Paul Jones was the lead singer and harmonica player in Manfred Mann, a British beat group that went by the name of its keyboard player. Their run of hits with him included “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” a world-wide #1. In mid-1966, he left for a solo career, and has maintained a public presence ever since, with hit records, movie roles, albums and tours with the Blues Band as well as the Manfreds, and his radio show on the BBC, The Blues Show which ran for 32 years, until 2018. His web site is here.
This interview was arranged through my friend Dave Travis, who runs Stompertime, a reissue label specializing in rockabilly records from the 1950s. The interview took place in London, England, on June 25, 2013. Because of some confusion as to the meeting place, the interview was begun in his car, as he drove us from one BBC studio to another, the one where he was to do his radio show later that day.
Craig Morrison : What music did you have in your home when you were growing up ?
Paul Jones : Oh boy ! None of it was remotely like anything I’ve done since. Actually, maybe there was one or two things. Both my parents came from musical families. My maternal grandfather was a professional musician and, in fact, my paternal grandmother was the only one of my four grandparents who didn’t play anything. My father played the violin, not terribly well. He used to like Gilbert and Sullivan and sing [the Irish song] “Phil the Fluthers’ Ball” – “hadn’t we the gaiety at Phil the fluthers’ ball ?” and all that. I detested it and still do. My mother played the piano much better than he played the violin. They liked classical music, and they also liked light classical music. So, I heard at home violin concertos, piano concertos, and things like that.
CM : Did you like it or not like it ?
PJ : Yeah, I liked it. Yes, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Brahms, that sort of thing. I didn’t dislike it one bit. As a small child, I used to pretend to be a conductor, with the hi-fi going full blast. None of that made me want to sing or anything myself, but it was discovered at school that I had a voice. They were running short of boy trebles in the local cathedral choir, and there were compulsory auditions. They discovered what I already knew, which was that I could sing and enjoy it. I wound up doing church music then for three or four years.
When I was about 14, there was a couple of boys in the year above me at school who said, “You got any records ?’ I said, ”No.” They said, “You need some records.” Actually, what I said was, “Yes, we’ve got Mendelssohn, Brahms.” They said, “No, no, no, you need some Jo Stafford and Percy Faith.” So I said, “I do ?” I grabbed my pocket money the next Saturday and went to a record shop and put on some Jo Stafford and Percy Faith and I didn’t like it much. What I wound up with was Nat King Cole’s “When I Fall in Love”  which I still think is a glorious record, and a two-sided 78 by Sammy Davis Jr., of the song “Because of You”  in which he mimicked singers all the way through the first side, and then you flipped it over and he mimicked actors. It was an absolutely wonderful performance, with a lovely gag at the end. Anyway, those were the first two things I bought. I went back to school and they said, “Did you buy the Percy Faith and Jo Stafford ?” I said, “No.” They said, “Quite right.”
[As he was driving by a white building, Paul Jones said :] Look, this is Abbey Road, the famous recording studio, and this is the zebra crossing. Look at that, they are all queuing to see something happen. Are you waiting to cross or are you just waiting to have your photograph taken ? All of a sudden nothing happened !
They said, “Yeah, good, you don’t want any Percy Faith or Jo Stafford. What you want to get is jazz.”
CM : So they were putting you on ?
PJ : No, no, no, they had had a miraculous conversion of their own, you see. One of them had read a book called Jazz  by a music critic called Rex Harris, a book which is much vilified and laughed at. They lent me a copy and I read it, and it got me started on music. So, I started on the music that I now do in a purely academic way, reading about it before I actually heard it. That’s not absolutely true : my mother was a bit of a swing fanatic, and she took me to see the Benny Goodman Story . In the Benny Goodman Story, not only did I hear Goodman’s music, but also, in the flesh, well no, on the celluloid, saw Teddy Wilson playing the piano and Lionel Hampton playing the vibraphone. I loved that ! I thought it was just wonderful. So I wound up buying jazz records. The third 78 record that I got, after the Nat King Cole and the Sammy Davis Jr., was King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, with Oliver and Louis Armstrong dueting on cornet. The tune was “Dippermouth Blues” . Just the mention of “Dippermouth Blues” still makes the hairs stand up on my neck.
CM : “Oh, play that thing !”
PJ : “Oh, play that thing” is right ! Absolutely. Yeah, brilliant. That was my route for the next few months. The next thing that happened that was significant was that Lonnie Donegan had the hit record [in 1956] with “Rock Island Line.” All of a sudden it was skiffle. I heard Lonnie Donegan interviewed on the radio, and the presenter asked him, “What on earth gave you the idea to write this song ?’” He said, “I didn’t write it ! No, no, no, it was written by Leadbelly.” I thought, “My radio has gone funny.” Next Saturday, pocket money comes, and I turn up at this place where—by that time I’d bought Jimmy Rushing singing “Going to Chicago” with the Count Basie Orchestra, and one or two other things of that sort—I turned up that day, and a guy said, “Oh, I got some lovely Artie Shaw over there.” I did buy the Artie Shaw, but I said, “Have you got records by somebody whose name sounds like Lead Belly ?” And the guy said, “Lots. Look in that box over there.” It was a second-hand store ; he didn’t have any new records at all. They were all in thick cardboard sleeves and stacked in orange boxes. So there I was going through extremely dusty 78s in these orange boxes and I came away with my first Leadbelly record. Then it went on to Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, and such like. .
CM : Did the fact that you saw Lionel Hampton playing vibes have anything to do with the Manfred Mann band, ‘cause there’s vibes on some songs.
PJ : Well, yeah, because blues and jazz just sat side by side for the whole time ; it still does. When these guys phoned up and said, “We’re a bunch of out of work jazz musicians and we’re starting a rhythm and blues band, do you want to….” They said, “We’re looking for a shouter.” That’s what jazz musicians called certain singers, ’cause they base that all on Jimmy Rushing and Big Joe Turner.
CM : Wynonie Harris and those guys.
PJ : Well, not even Harris, ’cause I don’t think jazz musicians knew much about Harris. All they knew were the ones who fronted big jazz orchestras, like Jimmy Witherspoon, Rushing, Joe Williams, and so on. Before that, I had struck up a friendship with Brian Jones, because we used to go to a club in West London which had been opened by a man called Alexis Korner. He had the R&B band at the time, called Blues Incorporated. We used to go every Saturday night to this place where they played. So did literally scores of young men like ourselves, including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and people who subsequently turned out to be members of the Animals. I’m not sure if any of the Yardbirds went there, but they must have done, I suppose. I knew Brian for a few months, and then one day he said, “We got to take this thing more seriously. We’re just dilly-dallying around.” I said, “What do you mean ?” He said, “I am now going to move to London,” ’cause he lived in Cheltenham at the time. I was still living in Oxford, so we were quite close geographically as well. He said, “I’m moving to London, I’m going to get a flat, I’m starting a band, do you want to be my lead singer ?’” And I said, “No.” So he got Mick Jagger. And no, I don’t regret it.
CM : Thanks for answering the question before I asked it !
PJ : I’ve had the life that suits me. But the next time someone said, “We’re forming an R&B band, do you want to be our shouter,” I said yes, and that was the Manfreds. And yes, it did appeal to me : they had three horns and an occasional fourth one. They had trumpet, tenor sax, and alto sax ; and occasionally they added a very diminutive a guy on baritone sax. Why is it always very small people that play baritone ? Plus they had, obviously, Manfred on keyboards, Mike Hugg on drums and vibes, and a bass player called Dave Richmond. I thought it was a great band, I thought, “Hey, this is going to be good fun.”
CM : What was the dynamic in the band amongst you ?
PJ : Well, it was an interesting situation, really, because they were forming an R&B band, but they actually didn’t know anything about it. They’d heard a bit of Ray Charles, I think, but they didn’t even know who T-Bone Walker was. I had to teach them songs like “Call it Stormy Monday,” and Witherspoon things like “Big Fine Girl” and so on. Oh yeah, and we did the obvious things, “Going to Kansas City,” “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” - I don’t think we had. They taught me some stuff as well. I don’t think at that point that I had heard “Watermelon Man,” but when I did, I said, “We’re gonna do that.” So, we did “Watermelon Man” very early on. So it was like a double learning thing, really. We would have these discussions, sometimes very friendly, sometimes slightly spikey, about whether blues was really grown up’s music.
CM : Really ?
PJ : Oh yes. I can’t even remember which tenor saxophone player it was now, but we were sitting around at Mike Hugg’s house. We always stayed in Mike Hugg’s house on a Tuesday because we had a gig very near where he lived, and we’d spend some time just listening to things. “Oh man, listen to that, he plays such interesting notes !” Meaning he’s not lumbered with clich ?s. That became a catch phrase. I used to say, “Listen to that harmonica : he plays such interesting notes !”
[We arrived at the correct BBC studio in good time, so continued in a nearby cafe.]
Paul Jones during the interview - photo by Craig Morrison, 2013
PJ : The dynamic, yes, there was always this ‘you’re a blues person’ and ‘I’m a jazz person’ thing going on.
CM : Which were you at that point ?
PJ : I was both, quite honestly. I didn’t have any problem with it. I was enthusiastic with what they… I was technically the only blues person in the band, so it was me they were getting at. But it was good-natured, really.
CM : Then you converted them and they converted you.
PJ : Yes, we taught each other things, that’s right. I don’t know how well I did, because Manfred’s got a prog rock band nowadays.
CM : How did you position yourself with the other bands that were around ? Was it competition ?
PJ : When I look back on that time, I was remorselessly competitive, really horrible. Nowadays I don’t have a problem with other people succeeding, but in those days I really did. We looked up to Alexis Korner’s band, because Alexis Korner was really the same sort of thing as us. It was a bunch of jazz musicians who, if they could have made that good a living from playing jazz, probably wouldn’t have been in that band in the first place, and Alexis. People thought of Alexis as the Eddie Condon of British blues, because he knew who to hire but he wasn’t that great himself. But we looked up to Alexis, simply because he had a functioning band and he was paying. He wasn’t paying fortunes but at least those guys were taking some money home from the gigs. They were a model for us, but as far as the other bands were concerned that were more like us—the next lot—I would hear the Stones and completely belittle what Jagger was doing, and all that stuff. Even if he had got my job. That didn’t last very long ’cause I remained reasonably friendly with those guys, but on the basis of whenever you saw them you were friendly. I didn’t go out of my way.
CM : I suppose after you had your own success you weren’t quite so looking closely at what everyone else was doing, you were just on your own rollercoaster.
PJ : No. I remember one thing that always gets me. Everyone talks about this legendary story of Andrew Loog Oldham locking Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a room until they had come out with some songs. Well before that happened, before Andrew Loog Oldham was on the scene for the Stones, they were still being managed by a chap called [Eric] Easton at the time. We had a residency at the Marquee Club and we always used to rehearse some new material before the gig. On this particular day, we’d been asked if the Stones could use the Marquee to rehearse in because they had a TV [appearance] coming up. Obviously we said yes. I sat watching some of their rehearsal, and yeah, they were going through the Chuck Berry songs and the Bo Diddley and the Jimmy Reed songs and all that stuff. I was already writing songs. We were doing some of my songs with the Manfreds.
CM : Do you remember which ones ?
PJ : Oh yes. There was a song called “Don’t Ask Me What I Say,” which wound up on the first album, and a song called “I Can’t Believe It.” We were definitely doing those at this early stage. Oh, and a song of mine called “Without You,” which wound up as the B-side of our first hit, and was on our first album as well. They were striking down the gear and everything, getting ready to drive off to wherever this television was, and I said, “Are you writing songs yet ?” He said, “No, no, I can’t write songs.” I said, “Mick, sit down and write some songs.” Then, later, one heard that story that Oldham had…
CM : So it was really you !
PJ : ….which he probably did. I mean, he probably did lock them in a room until… because they probably didn’t take any notice of me. But I had asserted the likelihood. I listened only yesterday to a biggest hits of the Stones and I thought, “You write good songs, boys.”
CM : When you were recording, did you have a say as to what you could record, or were people trying to direct you, ‘don’t do that song,’ ‘we should do more like this’ ?
PJ : To start with, we did auditions for record companies, and we just played what we wanted to play, which was some originals and some covers. Then we had a couple of flops ; good records. Actually, the first ones, the A-sides were good, the B-sides were not particularly. This television station said, “We got this youth TV program called ‘Ready, Steady, Go,’ and we would like you to write us a theme tune, signature tune.” So we came up with “5-4-3-2-1.” Now that was Mike Hugg and Manfred and me, and that was our first hit. It was top five.
CM : And you got to say your name in the middle of the song too : “We are the Manfreds.”
PJ : Yeah, we said the Manfreds. We did another song called “The One in the Middle,” where I enumerated everybody in the band except for myself. I was the only person whose name I didn’t say. I just simply referred to the one in the middle.
CM : That was modesty.
PJ : Oh, no.
CM : Cleverness ?
PJ : It’s something, I don’t know. It was positioning myself in the middle.
CM : Yes, I’m right there, you gotta know who I am.
PJ : Yes. We did that and that was a hit, so we thought, “Oh, this is it, we’re on our way.” We followed that up with a very evident follow-up, using a very similar tune for the hook. That did nearly as well : it was top ten.
CM : Which one was that ?
PJ : That was “Hubble Bubble,” which was jolly good fun, and we have done it more recently as well.
CM : Little bit of Shakespeare, right ?
PJ : Tiny bit of Shakespeare. That was so funny because the first one had some Tennyson in it : “onward, onward, rode the six hundred” - [from the 1854 poem] “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
CM : So you were positioning yourself as a literary band ?
PJ : I failed my first year, preliminaries. I didn’t get a degree, but I did read English. So we turned to Shakespeare, Macbeth, in fact.
CM : “Hubble bubble, toil and trouble.” [Often misquoted, the correct quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written around 1606, is “Double, double toil and trouble ; Fire burn, and caldron bubble”.]
PJ : But that didn’t do as well, so after that they said, “You’re not allowed to write your own songs anymore.” It was simple as that. Actually, they said, “You can write as many songs as you like, and if they’re good enough, they’ll be on the B-sides or they’ll be album tracks, but you don’t write A-sides. We’ll get proper songwriters to write A-sides.” The next record we did was “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” which the record company didn’t find for us ; I found that. I’d heard it on the radio and I thought, “That’s a big record, that’s a BIG record.”
CM : Where does that come from ?
PJ : A group called the Exciters [pictured] : Herb Rooney and his wife Brenda Reid.
CM : American.
PJ : Oh yeah, New York, and the song was from New York as well. It was [written by] Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. I bought that single, and that was hard to do, because it was getting no plugging from the record company at all. But I went to a record shop in Soho, and they got [my] money and put it aside for me. I took the record away and we learned the song.
CM : Was everyone in agreement with you that it was a good song ?
PJ : Absolutely ! As soon as they heard it, they said, “You’re right ! It’s a big hit. And it’s only not a big hit by the Exciters because the record company doesn’t know what they’re doing.” So, obviously we did it, and not only was it number one here, it was number one in New York as well.
CM : It was. We sure heard it in Canada and….
PJ : … all over the world.
CM : I saw you singing it on a video from the time period, and you were doing the Bo Diddley bit with the maracas.
PJ : Yes, I don’t do that on that song any more.
CM : Come on, why not ?
PJ : No, because I do it on other songs. I play enough maracas elsewhere in the set.
CM : Now you’re the president of a harmonica club.
PJ : National Harmonica League of Great Britain.
CM : How did the harmonica come into your life ?
PJ : Oh well, that was easy. As soon as I started really to listen to blues, I started to hear the harmonica. Sonny Terry was probably the first, and then a bunch of people. My father was captain of the dockyard in Plymouth, and I was at university and when I would go home on the school holidays and vacations I would spend my time in a shop where I used to buy my blues records. The shop was called Peter Russell’s Hot Record Store, which was very American for those days : no one called it a store. He sold jazz and stuff, and I used to go in there and listen to blues records. One day he said to me, “You like blues ? What do you think of this ?” He put on a record by T-Bone Walker called “Play On Little Girl.” Most unusual for T-Bone Walker, it had a harmonica player on it, and the harmonica player was Junior Wells. Not only did I buy that ten-inch album on French Vogue [label], but I decided that that was it, I was going to do that for a living. That was the moment that I knew I was going to do it for a living, not as a hobby.
CM : How many times have you played that record on your radio show ?
PJ : Maybe four times. I did make a recording of it myself, with an artist who lives in Britain. Everyone calls him “Otis Grand (USA)”. The truth is that he’s from Lebanon and his real name is Fred Bishti. Otis is a very, very good guitarist. There was a tribute, I can’t remember what the circumstances of the album were, but it was produced by Pete Brown, the lyricist from Cream, who’s quite a confident, and becoming prolific, record producer nowadays. He said, “Would you come in and play something ?” I said, “Who with ?” He said, “How about Otis Grand ?” I said, “Otis Grand is the man,” because Otis is a big T-Bone Walker fan. I said, “Otis, we’re gonna do ‘Play on Little Girl.’ You’re T-Bone and I’m Junior Wells.”
CM : Was he familiar with the track already ?
PJ : Oh, already, yeah.
CM : The Manfreds’ success was big here and it was big in North America, and that surely created a whirlwind for you guys. How did you handle all that ?
PJ : Not terribly well. One of the things I remember from those early days was that our manager, a man called Ken Pitt, told those of us who were married, and I think three or maybe even four out of the five of us were married, “You’ll have to lie. You have no future in this industry if you’re married.”
CM : “Sorry girls, he’s married,” is what it said over John Lennon’s image when they played on Ed Sullivan’s show the very first time [February 1964].
PJ : Well, it didn’t do him all that much harm, I suppose.
CM : So you had to lie about that ?
PJ : Yeah, and of course that meant you had carte blanche to commit adultery as often and as…, yeah. That was sort of bad, really. My marriage fell to pieces only gradually. I didn’t really do the drug route, not big time anyway, and I’ve never been good at drinking. Well, no, there was a short period of time when I got quite good at it. It was kind of crazy. The word obnoxious just came up in my brain there, to describe what I was like in those days.
CM : Really ?
PJ : Yeah.
CM : Well, you’ve completely turned things around now, ‘cause you’re charming.
PJ : Thank you. I’m not sure I want to be charming. But I’d rather be charming than obnoxious any day. How did we handle it ? The more successful we got at that stage, the more competitive and resentful of other people’s success I became. Quite bitter about some people. In fact, I was horrible. If you could just get my press clippings out now, you’d see me in 1965, ’6, ’7, being absolutely disgusting about other people, who nowadays I’m very apologetic to. Tom Jones has forgiven me. I used to say the most horrible things about Tom. Anybody from Tom Jones to Cliff Richard, I used to disparage their talents and appearance and everything. I really was, honestly. Obnoxious is not too strong a word.
CM : What do you attribute your conversion to ?
PJ : Well, about ten percent of it to maturity. I haven’t really achieved maturity. The other 90 percent is becoming a Christian.
CM : Oh ! So you saw the light and saw the error of your ways, then ?
PJ : Absolutely. Funnily enough, the person who was responsible for my being in the right place at the right time was Cliff Richard.
CM : I did remember reading something about that.
PJ : Yeah, as horrible as I had been to him, at every opportunity, he turned the other cheek.
CM : Was there anyone in your early or later career that you considered a mentor ?
PJ : Every harmonica player that got on to record was a mentor to me, whether I met them or not. The big ones for me were Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II. But I’ve learned from so many people, including Charlie McCoy, another wonderful player. As far as harmonica’s concerned, I have a mentor now, who is the saxophone player in the Manfreds. I’m easily old enough to be his father. He teaches me so much. It’s amazing, absolutely amazing.
CM : What does he teach ?
PJ : Well, he is a teacher, he teaches saxophone. But, for instance, we just finished a two-month tour, called the Five Faces Tour, which is named after the Manfreds’ first album. One of the tunes we played on it was a Cannonball Adderly piece called “Sack of Woe.” We never played the second strain of the tune. It’s got a Latin American feel and there’s another bit which goes into swing and it’s great. I said, “I wanna do ‘Sack of Woe.’ I know we didn’t do the second melody on the original record, but I want to do it now.” So we started to play it, and after a couple of rehearsals on it, Simon took me to one side and he said, “The best jazz musicians don’t push the melody.”
CM : They lay back.
PJ : Yeah. I said, “Where am I doing that ?” He said, “On that second melody that you wanted so much. You’re going [sings it forcefully], do it [sings it lightly].” Not only that, but he shows what harmony parts I could play to what he’s playing, or he says, “It’d be better here if you played the melody and I do the harmony.” He balances out what we do together. I did a session not so long ago with a big band, and a couple of the musicians came up to me and said, ‘”You play like a proper musician.” I say, “I blame a saxophone player called Simon Currie for that.”
Suddenly I Like It is a terrific solo CD from 2015, with blues and r&b classics and some new compositions by Paul Jones and Jools Holland (both alone and together). The band is really solid and Jones is in great form vocally and on harmonica. Recommended !
CM : What are you most proud of in your music or your life ?
PJ : I don’t really do pride, you see.
CM : How would you like to be remembered ?
PJ : As a charming - no ! [we laugh] I’d like to be remembered as a pretty cool singer and a good harmonica player, a handy man to have around in a band. That would be nice. But I’d also like to be remembered for the other thing that I do, which is evangelism. My wife and I go out, probably something like 50 nights a year now, and we go to churches and church organizations. We sometimes go to foreign countries and we’ve got a trip to Israel coming up. We do cruises, Christian-themed cruises, and all sorts of things like that. We just tell people the good news, and it is good news. One of the sad things about the modern world is that people don’t realize that it is good news. They think it’s bad news. [In a deep, authoritative voice :] Stop doing what you’re doing !
CM : I understand, my grandfather was a missionary in China. My dad was born in China.
PJ : Oh, really !
CM : Thank-you so much.
PJ : You’ve got two emails from me today to ignore. The first one says “Panic !” and the second one says “Don’t Panic.” [We laugh, because they referred to the mix up about which was the right BBC office for our meeting.]
I have posted interviews with members of British invasion bands, psychedelic bands, 1950s hit makers, folk, blues, country and jazz musicians. To go to the index page, click here.