July 25, 2005

John Baldry, 64, Singer Who Shaped British Rock, Dies

Long John Baldry, a British blues-rock singer who helped start the careers of the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Elton John and other British stars, died on Thursday in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was 64 and had been a longtime resident of Vancouver.

The cause was a severe chest infection, his manager, Frank Garcia, said.

A central figure in the nascent British rock scene of the early 1960's, Mr. Baldry - whose nickname referred to his lanky 6-foot-7 frame - sang and played guitar alongside some of the biggest stars of the era, often as a coach and bandleader. Among those who played with him early in their careers were Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Page of the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker of Cream, Mr. Stewart and Sir Elton.

And though Mr. Baldry never became as famous as many of his onetime apprentices, he was revered as a model and inspiration for his gruff, earnest singing and dedication to the blues. Mr. Stewart, in an appreciation in Reader's Digest last year, said: "In those days the only music we fell in love with was the blues, and John was the first white guy singing it, in his wonderful voice. It was true blues and everyone looked up to him."

An ardent student of American blues and folk music, Mr. Baldry first took after Leadbelly, learning to play the 12-string guitar in his style, and from 1957 to 1961 toured Europe with the American folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott.

When he returned to London, he joined Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, called the first electric blues band in Britain. Sir Mick and Mr. Watts played in that band, and on July 12, 1962, when Korner canceled a show at the Marquee Club in London to appear on a BBC radio program, an early version of the Rolling Stones played its first gig as a replacement.

Mr. Baldry also sang in Cyril Davies's R&B All Stars, and when Davies died of leukemia in early 1964, Mr. Baldry took over the group and renamed it the Hoochie Coochie Men. He recruited Mr. Stewart, then 19, as a secondary singer after hearing him sing on a train platform in London. Two years later Mr. Baldry began playing with Bluesology, which featured on keyboards a young man named Reg Dwight; in tribute to his bandleader, Mr. Dwight took the stage name Elton John.

As his protégés became famous, Mr. Baldry made his own attempts at stardom. In the late 60's he turned from the blues to a syrupy, crooning pop style, and had a No. 1 hit in Britain in 1967 with "Let the Heartaches Begin."

In an effort to revive his reputation as a blues-rock singer, he recorded the album "It Ain't Easy" in 1971; Mr. Stewart and Sir Elton each produced one side of the disc. The album featured his signature song, "Don't Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock 'n' Roll," which cracked the Top 100 in the United States. But Mr. Baldry began to receive harsh reviews, and his career never took off in America.

By the early 1980's he was living in Canada, and while continuing to record and perform, he developed a second career as a voice-over artist. He was heard on numerous television commercials in Canada, narrated on Disney children's albums and was the voice of Robotnik, the villain on the popular "Sonic the Hedgehog" video game and cartoon series.

In 1998 he was nominated for a Grammy Award for best spoken-word album for children for "The Original Story of Winnie-the-Pooh." (The award went to another Winnie-the-Pooh album, recorded by Charles Kuralt.)

Since 1991 he recorded for the Canadian folk and blues record label Stony Plain. His last album was "Remembering Leadbelly," in 2001, a tribute to his first musical love.

He is survived by his partner, Felix Rexach; a brother, Roger; and a sister, Margaret.

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