In the summer of 1965, Bob Dylan made music history when he plugged it in. The folk hero played a set with electric instruments at the Newport Folk Festival. So who gave Dylan this bright idea? A kid from Chicago named Michael Bloomfield. After that pivotal moment Bloomfield went on to experience both the highs and lows of the music business.
Eight Forty-Eight’s Jason Marck shared his story:
Growing up on Chicago’s North Shore, Michael Bloomfield never really fit in. His only refuge was a guitar, and a transistor radio tuned to the blues on WVON. If Bloomfield’s radio opened a window to the blues, learning that his maid actually knew some of these blues legends blew open a door. Soon she was taking him to South Side clubs and introducing him to greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Otis Rush. Muddy became like a father to him. By the time he was 15, this pudgy, smart-aleky Jewish kid was on stage jamming with his idols.
Harmonica virtuoso Corky Siegel remembers it well.
“First time I met him, I was playing saxophone, and I sat in with him. And my partner Jim Schwall was his first harmonica player-that’s how far back I go with Bloomfield!” Siegel remembered, “But the scene, we were playing in this club, we didn’t know how wild it was-two little white kids playing in a black club till 3:00 in the morning…and the fact that all of these blues icons are coming in and out-but now I’m going ‘Oh My God, what a thing!’ Not only were we sitting in with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, they were sitting in with us! While we were learning how to play the blues! it was unbelievable!” delighted Siegel.
Michael Bloomfield was learning to play the blues and then some. By 1963 he was bringing the blues to the North Side, playing in various combos and booking artists in The Fickle Pickle and Big John’s. Blues-harp great Charlie Musslewhite was right there as it was all happening.
“Eventually they had live blues there every night of the week. You could see Little Walter, or Muddy, or the Wolf, and that started the whole thing of blues coming to the North Side. These clubs could pay more money and other clubs on the North Side were seeing the business that Big John’s was doing, and they started hiring blues,” Musslewhite explained.
Bloomfield was not only learning the music from the masters, he was learning the history. He sought out old-timers like Tampa Red, Kokomo Arnold, Jazz Gillum and did extensive interviews with Muddy Waters, and Robert Nighthawk.
Paul Butterfield was a South Side Irish kid with some incredible harmonica chops. He put together a top-notch band that featured Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section. An A & R guy from Elektra Records heard the Butterfield Band in Big John’s one night and wanted to sign them on the spot. However, he suggested that Bloomfield be brought in as the lead guitarist. Paul and Michael weren’t sure, at first, if they could work with each other. But in a short time, they developed a musical bond. The band was well received on the East Coast, but when they hit San Francisco, things just exploded. Keyboardist, friend, and collaborator Mark Naftalin remebered the transformation.
“We were the biggest thing in town. And it was just an event every time we played. Everybody knew about it, and it was very very exciting,” Naftalin said.
The Paul Butterfield Band was a success. They recorded a second album with Bloomfield, called East-West. It would have a profound effect on the Psychedelic music scene. Players like Carlos Santana and Jerry Garcia followed suit. During a 1981 interview with Tom Yates of KSAN radio Bloomfield talked about the transformative album.
“Pre East-West I was listening to a lot of Coltrane, a lot of Ravi Shankar, and guys that played modal music,and the idea wasn’t to see how far you could go harmonically, but to see how far you could go melodically or modally. And that’s what I was doing in East West and I think that’s why a lot of guitar players liked it,” Bloomfield said.
Bloomfield quit Butterfield in February of 1967 and started putting together a fresh combo. He was inspired by a concept that would draw from the blues and jazz, from R&B, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll. And he insisted that it have a horn section like B.B. King or the records that were being put out on the Stax label. The band featured Barry Goldberg, Harvey Brooks, Buddy Miles and Nick Gravenites; it was called The Electric Flag.
The Flag’s sound foreshadowed horn bands like Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago. But again, the musical or emotional situation didn’t satisfy Bloomfield. Things were made worse by the fact that he suffered from a debilitating sleep disorder for most of his life. He would be up for three or four days straight, then crash for 24 hours or more.
“He had a lot of problems,” Musselwhite remembered. “I think some of it was some kind of chemical imbalance where he could not sleep, and in trying to sleep he took a lot of drugs, to try to feel normal.”
But his split with The Flag and the drugs he used to try to cure the insomnia—both legal and illegal—didn’t bring relief. Famed musician, producer and close friend Barry Goldberg remembered the tough times.
“He was never a junkie or addicted to heroin or any kind of drug. It was just a way for him to calm down, to stop the things that were going on inside his head,” Goldberg said.
Along with everything else, the pressure to deliver a commercial success equal to his talent was weighing down on him as well. Along came Al Kooper. Kooper was a keyboardist and producer that played with Bloomfield during the groundbreaking recording of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. His idea was to get Bloomfield into a studio for a few daysand just jam. It was called Super Session. It would show off Bloomfield’s skills, cost virtually nothing to make, and rake in a pile of dough.
His playing was phenomenal. Goldberg was there, playing alongside Bloomfield.
“His bombastic playing, those notes that just went into the air, when he shook that string it just went right through you. the intensity in his playing was like no one I’ve ever played with, including Jimi Hendrix,” Goldberg said.
Siegel tried to put Bloomfield’s playing into words: “It’s like, what was he standing on? Because there was this energy coming right thru him, thru the guitar, out his head; ya’know, sparks,” Siegel said.
It would be the biggest-selling record of his career and he would be leading the way with yet another trend in the music business, the “supergroup” that was so prevalent in the ’70s and ’80s. But from that point on, Bloomfield chose a different path for his career.
During a 1971 interview with KPFA’s Dan McClosky Bloomfield said, “All the sudden I realized it was the name that was being sold. The hype was being sold. Cats were applauding the idolatry. The mantleship of rock star doesn’t hang easily on my shoulders. ‘Cause I’m just a person. My God, I’m just a person, with every hang-up that everyone else has.”
Every one of his friends confirmed these feelings, including his old pal and frequent collaborator, Nick Gravenites.
“He wanted people to sit there and love the music and get involved in it and not get all hero worshipped. He didn’t like that part of the music scene. Thought it was ridiculous. Never catered to it at all. God, he turned down Dylan! Turned down Dylan! I mean, this is the kind of guy he was,” Gravenites said.
So Bloomfield stayed close to home and played with people he trusted; making the kind of music that interested him, no matter how uncommercial it may have been.
“We did a waltz gig. We did it under the name of the Waltz Kings. This is Mike’s brainchild. He had all this sheet music, “Bicycle Built for Two,” this and that. We did two nights there. Never happened before, and it never happened again. Seriously undertaken, and a lot of fun. And that well exemplifies Mike’s spirit and his personality,” Naftalin remebered.
In 1975, Bloomfield did an album that he called “The best I’ve ever played on record,” called If You Love These Blues, Play ‘Em As You Please. It was put out by Guitar Player Magazine, and featured Bloomfield explaining and playing a wide range of blues forms.
Even in the late ’70s, when he began drinking heavily for the first time in his life, and his interest in following through with projects was at an absolute low, he still managed to make some wonderful records for small labels. And he never lost his famous sense of humor.
“He was an hilarious person. Absolutely hilarious. Mike Bloomfield, among other things, genuinely hilarious. You could laugh and laugh and laugh,” Naftalin remembered.
It was as if he was living on the love that people had for him as a player, but more importantly, as a person.
“Mike, you know, he had this very deep passion,” Siegel said. “But then he had this edge of sheer joy.”
Gravenites remembered how much others loved Bloomfield. “People that knew Michael, they loved him. It had nothing to do with liking the guy, they loved him. Even to this day 30 years after his death, people that knew him and loved him knew he was the best. He was absolutely the best guitar player of his generation. Dylan thought he was. Hendrix thought he was. Clapton thought he was,” Gravenites said.
So if Bloomfield was that good, how come somewhere, right now, Jimi Hendrix is being played on the radio, and Bloomfield isn’t? Naftalin shared these thoughts.
“Jimi Hendrix made pop rock records, and Mike Bloomfield did not. Can you picture Mike Bloomfield smashing or burning a guitar? Unthinkable. Jimi Hendrix wanted stardom, he had the stage presence, the look….can you picture Mike Bloomfield wearing those feather collard multi-colored coats and so on? He shied away from stardom and he shied away from success. And he did not wear costumes. Quite often he didn’t button his shirt, and sometimes he didn’t even button his pants!” Naftalin said.
On Feb. 15, 1981, Bloomfiled was hanging out with some people-not his usual group of friends. He overdosed. Police found him in his car on a San Francisco side street. Michael Bloomfield, the original “Guitar God”, the man who played on the biggest rock record of all time Like a Rolling Stone, who spread the gospel of Chicago’s blues and blues musicians to the rest of the world, was at the was dead at the age of 37. Goldberg delivered the eulogy.
“He was a beautiful person. And as sensitive and as sweet and as vulnerable as he was, he could also be irritable and difficult at times. But his sweet and lovable side always won out. No one else has ever replaced him in my life,” Goldberg remembered.
David Dann has put together an incredible discography of Bloomfield