One of the first blues albums I ever owned was the first release by the Butterfield Blues Band. I’m sure I bought it on a trip to Robert’s Records with “Guitar Johnny” Nicholas in the summer of 1967.
Up until that time, my musical education, which had began with the Kingston Trio and Bobby Darin, had only advanced from AM radio and Spector’s Wall of Sound to the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Dylan’s early albums. Like a lot of American kids, I got my first taste of blues and roots music through the cover versions recorded by the English groups like the Beatles, the Stones, and the Animals. Before that, I had very little exposure to the blues.
I can still remember dropping the needle on the first track of the album and hearing the blast of "Born in Chicago". First, the rhythm section kicks in along with Butterfield’s harp right there. After the vocals start, there is that distinctive lead, like the buzz of an angry bee, from the guitar of Mike Bloomfield. It was a kind of music I had never heard before and I couldn’t get enough of the whole album. Something about the look of the band and their raw sound captured my imagination and made me hungry to hear more blues.
Within the year, I was diving deeper into Dylan’s music and history. I found a newspaper article about Dylan’s electric breakout at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1965. Looking at a newspaper picture of the band from that night, I recognized Bloomfield on the bandstand. There he was with his Jew Fro and trademark hunched stance over his telecaster. Later someone gave me a bootleg tape of that night. His guitar playing jumped off the tape at me. It was vintage Bloomfield and loud enough to help Bob shake up the folk establishment.
Next, I realized that the lead guitar on my new favorite album, Highway 61 Revisited was Mike Bloomfield as well. The story of the contribution of Al Kooper and Bloomfield on Highway 61 is well known. In his fantastic book Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, (Highly recommended and available at Amazon) Kooper describes the scene when Bloomfield arrives in the studio: “Suddenly Dylan exploded through the doorway, and in towwas this bizarre-looking guy carrying a Fender Telecaster without a case. Which was weird, because it was the dead of winter and the guitar was
all wet from the rain and snow. But he just shuffled over into the corner, wiped it off, plugged in and commenced to play some of the most incredible guitar I ever heard.”
Notice the difference between the guitar playing on Dylan’s previous album, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61. Bruce Langhorne plays some nice fills on the electric side of the album, but his playing is no match for Bloomfield’s take charge licks on Highway 61. Although it may not be the guitar of the “Thin Wild Mercury Sound” Bob was searching for, it certainly was an important stop on the way to Robbie Robertson and that sound.
Raised in Chicago, Mike was exposed to the blues scene of the South Side at a very young age. He earned the respect of the established players because of his obvious and enormous talent. After his work with Butterfield and Dylan, he formed a band called the Electric Flag. They played at Monterey Pop Festival and released one pretty good album, A Long Time Comin’. In 1968, he teamed up with old friend Al Kooper for the Super Session albums. Although popular at the time, they seem a little dated and uneven to me now.
After that, Bloomfield continued to do session work and made a couple of solo albums. He lived in San Francisco and played at local clubs. Unfortunately, his heroin habit soon became a big factor. On February 15, 1981, he was found dead of an overdose in a parked car. A brilliant career cut short.
Well before Clapton became “God”. Mike Bloomfield was the best in the land. It is a shame that he gets so little recognition today. If you are not familiar with his music, add some to you playlist. Essential Mike Bloomfield:
1. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (1965)
2. East-West, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (1965)
3. Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan (1965)
4. A Long Time Comin’, The Electric Flag (1968)
5. Super Session, Bloomfield, Kooper and Stills (1968)
6. The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper (1968)
7. Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield; The Lost Concert Tapes (1968)