So What's Lenny Henry Got To Sing The Blues About?
Comedian, actor, political activist, knight of the realm… bluesman?! Sir Len has gone and made a politically-charged blues album. And the best thing? It sounds nothing like Hugh Laurie.
British comedy mainstay Sir Lenny Henry and prog-rock multi-instrumentalist Michael ‘Jakko’ Jakszyk have many things in common, but style is not one of them.
“You need a haircut,” the close-cropped Henry says to Jakszyk as he bounds into a quiet room behind the bar at the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank. Henry – who despite his regal appellation is very much just ‘Lenny’ today – politely but firmly suggests that his partner’s shoulder-length mane might be a throwback to another era, when long-haired rockers roamed the earth. Jakszyk takes umbrage at this.
“I’ve just had it cut,” he says, prompting Henry to splutter as if to say, “You’d never tell…” Jakszyk, who is the singer and second guitarist in King Crimson, is indignant. “Yes,” he says self-mockingly, “but I’m a rock star…” At this, Henry feigns horror and threatens to leave.
There’s a reason why a household name and guitar whizz are goofing around together, and it’s not to film a new sitcom called The Lenny & Jakko Show. No, the pair have just made a blues album, New Millennium Blues, with Henry on wolverine howls, Jakszyk on guitar and production, and a host of musicians creating an authentic blues feel.
It’s not their first venture together. Nor is it the first time they’ve ventured into each other’s domain. Henry, for decades one of our best-loved comedians, an actor, writer and TV presenter, has been a Radio 1 DJ and is famous for his musical parodies. In the 90s, he invited Jakszyk to provide multi-instrumental back-up on one of his standup tours.
“I’ve known Jakko for a long time,” he explains. “He’s a very clever guy. He compliments you and leaves space; he doesn’t play over you. There’s never any showing off. I was very impressed by that.”
And Jakszyk has dabbled in the world of comedy, making cameo appearances in the French And Saunders TV show (playing a sidekick to comedy music duo Raw Sex) and Birds Of A Feather. He produced the 1987 novelty hit The Stutter Rap by Morris Minor & The Majors. In 1992 he appeared alongside Henry in the BBC TV film In Dreams, playing Michael Jackson’s recording engineer.
But New Millennium Blues is no joke. On the covers (Back Door Man, Hoochie Coochie Man) they play it straight, while hard-hitting originals (the title track, The Cops Don’t Know) bring the blues bang up to date, tackling such hot-button topics as Ferguson and fracking, police brutality and Black Lives Matter.
“‘Serious as a heart attack’ – that’s a phrase I hear a lot these days,” says the Dudley-born Henry. Suddenly the wisecracking and banter have stopped. He orders a cup of tea – English breakfast, nothing fancy – as a litany of contemporary atrocities springs to mind.
“Go to that Guardian website where they count the number of people dying every week [at the hands of the police in the US],” he urges. “There are people opening fire in schools and cinemas. They’ve got to do something, and they’re not.
It’s horrifying. It needs to be addressed.”
Indeed it does. But by him? Can cuddly mainstream entertainers truly sing the blues?
Sir Lenworth George Henry, CBE puts down his tea and considers the question. There is a moment’s frosty silence. Then the answer occurs to him, in typically comical fashion.
‘Woke up this morning,’ he croaks, channelling John Lee Hooker while a knowing smile creeps across his face, ‘had a glass of champagne…’