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Mike Bloomfield: The Best White Guitarist Everybody Has Forgotten

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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)

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About Will Vogt

  • http://blogcritics.org/archives/2008/10/01/101210.php David Bowling

    One of my musical regrets is never seeing Mike Bloomfield perform live. Too many people have never been exposed to his work. Nice article about a forgotten master of the guitar.

  • fucker

    live at old waldorf – this is perfect show with Mike.

  • ahzroc

    We haven’t forgotten “Bloomers” here in Chicago…
    in fact, I can say with total certainty-
    I think of him EVERY DAY-
    Here in our office, we use the “Bloomfield” coffee machines…that is their family business…he was a true talent and a true bleiver in the music.
    I f someone could have kept him off the stuff, the whole Music scene would be different.
    I always thought Clapton got his Cream ‘fro because of Bloomers…

  • Frank Macias

    Sounds like you had an almost identical experience I had. I bought the 1965, Highway 61 Album with The Bloom on lead guitar when living in the Bay Area. When I heard that ’65 album I loved it. Especially, the guitar playing. I tought it was a very unusual, highly satisfying record. A friend then turned me on to the first Butterfield record. The music jumped out of the grooves at me. What a treat that was. Then I found out they were actually perfoming around the corner at the Fillmore Auditorium. I saw them many times straight as an arrow. Then later I saw the Electric Flag. My life changed. I’ve been playing guitar ever since. My style is very much like his. My “feel” is almost identical. When people see me play they say my my tone and feel is just like his. (I know better, of course. Bloomfield can never be copied exactly) I have played on a few CD’s for other people. Presently I am working on my own CD. Hopefully, it will be completed in a month or two and people can judge for themselves. I have worked with three people that have worked with Bloomfield. Georges Rains, (Bloomfield and Friends), Jack Barber, (Doug Sahm, Bob Dylan) and Bob Arthur (Boz Scaggs, Mother Earth, Tracy Nelson). I will have Jack Barber on my CD as we are close friends. The others I will try to get them on board for the project.

    Thanks,

    Frank Macias

    Frank Macias

  • http://www.movabledesign.com samir

    Dont worry about bloomfield being forgotten…he’s got fans in India!
    I remember hearing the supersession tapes in bombay as a teenager in the ’80s…I had a scratchy recording with tape drops, butthe man knocked my socks off…
    Recently heard east west for the first time..talk about hard edge blues and a controlled release of madness…

  • rsul

    I Never had the pleasure of seeing Mike live but just listening to him is almost as great. Every time I play The Paul Butterfield Album East West I think Michael is still with us. His solo on “gotta mindto give up living” is if not the best ever, ranks in the top 3. His guitar is really so electrified that it seems he has to be a part of his instrument and the elements. I’ve seen Hendrix, Zappa, Garcia, Santana et al none left me with the feeling that Michael had truly one of the Greatest guitar players ever!~

  • Cody

    There was no finer guitar player ever. Bloomfield was simply the best. Listen to My Labors (Nick Gravenites) and hear Bloomers at his peek IMHO. His recording near the end of his life reaffirmed his decline, sadly.

  • Alex

    Living in Greece I never of course had the chance to see Mike live but his records are with me as LPs, CDs, ring tones etc.

    The magic of Albert’s shuffle, Stop, I have a mind to give up living, East West, Work song, You are killing my love, etc is always present and alive.

    He was the greatest.

  • http://vintage.twooldhippies.com/electric-guitars/ lespaulfan

    Bloomfield was amazing. I didn’t discover him until I was about 25 years old but have made up for lost time in listening to his work non stop over the past 4 years.

  • Clem Porterhouse

    I had no idea He was White!

  • BloomfieldisMyHero

    As a 22 year old guitarist, I have the luxury in the digital age to instantly access any material I want. I’ve listened to them all: Santana, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Hendrix, Bo Diddley etc… But no guitarist ever hit me like Mike Bloomfield did about 3 years ago. The instant I watched him solo on a live version of “Wine” with the Electric Flag at the Monterrey Pop Festival, I was hooked. He was the reason I bought a G&L ASAT Classic (a tele style designed by Leo Fender). He is without a doubt my biggest hero and I hope to be at least half as good as he ever was.

  • Scottymojo67

    As a lifelong fan of the blues who also plays guitar I have sadly only recently discovered Mike Bloomfield. He just never got that much exposure due to his reclusive nature and untimely death. I highly recommend all the albums listed above. I have tried to get as much Mike Bloomfield material and information on my new favorite guitarist, and in my opinion the best of them all as far as knowledge, versatility and playing straight from the heart. I’ve tried to incorporate some of his influence in my own playing but its impossible to imitate someone so great. Like all great guitarists his use of micro tonal notes (in between notes) sets him above 99.999% of all guitarists. Good luck learning an extended Bloomfield solo note for note lol. Listen to the song Another Country by the Electric Flag. The middle of the song has one of the greatest guitar solo IMO ever. Very sad that drugs took Mike away from the world. Just a sad story period.