Three Dollar Bill: Sugar bear

Sugar bear

Baldry's Canadian years

Long John Baldry had been on my "to interview" list since 1999. I’m a sucker for out, proud gay men and sadly I never got the chance to speak with the British blues legend before he passed on July 21.

There are many Long John stories and one really needs to sit down with the kids Baldry brought up – Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and especially Elton John and Rod Stewart – to fully appreciate the musical legacy of the man B.B. King (his friend) called a blues pioneer.

In a business where folks like Luther Vandross and Ricky Martin choose to remain in the closet so they can sell more records and concert tickets, Long John Baldry was defiantly out. And damn the consequences.

"John was not well accepted as a gay man by the blues community – it’s a very macho industry," his partner of 28 years, Felix "Oz" Rexach, told me last week. "But he was more than well accepted as a performer in his field."

And few protégés loved him more than Elton John and Rod Stewart. In a rare interview, Baldry told my old colleague Bernard Gadoua in the now-defunct Montreal gay magazine Orientations, "Rod, he was singing on the platform at Twickenham railway station [in London]. In the beginning I hired him to play blues harmonica rather than sing. But he ended singing for my band. I offered him a full-time job. And Elton was always a very good pianist. He never sang when he started. He only played piano. He was with my band from November 1966 to May 1968."

When Elton – then named Reginald Dwight – left the band, he renamed himself after Baldry’s saxophonist Elton Dean, and got "John" after Long John himself. And when Elton tried to commit suicide in 1968 because he was unhappy he was gay and was supposed to marry a woman he did not love, Baldry told him it was okay to be gay, a moment immortalized in Elton’s 1975 hit Someone Saved My Life Tonight. The lyrics "Sugar Bear" refer to Baldry.

"We were sharing a pint at the Bag of Nails, and he was crying at the table, weeping really, saying how he didn’t want to go through with the wedding," Baldry recently explained. He told Elton he didn’t have to go through with it because "people like us don’t get married."

But Baldry was, for all intents and purposes, married. He and "Oz" were together 28 years. "Many people believe touring is glamorous, but [Oz] knows there’s nothing glamorous about being on the road," Baldry told Orientations.

Before he met Oz, though, the road did offer some perks. "When I was 20 or 30 years old there were lots of groupies. But I’m over 60 now and not many beautiful boys chase me any more. Unless they’re interested in money that I don’t have."

In the latter years, Oz says, "I was the one that always got blamed for everything that went wrong." He laughs, then adds, "Seriously, I was a great scapegoat."

Baldry became a Canadian citizen in 1980 and settled in Vancouver where, with Oz and Rod Stewart by his side, he checked into the Vancouver General Hospital four months ago battling a chest infection. Stewart paid for a lot of medical bills and, Oz says, "Rod was, as always, very supportive and came to see him in Vancouver, which gave him a big boost. They even made plans to do things when John got better."

Things, we now know, didn’t get better. But Baldry’s legacy lives on.

"John hated the ‘living legend’ tag, as people always expected him to do something ‘legendary,’" Oz says. "No matter how appropriate, it was still a lot of pressure to try to live up to. But his legacy will go on. John made 40 wonderful albums, he was such a talent. There are so many young people out there who have yet to discover and appreciate his work. I’ll miss him. It was incredible to share my life with such a generous man. Twenty-eight years is quite a journey. And I want to thank all who have sent [us] such wonderful messages of support."


Final note Check out the men’s pro tennis tour when they pit stop in Montreal Aug. 6-14 for the ATP Masters Canadian Open at Jarry Park. All the bigshots will be there, from Roger Federer to Spanish studmuffin Rafael Nadal.

And when Aussie tennis superstar Lleyton Hewitt hits the courts, make sure to boo the bastard. Hewitt, the world’s number 2-rated male player, chastised Portuguese umpire Carlos Ramos during Davis Cup play in Sydney on July 17.

"Who is the poof?" Hewitt screamed after Ramos made a call he disagreed with.

Hewitt’s opponent Guillermo Coria said after the match, "Inside the court, you really feel like killing [Hewitt]. He can be the best player in the world, he can win every tournament. But he cannot behave the way he does, abusing the captain, abusing the other players, abusing everybody."

This poof will make sure Hewitt understands that loud and clear at Jarry Park next week. Game, set, match.

Posted in

Three Dollar Bill