The blues have been a central part of Paul Jones’s life for sixty years. The singer, actor, harmonicist, radio personality and television presenter was 80 in February. He presented his final BBC Radio blues show in 2018 and the Blues Band, which he co-founded forty years ago, played its final gig earlier this year. He’s now produced a retrospective album, The Blues – link to review below. Interview by Bruce Lindsay.
‘I’m a little surprised to be interviewed by London Jazz News,’ says Paul Jones as we begin our interview, ‘I don’t see myself in quite the same bag as John Taylor.’ By the end of the interview, the amiable and knowledgeable Jones has revealed the love of early jazz that led to his ongoing love of the blues.
Jones turned eighty in 2022, but this wasn’t the catalyst for his new compilation, The Blues. ‘The catalyst was coronavirus, when all my gigs suddenly vanished … I started listing all the songs I’ve written, working out which publisher had which songs. I thought “There’s an album here”. I was already thinking about handing in my notice to the Blues Band [which started over 40 years ago and played its final gig earlier this year] and thought that an album of the blues I’ve done over the years would be quite good. If I limited it to stuff I’d written or co-written, then it would be more of a picture of me, as it were. That’s how the album came about.’
Jones selected the songs, and programmed the album following an intervention by Stephen Fernie, of Jones’s record label Umbrella Music. Manfred Mann’s ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1’, the theme song of TV pop show Ready Steady Go, was going to be the opening track, but Fernie told him ‘You can’t start a blues album with “5, 4, 3, 2, 1”, you can sneak it in later on.’ ‘I said “But Steve, it is a blues!” You may quarrel with a couple of changes, but it’s blues. It started life as a 12-bar and got moved around a little, to satisfy the requirements of Ready Steady Go for a new signature tune. It only became a single afterwards.’
The album begins with ‘Without You,’ which Manfred Mann recorded in late 1963 and which, as Jones says, ‘is unquestionably blues.’ Initially he thought of programming the album chronologically, but this would have meant putting all seven Manfred Mann tracks at the beginning, followed by a mix of solo and Blues Band tracks: ‘So I thought I’d take one Manfreds song, one solo and one Blues Band and run the whole album in that sequence. And it works perfectly.’
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Jones’s love of blues grew from jazz. ‘There were two boys in the year above me at school, when I was around fourteen. One asked if we had any records and I said “Yes, we’ve got Tchaikovsky, Brahms”. He said “No, have you personally got any?” I hadn’t.’ His friends recommended Percy Faith and Jo Stafford. Jones found nothing to his taste there, but bought a Nat King Cole disc and a Sammy Davis record, on which Davis impersonated singers and actors. ‘A couple of weeks later, these guys told me I should get some jazz records and gave me a book, believe it or not, Rex Harris’s Jazz … Harris’s enthusiasm for New Orleans music was catching and I bought a 78 of King Oliver’s band with Louis Armstrong on second cornet, “Dippermouth Blues”. It was wonderful. I bought an LP of King Oliver’s Jazz Band and one track, not a blues, called “Mabel’s Dream,” just set my hair on end. I still can’t listen to it without a similar reaction. I discovered that my favourite records were vocal discs, blues by people like Jelly Roll Morton or Bessie Smith. They grabbed me in a way that Buddy Holly or Elvis just didn’t. Real blues, like Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie, absolutely got hold of me.’
Jones’s father, a Royal Navy officer, was posted to Plymouth dockyard in 1960-61. Jones was in his first year at Oxford when the family moved to Plymouth and when he came home for the first time he discovered Pete Russell’s Hot Record Store. The title impressed him: ‘Store! That sounds really cool. One day, he played T-Bone Walker, a record made in Chicago for Atlantic records. Junior Wells played harmonica on two tracks including “Play on Little Girl” … Wells’s playing is relatively simple but magnificent and I thought “Goodness, you can do that with a mouth organ?” I bought a mouth organ, and of course I couldn’t do that with it.’
Luckily, Brian Jones, later of the Rolling Stones, was at hand. ‘Brian told me how to play cross-harp, taking a C-harmonica and playing it in G, for example. It’s the first step to playing like Little Walter. That opened the door, that was me off and running.’
The Blues features plenty of legendary British players: ‘The Dog Presides’ puts Jones together with Paul Samwell-Smith from the Yardbirds on bass, Jeff Beck on guitar and Paul McCartney on drums; Eric Clapton plays guitar on ‘Choose or Cop Out’; Alan Skidmore, Guy Barker and a host of other top-flight jazzers appear on ‘It’s Got to be the Blues’ – but the album’s most affecting track, for me, is ‘Sonny Boy Williamson,’ Jones’s tribute to the second Sonny Boy, a major blues figure with a fearsome reputation who died in 1965. It’s a duo performance, recorded in 1966, with Jones, on vocals and harmonica, and Jack Bruce on double bass.
‘I adored Sonny Boy, although not everything about him. He was very subtle compared with a lot of “smack you in the teeth” blues singers. His songwriting was wonderful, “Mighty Long Time” was one of the most influential records of my life. When he died I had to write a tribute song. “Mighty Long Time” is just Sonny Boy and a bass – I only discovered years after writing the tribute that it’s not a double bass, but a bass vocal. I asked Jack if he’d join me on the song … I think it turned out rather well. I think the word “banal” was used by one critic, but it’s actually simple and heartfelt. As he left the studio Jack, bless him, said “Well, it’s made me cry”.’
Jones met Williamson briefly when Manfred Mann were booked as his backing band for some UK gigs. ‘This was in about 1963, before we had any hits. We did maybe one or two gigs then he dispensed with us. No arguing, no acrimony, but all the band except me were sight-reading jazz musicians and there was a difference of opinion between the Manfreds and Sonny Boy as to how many bars there are in a 12-bar blues. That’s all it was.’
When Jones stopped presenting his Radio 2 blues show, ‘Mighty Long Time’ was the last song he played. ‘I decided that as this was my last programme ever, I was going to finish with probably my personal favourite blues track of all time. And that was it.’
LINKS: Review of The Blues