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BACKSTAGE: Blue Kiwi Tour
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Long John Baldry talks to the New Zealand Press Association about his upcoming tour to promote new album
26 August 2002 @ 20:35

The gravelly voiced British blues performer Long John Baldry recorded his new album of covers of Leadbelly songs at home … not a home studio, but in and around the house. His vocals were recorded in his bedroom, and his guitar in the lounge, he told the New Zealand Press Association on August 21, 2002.

“We made the whole album for $3000,” Baldry says. “The sleeve cost more than that, after Chris Isaak’s bass player did the painting of Leadbelly, the reproduction of which appears on the sleeve. We used cheap old mics lying around the house, but I get better quality out of that than I ever did in studios that were costing me $2000 a day and using $10,000 mics. It’s amazing how simple it is these days, and I think more people are recording like that these days.”

LJB gave Elton John and Rod Stewart their big breaks in professional recording. But while they scaled stardom and LJB took a quieter road, Baldry says, he’s not unhappy with his lot. He’s got his house, he still tours Britain once a year, modest royalty cheques still arrive in the mail, and he has the freedom to record what he wants, when he wants to.

Most importantly of all, one suspects, is the security of knowing that even if fame and fortune did pass him by, history will forever record Baldry as the man who held the match which lit the British blues explosion of the 1960s.

Baldry began playing the blues back in the 1950s, at a time when the music was practically unheard of in Britain. He and fellow pivotal bluesman Alexis Korner sang in Blues Incorporated, who figured on the first British blues record, 1962’s R&B at the Marquee Club.

He then fronted Long John Baldry and His Hoochie Coochie Men – which featured Rod Stewart as a second vocalist before forming Steampacket with Stewart, Julie Driscoll, and Brian Auger.

When Steampacket broke up, he founded Bluesology – with Reg Dwight (now known as Elton John) on keyboards.

“I’ve always seen myself somewhat as a sort of a pioneer and a shower of the way if you like, a lighter of the light,” Baldry says.

“I was always filled with that fervour and from an early age I always wanted to turn other people on. I suppose there’s a bit of the Timothy Leary about me, except where he did it with LSD I did it with the blues. I’ve got that constant need to share with other people what I’ve discovered in life.

“I knew Rod was something very, very special, right from the beginning. He did have a wonderfully natural singing voice; it was just great. He could do anything, and still can – he’s still a great singer today.

“Elton John, I wasn’t so sure. He was an extremely good piano player and a not too bad singer, but all the other things, such as the image and the on-stage persona which made up part of his aura, they weren’t there. Bernie Taupin was the missing ingredient, the man who is probably the greatest poetic lyricist in the world after Bob Dylan.”

After making his name as a bluesman, in the mid ’60s Baldry made an ill-advised – and thankfully brief – move into the Humperdinck/Jones part of the musical spectrum. His two soupy string-laden hits, Let the Heartaches Begin (his sole British No 1) and Mexico were Baldry’s two biggest hits, but in some ways his two biggest regrets.

“Yes, they weren’t typical of me, but I certainly didn’t sound any different from what I do anyway. No matter what I try and do I’ll sound like a bag of rusty nails because that’s my vocal timbre.

“I just did this tour with Manfred Mann (The Manfreds) and one of the stipulations was that I did Let The Heartaches Begin on that tour,” Baldry says

“I thought `Oh no, I thought I’d got rid of that particular bugaboo 30 years ago, but no, they insisted if I wanted to do the tour I had to do that song. I thought `Oh Christ’ but in the end I thought, `Oh the hell with it, let’s give it a whirl’.

“One of the things that astounded me about it – and several things did – but what astounded me mainly was the fact I was able to sing it in the same key I did it in 1967, and when you consider that’s an extremely rangey song and I did it without strain, that was fairly amazing.

“The fact I even remembered it at all was quite amazing, and so was the fact the audience remembered it. They went nuts … I was amazed the song had that sort of life expectancy. I may record it again now, who knows?

“I did draw the line at doing Mexico though,” he shudders.

After his brief flirt with fame, Baldry retreated back into the shadows. The It Ain’t Easy album saw him achieve his only North American chart success, and he moved over there shortly after.

Since then, Baldry has enjoyed his own small cult status. He still gets to work with great musicians and make great music, play it live and put it down on a recorder – all he ever wanted to do, he says.

” I’ve always believed in going for really good songs, no matter whose they are,” Baldry says.

“I think I’ve only fallen by the wayside once or twice in terms of recording rotten material – Lord knows there are plenty of people around more guilty than me of recording duds or embarrassingly awful songs.”

Long John Baldry tours New Zealand in September with Robben Ford and James Gaylyn as part of the World Blues Revue tour.

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