Baldry grew up in a middle-class family in Queensbury, north London, attending the local grammar school and singing in the choir at St Lawrence’s, Edgware. Listening to a neighbor’s collection of jazz and blues records, he was entranced by the voice and 12-string guitar playing of the black American songster Huddie Leadbetter (“Leadbelly”). He also heard New Orleans jazz, recreated by the Crane River Jazz Band at Kingsbury baths hall.
Baldry acquired his first guitar at 14 and taught himself to play in Leadbelly’s style, often practicing in nearby Canon’s Park. This had once been owned by Handel’s patron, the Duke of Chandos, and, in a recent interview, Baldry joked that if he were to write an autobiography he would call it From Handel To Howlin’ Wolf.
Aged 16, in 1957 he discovered the skiffle and folk scene of Soho, where his 6ft 7in frame earned him the nickname “Long John”. He soon formed a duo with the guitar virtuoso Davy Graham and bought, for £15, a 12-string guitar built by a furniture maker and blues fan, Tony Zemaitis. A year later, he found himself billed at a Bradford folk club as “the world’s greatest white, 12-string guitarist”.
By the late 1950s, Baldry was a leading figure on the Soho scene and the only regular performer at both the blues club of Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies and the folk-song sessions run by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. The policy of the irascible MacColl was that singers should perform only the music of their native country, but he made an exception for Baldry, who remained a close friend until MacColl’s death in 1989.
When Korner and Davies decided, in early 1962, to form Britain’s first amplified blues group, Baldry was the natural choice as lead singer. Blues Incorporated‘s pioneering sessions at the Ealing Club, in west London, drew audiences that included future members of the Rolling Stones, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and Manfred Mann. Baldry’s commanding vocal presence is one of the glories of R&B From The Marquee, the only album made by the original Blues Incorporated line-up.
Within a year, Korner and Davies had fallen out and formed separate bands. Both implored Baldry to join their new groups. He decided to go with Davies because, he later said, “Alexis was too hospitable to other musicians and I did not want to share the stage with 20 other singers.”
The Cyril Davies All Stars also featured the exceptionally talented guitarist Geoff Bradford, but the group’s progress was halted when its leader died suddenly in early 1963. Renaming the band, the Hoochie Coochie Men, Baldry assumed the role of leader, recruiting the 19-year-old Rod Stewart as a second vocalist in 1964 after hearing him singing on the platform at Twickenham station.
When that group disbanded, Baldry formed Steam Packet with organist Brian Auger, and later hired, as his backing group, Blues-ology, whose pianist Reg Dwight chose the stage name of Elton John by combining the first names of Baldry with that of the group’s saxophonist, Elton Dean. Baldry’s sage advice, when Dwight was experiencing a sexual identity crisis, is commemorated in the Elton John song, Someone Changed My Life Tonight.
By 1967, Baldry’s swinging, jazzy blues were out of favor and he was persuaded to move into middle-of-the-road pop. This was a commercial success when Let The Heartaches Begin and Mexico became top-20 hits but was an artistic disaster, from which Rod Stewart and Elton John rescued Baldry by co-producing his well-reviewed 1971 album, It Ain’tEasy.
This revival in his fortunes was short-lived and, at the end of the 1970s, he emigrated to Canada, living first in Toronto and then in Vancouver. He was signed to a recording contract by Holger Peterson, of Stony Plain Records and became a popular figure on the blues club and folk festival circuit. He returned occasionally to perform in Britain and Europe, most recently in 2003. He also exploited his gruff, but mellow, bass voice by recording numerous voice-overs for advertisements and for Captain Robotnick, the villain of a children’s television cartoon series.
His final album for Stony Plain, fittingly, was Remembering Leadbelly, in 2002, of whom Baldry said, “His songs touched me as a kid and they still talk to me all these years later”.