Monday, July 13, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #133 - Long John Baldry - It Ain't Easy

The concept of British blues and R&B is now so fundamental to rock & roll history that one needs to take a step back to realize how strange it all is. Before The Yardbirds and Rolling Stones gave a rougher edge to the British Invasion, and well before Led Zeppelin took it all to stadiums, young Brits obsessing over the music of black America was pretty much an underground phenomena. John Baldry was but a teenager when he started playing the blues in the 50s. He grew up to be well over six and a half feet tall, earning the nickname Long John, and the scene began to grow as well. Many of the blues groups Baldry played with included soon-to-be superstars such as Rod Stewart, who sang with Long John Baldry and His Hoochie Coochie Men. Bluesology, formed by Baldry in 1966, had a young keyboard player named Reg Dwight who would later take his own stage name from two of his bandmates, sax player Elton Dean and Baldry himself, to become Elton John. Baldry found his own first taste of success not with the blues but with smooth pop tunes. But he returned to his first musical love with 1971's excellent It Ain't Easy, an album produced by two of his now famous ex-sidemen, Rod Stewart and Elton John.

Stewart and John did not actually produce the album together but took the reins for one side each. As a result, the album's two sides have their own personality reflective of the producers, yet it's Baldry's charismatic vocals that carry throughout and make the album whole. Rod gets side one and mixes up the acoustic folk/blues of his solo records with the amped up blooze rock of The Faces. Opener "Conditional Discharge" finds Baldry telling a humorous tale, over rollicking piano, of getting busted for busking in London. What the story manages to get across is just how alien the blues must have sounded to the majority of Britons in the mid-50s. It all leads up to the rocking stomp of "Don't Try to Lay No Boogie Woogie On the King of Rock & Roll." This manages to be an awesome slice of heavy blues-based rock without descending into over-the-top parody and Baldry belts out the vocals like the bad-ass boss he is. We next shift into acoustic blues with a great take on "Black Girl" by Baldry's hero Leadbelly. This song has become a classic blues standard often going by alternate titles such as "In the Pines" and "Where Did You Sleep Last Night." It's a long road from Leadbelly to Nirvana and Baldry's soulful rendition is as good as any of the better known. The choice of material is excellent throughout as Stewart and Baldry turn to country singer Ron Davies for the album's title track. It's not a stretch to say that it's this version that David Bowie covered a year later on Ziggy Stardust. The album's quietest moment comes with "Morning, Morning" a lovely folk song penned by Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs. Then it's back to electric rock and roll for a raucous run through Willie Dixon's blues standard "I'm Ready," closing out the Stewart portion of the album.

Elton John's side is more polished and in line with the great albums he was producing in the early 70s. But make no mistake, this is still Baldry's show and he puts his distinctive stamp on these four tunes. He gives a sinister edge to Randy Newman's "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield" then transitioning to a moving, emotional vocal on "Mr. Rubin," a song penned by singer Lesley Duncan. John provides one of his own songs, co-written with Bernie Taupin of course, and Baldry makes the most of the excellent "Rock Me When He's Gone." His vocals incorporate elements of gospel, soul, and blues and the arrangement is top notch. John and Taupin were cranking out brilliant pop songs at an exceptional rate at this time. It shows how much respect Elton had for his former employer that he gave him one of the very best. Ironically the album concludes on the Elton side with a song co-written and originally sung by Rod Stewart, The Faces' "Flying." And as great as the original is, Baldry just owns this. His vocal soars with passion and soul while the backing band and vocalists compliment him, perfectly ending the album on a high mark. The CD reissue adds a generous selection of bonus tracks. There are alternate versions of album tracks but also some acoustic takes on blues classics, the best being Robert Johnson's immortal "Love in Vain."

It Ain't Easy finally gave Long John Baldry some exposure in America, the birthplace of the music he loved so dearly. However, he never gained the level of stardom of his friends and fellow musicians. He was an odd contradiction, a great singer of American music who nonetheless remained a quintessentially British character. This is best represented by the title of his follow up album Everything Stops for Tea, also produced by Stewart and John. He would continue to make music up until his death in 2005 and even developed a second career as a voiceover actor and announcer. It Ain't Easy remains his best-known work and a high water mark for the seemingly contradictory but ultimately inevitable genre of British blues.
            - Adam Reshotko

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