Out album.
How did you come to work with Bill Henderson and Brian MacLeod, who produced your ’81 release Rock WIth the Best?
Well Bill and Brian I got to know because I was with their management for about a year, Steve Propas and Neil Dixon, the Solid Gold people. Of course I left that particular organization before the rot set in and it all went tits up, when Bill, Brian, and all the rest of them were left very much high and dry. That’s how I came to work with Bill and Brian. And I’d like to do some more things with them. They’re very enjoyable people.