How much can one man pack into one lifetime? In the normal scheme of things, not remotely as much as Paul Jones has. From incredible success as the singer in Manfred Mann in the 1960s, with chart-topping hits in the UK and US, like Do Wah Diddy Diddy and Pretty Flamingo, to lead roles in musicals and plays on London’s West End, to acting in films and on TV, presenting the Blues Show on BBC Radio for over 30 years, and singing and playing harmonica with his Blues Band for the last 40 years – and, “don’t forget songwriter,” he gently chided me, when we chatted recently about his life, the blues and faith.
Now in his eighth decade, Paul Jones is still going strong. He told me that next year is scheduled to be “the most gig heavy year out of the last ten or fifteen,” with shows all round the UK with the Blues Band and the Manfreds, a reformed Manfred Mann. Where does he get the energy from? “Oh,” he said nonchalantly, “I have energy! I always have. I enjoy what we do.”
That enjoyment and zest for life came across in spades during our conversation. I asked him, first of all, of all the things he’s done along the way, what does he consider himself most successful at. Singing was the obvious thing he said, because of all the Manfred Mann hits, the West End musicals and the other bands he’s been a part of. “But from, from my point of view,” he said, “I like being a harmonica player as much as I like being a singer.” It’s the one thing he would choose out of all he’s done, if forced to.
He’s been a top-notch harmonica player for a long time, and has played a long list of major artists, including Joe Bonamassa, Van Morrison and Eric Clapton, as well as his own bands.
What was the most challenging of all the things he’s done? Although in his acting career, there were some straightforward roles where the play was good and he had a top-notch director, sometimes, “at the other end of the scale, there’s stuff where you really have to dig deep.” Although he enjoyed the acting, he’s left that behind – “Things have changed and there’s very little I would want to be acting in now.”
“All credit to Dave Shannon, who was the BBC producer who invented the program in the first place and actually offered it to Radio One. They turned it down saying, no, that’s music for old people. You want to go to Radio Two. So we did, and it worked. The program survived for 32 years with me at the helm. And it still exists with Cerys Matthews.
“At the beginning Dave Shannon wrote most of the script. I was allowed to make some additions, which kind of suited me. If, for instance, we were talking about somebody that I had a personal knowledge of, then obviously that would be of interest to the listener. So that was fine. I could do that. And then after a while Dave said, ‘Just talk about this record yourself. You don’t need me writing stuff for you.’ And so I said, ‘Okay, I think I can do that.’ Well, actually I knew I could do it because before I was at Radio Two, I had about three or four years of the World Service so I obviously knew how to present the program.”
I asked Paul about the many artist interviews he’d done on the show. Were there any that particularly stood out for him?
“Van Morrison stands out. He was one of the first people that I interviewed – I had interviewed him previously for the World Service before the blues program came along. I concentrated mainly on that wonderful double album that he recorded in 1994, A Night in San Francisco. He was absolutely brilliant, tremendous guest. I remember doing that interview with Van, because people had warned me, he’s not easy. And actually, Van did sort of throw me a curve ball here and there, but I enjoyed it. And Junior Wells was notable.
“But the very first person I interviewed in my life was Memphis Slim. At that point I was still an undergraduate in Oxford. I noticed that he was in the UK, and with the confidence of youth, I got in touch with the organization for which he was touring. I’d just been asked if I would write on musical subjects for a magazine called Oxford Opinion, which was just starting up – we’re talking round about 1960, 1961. So they said, yes, okay. And Memphis Slim was staying in a rather nice hotel, not far from Trafalgar square. So I went to visit him and I think he thought I was very young. I was still spotty!
“But I, you know, I got a nice interview out of him. I remember he said that he thought it was not entirely fair that Ray Charles was a lot more successful than he was! And, of course, at that time, Memphis Slim was having a lot of commercial success with a couple of albums that featured not only him, but Matthew ‘Guitar’ Murphy – wonderful guitar player – and he also had terrific horn players in those times as well. They were some of the most successful, the most commercially slanted things that Memphis Slim ever did.
“So he sticks out. I never interviewed him again, although I did play on an album that he made at Ronnie Scott’s in London.
“Several times I interviewed Taj Mahal. He’s an artist I admire greatly because he’s never been entirely easy to categorize. And I kinda like that and I’m impressed by it, but he does have a wonderful voice. And he has lovely sort of style on guitar when he chooses to do that. And, of course, he plays harmonica and percussion and all kinds of stuff. I’ve interviewed him several times – the last time was when he came over to Britain with Keb’ Mo’ in 2018. They came in and did an absolutely marvellous interview.
“I’ll tell you one more, Gary. There’s an absolutely marvellous, wonderful jazz singer called Cassandra Wilson. And she sometimes does Robert Johnson songs and things, and always surrounds herself with absolutely stunning musicians. She’s wonderful. And she came in for an interview and somebody said, she’s very nice, but she is very serious. And one thing you mustn’t do is compare her with anyone else because she might get very difficult. She had a marvellous album out at the time and she’d done a song, I think it was a self-written and an absolutely wonderful piece of work. And I played the track somewhere about halfway through the interview. And I said as it came up, I don’t know if I should say this, but as I listen to that, surely I can hear just a teeny bit of Nina Simone. And she said…’I love Nina Simone!’
“And one more somebody warned me about was Koko Taylor. What a great artist and absolutely part of blues history. And the person who warned me was actually her manager and the boss of her record label, Alligator Records, Bruce Iglauer.” [Check out our interview Bruce Iglauer about his book, Bitten by the Blues].
“We had run into Bruce and Koko Taylor in Chicago. Bruce had warned me in advance, ‘She’s in a filthy mood. And you can have 20 minutes if you’re lucky.’ Now I actually think that Koko Taylor was tremendous, great artist. Anyway, I had all my Koko Taylor facts and all my Koko Taylor records lined up. And she came in and sure enough, she had a face like thunder and she was really just barely tolerating me. Well, I just told her what I thought of her, and I played the records and I told her what I thought of the records, and then I asked her some questions. And after about 25 or 30 minutes, Bruce said to me, ‘Well, Paul, I think that’s about it.’ And Koko turned round to him and said, ‘Shut up, Bruce, guy knows what he’s doing!’
“So I’ve had some marvellous interviews. I’ve always liked interviewing people over all these years – I’ve loved all the people that I interviewed.”
I then asked Paul about his relationship with the blues, which he’s been immersed for nearly all of his life. What is it about the music that really resonates with him?
“Well, like so many people of my generation and background, you can blame Lonnie Donegan for a lot of it. I was a jazz fan by the age of 14 and was listening to everything from Nat King Cole to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and by the age of 17, 18, I was into modern jazz. However, alongside that along came Lonnie Donegan. I think I was still only 14 years old when Lonnie Donegan did this wonderful recording called The Rock Island Line. And I heard him being interviewed on a radio program. The presenter said, ‘What an extraordinary song. What on earth made you write this?’ And Lonnie said, ‘No, no, I didn’t write it. I got it from Lead Belly.’ And the presenter said, ‘Who?’ It was Lead Belly – Huddie Ledbetter, of course, a wonderful folk blues artist.
“Anyway, I used to go to a second hand record shop in Portsmouth where I lived, and on Saturday mornings I would take my little amount of pocket money and I would I would buy a 78 – I think 45s were just coming in about then. I would buy a Humphrey Littleton record or a Count Basie record and I was already listening to singers like Jimmy Rushing in those Count Basie records.
“Then in first term at university, I went down to stay with my parents for the Christmas holiday in Plymouth where my father was captain of Plymouth dock yard. And I went into a record shop – Pete Russell’s Hot Record Store. I thought that sounded really hip. I mean, nobody used the word ‘store’ in those days except in America. So, I went in there a few times during that particular Christmas vacation, and about the fourth time I went in, Russell said to me, ‘You like blues, I suggest you should listen to this.’ And he put on the record, and it had wonderful electric guitar – most of what I’d been listening to had been acoustic guitar. And not only that, but it had a harmonica. I said, ‘What is this?’ And he said it was a 10-inch LP on French Vogue records by an artist called T-bone Walker. And I looked at it and I saw that the harmonica player was called Junior Wells. I went out of Pete Russell’s shop with that album and then I went to a music shop and bought a harmonica.
“And eventually, not long after that, I heard Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Walter. I’d already heard Sonny Terry by then. Although I was impressed, he didn’t make me want to play; Junior Wells made me want to play.”
Paul Jones became a Christian in the early ‘80s and his faith is central to him. So, I wanted to know about the relationship between blues and his Christian faith. People have referred to the blues as the devil’s music and there’s all the mythology linked to the blues about the crossroads, mojo and so on. What was his take on all of that?
“Well, one of my favourite interviewees – I can’t absolutely say for definite whether this was Pop Staples, or Clarence Fountain from the Blind Boys of Alabama, but one or other of those two eminent gentlemen – wonderful singers, and in Pop’s case, great songwriter as well, but just two absolute icons of gospel – one of them said to me, ‘What is this devil music stuff? Devil ain’t got no music, except what stupid people give him.’ And that’s right. Because if the devil could make music, then he would be doing something that was true. But as Jesus said, he’s a liar! He’s the father of lies. So, if he did anything, if he actually invented anything or created anything himself, he wouldn’t be a liar. No, all he can do is mess around with stuff that’s already been created and make lies and try and mess people up. So that’s what I think about the phrase, the devil’s music.
“I actually loved gospel music throughout my years of atheism and believe me, I was a serious atheist. I was brought up in a Christian family, we went to church as a family and it was real. At a fairly early age, I was discovered to have a fairly usable voice, so I was drafted into the local cathedral choir, and I actually began to take Christianity seriously. But at that stage – I was probably slightly younger than 14 – some very, very bad behaviour on the part of a Christian turned me against Christianity entirely. And I decided since I was never going to be a Christian, as long as I lived I should be an atheist.
“But in all my years of atheism, I liked gospel music. And in particular I liked early Mahalia Jackson, the records that she made the Falls-Jones Ensemble, which chiefly had a piano and a church organ, and sometimes a rather jazzy bass and drums as well. Boy, that woman’s voice! In 1958 I remember going to see the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day and Mahalia sang The Last Mile of the Way. So here I am, an atheist collecting Mahalia Jackson and Blind Boys and The Swan Silvertones, and things like that. I liked The Swan Silvertones because Claude Jeter had an almost falsetto voice and reminded me of quite a number of soul singers who did the same thing. And I used to walk around singing falsetto all those gospel songs like Smokey Robinson or somebody like Eddie Holman might sing.
“I loved all that stuff. I remember when I was doing a play in New York on Broadway, and I used to walk from my apartment to the theatre, singing the whole way. And at one point I was singing something by Smokey Robinson, Tears of a Clown or something like that. And this guy passed me and he stopped and turned around and said, ‘Righteous man, righteous.’ I just loved that music. So, when I finally became a Christian, I had all these albums I could pick out and listen to.”
We turned from talking about the blues to talking about Paul’s faith, which he said means “everything” to him. I asked him about deciding to follow Jesus – whether looking back, some things had happened along the way that were stepping stones, or whether it was a very sudden thing. He told me how important discovering the work of a 19th century German landscape artist had been in starting to unravel his atheism. As the Blues Band began to take off after 1979, and they started touring in Europe, it had tremendous success, with large audiences cheering, clapping and stomping their feet as the band came on stage. Paul was only too aware from the height of his success in the 1960s, when his life had gone badly off the rails, of the dangers of getting into a fantasy world of fan adulation where you could begin to think that was the only reality.
Paul told me he needed to “Get out from the centre of that maelstrom of his own success and popularity,” and that visiting art galleries whilst on tour allowed him to do that. And it was there that he discovered the spirituality of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. “When I look at them now, I don’t know why I didn’t become a Christian right there and then,” he told me. But he went on to explain what brought things to a head for him as far as faith is concerned:
“In 1982, Richard Eyre, the director of the National Theatre [in London] called me up and asked if I wanted his ticket for Guys and Dolls’ opening night, because he hated sitting in the audience on his own opening nights. So I sat in the best seat in the house, right in the centre of the stalls. And it was absolutely wonderful, and I’m a man who did not like musicals. By that time I had actually been in one or two, usually Lloyd Webber’s or something like that, but I didn’t really like musicals. And here I was absolutely blown away by this musical.
“And there was this one girl in the cast who really caught my eye. Anyway, about five or six weeks later, Richard rang me again. And he said, “My next production at the National Theatre is going to be the Beggar’s Opera. Would you like to come and play Macheath, the highwayman?’ So I soon found myself in the Guys and Dolls company. And the beautiful girl was in it! So, to cut a long story short, I fell in love with her. In October of that year  – about 9 months after I’d first gone along to see Guys and Dolls – I wound up in Guys and Dolls as well, because Ian Charleson, the actor who was playing Sky Masterson, decided to leave. So I found myself playing Sky Masterson, and then the girl who was playing smaller roles in Guys and Dolls and Beggar’s Opera was suddenly promoted into lead roles in Guys and Dolls and Beggar’s Opera, so there we were, playing opposite each other, and life started imitating art, and we fell in love.
“So, fast forward to 1984. We were still at the National. And something happened where Fiona began to think she was missing something and she really need to do something about it. She was doing a play at the BBC on the radio, and when she finished, she came in to do the evening show at the National. So, she knocked on the door of my dressing room, and she said, ‘Don’t laugh, but I came out of the BBC and I went into that church just opposite the entrance to the Broadcasting House. And I just opened the Bible, and I read something about Jesus and eternal life.’ Turned out, of course, it was John 3:16.
“So she said, ‘I’m going to that church on Sunday,’ and I said I would go with her – partly motivated by the fact that I didn’t want her to go anywhere without me! But also partly because I’d been following these Caspar Friedrich paintings, and they’re so obviously Christian and so powerful. So we went to that church, All Souls, Langham Place, and we thought, this is absolutely marvellous.
“A few weeks later, the phone rang one afternoon, and it was Cliff Richard. And he asked us to come and hear a man called Luis Palau speaking at White City Stadium in West London. I hummed and hawed a bit, so Cliff said, ‘Tell you what, when the evening’s over, I’ll buy you dinner!’ And do you know something, he was just doing what God told him. God told him to get as many people from show business as possible into that stadium. And he invited over 130 people! The night that Fiona and I were there, we were not the only show business people there, there were some other very well-known people.
“And Cliff bought dinner for all of us. So I was pretty impressed by him at that point! Essentially, we gave our lives to Jesus that night. It wasn’t just what Luis said, it was what God said through Luis. And we just looked at each other, and we said we have wasted enough of our lives, let’s not waste any more.
“The next day I telephoned All Souls and asked if we could get married in the church – and they said no! And this lovely guy – who actually conducted our service of blessing, and with whom we’re still friends and are godparents to his three daughters – explained that because I was divorced, the Church of England couldn’t marry us. So we got married in a registry office on a Saturday, and then on the Sunday we went to All Souls and had a great service of blessing with a wonderful black gospel choir, and a large contingent of actors and directors from the National Theatre. We had a wonderful day, and we always celebrate our wedding anniversary on the 16th December, the day of the blessing.”
I wondered how Paul’s faith had developed and matured over the past 36 years, what his faith means to him, and he told me that it meant everything to him.
“Really, for the rest of my days, getting people into the kingdom is my priority. The Bible calls it ‘bearing fruit.’ That’s what both Fiona and I want to do.”
Paul Jones has had a remarkable life, and after nearly six decades as a performer, has clearly no interest in retiring – “retirement is a dirty word, as far as I’m concerned. We usually just refer to it as the ‘R’ word!” He was a breath of fresh air in our conversation, full good humour, full of stories from his rich and varied experience, clearly in love with life, and still inspired by the faith that dispelled his atheism all those years ago. If he’s appearing on a stage near you, or you hear of him coming to your town to tell his story along with his wife, Fiona, don’t hesitate to go and see him. You’ll not regret it.
[interview slightly edited for clarity and length]