Blues Powerhouse: Guitarist Mike Bloomfield Gets the Recognition He Deserves with New Box Set
Reached by phone at his northern California home, 75-year-old Gravenites says that he was just learning to play blues when he first met Bloomfield at the Fret Shop, a folk music store near the University of Chicago campus, “but Bloomers—I called him Bloomers, I don’t know why—already knew it cold.
"He played like all of the older black guys he idolized. He was an authentic stylist as a teenager.”
Five years later, when Kooper met Bloomfield at the Highway 61 Revisited sessions, Kooper says he wondered, “How can a guy my age play so good? I was taken aback. I had brought my guitar hoping to play on Dylan’s record, but when I heard Michael warm up, I put my guitar away.” Instead, Kooper played the album’s barebones organ tracks—his first shot at the Hammond B-3, which became his signature instrument.
Despite his deep blues grounding, Bloomfield was an omnivorous listener, and that had a profound impact on his playing. He shared his fascination with Bulgarian vocal choirs and intense jazzmen like Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus with Kooper.
Those fascinations are reflected in the sweeping, cinematic passages of their Live Adventures album, cut in 1968 at promoter Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore West, as well as the cluster bombs of chromatic notes Bloomfield would inject into his solos in concert.
“Live, everything he played was golden,” Kooper recalls. “My guess was that he was intimidated in the studio by producers. I wanted to get great playing out of him, so my premise with the recordings we made was ‘let’s go in and jam and it’ll be fun.’ ” Both Super Session and Live Adventures were hits, reaching numbers 12 and 18, respectively, on Billboard’s album chart.
Bloomfield’s picking technique also came from a varied base. He could use a flatpick on a whim but preferred the organic tone generated by plucking strings with his fingers or thumbnail, or by using his index finger’s nail as a pick. He reserved fingerpicks or thumb picks for lap steel and resonator guitars. Unlike Clapton, Beck, Jimmy Page and Duane Allman, he also preferred running his Les Pauls and Telecasters through loud, clean amps with plenty of headroom and minimal breakup, for a more open tone.
Kooper describes his musical relationship with Bloomfield as symbiotic—“We never had to discuss a thing we played. We’d just start and it would all be there.” Gravenites, for his part, spent a decade of his 20-year friendship with Bloomfield sharing the stage and studio. Yet, both say Bloomfield’s overall approach to guitar was subjective, idiosyncratic—a code they ultimately never cracked.
“I could never make heads or tails of his technique,” says Gravenites, who, like 69-year-old Kooper, continues to perform. “I called it ‘the Cloaking Device.’ It was like he was part Romulan. We’d be having a conversation. Everything about the music we were about to play would be perfectly clear, and then he’d start to play and the Cloaking Device kicked in. I’d watch his fingers moving everywhere and have no idea what the hell he was doing.”
The excellent 1979 album If You Love These Blues, Play ’Em As You Please provides some hints. In the liner notes Bloomfield explains his amp and guitar choices for each of the tracks, provides the genesis of each number, and lists the keys and further salient details for the songs.
The 2004 CD reissue also includes acoustic guitar duets Bloomfield recorded with Woody Harris. Combined, these 31 tracks trace many veins of Bloomfield’s roots, from African-American work songs to Appalachian spirituals to T-Bone Walker swing to primal country, and his playing is absolutely inspired.
Bloomfield was an entirely self-made—and unlikely—bluesman. In 1943, he was born into a wealthy Jewish family whose fortune was based on his ex-boxer father’s invention of the flapper-topped sugar dispenser, the institutional coffee brewer, revolving pie displays and other restaurant staples. His mother was a Wrigley’s Spearmint gum model. School and Michael didn’t mix, but to his father’s dismay, he loved guitar.
At age 14, Bloomfield’s passion for Elvis Presley and guitarist Scotty Moore as well as the other Sun rockabilly cats led him to recordings by bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, who, he soon discovered, were regularly playing in his own town. After that, it was on.
Bloomfield chased down the potent first-generation electric Chicago blues players in urban nightspots where few white people ventured. His youth and nervous energy made him stand out as much as the innate talent he displayed when he got onstage. Often, he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm, leaping up with the likes of Magic Sam or Buddy Guy, plugging in, hitting notes and asking to sit in, all at the same time.
Even as an adult, “Michael was always on 10,” Kooper says. “He was funny and smart and always very much in the moment.”
“Michael was a special character,” Gravenites concurs. “He’d say exactly what was on his mind to anyone without any concern for repercussions. If he didn’t like what you were playing, he’d tell you to get in line. But he was also very kind and generous with people.”
Bloomfield also suffered from chronic insomnia and bouts of depression. He spent many nights awake playing guitar in his formative years. As his playing developed, Bloomfield became interested in older bluesmen with acoustic roots. Hired to book the Fickle Pickle coffeehouse, he scheduled nine-string guitarist Big Joe Williams, mandolinist Yank Rachell, guitarist Sleepy John Estes and pianist Little Brother Montgomery specifically so he could play with them.
He and Williams became close and recorded together several times. He also got his first pointed taste of the volatility of some of the older bluesmen when Williams stabbed him in the hand during a disagreement.
During July 1966—the same month that Cream played its first unofficial gig in England—Bloomfield, harmonica demon Paul Butterfield, guitarist Elvin Bishop, pianist Mark Naftalin, drummer Billy Davenport and bassist Jerome Arnold released the second Paul Butterfield Blues Band album, East-West.