Blues Powerhouse: Guitarist Mike Bloomfield Gets the Recognition He Deserves with New Box Set
On June 16, 1965, a young man sporting a Jewfro walked through the rain on New York’s Seventh Avenue to Columbia Studio A, a white Telecaster slung over his shoulder like John Henry’s hammer.
Once inside, he wiped down the wet guitar, sat on a folding chair and played his way into history.
Until then, few people outside of his native Chicago had heard of Michael Bloomfield.
A little over a month later, after that session’s first single, “Like a Rolling Stone,” was released, he was nearly as well known among musicians as the tune’s writer, Bob Dylan. Bloomfield’s roiling fills and lightning-strike licks in Studio A had put the high-voltage in Dylan’s first electric album, Highway 61 Revisited.
Just a month after that LP appeared, Bloomfield’s reputation was etched deeper with the release of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
On that debut by his hometown outfit—Chicago’s first integrated blues band signed to a major label—Bloomfield played guitar with the authenticity and intensity that Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Green, Jimmy Page and the other young guns of British blues aspired to attain. Clapton himself observed, “Mike Bloomfield is music on two legs.”
Bloomfield was 22 when he arrived on the music scene, blazing a path for guitarists that burned through the strata of multiple elements—jazz, country, world music, atonality—while staying faithful to his beloved blues. And while the legacy of Bloomfield’s artistry is still embedded in the muddy terra firma of American music, his influence is virtually uncelebrated today.
The new three-CD-plus-DVD box set From His Head to His Heart to His Hands, curated by Bloomfield’s friend and playing partner, rock and roll legend Al Kooper, aims to correct that.
“I’m trying to replicate what King of the Delta Blues Singers did for Robert Johnson in 1961,” says Kooper, referring to the 1961 compilation that rescued Johnson’s recorded legacy from obscurity.
“A lot of people didn’t know about Johnson because so many decades had passed since he recorded, and yet when that album came out, English kids like Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton were swept up by it. I want to do the same thing—catch people who don’t know what Michael sounded like or maybe don’t even know his name.
“I loved Michael’s music for the intellectualism of what he played, which is why I came up with the title. I think his music started in his head and then went to his heart before he played it. That’s what’s so great about it.”
Kooper spent a year going through tapes from the Columbia Records vaults, Dylan’s archives and other sources, including his own collection, to make the case for Bloomfield’s enduring greatness.
The set begins with three previously unreleased demo recordings from Bloomfield’s 1964 audition for the legendary record producer John Hammond, whose signings—which included Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan—spanned several generations. (Hammond was also the driving force behind the King of the Delta Blues Singers compilation.)
The songs from Bloomfield’s 1964 audition feature him playing acoustic Delta blues and an absolutely stratospheric high-torque country rag inspired by the great Kentucky-born picker Merle Travis. In all likelihood, those recordings would be lost if Kooper and Hammond hadn’t become neighbors years after the session. One day Hammond surprised Kooper with a two-track reel-to-reel copy, which is now the only one in existence.
Another gem comes at the set’s opposite bookend: a live recording of Bloomfield reunited onstage with Dylan at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1980, months before his death from an overdose on February 15, 1981, at age 37. Sitting in on “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” Bloomfield exorcises blitzing chromatic lines, quivering bends, warbling fingerpicked triads and keening slide from his head, heart and hands.
There are demos Bloomfield recorded with his own group after he was signed by Hammond, tracks from Highway 61 with the vocals peeled off to reveal the underlying brilliance of his playing, and roaring cuts from the Butterfield Band and Bloomfield’s own eclectic flower-power-era ensemble, the Electric Flag.
His celebrated 1968 Super Session and Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper recordings are well represented, and Bloomfield’s slide guitar on Janis Joplin’s “One Good Man” is like a blade to the heart. The final recording, a gorgeous fingerpicked solo acoustic live take called “Hymn Time,” brings the performances full circle.
It’s here that the DVD Sweet Blues takes over. An hour-long documentary directed by Bob Sarles, the film expands on the music with interviews featuring Dylan, Kooper, Elvin Bishop, Electric Flag vocalist Nick Gravenites, Bloomfield’s ex-wife Susan Beuhler and others.
Bloomfield himself serves as narrator, with Sarles using sections of a sprawling tape-recorded interview with the late guitarist to propel the narrative of his career—from his apprenticeship playing in Chicago clubs with Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams and his other blues heroes to the sessions and festivals that were part of the apex of his popularity.
In the 16 years spanning the CDs, Bloomfield’s electric tone darkens and expands as he shifts his preference from Telecasters to Les Pauls and swaps the roles of bandleader, sideman and solo performer, playing like a champion every step of the way. The consensus among Bloomfield’s friends is that by age 16 or 17, his six-string style was fully formed.