Michael Bloomfield: “music on two legs”

Michael Bloomfield with his friend and mentor, Muddy Waters, 1964

Michael Bloomfield with his friend and mentor, Muddy Waters, 1964

This article originally appeared in the Blues Magazine, Issue 11

November 15, 1980. Bob Dylan is onstage at the Fox Warfield Theatre in San Francisco. He’s partway through a residence of 12 shows at the venue on his ‘Musical Retrospective Tour’, a title inspired by promoter Bill Graham’s insistence that ‘the old Dylan is back’. On this particular evening that billing feels apt as a ghost from the folk troubadour’s past prepares to take to the stage. As the last notes of I Believe In You fade, Dylan addresses the audience.

“Thank you. All right. I was playing a club in Chicago and I guess it was about 1959 or 1960 and I was sitting in a restaurant. I think it was probably across the street or maybe it was in front of the club, I’m not sure. But a guy came down and said that he played the guitar. So he had his guitar with him and he began to play. I said, ‘Well, what can you play?’ He played all kinds of things. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them. Does Big Bill Broonzy ring a bell? Or Sonny Boy Williamson and that type of thing? Anyway, he just played circles around anything I could play and I always remembered that.

“We were back in New York, I think it was 1963 or 1964, and I needed a guitar player on a session there I was doing. And I called up, I did remember his name and he came in and recorded an album… at that time he was working in The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Anyway, he played with me on the record and I think we played some other dates. I haven’t seen him too much since then. Anyway, he played on Like A Rolling Stone and he’s here tonight. Give him a hand. Michael Bloomfield!”

Mike Bloomfield played two songs with Dylan and his band that night: Like A Rolling Stone and The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar. Bloomfield’s friend and producer Norman Dayron was at the show: “When Michael started playing, the music came alive like nothing you’ve ever heard.”

Bob Dylan feels that same tingle of electricity. After the show he embraces Bloomfield and says, “God, I had forgotten what a difference your playing made in my music, how important it was to it…and how much I’ve missed it.”

Dylan’s emotional state is understandable. He is as surprised as anyone that his former sparring partner showed up for one last round. Two days earlier, Dylan had asked singer Maria Muldaur to take him to see Bloomfield. He knows his old guitarist lives in the neighbourhood. As Muldaur later reveals in If You Love These Blues: An Oral History, Bloomfield “was so happy to see Bob that he just threw his arms open and gave him a big hug”. Legend has it that Dylan has to climb through a window to enter Bloomfield’s apartment but eventually the two friends settle down and revisit their glory days.

Intoxicated by nostalgia, at one point Dylan attempts to persuade Bloomfield to play with him at one of the Fox Warfield shows. Bloomfield declines. Later, as Dylan is leaving, Bloomfield hands him a Bible. “This has been in my family at least for a couple of generations,” he says. “It was my grandmother’s and probably her grandmother’s before that.”

A visibly touched Dylan humbly accepts the gift and the two men embrace.

In the end it was left to Norman Dayron to drag Bloomfield to the Fox Warfield. The latter is wearing tattered jeans and slippers and, unsurprisingly, the two men have a hard time convincing the staff at the venue’s box office that they are guests of Bob Dylan. They’re eventually allowed through, of course. Dylan honours Bloomfield with the long introduction, and the guitarist pads onstage to give what will be his final performance. Three months later, on February 15, 1981, Michael Bloomfield’s body is found in his car. The cause of death is recorded as a drug overdose.

Despite living on opposite sides of the Atlantic, in many ways Michael Bloomfield’s life and career parallel that of Peter Green. They were young, white and Jewish. Both were genuine blues junkies; it wasn’t a fashion statement or a phase with them. They were extraordinary musicians with vibrato that guitarists still try to emulate to this day. Of course, Green and Bloomfield also shared a self-destructive streak, but more importantly, they possessed talent that not only electrified their peers but drew genuine respect and admiration from their own heroes.

Both men left successful groups to make electric blues their way. In Peter Green’s case he fled John Mayall’s Blues Breakers to form Fleetwood Mac. For Bloomfield, his journey would take him from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band to the horn-driven blues soul of The Electric Flag.

On February 3, Sony Legacy release From His Head To His Heart To His Hands, a box set of Bloomfield’s career which includes three CDs, a DVD documentary called Sweet Blues and a 36-page booklet. The majority of the tracks are culled from the Columbia Records vaults. Highlights include Bloomfield’s audition tapes for Columbia, a remix of Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, a version of Dylan’s Tombstone Blues and the 1980 performance of The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar.

Sweet Blues is the work of film-maker Bob Sarles. He began making the film in 1986, intending it to be a feature-length documentary. However, as he tells The Blues, it “remained uncompleted mostly due to the high costs of paying for music licences and for the archival media.”

Bloomfield’s old friend and organist Al Kooper asked Sarles to complete an hour-long version for the box set. The experience for the viewer is enhanced thanks to Bloomfield himself providing a voiceover, courtesy of a series of archive interviews. At last he has the opportunity to tell his story, which for Bloomfield, began in the Windy City.

Michael Bernard Bloomfield was born in 1943 to a wealthy Jewish family in the suburbs of Chicago. His father Harold ran a successful kitchen appliance manufacturing firm. His mother Dorothy’s family came from Czechoslovakia. They were very musical by all accounts. Michael had a younger brother called Allen.

Bloomfield started playing guitar aged 13 on a 3/4 size Harmony. He was left-handed, but learnt to play right-handed. Later that year, he was given a portable transistor radio for his Bar Mitzvah. In If You Love These Blues: An Oral History, he says that listening to that radio ‘was like a whole world opened to me.’

While his British contemporaries – Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jeff Beck, Mick Taylor et al – were learning the blues through imported records bought in Soho, Bloomfield was experiencing the music first-hand. His musical epiphany truly began at age 14 when the Bloomfield family maid, Mary Williams, took him to see the bluesman Josh White, who was an acquaintance of hers. Bloomfield fanned his passion for the blues in the clubs on the South Side of Chicago and it wasn’t long before the kid crossed paths with Muddy Waters.

The ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ made a monumental impact on the mannish boy. “He was like a god to me,” Bloomfield would later recall. “I’d hear that harmonica come out of the club. I’d hear that harp, and I’d hear Muddy’s slide. I’d be tremblin’. I’d be like a dog in heat.”

By the time he was 17 he was regularly playing with Muddy. His friend Fred Glaser recalls this period: “He was a fat little Jewish kid then. He looked real Jewish and funny looking. Muddy would say, ‘My friend Michael Bloomfield from Glencoe is going to come up here and play the guitar with us for a couple of numbers now. Want you all to listen to him real good, and want you to give him a nice, big round of applause when he finishes. He’s a great musician and a good friend of ours.’ And everybody would laugh and say, ‘Come on, man, get that fucking kid off!’ They’d laugh at him. And then he started to play, and they’d shut up. He started jamming with the band… Three or four minutes into a song, he started taking off, and people would sit back and listen and start dancing. And they realised he was great. They started applauding him.”

Bloomfield spent a great deal of time at Muddy’s home, jamming with him and Waters’ cousin, the blues pianist Otis Spann. Muddy actually described Michael as his ‘son’. Blues legends would gravitate to this funny little Jewish boy. “Big Joe Williams, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Spann, they took me to be like their kid,” he recalled later in life. “They just showed me from the heart. They took me aside and said, ‘You can play, man. Don’t be shy. Get up there and play,’”

Bloomfield’s relationship with Big Joe Williams would go way beyond mentorship. Both men travelled together through the blues landscape in the early 60s in search of living legends, a period Bloomfield captured in his 1980 book Me And Big Joe. Williams had been a well-known artist in the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote the classic, Baby, Please Don’t Go, which would later be covered by Bukka White, Mance Lipscomb, The Doors, Van Morrison’s Them and countless others.

After approaching Big Joe in a club in Chicago, the two men struck up a friendship. This led to Joe ushering Bloomfield into the company of his fellow bluesmen from the 1930s and 1940s. Bloomfield: “I’d say, ‘Listen, Joe, d’you know where Tampa Red’s living?’ Joe would say, ‘Sure I know where Tampa’s at – I’ll take you right now.’ And we’d go.’”

They travelled to see Kokomo Arnold, Tommy McClennan, Georgia Tom, Lightnin’ Hopkins, J.B. Lenoir, Jazz Gillum and Sonny Boy Williamson II. They found Sonny Boy at a club in Milwaukee, Bloomfield recalls. “He wouldn’t tell the band what song or key or anything, and they’d just stagger in behind him.”

He approached Sonny Boy about accompanying him. “He asked me if I knew Help Me, which was his hit at that time,” said Bloomfield. “I said, ‘Yeah, I believe it’s like Green Onions,’ and he said, ‘That’s right, go ahead and play.’”

Although they were travelling partners in crime, the dynamic between Bloomfield and Williams was volatile. Like that one trip to St. Louis when they drunkenly fought and Joe stabbed Michael’s hand with a penknife. Though Bloomfield was not seriously hurt, they parted company, albeit briefly. A few weeks later, Bloomfield went to visit Joe and the two men made peace over a bottle of a beer. “Well, Michael,” Williams said, “we really had ourselves a time in that St. Louis, didn’t we?” Bloomfield agreed and played a few arpeggios on Joe’s guitar, before handing it back to the old bluesman. “That sound good, Michael,” he said, nodding his head. “You play on some.”

“Joe’s world wasn’t my world,” admitted Bloomfield later. “But his music was. It was my life; it would be my life. So playing on was all I could do, and I did it the best I was able. And the music I played, I knew where it came from. There was not any way I’d forget’.

By the dawn of the 60s, Bloomfield was a scholar of the blues. He switched to acoustic guitar in 1961 although he often accompanied elder bluesmen on the piano, sitting in with the likes of Sunnyland Slim, Sleepy John Estes and Little Brother Montgomery. He got married in 1962, then spent the next two years honing his craft.

In the summer of 1964, Bloomfield and harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite (who often accompanied him as a trio with Big Joe) journeyed to New York where they fell in with John Hammond Jnr. Hammond invited Bloomfield to accompany him on his album So Many Roads (1965), recorded with the group who would later be known as The Band. Bloomfield actually played piano on the sessions. Robbie Robertson handled the guitar stuff.

John Hammond Jnr’s father was the legendary Columbia producer John H. Hammond, who had been responsible for signing many of the great jazz artists. He had been given a demo tape of Bloomfield’s acoustic playing by Bloomfield’s manager, Joel Harlib. John Hammond Jnr states that his father ‘flipped out’, and wanted to hear Bloomfield with a full band. Bloomfield made a demo of six Chicago blues tunes and Hammond immediately signed him to the label.

Bloomfield must have thought Christmas had come early but there was a problem. Columbia were unsure how to market Bloomfield and the recordings were shelved. In March 1965, Hammond brought Bloomfield back to New York to record several original blues tracks, as well as Muddy Waters’ I Got My Mojo Working. Hammond remained unsure how best to market his prodigy. Then fate intervened and Elektra Records recruited Bloomfield for The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

The band that would ignite white America’s interest in electric blues consisted of Paul Butterfield on harp and vocals, Elvin Bishop on guitar, plus Howlin’ Wolf’s old rhythm section, drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold. After an aborted attempt at a debut album (later released as The Original Lost Elektra Sessions), the band were set to return to the studio when an old acquaintance popped back into the picture.

Bloomfield received a call from Bob Dylan to play on his Highway 61 Revisited album. Years later, Bloomfield gave his own account of how he and Dylan crossed paths. “I couldn’t believe this guy was so well touted. I went down to see him when he played in Chicago. I wanted to meet him, cut him, get up there and blow him off the stage. He couldn’t really sing, y’know. But to my surprise he was enchanting. We jammed that day, and way later he phoned me up. He remembered me, and asked me to come play on his record.”

Although he had the rebooted Butterfield Band album to cut, Bloomfield took Dylan up on his offer. Recalling the Highway 61 Revisited sessions years later, Al Kooper described Bloomfield coming into the studio with a case-less Telecaster, despite the rain. He sat down, wiped it with a towel… and plugged in. Bloomfield stated that the album had no concept at that point. “No one knew what they wanted to play or what the music was supposed to sound like.”

As it turned out, Dylan was aiming for a mercurial sound similar to The Byrds, telling Bloomfield bluntly, “I don’t want any of that B.B. King shit.”

The Butterfield Blues Band played at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965. Alan Lomax, the folklorist, introduced the band with a diatribe about white boys amplifying their instruments. Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, confronted Lomax, and the two wrestled. Dylan, scheduled to play two days later, was spurred on by the hype created by The Butterfield Blues Band which, combined with his growing dislike for folk orthodoxy, convinced him to go electric. He recruited Bloomfield and they assembled a band. It was a hugely controversial move at the time and Dylan’s set was loudly booed by folk purists. Dylan asked Bloomfield to stay in his band but worried he would not get enough of a chance to the play the blues, the guitarist declined.

This is something Dylan regrets to this day. Asked in a Rolling Stone interview in 2009 if he had ever played with the perfect guitarist, he replied: “The guy that I always miss and I think would still be around if he stayed with me was Mike Bloomfield. He had so much soul.”

The debut album, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, was recorded in mid-1965, after keyboardist Mark Naftalin had been added. It boasted a mix of blues standards and original compositions. Carlos Santana states in If You Love These Blues: An Oral History that the record made “a great contribution to bringing back the blues into the mainstream.”

Santana was sold completely when he saw the band at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1966. Watching Bloomfield in action changed his life: “It was enough for me to say this is what I want to do and want to be for the rest of my life.”

Admirably, Michael Bloomfield convinced Bill Graham to book black blues artists, including B.B. King. In Sweet Blues, King acknowledges how Bloomfield helped bring him to a white audience, describing Bloomfield as “One of those super guitar players that the kids liked. And I think that they felt if Michael Bloomfield said he listened to B.B. King, we’ll listen to him, too.”

The band were creating magic – their second album, East West, was hugely influential – but the relationship between Butterfield and Bloomfield became increasingly strained. Michael found Paul despotic. Anyway, he wanted make a record with horns. So he left.

In 1967, during a session for Detroit Wheels frontman Mitch Ryder in New York, Bloomfield asked organist Barry Goldberg to help him put a band together. He recruited vocalist Nick Gravenites, bassist Harvey Brooks, and pinched future Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles from Wilson Pickett’s band. Several horn players were added. They were signed to Columbia and debuted at the Monterey Pop Festival staged that same year. They were called The Electric Flag.

In March 1968, the Flag released A Long Time Comin’ to mixed reviews. Listeners were disappointed to find a guitarist of Bloomfield’s calibre buried in the mix on the soul numbers that dominate the album. That said, on the occasions when he does step out of the shadows – Killing Floor, Texas and Easy Rider – Bloomfield kills.

It should have been an exciting new chapter for him but the root of Bloomfield’s slow decline into obscurity and an early death can be traced back to June 1968 when, just a few months after the release of A Long Time Comin’, Bloomfield quit Electric Flag. He and several members of the band had become addicted to heroin. Bloomfield claimed he doped himself to medicate the crippling insomnia which had always haunted him, and became increasingly worse with the rigid schedule of touring. His marriage also fell apart.

As this was going on, Al Kooper approached Bloomfield to contribute to the recording of a jam session. Bloomfield played with Kooper for one day and then fled, leaving his old friend with half a record to finish. Kooper drafted in Stephen Stills to finish the other half and released it as Super Session. Despite it being the best-selling album of his career, Bloomfield regarded it as a “scam to make money”.

His desire to be seen as blues guitarist and disdain for popularity were shown by Eric Clapton in a 2007 interview with the Chicago Tribune, in his anecdote about meeting Bloomfield in 1966. “The guy in America at the time was Mike Bloomfield. There was no one else. You know why? He was serious. There was no bull involved. It didn’t have anything to do with being on TV or showbiz or popularity.”

At the close of 1968, Bloomfield played on Janis Joplin’s I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!. The following year he recorded Live At Bill Graham’s Fillmore West with Nick Gravenites, a noble endeavour that features some of Bloomfield’s finest playing. He also celebrated his close friendship with Muddy Waters, cutting tracks the latter’s 1969 album Fathers And Sons.

His debut album It’s Not Killing Me was released the same year. It was panned by critics. It’s still a tough record to defend. Again, Bloomfield refused to make a showcase of his guitar playing. The failure of the record, combined with his divorce and complete exhaustion from touring, producing and playing, as well as his continuous battle with insomnia, meant he spiralled into a deep depression. He quit playing guitar for 18 months, becoming a full-time heroin addict.

Distressed at her son’s deterioration, his mother Dorothy enlisted B.B. King to try to bring him back from the brink. Bloomfield himself relives this dark episode in Sweet Blues: “B.B. King wrote me a letter, and he called me on the phone. He said, ‘You gotta keep those fingers in shape. You must do this. You just can’t fall apart. You can’t let what you’ve got go to hell like that. You’ve got to keep on keeping on. You got to do that’. And, my god, the next time I had a chance to see B.B. King, I was embarrassed to face this man who had meant so much to me and who I so much wanted to be like and play like, and he knew I didn’t want to play anymore.”

For whatever reason, Bloomfield did pick up his guitar again. For several years in the 1970s, he played small shows with a variety of musicians, billing it as ‘Michael Bloomfield and Friends’. In March 1971, he recorded with Woody Herman’s jazz orchestra, after a recommendation from Miles Davis to Herman. Davis once claimed that, ‘When he [Michael] plays for blacks, his shit comes out black.’

In 1973, he recorded an album with Dr John and John Hammond Jnr called Triumvirate. The Electric Flag were briefly revived in 1974 and he recorded an album in 1976 with a short-lived supergroup, KGB, which he panned before the record was even released. That year he made a record with integrity, If You Love These Blues, Play ’Em as You Please for Guitar Player magazine. He later described it as his best record.

As the decade progressed, Bloomfield’s output became sporadic and unreliable. That’s not to say there weren’t worthy moments: Shake, Rattle And Blues, a live recording from 1977 featuring Big Joe Turner,and another live show released as I’m With You Always find Bloomfield in great form. His final record of note, 1980’s Bloomfield/Harris, was a collection of spiritual, acoustic gospel instrumentals cut with classical guitarist Woody Harris. These blips of creativity, magic and hope were just that. Bloomfield was weeks from paying the ultimate price for his addiction.

The music archived on From His Head To His Heart To His Hands forces us to reappraise the legacy of Michael Bloomfield. Dylan described him as the best guitarist he ever heard, and meant it. Eric Clapton brilliantly described him as “music on two legs”. His friend and collaborator Al Kooper remembered him as someone “who truly understood what the blues were all about”. That’s why B.B. King, Muddy Waters and other blues legends accepted him as one of their own. This wasn’t just another white boy trying to cop their authenticity and licks. Michael Bloomfield was special.

“When Michael was on, there was no one I’ve ever played with – including Hendrix – that had that fire,” says Barry Goldberg in Sweet Blues. “No one could shake a string like Michael. No one had that tone. And no one played with such intensity and so ferociously.”

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