I had gone on a tour of Australia, New Zealand, and possibly Hong Kong or somewhere, with The Who and The Small Faces in 1968. As you can imagine, that that was a tiny bit crazy…
The problem with talking to Paul Jones, if it can be called a problem, is knowing where to start. To some, he will always be the front man of 1960s group Manfred Mann, and the voice of such widely varied pop classics as the Ready Steady Go theme 5-4-3-2-1, with its breathlessly fast tempo and rapid-fire harmonica work, and the melodic ear-worm pop ballad Pretty Flamingo. To a slightly younger generation, he is the front man of The Blues Band, featuring bottleneck slide player Dave Kelly and guitarist Tom McGuinness, another Manfred Mann alumnus. A different crowd completely will remember him from a raft of West End stage shows, or as the voice of Joseph on a popular vinyl version of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Younger readers may raise an eyebrow at all of this ancient history, and say they thought he was simply a radio presenter, specialising in blues shows on Radio 2 and others. I was playing pass-the-parcel with all of these introductions in my mind, when an unexpected event happened – The Queen passed away literally the day before my scheduled interview with Paul Jones, and the opening question virtually wrote itself. So Paul, did you ever meet the Queen?
“No,” he replies. “but I loved the queen. We always looked forward, avidly, honestly, to her Christmas messages, because she always made sure that we knew about her faith, and I love people like that. I met other members of the royal family – I met her sister, Princess Margaret, more than once, and Princess Anne at least once. But no, never met The Queen.” Ah, that brings up another subject completely; Paul Jones’ Christian faith. He was an atheist for 25 years from his mid-teens, and actually engaged in a TV debate on the subject with well-known Christian convert Cliff Richard once upon a time, but was himself converted in the 1980s. But perhaps that is a conversation for another time. For now, we have more earthly matters to discuss, specifically his new career-retrospective compilation album simply named The Blues.
Given that he has been recording music since the early 1960s, it seems incredible that such a compilation has not hit the streets before now. Or maybe it has, and I missed it? Jones puts me right on that score: “No, it’s never happened before because no one thought of it – not even me. In fact, I’m not sure that I would have thought of it had it not been for Coronavirus, because in March 2020, I suddenly found that there was no work coming in, apart from spending more time in the garden and walking in the Surrey countryside. I thought there must be something I can do more constructively. So the idea came to me – although not immediately – how about a compilation of blues tunes that I have written over the years? If Coronavirus hadn’t happened, I don’t know when I would have thought that thought!”
In 1966 Paul Jones left Manfred Mann and launched his solo career, but it wasn’t until 1979 that he started to gather the crew that would become The Blues Band. In the intervening years, his career took an entirely different path, involving stage work, both musical and otherwise, TV and movies. As is often the case with these things, Jones kind of fell into it. “I had gone on a tour of Australia, New Zealand, and possibly Hong Kong or somewhere, with The Who and The Small Faces in 1968. As you can imagine, that that was a tiny bit crazy… So when I came back, I was thinking, there must be something that one can do which is slightly less crazy. And all of a sudden, my phone rang. Honestly, I was just at a bit of a loose end really; my phone rang, and it was a man called Charles Marowitz, a theatre director. He had two one-act plays that he was doing on the same bill, and he had cast them entirely with Americans, with just a sprinkling of Canadians as well. But the lead actor of one of the plays had gone back to America; he’d suddenly got a television series or something like that, and he was gone. Charles had the theatre booked, and all the actors hired, all except for this one, and he had exhausted all the American and Canadian actors in the United Kingdom. So he said, it occurred to me, you sing with an American accent? And I said, well, I do my best.”
I did various tours of different plays by George Bernard Shaw, and Shakespeare and all that sort of stuff…
There’s nothing strange about that of course; all rock’n’rollers sing in an American accent; it’s part of the deal. But for whatever reason, it was Paul Jones who got the call. “He said, would you come and audition your American accent for me? He lived in St. John’s Wood in London at that time, so I went over there one evening, and he said, I’m going to ask you some questions which I want you to answer with your American accent. After a couple of minutes of that, he said, that will do – how familiar are you with acting? I said, not at all. He said, so you know nothing about ‘The Method’? And I said, well, I know what a method is; it’s a way of doing things. He said yes, method acting is the way of doing acting. He made me go through various acting exercises at this audition. So, long story short, I wound up doing these two one-act plays. Somebody saw me in those, and I got into a play called Conduct Unbecoming at the Bristol Old Vic. That went extremely well and transferred to the Queen’s Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, so I was now in the West End. I stayed in that play for a year in the West End, and then went with it to America and played in New York, for the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. When I came back, I did various television things, then I did various tours of different plays by George Bernard Shaw, and Shakespeare and all that sort of stuff. I did quite a lot of Shakespeare. Over a few years I played Romeo, I played Hamlet, and I played smaller roles in Othello and Julius Caesar and Much Ado About Nothing. I did some stuff for Andrew Lloyd Webber as well; I was in Cats for a while, and I eventually joined the National Theatre, which is where I met my wife, and we did various musicals; we did Guys and Dolls and The Pyjama Game and one or two other things as well. So yeah, I had a pretty full on acting career from early ‘69 to early ‘79.”
1979 brings us up to the start of The Blues Band, whose first gig was in April of that year. Jones has been writing songs for a long time, and I must admit, I thought a lot of The Blues Band’s material was written by him. But checking back on their early albums, I realised that apart from a few originals, most of those early songs were cover versions. “Yes, well, there wasn’t a lot of time to sort of get some songs written,” he explains. “Tom McGuinness, Lou Stonebridge and I had written Come On In, and I don’t think there was anything else. I had been making my living as an actor for the previous ten years, and although I was practising as far as the harmonica was concerned, I wasn’t writing any songs, or not much.”
Stonebridge had played keyboards in McGuinness Flint, and although he was never a member of The Blues Band, that song Come On In was a good start, an up-tempo, rocking and also amusing 12-bar romp that was about as typical of the early Blues Band as you could get. But how did The Blues Band come to be? Jones is happy to elucidate. “I was inspired to get a blues band together, partly by listening to other bands like the Southend blues bands, Dr. Feelgood, Lew Lewis, Eddie and the Hot Rods,” he begins.
Nine Below Zero were also making a name in this genre at the time, although they were more London-based, but Jones acknowledges their input too. “Yes, they were very much influential because I caught them a few times, mostly in south London. I thought, hey, if these guys can do it, I can certainly do it. But the serious impetus came from an album by James Cotton. I’d always been a big James Cotton fan; he was a wonderful harmonica player, very exciting and powerful, and he was with Muddy Waters for a good number of years. Cyril Davies (from Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated) and I, absolutely adored James Cotton. In 1974/75, he came out with a couple of LPs on Buddah Records; one of them was called 100% Cotton. And then, ‘76 I think it was, although I didn’t get the album till ‘77, there was an album called Live & On The Move, which was basically all the contents of his last two studio albums, but live. And I mean, the man was just an awesome force, you know, a force of nature, and he also had a really big, powerful voice in his youth. We must have done at least four songs from that live double, in our early repertoire in the band. And of course, inevitably, we also did a bunch of favourites like I’ve Got My Mojo Working, things like that, but really, if it hadn’t been for James Cotton, I’m not sure I’d have even formed The Blues Band in the first place. He did an album called Deep In The Blues, which even more than Live And On The Move is probably my favourite blues album of all time. Anyway, that was what did it, and we didn’t have any songs written, so we had to do other people’s.”
Covering other people’s songs was never a problem for pub blues bands of the era; it was par for the course. But for a band to really make a name for themselves, they had to have original material. As a slight digression, Jones refers to a famous story in which legendary entrepreneur producer Andrew Loog Oldham tried some gently persuasive methods to encourage two of his protégés to start writing. “When the Rolling Stones started, they didn’t have any originals, not at all. In fact, I remember saying to Mick Jagger at one time, have you started writing songs yet? Because by that time I was with the Manfreds and I had a few done. He said nah, I can’t write songs; we just do Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters and all that. And I said, you will! So you might as well start now. Now I know that Andrew Loog Oldham famously locked Mick and Keith into a room and said, ‘You can come out when you’ve written some songs.’ But I take credit for encouraging them to write even before Andrew Loog Oldham!”
Anyway, there’s a song on the new compilation simply called The Blues Band, in which Jones basically sings the story of how the band got started. There’s a line in there that says, “I called up my old friend Tom McGuinness – I said d’you wanna do it or not?” It introduces every band member by name, but what it doesn’t describe is the loose nature of the band’s personnel, until it was eventually nailed down. “I called Tom first,” says Jones, “because at least I knew him. And just as a side issue, I’ll tell you this: for the first few months of the band’s existence, I was the only person who did every gig. The band had a sort of slightly floating personnel for a while until it settled down. But I got Tom in, and he said, if you don’t mind my saying, we should get Hughie Flint on drums.”
Tom and Hughie had formed their own band back in 1970 named McGuinness Flint, which had a massive hit with the single When I’m Dead And Gone, but Flint had previously been with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers; in fact he was the drummer on their highly influential ‘Beano’ album with Eric Clapton and John McVie. “So I said okay. And we would go to Hughie’s flat, Tom with his guitar and me with my harmonicas, because he couldn’t travel with his drum kit as easily as we could travel with our instruments. We would just run through some songs, and it was the three of us for some weeks. But Tom knew a banjo player called Keith Nelson…”
I know what you’re thinking, dear reader – since when did The Blues Band have a banjo player? They didn’t of course; again, Keith Nelson didn’t join the group, but was instrumental in gathering the last two members into the fold. “All I knew about Keith was that he was in Charlie Dore’s band, which was sort of like country, folky, soft rock, you know, nice, lovely musicians, and Keith was a pretty hot banjo player. But one day, Keith said to Tom, you’ll never guess who delivered my laundry today – Dave Kelly!”
Dave was a well-known face on the blues circuit; he had played slide in the John Dummer Band, which also backed the mighty Howlin’ Wolf when he was touring, and Dave was the younger brother of Jo Ann Kelly, one of the UK’s best-known blues singers. Dave was still playing and recording; in fact he released two albums in 1979. Clearly, delivering laundry wasn’t his vocation, so the boys thought they’d give it a shot. “They found out how to get in touch with him; Tom rang Dave, and said, would you be interested in joining this blues band? And Dave said Yeah, could be. So Tom asked Dave if he knew a bass player, and Dave said I do as it happens, and it was Gary Fletcher. So all of a sudden, that was The Blues Band.”
Southpaw bassist/guitarist Fletcher in fact played on the album Willing by Dave Kelly featuring Paul Jones later in 1979, and now fronts his own Gary Fletcher band, although he has remained The Blues Band’s regular bassist throughout their history. The Blues Band kicked off with their debut release, The Official Bootleg Album, in 1980, while also playing some TV specials, including a documentary on the burgeoning blues revival, with Dr. Feelgood and Nine Below Zero. This period of the band lasted for five albums, with ex-Family member Rob Townsend replacing Hughie Flint on drums halfway through, but they briefly disbanded in 1983 after their Bye Bye Blues live set. Reforming three years later with the same incredibly stable line-up, they kept up a steady stream of albums and tours until last year.
In 1991, Manfred Mann also reformed – although without the main man, organist Manfred Mann himself – originally as a one-off, but subsequently as a going concern. This version of the band became known as The Manfreds, and inevitably has several members in common with The Blues Band – Jones and McGuinness were founder members of both bands, and have remained with both. Manfred Mann’s drummer Mike Hugg had already migrated to keyboards back in the late ‘60s, which left a vacancy behind the kit which was filled this time, with a certain inevitability, by Rob Townsend.
The Blues Band sadly announced their retirement as a unit in 2021, with their final studio album, So Long, appearing in March 2022, but until then, Jones, McGuinness and Townsend were touring with both bands. The Manfreds are still going though, and are putting on an extensive UK tour this autumn, as per the details on the right. I am told that ‘at least three’ of the songs from Paul’s The Blues compilation will be featured in the set.
Finally, I’m keen to know how Jones managed to narrow down his 60-year career into 72 minutes, which is basically as much as he could fit on to a single CD. The album comprises 21 tracks, divided into thirds, so there are seven from Manfred Mann, seven from The Blues Band and seven Paul Jones solos, although he has included a couple of wildcards amongst his own seven – one song he performed with Mick Pini and another he did with Venetian guitarist Guido Toffoletti. There must have been some other tracks he was hesitating over though, which didn’t quite make the cut? “Oh, yes! In fact, actually, I was thinking the other day, if this album were to go extremely well, there is the possibility of a Volume II, because I could probably get together about another 20 or so. For instance, I could have chosen the version of It’s Got To Be The Blues I did with Mick Pini. But I chose the version with The Blues Band because I wanted to use Like Mother Like Daughter from Mick Pini. So next time, I could have a different Blues Band track and a different Mick Pini track and so on and so forth all the way through.”
The last time Paul Jones appeared in these pages was in Velvet Thunder’s interview article with Stephen Dale Petit in 2020. Jones played a guest spot on Petit’s album 2020 Visions, and I hope Petit won’t mind me repeating a quote from that interview – talking of Jones, he said: “He’s just phenomenal; he’s got great energy and I think he played some astonishing harp.” It’s an energy which has powered his playing, recording and performing for over 60 years. Incredibly, Paul Jones clocked up his 80th birthday in February of this year, and is still going strong. This is one show that is just going to run and run.