Sunday, November 04, 2007

It Ain't Easy

It Ain’t Easy: Long John Baldry and the Birth of British Blues
By Paul Myers
Greystone Books

Probably the most common complaint in show business history is of victimization by bad management. Unfortunately, some clichés are often solidly grounded in fact, as in the case of Long John Baldry, the acknowledged pioneer of British Blues, who temporarily veered into lounge crooning just as the British blues explosion was about to hit. The often frustrating story of the long, tall British Bluesman unfolds nicely in Paul Myers’ new biography, It Ain’t Easy (which takes its name from one of Baldry’s better received albums).

In the history of British blues, Baldry got in on the ground floor. Strongly (one might say fatally) influenced by Lead Belly and Big Bill Broonzy, Baldry impressed many with his authentic Delta Blues singing style, belying his elegant British demeanor. His early bands backed up touring American Blues legends like Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf. Sometimes these gigs led to interesting situations. Myers quotes one such recollection from Baldry’s early protégé Rod Stewart of an encounter with Little Walter:

“He’d just done his set, and he knew I was scoring big time with some of the girls. He just said, ‘Can you go and get me a girl?’ I took no notice of him, and then he suddenly drew out a knife. He didn’t point it at me, just showed it to me. I said ‘Yeah, yeah. I’ll be right back with a couple!” (p. 73-74)

Baldry was indeed a shrewd talent scout. In addition to being the first to hire the Rod Stewart, he also hired the Elton John early in his career. Formerly Reg Dwight, Elton John eventually adopted his new name from those of John Baldry and his Baldry bandmate Elton Dean. Due to many career missteps, Baldry is best remembered by many for these mentor-student associations.

Music business shenanigans even sabotaged his late-career run in the original Peter Pan production starring Cathy Rigby, for which according to Myers, Pat Waldron, the original producer, blamed Rigby’s manager-husband. Waldron describes for Myers a tantalizing stage follow-up for Baldry that sadly was never financed:

“It’s this one guitar, a metaphor for the evolution of music. Every person had a different approach to playing this guitar . . . They went to New Orleans, to Chicago, to the 20’s, over to Britain, the first rock ‘n’ roll stuff, and then to New York. It was an interesting script, and it promised to be a fascinating project, but we never had the money.” (p. 226)

Easy is a highly readable account of Baldry’s life and his involvement in the British Blues boom that would culminate in the English rock ‘n’ roll invasion of the 1960’s. Myers’ prose is brisk, and at times witty, but never at the expense of his narrative. He deftly handles issues of Baldry’s sexuality and self-destructive tendencies with honesty, without descending into lurid excess. Easy also benefits from Myers’ original interviews with an impressive list of Baldry’s associates and contemporaries, including: Stewart, John, Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Mick Fleetwood, and Brian Auger. It should have a wide rock ‘n’ roll audience, but as was the case with Baldry, it is more likely that the really informed blues people will be the ones seeking it out.