Born in Chicago
James Cotton was playing harmonica with Muddy Waters the first time he saw white faces at Smitty’s Corner. “Muddy thought they were the tax people,” said Cotton. “He owed some taxes, said, ‘Goddamn, they’ve come to get me. That’s got to be them.’ Muddy hid in the office between sets.” Turned out that one of the white guys was Paul Butterfield; before long, Michael Bloomfield also arrived at the clubs on the South Side of Chicago. “Muddy Waters, he was like a god to me,” said Bloomfield, the subject of a new 3-CD boxed set, From His Head To His Heart To His Hands. “Well, if he was a god, B.B. King was a deity where I couldn’t even imagine ever knowing someone of his magnitude and greatness. But Muddy was in Chicago.”
Butterfield’s harmonica and Bloomfield’s guitar would soon be the instrumental catalysts of the highly influential Butterfield Blues Band, and in 1965, the group turned heads when it played the Newport Folk. Here’s a brief, tantalizing clip from an afternoon workshop that drew an unusually large crowd.
“To me, the Butterfield Blues Band was the most important thing to happen at Newport in 1965,” said Geoff Muldaur, who performed at the festival as a member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. “Not Dylan going electric, which people have milked for so many years (Bloomfield also performed at Newport with Dylan, after having played on his Highway 61 Revisited). The thing that happened that changed the world map of music was that an integrated band came in from Chicago and played real Chicago blues. Sure, that model was based on guys like Muddy Waters, but the fact was that this white guy was so good, and had a band that could pull it off and hold their own among the kings, which they did. In the blink of an eye, there would be two hundred thousand blues bands in the world based on that model.”
Key songs by the Butterfield Band featuring Bloomfield are included in this chronicle of the career of one of the rock era’s original guitar heroes. One of them is the epic, raga-inspired title tune of the bands second album, East-West. “The future of rock guitar was in ‘East-West,’” said [Blasters guitarist] Dave Alvin. “At one point or another you’re hearing what would become the Grateful Dead, Santana, the Allman Brothers, Crazy Horse, Television, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band.” Dig this live version of “Work Song,” another East-West instrumental that’s not included in the new set.
Bloomfield soon left the Butterfield and formed the Electric Flag, which made its high-profile debut at 1967’s Monterey International Pop Festival. The original band released just one album, and broke up soon thereafter, and while Bloomfield himself panned the Monterey appearance, it’s easy to see the excitement he could create when curled around his sunburst Les Paul.
The last truly memorable music of Bloomfield’s career was when he spent a day recording half of 1968’s Super Session with keyboardist-singer Al Kooper, who produced the new collection, and is rightly proud that he captured some of the best-sounding playing of Bloomfield’s career on tracks like “Albert’s Shuffle” and “His Holy Modal Majesty.” More albums (mostly live) would follow, but sadly, the rest of Bloomfield’s career was less than super. He was brought down by show-biz angst, insomnia, heroin, booze, and insecurities rooted in the disapproval of a wealthy businessman father who never approved of his son’s musical pursuits, let alone its roots on the black side of town.
Once, in the 1970s, Bloomfield’s mother approached B.B. King after a Chicago performance and asked him to reach out to her troubled son. King, who like many other bluesmen had received a valuable career boost when Bloomfield encouraged Bill Graham to book them at the two Fillmores, wrote a letter to the guitarist encouraging him to keep those hands in shape. On “Carmelita’s Skiffle,” my favorite unreleased jam from the set’s third disc, Last Licks, it’s clear that while Bloomfield could channel the sound of a variety of players, his style was most intimately inspired by King. Bloomfield’s blues ultimately ended on a February morning in 1981 when he was found dead from a drug overdose in the front seat of a locked, banged-up Mercury.
Perhaps there’s a clue to Bloomfield’s troubled relationship to his art in the very title From His Head To His Heart To His Hands. Bloomfield’s music-loving heart was in the right place, and his hands rarely failed him. Demons, though, lived in his head, keeping him up all night, and ultimately, putting him in a premature grave. The new collection, which includes a DVD documentary light on music and heavy on talking heads, is a fitting, albeit expensive tribute to an extraordinary musician. For about 20-bucks less, one could buy the four essential albums of Bloomfield’s career: The Butterfield Blues Band, East-West, A Long Time Comin’ by the Electric Flag, and Super Session. The portrait of Bloomfield that tops this post is by Margie Greve, and is from our book,Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues).