In 1967, the UK still had a long way to go in becoming progressive. The law had only just changed to decriminalise homosexuality, yet many stars of the time felt they needed to keep their sexuality private. Although Long John Baldry was openly gay in showbiz circles, he didn’t announce it to the public until the 70s. This giant of the blues scene was highly influential, yet his one chart-topper is disliked by many purists, and is considered unrepresentative of the singer.
John Baldry was born around Brixworth, Northamptonshire on 12 January 1941 after his parents had fled London during the Blitz. His schooldays were spent in Edgware, Middlesex. When he began singing in the 50s he stood out from the crowd as one of the first known blues and folk singers in the country, listening to Muddy Waters and learning the 12-string at the age of 12. He also stood out because he had grown to six feet and seven inches, earning him the nickname ‘Long John’.
By the early-60s he was performing in coffee houses and R’nB clubs in London. A small scene began to formulate, and Baldry joined the fledgling Blues Incorporated, led by the pioneering Alexis Korner. They released the first British blues album, R&B from the Marquee, in 1962. Future members of Blues Incorporated included Charlie Watts from The Rolling Stones and Cream’s Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. From this point onwards, Baldry’s career features cameos from an impressive number of future rock stars of the next decade or so.
In 1963 he joined the Cyril Davies R&B All Stars, featuring future ace session pianist Nicky Hopkins, and when Davies died the following year, he renamed them Long John Baldry and his Hoochie Coochie Men. While looking for a singer for his new outfit, Baldry chanced upon a busker and Baldry gig-goer called Rod Stewart, performing a Muddy Waters song at Twickenham Station.
With Stewart on board, they changed their name to Steampacket in 1965. The group now featured Julie Driscoll as a singer and Brian Auger on organ, later known for their cover of Bob Dylan’s This Wheel’s on Fire.
When Steampacket broke up in 1966, Baldry formed Bluesology. His new band had Reg Dwight on keyboards and future Soft Machine guitarist Elton Dean. When Dwight went solo, he took Dean and Baldry’s forenames and became Elton John.
So, it’s clear that Baldry was moving in the right circles (he also appeared on a TV special by The Beatles in 1964, had a fling with Dave Davies of The Kinks and introduced The Rolling Stones on the US live album Got Live if You Want It!), and yet fame still eluded him. And so he wound up on the cabaret circuit with a harmony group called Chimera backing him, and started working with pop producer Tony Macauley, who had produced Baby Now That I’ve Found You by The Foundations, and co-wrote it with John MacLeod. Together, they also wrote Let the Heartaches Begin, and gave it to Baldry to record.
I have to confess to knowing next to nothing about Baldry, other than him being a fascinating and important figure in R’n’B, so it’s fair to say I wasn’t expecting Let the Heartaches Begin to sound anything like it does. It’s a big let down, and it seems Macauley thought he could turn Baldry into an Engelbert Humperdinck, or a Tom Jones-style figure. You could draw similarities to Johnnie Ray too, with the over-the-top, mock histrionics on show here, set to syrupy backing, but with less impact than Ray’s recordings. But the singer is clearly revelling in the fact he has a broken heart, much like Ray in the 50s. Apparently Baldry had to knock back a fair bit of booze to record it, so it’s likely he wasn’t entirely comfortable with this new direction either.
In spite of this, it was well-timed, with 1967 being the year of Humperdinck, and it earned Baldry his place in chart history, so who am I to argue with Macauley? In fact, this single earned he and MacLeod two consecutive number 1s in a row… no mean feat at all.
Baldry stuck to this new balladeer style for the next few years. In 1968 he and Bernie Taupin came to the aid of Elton John, who was struggling with his sexuality. The duo talked him out of marrying Linda Woodrow to cover up being gay, and John was so grateful he wrote Someone Saved My Life Tonight to thank them.
Baldry returned to his beloved blues in 1971 with his most well-known album It Ain’t Easy with Elton John and Rod Stewart producing a side each. They did the same again on 1972 follow-up Everything Stops for Tea. He claimed to have been the last person to see Marc Bolan alive on 16 September 1977, having interviewed him for US TV just before he got into his car for the final time.
After stints in New York and Los Angeles, Baldry moved to Vancouver, British Colombia in 1978. Bar a brief spell in psychiatric hospital (he recorded the album Baldry’s Out shortly after release), he seemed happy and remained there the rest of his life. He released several albums in the 90s (including It Still Ain’t Easy) but his main source of income was in voiceover work for adverts and animated children’s TV series Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog (he was Dr Robtonik) and Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars. Plagued with ill health in his later years, he died of a severe chest infection on 21 July 2005, aged 64. Only a one-hit wonder in the singles chart, Baldry nevertheless left an impact on music to match his considerable stature.
Written by: Tony Macauley & John MacLeod
Producer: Tony Macauley
Weeks at number 1: 2 (22 November-5 December)
Labour MP Shahid Malik – 24 November
Phonetician Daniel Jones – 4 December
27 November: President Charles de Gaulle of France once again vetoed British entry into the European Economic Community. Cheers!
28 November: The foot-and-mouth outbreak resulted in a number of horse-racing events being cancelled.
1 December: Tony O’Connor became the first non-white headteacher of a British school, at a primary in Smethwick, near Birmingham.