May 09, 2019

Rock's Unsung Hero Series — Long John Baldry

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At 6’7” in a rock world where the average height is well below six foot, John Baldry had the most natural nick name of “Long John”. He was a big man in many other ways as well.

While almost totally unknown by the average rock fan in the USA, Baldry was a key figure in the development of the British Rock scene. In my conversations with both Rod Stewart and Elton John, they gave Long John credit for developing their careers.

Baldry discovered Stewart singing in the street for change. He brought him into his band at the time. Later he brought Elton into another band. Elton had been playing on cover records of current hits that were sold at a cut rate price in super markets and drug stores. Since they sounded exactly like the originals, people would buy them to save money.

When Reginald Dwight took the stage name of Elton John, it was a tribute to Baldry. The John was a way of giving thanks for all that Long John did for him.

Another tribute by Elton John was the song “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”. Elton revealed to me that the person who saved his life was Baldry. Long John, who knew Elton very well, talked to him all night long and was able to help him understand himself much better.

It was a real mystery to both Rod and Elton that Baldry was never a big hit in this country. He taught himself guitar at a very early age and more importantly had a great singing voice. He learned how to play by listening to American Blues performers like “Leadbelly” and New Orleans Jazz bands.

Before he grew out of his teens, Long John was playing in the clubs of Soho in London where he earned such reputation as both a singer and guitarist (at one time a club billed him as “the world’s greatest white 12 string guitarist”) that he was asked to join the top British blues band at the time-Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. The legend of Long John Baldry grew in the 50’s until he decided to form his own band.

Rod Stewart became a member of a band headed by Baldry known as The Steam Packet. Rod left to become the lead singer for the Jeff Beck Group, then with The Faces and eventually a storied solo career. Of course, Elton John became an almost instant success as a solo artist.

With their departures Baldry was left without a backup band. A record company convinced him to record a pop song called “Let the heartaches begin”. It went to number one in the UK but almost ruined Long John’s career. It didn’t score in the US and his real fans back in England were very upset that he had change his style of singing. It was the low point in his career at the time.

Neither Rod nor Elton forgot about Long John. With Baldry’s career was going nowhere in England or the US by 1971, they decided to use their stardom to help him by producing an LP called IT AIN’T EASY. It was an excellent album that got very good reviews. The standout track was song that used both John’s great speaking voice and bass singing voice. In the first part of the song called “Don’t Lay No Boogie Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll” featured John telling a funny story. Then suddenly he broke into a real rocking tune.

Despite the quality of the LP, it was not a huge success in the US, but got enough attention to merit the very first tour of America for Long John. The tour didn’t include any large venues, but it sparked enough attention that his record company decided to record another LP. This time it was produced by Rod and John together. The album that was called EVERYTHING STOPS FOR TEA never made it above the low end of the Billboard album charts and Baldry was soon forgotten.

After living in both Los Angeles and New York for a period of time, Baldry decided to move to Canada in 1978. He formed another band and teamed up with a Seattle singer named Kathi McDonald. They recorded a remake of “You Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” that was a hit in many countries around the word, but again, not in the US.

As late as 1997 Long John won a Juno Award in Canada for the best blues album. He also did a sold out tour of Canada in 2001.

His health got the best of him and his last personal appearance was in November of 2004 in his home country of England. Long John Baldry died still a relatively unknown performer in the US in 2005.

Long John Rod Elton

1 comment

  • Comment Link Elizabeth Payne (aka Betty) Wednesday, September 25, 2019 posted by Elizabeth Payne (aka Betty)

    Interesting article! Did not know all of this and the connection with Elton John or his name change. Thank you for sharing.

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