David Dann on his new biography of blues-rock guitarist Michael Bloomfield | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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David Dann on his new biography of blues-rock guitarist Michael Bloomfield

From Glencoe to Monterey Pop to oblivion: Bloomfield’s huge talent and unique style changed the instrument forever, but while Clapton and Hendrix entered the canon, he faded away.

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Michael Bloomfield in February 1973, performing during an opening set for a reunion of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco - PHOTO BY JONATHAN PERRY / COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS
  • Photo by Jonathan Perry / Courtesy University of Texas Press
  • Michael Bloomfield in February 1973, performing during an opening set for a reunion of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco

"I didn't relate to being a rock star at all" is a strange sentiment from someone who played Monterey Pop, but Michael Bloomfield was no ordinary guitarist. Growing up in the northern suburbs of Chicago in the 1950s, Bloomfield learned to play by mimicking the blues artists he heard on his transistor radio, tuning in AM frequencies from Chicago's south side and as far away as Texas. In the early 60s he was a fixture on Chicago's music scene, playing and producing shows that melded rock, blues, pop, and jazz for rapt audiences. He accompanied Bob Dylan on the 1965 classic Highway 61 Revisited and for his infamous electric set at that summer's Newport Folk Festival—along with most of the other members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which he'd just joined and would stick with for a couple years. In 1967 he started the short-lived Electric Flag, and in 1968 he found his greatest commercial success with the instrumental LP Super Session, a collaboration with producer and musician Al Kooper that captured a blues-rock jam session in the style of the day's great jazz albums.

Bloomfield developed a style rooted in the blues but unencumbered by its conventional structures. He explored beyond the basic blues scale (a variation on the pentatonic scale), experimenting with modal compositions (which Miles Davis and John Coltrane had been exploring in jazz) and with Indian influences (for instance on the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's "East-West"). His distinctive, lyrical playing elevated the guitar solo to new heights in the eyes of rock fans.

But as the innovations Bloomfield had nurtured came to fruition at the dawn of the 70s, spreading throughout the world of rock, he stepped away from music, largely withdrawing from the public eye. He died of an overdose at age 37 in 1981. While peers such as Clapton and Hendrix topped "best guitarist" polls and continued to sell stacks of records (whether new or archival), Bloomfield and his work were largely forgotten.

The new book Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues, published October 15 by the University of Texas Press, is an attempt to correct that. In this 650-page biography (740 with notes, indices, and other addenda), author David Dann recounts Bloomfield's life from his childhood in affluent Glencoe to his tragically short tenure at the cutting edge of popular music. Dann spoke to the Reader about FM radio, authenticity, and Bloomfield's distinctive sound.

COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS

  • Courtesy University of Texas Press

Jack Riedy: I really enjoyed the story in the acknowledgments of your only time ever seeing Bloomfield perform. Can you tell me about how you first came across his work on record?

David Dann: I was a junior in high school when I first found the Super Session record in 1969 at a local department store. I bought it because the cover looked cool, and I put it on and I just . . . I didn't know what it was. I was a longtime listener to pop radio, Top 40 radio and stuff. Pop music was songs with nice hooks, and this was all just this instrumental stuff. And the more I listened to it, the more I was amazed at the playing.

I was living in the North Shore of Boston, the suburbs, at the time. When I saw in the Boston Globe that Bloomfield and Kooper were coming to perform at the Boston Garden in Back Bay, I enlisted my mother because I didn't know anybody. We caught what turned out to be the last live Super Session performance, and Bloomfield just amazed me. This guy was all over the stage, jumping, bobbing, weaving. I'd never seen anything like it. And his playing was extraordinary. Even then, as an uninformed teenager, I was really amazed by it. That was the start.

Did you then work backward to find his other recordings, or did it take until later in life for you to realize his influence?

I was listening to FM radio, and I would hear the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and there would be a mention of this guy, Mike Bloomfield, who was also on this Super Session record. So I would say, "Whoa, that's Mike Bloomfield? OK." So then I would go to the record store, try to find a Butterfield record, and if I was lucky enough to find one in the bins at the local department store, then I would check it out.

  • A Bloomfield track from the 1968 instrumental LP Super Session

It was a very slow process. You just had to sort of happen upon it, but eventually, I found the two Butterfield records that he was on, and later the Dylan record, Highway 61. And by that time, Bloomfield had put out an Electric Flag album, so I was listening to that. And he seemed to be on records all over the place. And the interesting thing about Bloomfield is you could be listening to the radio and you would hear a guitar solo and you'd say, "Oh, that's Michael." And you would just know it. And no one would say that it was Michael, but you could recognize his sound because he was really distinctive and different from just the run-of-the-mill rock 'n' roll guys.

How would you sum up his uniqueness compared to all the other guitarists at the time?

Bloomfield was, at least to my ear, a soloist who not only played the conventional pentatonic scale that blues soloists favor, but also used grace notes and flatted fifths, flatted seconds, raised sixths, that were common in jazz. And not only that, but he also would use scales that were more associated with Eastern music, with Indian classical music, ragas. And no one was doing that at the time. When you hear "East-West," which is from the second Butterfield record, it's rock 'n' roll, but it's infused with world music. That was one of the great things that Bloomfield could do, is he would fuse those styles.

And the other distinctive quality of Bloomfield's playing, and it was something that I didn't really understand but I recognized it right away in the early days when I was listening to him, is that he is very fluid with the beat. It's that vocal quality that I think really distinguished his sound. There are guys who play like Eric Clapton. You can see them down the block any day of the week. They're good players. Everybody grew up knowing a kid who could play like Clapton. And there are even some kids who could play like Hendrix, but very few have I ever heard play like Bloomfield. And that's a quality that he shares with jazz musicians. Nobody sounds like Ben Webster. Nobody sounds like Johnny Hodges. Nobody sounds like Bird, of course. Those are all distinctive sounds, and that's very much a quality that Bloomfield had that really made him stand out in my ears from all the other rock 'n' roll players of the period.

Can you tell me more about how the Chicago blues scene influenced Bloomfield?

He first learned about music by tuning his transistor radio in to stations as far south as Memphis and even further south, sometimes out of Texas. And he would hear this music that was the music of African American culture in the south, which was blues. And particularly in Memphis, there's quite a lot of blues. There was also rock 'n' roll that was developing, with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard and Chuck Berry. And Bloomfield heard all of these things under the covers at night after he was supposed to be in bed, going to sleep, and he would make a little tent and put his flashlight and he would go on the radio and listen to this crazy stuff that in the newspapers they were calling rock 'n' roll.

A Black couple that was from the south side, from 47th Street, worked in Bloomfield's house. While the maid was working around the house, she would tune in the radio and listen to WVON and she would hear the music of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and the other artists who were recording for Chess and other labels. And Michael was like, "Wow, man. That's the same music I'm hearing out of Memphis when I tune in my radio at night, quite a lot of it." So he was really fascinated by it, and on the radio were advertisements for performances that were occurring in the Chicago area by these local guys.

Mike Bloomfield makes a phone call from his home office in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco, in January 1971. - PHOTO BY MARK NAFTALIN / COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS
  • Photo by Mark Naftalin / Courtesy University of Texas Press
  • Mike Bloomfield makes a phone call from his home office in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco, in January 1971.

And one of the guys was Josh White, and Michael had a Josh White record. And he said, "Oh, man. He's playing at the Gate of Horn. I want to go see him." And his maid said, "Well, Josh is a friend of mine, and I think I can get you into the club." And Michael was 14 or 15 at the time, so he was underage, but through the largesse of his maid, he got into the club, met Josh White, got to sit in the balcony with a couple of his friends—and after that, he decided, "This is music I got to find out about." So he started going down to the south side. And a 15-year-old Jewish kid from a rich neighborhood on the north side hanging out in after-hours clubs down on 47th Street, 43rd Street—Pepper's, that kind of place—that was fairly unusual.

It seems that he didn't face a ton of pushback, for appropriation or anything like that, from the other blues players.

No, no. Malcolm X hadn't appeared and the civil rights movement had not happened. This is the late 50s. But Bloomfield was so unusual that it was a special thing to have this white kid show up. And then he would get up and play and not only would he play, but he'd play better than some of the guys on the stand. And that would really just blow people's minds. They would freak out. They would love it.

I thought it was really interesting that he then not only took it further to play in the south-side clubs, but he was also curating blues talent for his own shows at the Fickle Pickle in Old Town. Can you tell me about what exactly he was looking for when he was putting on those shows?

He was looking for older players who had faded from view. And at that time, there were quite a few people in Chicago who were seeking out older players, in particular Bob Koester from the Jazz Record Mart, who had recorded Big Joe Williams on Delmark Records. He was finding other older players and recording them, because he was able to sell records on them. Michael saw a guy named George Mitchell from Atlanta, a college student who'd come to work for Koester because he wanted to learn how to produce records, was really interested in finding older players as well. Michael and George worked together organizing the shows at the Fickle Pickle with the idea in mind that they would bring some of these older players to the stage and introduce them to the younger white college students and blues enthusiasts on the north side.

He was really excited about that, because he'd started out as a rock 'n' roll player and then he traded away his very expensive Les Paul custom guitar for an old Martin, which turned out to be a very valuable guitar too. But he concentrated exclusively in 1962 and '63 on learning traditional guitar styles—fingerpicking, Travis picking, the styles of the Delta and Piedmont.

How much overlap was there between folk enthusiasts and blues enthusiasts at the time?

Well, the folk enthusiasts were aware of the blues, but the kind of blues that they knew about was Robert Pete Williams, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, the traditional blues. They really didn't know the contemporary electric blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and Junior Wells. That was happening down on the south side, but the folks from the University of Chicago in the Folklore Society were more interested in acoustic blues and the traditional style of blues. There was a prejudice, which came to a point in '65 at the Newport Folk Festival with Bob Dylan, where if you played electric you were kind of selling out. And so the folk-music people knew blues very well, but they were looking for the "authentic" blues, which in their mind was the traditional stuff. And so the guys who were rocking out and playing electric blues, they weren't really aware of them but they also weren't very interested in that style.

  • Michael Bloomfield was part of Dylan's backing band at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

Was that question of authenticity ever daunting to Michael?

Not for long, no. I doubt he would've acknowledged it consciously, but he was very in tune with the authentic side of the sound of the south side, and that was one reason why he was reluctant when Butterfield and the group moved up to Magoo's—because he really felt like anything that was being played on the north side was tourist music, was not the real thing. Michael just played music, and he loved the authentic traditional style of blues just as much as he loved the kind of stuff that Chuck Berry was doing. He was crazy about Chuck Berry and he loved Elvis. For Michael, those questions of "authenticity" were really not of interest. He didn't care at all. If it sounded good, it was good, as Duke Ellington said.

Later on in his life, Michael wasn't interested in being a rock star. Was that a question of authenticity for him?

The reason that he rejected the music industry and its requirements had a lot to do with his own insecurity as well as his drug issues—and of course, he was certainly justified in feeling that there was a huge amount of superficial bullshit that was involved with the industry. And Michael was one guy who had radar for bullshit. If you shucked in front of him, he would know in a minute. And so he really resented having to customize his artistry for some middle-management vice president who was paying off his boat or I don't know what.

And so that's what he would tell the press, but I think another part of it was there was a big change in Monterey in '67, when Hendrix made his debut to the world and became a superstar. Because two years before, at Newport when Dylan went electric, Michael had been the Hendrix at that concert. He had blown people away by his playing and his disregard for whatever the conventions of folk music were, and here was Hendrix in Monterey pretty much doing the same thing.

  • A rare Bloomfield vocal turn on the 1968 album A Long Time Comin' by his band the Electric Flag

Bloomfield had debuted his new horn band, Electric Flag, at that show, but he played a fairly conventional set. What Hendrix did was totally unconventional and of course he burned his guitar, but Hendrix was an extraordinary entertainer as well as a performer. And Michael was no entertainer. It was not what he could do. And I think he saw the future there and it was very difficult for him to see himself having a part in that kind of musical future.

Is there any reason you can point to for Bloomfield's relative obscurity?

I think it's largely self-imposed. He worked really hard to remove himself from the public eye. And it wasn't he stopped playing. He was playing all the time and certainly playing locally all the time, but people in New York would see him once every five or six years at best. And that's not a way to build a career if you want to be remembered. I always say that Janis and Jimi and Jim Morrison all died at age 27—what was it, 1970, 1971? If Bloomfield had been the fourth to pass away that year, he would be remembered right up there with Hendrix, but he had an inglorious slow fade to black.

And toward the end of his career, people expected him to show up with amplifiers and play Super Session, and he was playing folk music and hokey vaudeville tunes from the 20s on guitar and piano. And this is not what they wanted to see. That also had a strong effect on his legacy. People very quickly decided there really wasn't anything there in terms of Bloomfield. That was not the case, but I think it played a large role in the reason why he was forgotten. He sabotaged his career by playing the music he wanted to play and didn't give a damn whether anybody liked it or not.

Where do you hear his influence in contemporary music?

He wasn't very influential, partially because I think it was really hard to play like him. I've tried and I can't do it, so I just listen, but Miles Davis knew Michael's work. They both recorded for the same label. Miles Davis, in DownBeat, when Leonard Feather played him a selection from the first Electric Flag record, loved it. And I'm sure that he heard Bloomfield's records, and he realized that you could play jazz with electric guitars, and you could play it with simpler beats, and it doesn't have to be all these chord changes on a Cole Porter song. It can be just maybe one chord or two chords of vamp.

Bloomfield had, I think, shown the way to a degree by fusing elements of jazz with rock and other musics. And Miles said, "Maybe this is a way into a better paycheck." So he hired John McLaughlin, he got Harvey Goldstein from Electric Flag to play bass, and he started playing vamps and he started playing electric. And that was the start of that genre of jazz music called fusion.

And the other thing that Michael influenced worldwide was bringing the electric sound of Chicago blues to pop music. He and a few of the other Chicago white kids sang the praises of the south-side guys, and that really became not only the dominant music of the late 60s and early 70s, but the aesthetic of the south side became a white pop-music aesthetic. If you played guitar and you were a guitar player of any worth, you could solo. If you couldn't solo like B.B. King, you were just a wannabe who sucked. When I was in college, there were guys on every floor in the dorm who played electric guitar, and the guys who could really solo, those were the guys who were getting all the girls. They were good. They were credible.

And that was Bloomfield's legacy. Because prior to Bloomfield, if you could strum a C chord, a G, and a D and sing Beatles songs or something, you were good. But after Bloomfield, you had to play lead, man, or you were just a phony.  v

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