Graded on a Curve:
Long John Baldry,
It Ain’t Easy

John William “Long John” Baldry was one of rock’s more intriguing footnotes, famous less for his own contributions to English blues than for the soon-to-be-famous sidemen he would introduce to public notice. A young Rod Stewart shared vocal duties with Baldry in the latter’s band Steampacket, and a young Reg Dwight—soon to find fame as Elton John—played piano and sang in Baldry’s band Bluesology.

The very long Baldry (he was 6’ 7”) was one of England’s first blues singers, but it wasn’t until 1971 that he released what most consider his finest album, It Ain’t Easy. Part of its success is due to the fact that he recorded it in convivial surroundings with two old friends—Rod Stewart, who produced the A Side, and Elton John, who produced the B Side and played piano on it as well. And it didn’t hurt that Stewart brought along Ronnie Wood and many of the players featured on his own Every Picture Tells a Story.

The Stewart sessions were riotous—Rod the Mod plied the musicians with cases of Remy Martin cognac and good champagne—to the extent that Baldry would later recount he recorded album standout “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll” sprawled out on the floor. The sound is loose and jumping, and folksier than the John-produced cuts thanks to the presence of mandolin, dobro, 12-string, and slide. Ian Armitt’s raucous boogie-woogie piano warms up Side A as well.

Baldry wasn’t the world’s best blues singer by any means. He enunciated when he should have gone for the slur, and applied a Shakespearean actor’s touch to most everything he laid his tonsils on. But on the roof-shaking rave-up “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll” he just jumps in swinging, and lets the flood—composed of equal parts guitar menace, piano onslaught, and sax squeal—carry him along. This one’s a lost classic for sure, and definitive.

And his take on Leadbelly’s “Black Girl” is almost as good, thanks in part to secret weapon Maggie Bell, the legendary vocalist for Stone the Crows. The song is redolent of dobro and mandolin, the lyrics dark: “My daddy was a railroad man, killed a mile and a half from here,” sing the duo, adding grimly, “His head was found in the driver’s wheel, and his body ain’t ever been found.” I now know where Michael Gerald of Killdozer discovered his muse. And the song just gets bigger and more intense as it goes alone.

Baldry’s take on Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy” offers an interesting counterpoint to David Bowie’s contemporaneous version on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie’s version is stylized and about as far from the blues as a spaceman with a snow-white tan can get; Baldry and Bell (England’s take on J. Joplin!) turn the song into a blues shouter and a celebration. And Wood plays as mean a guitar as he ever did with the Faces. And instrumentally that’s what this baby sounds like—a great lost track by the Faces, especially when things kick into overdrive at the end.

Baldry’s limitations as a balladeer are tested on Tuli Kupferberg’s lyrically dark but musically spritely “Morning, Morning,” but he pulls it off, if just barely, thanks in part to some great backing. As for his version of Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready,” I regret to say I’m not buying. Drummer Mickie Waller plays some great ramshackle drums and Wood and Sam Mitchell set off sparks on guitars, but vocally Baldry tries to make up with pure bluster what he lacks in emotional range, and doesn’t quite pull it off.

The Elton John-produced side largely lacks the fireworks of Side A, but it has its charms. It opens with an atmospheric take on Randy Newman’s “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” on which Baldry appears to think he’s reciting Hamlet. Instrumentally it works due to some great guitar work and John’s piano, but I can’t help but wish Baldry hadn’t succumbed to a seemingly irrepressible urge to ham things up. “Mr. Rubin” is a Lesley Duncan-penned dressing down addressed to “Yippie” Jerry Rubin and sounds as dated (and prissy) as you would imagine. Giving Rubin a tongue-lashing may have seemed a “hip” idea at the time, but topical songs as specific as this one have a very short shelf life, and “Mr. Rubin” was well past its sell-by date come 1973 at latest.

Things take a turn for the better on the Elton John-Bernie Taupin song “Rock Me When He’s Gone.” It’s a brilliant knockoff of the sort that John could write in his sleep and Baldry and Company run with it. John plays some crystal clear piano, the choir is great, and Baldry proves he can wrap his tonsils around John’s type of rock lite as well as anybody. It makes you wonder what he might have done with an album’s worth of John-Taupin material. And the moving “Flying” (yep, the one written by Stewart, Wood, and Ronnie Lane) is a worthy closer for sure. Elton John plays some truly lovely piano and organ, and the choir sends the song straight to the heavens. Meanwhile, Caleb Quaye—one of John’s bandmates—and the little-known Joshua M’Bopo contribute some very fine guitar work. As for Baldry he’s in fine fettle, and is (thankfully) content to sing the lyrics rather than “interpret” them.

It Ain’t Easy demonstrated that with the right producer—and I think Stewart is better than John, although both did a good job—and the right songs Baldry was fully capable of producing an album that was both top-notch and could stand the test of time. But the recipe had to be just right—1972’s Everything Stops for Tea reproduces the formula of It Ain’t Easy right down to its split side production by John and Stewart, but it falters, at least in my opinion, because the songs simply aren’t as strong. Singing with Rod was a good idea, but singing with Rod on the relatively lackluster and pointedly uncommerical “Mother Ain’t Dead,” not so much.

Like Alexis Korner, with whom Baldry got his start, Long John is likely to remain a curiosity better known as a starter of other people’s careers than for his own contributions to British blues. But under the right circumstances—such as were present when Baldry entered the studio to record It Ain’t Easy—he was a force to be reckoned with. I’m no lover of the blues but I love It Ain’t Easy. At its best it demonstrates that Korner was at least a long-odds contender as the King of Rock and Roll. And that ain’t no boogie-woogie.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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