Thursday, February 19, 2009

Album project: Badass B's

Long John Baldry, It Ain't Easy (1971): British blues vocalist Long John Baldry is probably best remembered for the many classic rockers he worked with and mentored than for his own musical accomplishments.

Standing 6'7", with a rich voice well-suited for blues, Baldry was an imposing figure on stage. His first notable gig was as lead vocalist of Alexis Koerner's Blues Incorporated, a pioneering London blues group of the early 60's. Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, and Jack Bruce were also members of the group, while Keith Richards and Brian Jones sat in from time to time. From there, Baldry went on to sing for Cyril Davies' R&B All-Stars, featuring Jimmy Page on guitar. After Davies' death, Baldry took over leadership of the outfit as their name changed to The Hoochie Coochie Men, and then Steampacket.

Steampacket was something of an experimental group featuring three lead vocalists; the other singers were Rod Stewart and Julie Driscoll. After Steampacket's demise, Driscoll and the group's keyboardist Brian Auger would have a major British hit with their version of The Band's "This Wheel's On Fire", and Stewart would go on to become a legend. Baldry would form another blues outfit, Bluesology, featuring an eccentric pianist named Reg Dwight. Borrowing the first names of the lead singer and sax player, this piano player would go on to fame and fortune as Elton John.

Although respected as one of Britain's best blues singers, Baldry's music wasn't getting the bills paid, so in 1967 he took a stab at singing pop ballads. The move paid off at first - his "Let The Heartaches Begin" spent two weeks atop the UK charts, and "Mexico" was used by the BBC as the theme song to their coverage of the 1968 Olympics. By the end of 1969, though, the hits had dried up, and Baldry had lost much of his credibility in British rock and blues circles. To salvage his reputation, Baldry turned to his old colleagues Rod Stewart and Elton John to produce an album for him; the result was It Ain't Easy.

The LP's highlight is the lead track, the rollicking "Don't Try To Lay No Boogie-Woogie On The King Of Rock 'N' Roll". Baldry introduces the track with a lengthy, hilarious tall tale about busking on the streets of London in the late 50's, then the music kicks in, boogieing with a vengeance, in spite of the title. Other notable tracks include covers of traditional blues by Leadbelly and Muddy Waters, and the title song, also recorded by David Bowie.

After recording a followup, Everybody Stops For Tea, Baldry spent some years battling mental illness, spending some time in an institution. Released in 1978, he settled in Vancouver and recorded the comeback LP Baldry's Out! His career took another strange twist in 1980 when his version of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' ", recorded with Kathi McDonald, rose to #2 in Australia. That would prove to be Baldry's last musical success. He spent his later years providing voiceovers for a number of animated features, including Conan The Adventurer and Adventures of Sonic The Hedgehog. Baldry passed away in 2005 at age 64.

Hank Ballard And The Midnighters, 20 Hits (1977): A notable figure in the transition of hard, guitar-based R&B to rock 'n' roll, Hank Ballard was born John Henry Kendricks in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1936. As a boy, Ballard was sent to live with relatives in Detroit, where he sang in his church choir. Years later, though, Ballard cited Gene Autry as his chief musical inspiration while growing up.

In 1951, Ballard was discovered by R&B singer/impresario Johnny Otis, and invited to sing with a group called The Royals. Changing their name to The Midnighters to avoid confusion with The "5" Royales, the group recorded "Get It", featuring their early hallmarks - risque lyrics, and the blaring, fuzz-toned guitar of Alonzo Tucker. "Get It" made the R&B Top 10, setting the stage for the "Annie" records that gave the group their early notoriety.

Recorded in early 1954, "Work With Me Annie" caused an immediate furor with its explicit lyrics ("Annie please don't cheat / Give me all my meat") that caused the song to be banned by radio stations from coast to coast. Despite the bans, "Work With Me Annie" was a #1 R&B hit, and also crossed over to the pop charts. Capitalizing on their success, The Midnighters continued with a string of records featuring Annie - "Sexy Ways", "Annie Had A Baby", and so on. The song also led to a slew of answer records. Etta James' "Roll With Me Henry" was the most famous, later cleaned up for white audiences by Georgia Gibbs as "Dance With Me Henry".

By 1956, the Annie gimmick had run its course, and Ballard spent the next three years without hits. But by the end of the decade, he had re-invented himself as a singer of light, R&B-influenced dance tunes. 1960 would be his most successful year on the pop charts, scoring with a pair of Top 10 hits, "Finger Poppin' Time" and "Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go". Also in 1960, one of his songs from the lean years would resurface and become his best-known composition. "The Twist" had languished for over two years as an obscure B-side until American Bandstand titan Dick Clark recommended the song to Cameo Records owner Bernie Lowe as perfect for launching the career of a singer Lowe had just signed. Chubby Checker's recording of "The Twist" became a monster, and the renewed popularity sent Ballard's original version into the charts as well.

Ballard would continue for a couple of more years as a dance innovator, with such hits as "The Hoochie Coochie Coo", "The Continental Walk", and "The Switch-A-Roo". All of the above singles are included on the 20 Hits compilation. But as the early 60's dance craze subsided, Ballard would drift back into obscurity. He attempted several comebacks through the rest of the 60's and 70's, including one sponsored by James Brown, but would have no more chart hits. Eventually, he would find some success on the oldies show circuit, particularly in the UK and Europe. Ballard was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990, and passed away in 2003.