PITY, I THOUGHT, when I heard Long John Baldry was in panto. It used to happen to faded rock’n’rollers – not very good rock’n’rollers, mind you, rock’n’rollers with names like Jess Conrad – but Baldry? Why, only a few days before I heard the sad news I’d played a track of his on the recently issued Mary Sol festival album. Thankfully though, a glance at Time Out told me that at least it wasn’t Dick Whittington or Jack and the Beanstalk.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain was being put on at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and is a mild musical extravaganza combining traditional pantomime elements in the form of human cats and dogs and magic carpets with Long John Baldry singing Woody Guthrie songs and acting as a Greek chorus with a hoe-down voice.
Long John Baldry, you may recall, was a cabaret star who had two very big hits, ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’ and ‘Mexico’.
If you have a selective memory you won’t recall any of that. You will remember that Long John Baldry – and I stress Long John, and not the shortened Warner Brothers’ John Baldry of latter days – was one of the singers in an R’n’B road show called the Steam Packet along with performers who had surnames like Stewart, Auger and Driscoll. And when that folded in the autumn of 1966 Christmas saw his new band, Bluesology, with someone called Reggie Dwight on piano.
And then again, if you are very old you may remember this folk singer called Long John Baldry who used to knock around the folk clubs with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Incidentally, Baldry’s folk singing and busking days are best captured, for those of us who are very young, on track one, side one, on his first Warner’s album It Ain’t Easy. And getting back to Ramblin’ Jack really takes us full circle, for guess who first played Baldry’s part in The Big Rock Candy Mountain in its first production in 1955?
Backstage at the Theatre Royal Long John is still wearing his Hopalong Cassidy stage clothes when I appear. “Hang on while I change”, says a voice from on high, and he disappears.
My conversation with him really scanned about four major topics – the pantomime, of course, his position in the music business, the music being put out today and politics. Except that’s an over-simplification. Baldry’s speech dashes off at tangents, backtracks, sidesteps and dribbles forward. But unlike the maudlingly depressed interview he gave Melody Maker last summer, his dribbling forward is full of confidence. It’s as if the good vibes that exude from the pantomime have latched on to him and he’s finally on his way to find his Big Rock Candy Mountain. “I’ve got a feeling that between now and 1980 there’s going to be a lot happening for me.”
He dismissed the ‘Mexico’ era quite simply. “I fitted into the whole ‘Mexico’, ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’ thing very easily, but it didn’t suit me. I jump into things feet first and then I think ‘No. This isn’t for me’, so I’m a difficult person to take care of, because my mind runs around all over the place, plus the fact that my head has never really been governed by any financial things.” So, I suppose, John, when you were a cabaret star you cried all the way to the bank. But no. “I never really think what this is going to earn me which must be very frustrating for the people on the business side.”
Anyway, round about the end of 1970 things were happening for a couple of Long John’s old mates, Rod-nee Stewart and Elton John, so he grew his hair, signed up with Billy Gaff, another old mate, and in 1971 the It Ain’t Easy album was released. Back to the blues. The trouble was, the two aforenamed musicians produced a side each and their names were plastered all over the album, resulting in a classic case of over-kill. “Hype, hype” was the cry in Tin Pan Alley, or in the music weeklies at least, and the record died the death. In this country, anyway. Which was a pity because it was a very good album. Our colonial cousins to the West had a little more sense and bought several hundred thousand copies.
Encouraged by this, the precedent set on the first album of having the two super-super stars as producers was carried on to Everything Stops For Tea, the second longhaired Baldry album, although to my ears it lacks the subtlety of the first.
And needless to say, Baldry became, for a while, a transatlantic troubador. From Batley Variety Club to Chicago with Uriah Heep, in one easy lesson. And it would seem he had it made – again. The old road-show feeling was there. “In the States last summer there was a lot of the spirit of the old Steam Packet on stage – I found two marvelous black girls who sang amazing gospel.” On quite a few gigs he was ending up topping the bill.
Back in this country, though, things didn’t turn out too happily. Management rows after a disastrous concert last September with Lesley Duncan which turned into a God-awful jam decided Long John to go into a rapid retirement until “I found myself just sitting at home looking at my four walls.”
Which was how he turned up on the stage at Stratford East both because, as he said, “Joan’s an old mate of mine – if it had been Bernard Delfont I probably wouldn’t have done it”, and as a confidence booster, “I’ve played the Palladium in front of the Queen but I was shitting myself going out in front of 500 children.”
Whilst he played the pantomime he’d been re-negotiating his contracts. “I feel very confident about my future recording career. I’ve got so many, I think, great ideas in my head about recording. “I haven’t got a current backing group except for Ian Armitt who’s been with me since creation. I think most of them probably will be Americans. English musicians seem to be stars before they’ve been on the board five minutes.
“I love America. I can’t wait to get back. It saddens me when I read that people like Ian Paice hate it and only go for the money.”
Then he said something which may make some of you think of Eel Pie Island with a tear in your eye, “In fact, I really don’t know if I will ever play this country again. I don’t know whether people will welcome my presence again.
© Chris Salewicz, Let It Rock, March 1973