8 Jan 2019

Former Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones looks back

From Matinee Idle, 3:06 pm on 8 January 2019
Paul Jones

Paul Jones Photo: Public Domain

English band Manfred Mann were big in the 1960s with hits such as 'Pretty Flamingo' and 'Mighty Quinn', but the members themselves were something of an anomaly in the music scene – neither Liverpool mop tops or scruffy Rolling Stones wannabes.

Paul Jones was the original lead singer – a self-described "well-brought-up English boy whose father was a naval officer" and devoted jazz and blues fan.

He left Manfred Mann in 1966, but later joined the reconfigured lineup of The Manfreds who visit NZ on their farewell tour this April.

Jones says he first heard about a band looking for a singer with bIues chops from an acquaintance who worked at the iconic London venue, the Marquee Club.

“They wanted to play the blues because they saw that people like [British musician] Alexis Korner were actually making a living from doing that. And lots of other people were not making a living from playing jazz, so that was it. That’s what I was brought in to the band to do.

“The point is although I was a jazz fan, always had been since I was about 14, I knew more about blues. And that was one of the main reasons I was in the band because when I got this message from somebody at the Marquee Club, it turned out that my main job really was to teach them some blues because they didn’t know any.

“They knew 12-bar blues chord sequences and all of that, because they were jazz musicians and there’s loads of 12-bar blues in jazz. What they didn’t know was any specific songs so I had to teach them some Jimmy Witherspoon, T-Bone Walker, some Ray Charles, stuff like that, Big Joe Turner, and we got started.”

Paul Jones in 1967

Paul Jones in 1967 Photo: Public Domain

Jones’ voice was one of the most distinctive of the era.

“I’d spent the last five, six, seven years listening really to anybody who was singing blues and that was a very wide spectrum. It went from Louis Armstrong to, in Britain, people like Long John Baldry who was there before us. I listened to anybody who I heard singing the blues, anybody I liked would sort of rub off on my vocal chords and that’s where all that came from.

“People like Noah Lewis on the harmonica and vocals, as well, and singers like Muddy Waters and Little Walter and Howlin' Wolf.”

One of Manfred Mann’s first recordings was a Howlin' Wolf classic.

“The first album track we ever put out was Howlin' Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightning’. A well brought up English boy whose father was a naval officer did not sound like Howlin’ Wolf!”

Alongside many of their contemporaries, Manfred Mann started to have hit songs as British blues-flavoured music became fashionable.

Their first self-written hit – ‘5,4,3,2,1’ in 1964 – was adopted as the theme for the TV show Ready, Steady Go, but after that their biggest songs were written by other musicians.

“Right at the beginning, our songs came from us. Our very first hit was '5,4,3,2,1'. That was written by Manfred [Mann], Mike [McGuiness] and me and then we followed that up with another hit in England called 'Hubble Bubble', but that didn’t do any business anywhere else.

"And the record company said to us, ‘you guys don’t write any more of your own songs’. This was really ridiculous.”

Despite '5,4,3,2,1' making the top five, the band went along with their record company's wishes.

“They were the people with the money and they were paying us and when they said 'you don’t write any more of your own hits' we had to go along with it.

“They tried it with The Beatles. Unfortunately, nobody in our band had the guts of people like John Lennon! So we just went along with it.”

Manfred Mann developed a reputation for clever, commercially successful Bob Dylan covers.

“The first one we ever did of his was 'With God on Our Side'. It was a kind of pacifist, ironic, satirical song about people who claimed to have God on their side and I thought it was a powerful song.

"And then we got a bit more commercial with stuff like ‘If You’ve Gotta Go, Go Now’… Bob did like our versions, yes, having been very complimentary to The Byrds as well. He then did say we were the band who did the best versions of his songs – apart from his own, of course.”

Jones also brought lesser-known songs to his Manfred Mann bandmates.

“I just listened to the radio and I heard things and I liked them and we learnt them, and lo and behold we had things like ‘Do Wah Diddy’, 'Sha La La' and ‘Come Tomorrow’.”

It was the band's skill at recording simple, effective arrangements that gave which tunes their commercial sheen, he says.

“The person who did that was the most intellectually oriented musician of the band and that was Manfred [Mann]. He was the person who said 'simplicity, you have to go for simplicity'. And considering I’d been reading his articles in Jazz News for some years at that point and he was writing about harmony and improvisation and phrasing and here he was shedding all of that and just saying ‘right, the first thing you do, with any song, is the chorus and then you can go back and start with the first verse, but you do not start the song with the first verse’ and he was absolutely right.

“Manfred always had a great sense of what people could take and what people would like to listen to. He was also responsible for the arrangements… I brought the songs in but how we did the songs ….he was very good at that.”

At the height of the band’s success, Jones left to pursue a solo music career and acting.

“I had an acting career that lasted for something like 20 years starting in 1966... I had a call asking if I would like to talk to a man called Peter Watkins about a film he was about to make [the 1967 Jean Shrimpton film] Privilege.

“I didn’t do a great job of acting in Privilege but it was the start of an acting career that I did rather better at a bit later on.”

Jones announced to the band that he was leaving, but agreed to stay on until a replacement could be found... which took longer than he anticipated.

He says the band had become too 'poppy' for his liking.

“While I was in the band, there were songs being bandied around which I didn’t want to do and I think that hastened my departure … I actually announced my decision to leave in October 1965 and finally got out in July 1966.

“At first there was a certain amount of anger and antipathy but we got over that and then they said ‘will you stay on until we find someone that we’re really happy with?’ I said 'of course I will', thinking that they meant six weeks or two months or something – it was nine months!

“During those nine months we made a Number 2 record – 'If You’ve Gotta Go' – and the other one was a Number 1 – ‘Pretty Flamingo’. So I didn’t lose out much by staying in the band for those extra months.”

Ace bass player Jack Bruce was recruited into the band at this time, despite being a seemingly unlikely fit.

“I think having announced I was on my way out I had removed the franchise from myself [and] I no longer had the vote! But if I had had it, I would have voted with 100 percent alacrity and enthusiasm for Jack Bruce because I always thought he was absolutely wonderful.”

Jones’ path crossed with Bruce again when he was asked to put a band together for an American album showcasing the best contemporary blues music called What’s Shakin’.

“In 1966, when I was still in the band, somebody had approached me from Elektra Records and said 'there’s a rumour that you’re leaving Manfred Mann, would you put a band together for a compilation of white boy blues we’re doing? We’ve got lots of Americans but no Brits.

"I said I’d try and the first person I called was Jack Bruce. [I asked] are you interested? He said ‘I am, who else are you thinking about?’

"‘Well, I think it would be great if we could get Eric Clapton on guitar and what do you think, Ginger Baker on drums?’

"And there was a sort of pause and he said ‘How much do you know?’ I said 'About what?'

“So you’re talking to the man who accidentally put Cream together. Although the truth is they were already rehearsing, already planning their supergroup.”

Clapton agreed to do the sessions, Baker declined and along with Steve Winwood, the short-lived Eric Clapton’s Powerhouse was formed.

“Despite the fact I had assembled the band!”

The Manfreds in 2019

The Manfreds in 2019 Photo: Supplied

Jones says he first played New Zealand on a talent-heavy bill in 1968.

“The Who were headlining and then not far behind them were The Small Faces and then I was third on the bill I think. The band that I’d been given were New Zealand musicians [Billy Christian and Bruno Lawrence]. I didn’t really know much about them, but they were excellent.

“I very much enjoyed that tour, musically and getting together with Roger Daltrey and Kenny Jones, as well … I tended to hang out with Roger and Kenny because of all the musicians on that tour I think we were the sanest three!”

The Manfreds – a band combining members of the original lineup and the subsequent one fronted by Mike d’Abo – came about by accident in the early 1990s, Jones says.

“It was Tom McGuiness’ 50th birthday. Tom had this brilliant idea ‘I’m going to celebrate my 50th birthday by assembling all the bands I’ve ever been in, in one venue, on one night’. He nearly made it. We had The Manfreds, we had The Blues Band - which had been going since 1979 - and we had McGuiness Flint. The only band that we didn’t have was The Roosters which is the band he was in with Eric Clapton.

"We couldn’t find Eric! The only other person we couldn’t get was Manfred because he was on tour with his [Manfred Mann's] Earth Band, but we got all the rest of it together and it was massively fun. We got back to the dressing room with the applause still ringing in our ears.”

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