Rocketman is an absolutely riotous piece of film-making. Described as a ‘musical fantasy’ rather than a straight-up biopic, Taron Egerton takes to the ivories – in a variety of fantastical outfits – to show us who Elton John really was at the start of his career. It’s a celebration of John’s rise from back-alley clubs to rubbing shoulders with Bob Dylan at private parties. It’s also a colorful look at how it nearly all came crashing down.
However, there is a large part of Reg Dwight’s life, pre-“Elton,” that is conspicuously missing. During his early years of working with Bernie Taupin, the songwriter was drafted into the ranks of Bluesology, the band that helped pitch him into the spotlight. The leader of that band was Long John Baldry, who was not only pivotal in helping Dwight transform into “Elton John,” but who also helped to turn the Rocketman’s life around for the better.
Baldry was, by all accounts, a legend on the scene. Nicknamed for his towering stature, his rich, lavish voice netted him a handful of pop hits in the 60s before heading back to his blues roots a decade later. He’s probably best known by a generation of British listeners as the performer of “Let The Heartaches Begin“, a minor Billboard 100 hit, but a number one smash in his British homeland. The likes of Rod Stewart would credit Baldry with kick-starting their careers. He’d pull both Stewart and Dwight back in to help produce his landmark album, It Ain’t Easy, which established him as more than just your average crooner.
Dwight was taken under Baldry’s wing at a critical point on his rise to superstardom. Not only was he playing a pivotal role in Bluesology, but Baldry was also instrumental in helping John find both his muse and his identity.
Homosexuality in the UK was decriminalized as of 1967. While Dwight wouldn’t publicly reveal his preferences until the late 80s, Baldry was widely known to be “out and proud” – at least, within circles out of the sight of the law. It was Baldry and Taupin who were instrumental in helping to persuade Dwight to embrace his sexuality and to recognize that a forthcoming marriage to Linda Woodrow was a façade. As a result, Dwight would call off the nuptials – though he would marry Renate Blauel in 1984, four years before he publicly acknowledged his true feelings.
Baldry’s support and guidance are, in fact, immortalized in song. In “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” from 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Elton John refers to his almost-marriage with heavy, notable relief for having gotten away. “You almost had your hooks in me didn’t you dear / You nearly had me roped and tied / Altar-bound, hypnotized” – while Baldry is mentioned as ‘Sugar Bear’.
Rocketman oddly removes Baldry from the picture entirely. He’s not seen as part of the Bluesology line-up, nor is Dwight’s engagement to Linda Woodrow even addressed. Even stranger is the script’s decision to inform viewers how “Reg Dwight” became “Elton John” at all.
Dwight named himself after two people in Bluesology whom he deeply admired – saxophonist Elton Dean, and – of course – Long John Baldry. In the biopic, we see Dwight clearly take Elton’s name for inspiration – however, in a later scene, not too long after, we see Dwight take his surname from a completely different ‘John’. In a framed photo on the record company wall, Egerton spies “John Lennon,” and thus creates his new persona.
It’s not clear why Baldry was omitted from the Rocketman script. While it doesn’t detract from the power or the entertainment value of the movie at all, for those of us inspired by Baldry’s work, his unfortunate omission is all the more obvious.
With around 20 solo LPs to choose from, it’s hard to pick a seminal work by Baldry to recommend above all others. A great starting point will be his It Ain’t Easy followed by Everything Stops For Tea and Baldry’s Out (released shortly after the bluesman walked away from a two-year hospitalization).
Personally, I enjoy his later work – particularly his albums It Still Ain’t Easy and Right to Sing The Blues from the 1990s. A rarer LP to come across is Silent Treatment, which saw Baldry return to mainstream blues-rock. A younger generation will likely know Baldry for his voice work in the early 1990s, especially as “Dr. Ivo Robotnik” in The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sadly, Baldry passed away in July 2005 from complications following a chest infection. While it may never be clear why his story was left out of Fletcher’s take on the early work of Elton John, it’s all the more important that his music and his legacy lives on.