October 11, 2008

Mann on a Mission to Play the Blues

I n HIS youth Paul Jones shot to national consciousness as the clean-cut, blond and blue-eyed lead singer of Manfred Mann who proceeded to take the 1960s pop charts by storm. But the history of rock 'n' roll might have been rather different had Brian Jones enticed him to be lead singer in his band instead.

"Brian and I were good mates; he lived in Cheltenham and I in Oxford but we got together to hear Alexis Korner and his wonderful musicians, on a regular basis," explains Paul, ahead of his show with The Manfreds, Alan Price and Maggie Bell at Plymouth Pavilions next week.

Both youngsters were heavily into the blues and Paul had his own grandly-titled band, Thunder Odin's Big Secret, that he'd asked Brian to join.

"Then one day Brian rang me up and suggested 'let's move to London, get a flat and form a band and we can become rich and famous. You can be the lead singer!'," adds Paul.

"I graciously declined, he said 'please yourself' and went on to form The Rolling Stones...

"One of the reasons I said no was because I had already answered a Melody Maker ad to sing with a big band line-up in Slough - I rather fancied it.

"Seventy-nine of the 80 singers auditioning sang Cliff's latest The Young Ones, but I did Georgia On My Mind and got the job, which came with an 'in' to a pop singers' agency. I think they were just relieved to hear something different!

"People often ask me did I kick myself for not joining the Stones after they became so phenomenally successful. But, no, I didn't. Mick was so different, he was The Rolling Stones and the band would have been nothing like they were without him."

While Brian, Mick and the boys were paving the way for the rock 'n' roll revolution, Paul fuelled his love for rhythm and blues in the Manfreds, but left after a couple of years.

"They became too poppy for me and too Bob Dylan - Mike D'Abo took over and they made some absolute classics, it just wasn't what I wanted to do."

What he did want to do, for a while at least, was to act and Paul spent most of the 70s and some of the 80s appearing in films such as Privilege and The Committee, TV shows Z Cars and The Sweeney and also starring on the stage in Cats, The Beggars Opera and Guys and Dolls.

But he missed music too much and, driven by his deep-seated love of music by heroes such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Leadbelly, formed The Blues Band in 1979, which did much to help kickstart a revival in blues music. Some 17 albums later, having earned a reputation as one of the best rhythm and blues purveyors in the business, the band are still going strong.

Paul seems to manage to juggle stints on the road with them, the reformed Manfreds - who got back together in 1992 after EMI offered them a new deal to re-record all their greatest hits - and still finds time to augment the odd jazz ensemble, especially with good mates Chris Barber and Digby Fairweather.

"I'm a huge jazz enthusiast and the Oxford University Jazz Band were among the first I sang with. I was doing an English degree at Oxford, but didn't stay the course because once I'd discovered music, aged 20, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I could spend another couple of years scraping a degree or I could start there and then."

He hasn't looked back - he was recently awarded an honorary Doctorate of Music from the University of Portsmouth - and that refined Oxford English accent he never lost, helped not only his acting but also his broadcasting career. His long-running Radio 2 Blues Show, which he has to fit in around the 200 nights a year spent on the road, is still one of the best-loved on radio.

The Maximum Rhythm'n'Blues Tour featuring The Manfreds, Alan Price and Maggie Bell is at Plymouth Pavilions on Friday, October 17. Box office: 0845 146 1460

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