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.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. 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

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