Blues Powerhouse: Guitarist Mike Bloomfield Gets the Recognition He Deserves with New Box Set
Many consider that recording Bloomfield’s crowning achievement. His playing on the disc is knotty, dramatic and unpredictable, his sonorous tone snaking in all directions, from needling staccato licks to burnished metallic slides to warm wail-and-moan bends to dark sustained notes singing with his B.B. King–inspired vibrato.
On the band showcase “Work Song,” Bloomfield’s melodies climb through scales like free-jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s, balancing chromatic ascents and descents with radically slurred bends and off-the-beat accents.
The tune “East-West,” a 13-minute exploratory fusion of blues and Indian modality that showcases Bloomfield and Bishop, flipped the switch for long-form rock improvisation. Thus Bloomfield ran neck and neck with Clapton in transporting blues guitar into the psychedelic era.
So the question raised by Kooper’s quest to elevate Bloomfield to Robert Johnson–like status remains: Why don’t more people know about this profoundly talented six-string genius?
“First of all, he didn’t dress up,” Kooper says. “All those guys—Clapton, Page—they dressed like rock stars. In the set’s booklet, there’s a photo I chose of Clapton and Bloomfield backstage at the Fillmore. It’s like a sight gag. Clapton’s in sartorial and hair-and-moustache splendor, and Mike’s just wearing a plain denim shirt and a vest. They couldn’t look more different.
“Second, he was done with the music business by the time he was 34,” Kooper continues. “He had done it all—dealing with the crooked promoters and record labels—and said, ‘Enough of this shit.’ ”
Gravenites agrees. “Back then the music business was packed with thieves,” he says. “I don’t mean crooked accountants and rigged books; I mean they were a bunch of gangsters who’d break your fingers to get a penny out of a jukebox. When we started out, we were launched into a sea of ugly.”
There’s also, of course, Bloomfield’s premature death, which forever pre-empted any second winds or late-career comebacks. “People who say they were surprised by Michael’s death didn’t really know him,” Gravenites contends.
“Michael had died in every major city in America—New York, Chicago, L.A., Detroit, San Francisco—but he was revived every time because he was with junkies who knew what they were doing.
Around heroin, he always wanted to be first on the bag, and he always took too much. It didn’t work out sometimes, so he’d OD. That was Michael. A crazy guy.
“But I never thought of him as a junkie,” Gravenites continues. “He’d junk up for a while and then he’d stop. Michael was a genius. And comical. He was like Lenny Bruce or something. He was very well read and could talk intelligently about all kinds of topics: art, poetry, history. I’m lucky enough to still be alive. And having been his singer and his friend, I look back on those years—his generosity, his humor, his intelligence, his amazing musical vision—and they’re beautiful memories.”
Photo: John Siveri/Getty Images