When, in 1975, Elton John sang plaintively that “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” that someone was blues singer Long John Baldry, who was born on this day.
Baldry, known as Long John because of his 6ft 7in stature, had formed a band known as Bluesology some years earlier. The line-up included Reg Dwight on keyboard and Elton Dean on saxophone. When Dwight later launched a solo career, he “borrowed” band members’ names and came up with Elton John.
Before that he was sharing a flat in the East End of London with his fiancee, Linda Woodrow, a secretary, and lyricist Bernie Taupin. Reg and Linda met on Christmas Eve in 1967 at a cabaret club and by 1969 were engaged to be married.
With the wedding day getting ever nearer, a desperately reluctant Dwight, secretly gay and unable to think of a way out of the situation, sank into depression and tried to commit suicide.
That’s when Baldry, backed up by Taupin, took Dwight to one side and told him that he had to forget suicide, face up to his sexuality and call off the wedding. And that’s what Dwight did, although he did not come out as a gay person until 1988.
The 1975 song, written by Taupin and set to music by the then celebrated Elton John, tells the story. The opening line, "When I think of those East End lights" is a reference to the London flat. Linda Woodrow is the “Princess perched in her electric chair,” and the “Sugar Bear” who “saved my life tonight” is Long John Baldry.
In 1984, Linda Woodrow moved to the US, got married and had three children. She says that when Elton John – “Reg,” as she still thinks of him – arrived home at 4.30am that day after drinking with Taupin and Baldry and told her that the wedding was off, she was “devastated.”
Now, she says, she has moved on. “There is no bitterness,” she adds.
Little known outside the UK, the genial Baldry was liked and respected by many stars, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. And he launched the career of Rod Stewart, who became Sir Roderick in October 2016 – knighted at Buckingham Palace for his charity work as well as services to music.
Stewart said in a Reader’s Digest interview in 2004: “Long John Baldry launched me on my musical career. I was 18 and playing harmonica and singing a Muddy Waters song in a railway station, when John ran over to me from the other side of the tracks.
“I had just been to see him play at a club. He was one of the top bluesmen in England. And now he was asking, ‘Would you like to join the band?’
“Picture this elegant man with a proper English accent, never without a tie, a towering six-foot-seven. I was a huge fan and I was intimidated by his offer. I immediately said yes.
“I wasn’t very good on the harmonica, but my gravelly voice had caught his attention. For me, just shaking his hand – knowing all the great musicians whose hand he’d shaken before – was mind-blowing.
“John taught me so much – things that apply to my life and things that made me the human being I am today. See me on stage and you’re seeing what John taught me.
“Everyone looked up to him and he turned some of us into musical legends, but it was never what he expected for himself. He just played the clubs and was happy doing that.
"He was never a huge recording star so he may not be a legend in the proverbial sense, but he’s a cult hero with his own following and the fans who flock to his performances.”
A year after this interview, Long John Baldry, whose only big hit, “Let the Heartaches Begin,” topped the charts in 1967, died in Canada from a chest infection. He was 64.
As he was fighting for his life, a distressed Rod Stewart kept a bedside vigil – and paid the medical bills.
Published: November 29, 2016