It was a small thing, really.
Something he did out of instinct, without even taking time to think about it.
It’s something he’s been doing – both literally and figuratively – for almost four decades.
Lending a hand to the blues and its creators, helping to make sure neither is ever forgotten.
This was before all that, before the movie, before the larger-than-life persona and way before the chain of restaurants and weekly radio show.
This was on a stormy and rainy spring night in Chicago, outside the front door of the Wise Fool’s Pub.
“This Lincoln pulls up and I saw Albert Collins get out of the car and start to struggle with his amp. So I was on my toes in a second and ran outside and helped him unload his equipment to set up for his show,” Dan Aykroyd said recently. “He didn’t know who I was and that didn’t matter. I boast of that today, that I helped Albert Collins set up his equipment. Had I had the time, I gladly would have gone on the road as a roadie for the great Icepicker.”
Aykroyd has been a major part of the worldwide public conscious since 1975, when he burst upon the scene as one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live (SNL). He’s been a non-stop whirlwind of activity ever since, writing screen plays, appearing on a weekly syndicated radio program and starring in countless movies and television projects. All of that more than qualifies the man as a Hall of Famer, but ask any music lover and they’ll probably rattle off one name that sums up what Dan Aykroyd is all about.
Part of a sketch with the late, great John Belushi on an April 22, 1978 episode of SNL, the Blues Brothers quickly spawned a meteoric existence all their own, one that could not be contained by a mere television screen. That initial pairing of Belushi as Joliet Jake and Aykroyd as Elwood, set the wheels in motion for a chart-topping, double-platinum album (Briefcase Full of Blues), concert tours, an all-time movie classic (The Blues Brothers) and their likenesses plastered all over the free world as sunglass-wearing, fedora-sporting Chicago bluesmen.
And it’s been all blues, all the time, ever since for Aykroyd.
As co-founder of the House of Blues concert venue/restaurants and thanks to his weekly-syndicated radio program – Elwood’s Bluesmobile – Aykroyd has really put his money where his mouth is the past few decades, rolling up his sleeves and diving in with both feet to make sure the blues doesn’t turn into some long-forgotten form of music.
“Being a part of helping to keep the blues alive and helping out the artists of today, as well as the venerated artists of yesterday, is an office that I humbly take on with willingness and with a sense of gratitude … a kind of ‘thank you so much’ for what they’ve given to me,” he said. “I guess that’s what I’m doing. That really is the mission of House of Blues. We have blues players that play at our Crossroads restaurants. Elwood’s Bluesmobile Radio Hour, that’s all about venerating those that have gone before, and celebrating the fact that many of those artists are still out there playing and doing it today. On the radio show, we tell you where they’re playing and how you can go and see these incredible blues artists. That is the mission. It costs the artists nothing. They send me a CD and it will get broadcast, it will get promoted. I will interview them and help spread the word about their wonderful music.”
His program has become a much-needed oasis for roots-music lovers that are normally left high-and-dry and insanely frustrated when spinning the dial in hopes of catching even one or two blues tunes spewing forth from earth-bound radio.
“We’re with almost 195 stations across the United States. We’re with Westwood One, which is part of the Cumulus Network, so we represent the blues on all of those stations that are affiliated with us. We’re one of the last presences, unfortunately, of the terrestrial broadcast of blues music,” he said. “The airwaves are being covered by pop and hip-hop and the modern music of today. What I think has to happen is, the artists of today, particularly the funk, house, hip-hop and rap artists, should start to look at some of these blues catalogs – Alligator, Maleco, Blind Pig, Delmark, Fat Possum – and look for ideas to sample from those artists. That helps the (blues) artist get paid and helps their music get to a wider base. Sample a John Lee Hooker riff or a Snooky Pryor harmonica riff, or a Lazy Lester riff, anything they could use. That’s the way to expose the newer generation to blues music.”
Aykroyd’s sense of duty to the blues community is not simply limited to artists from the 1950s and 60s. He astutely understands that while keeping past traditions alive is an integral part of the mission, creating new traditions is also a vital part of the whole process.
“This new generation of blues artists need to be heralded and encouraged to keep on their paths, too. Like Jonny Lang, Joanne Shaw Taylor, Tedeschi/Trucks Band, Kenny Wayne Sheppard … the 24th Street Wailers out of Toronto, Homemade Jamz Band. These are the young players that need to be encouraged and people need to buy tickets to their shows, buy their records and let they know how much we care and how much enjoyment we derive from them,” he said. “And you have a whole new generation of stars that are coming up from the venerates that raised them: Johnny Clyde Copeland’s daughter, Shemekia; Big Bill Morganfield, son of Muddy Waters; Bernard Allison, Luther’s son; Zakiya and John Lee Hooker Junior, they’re all carrying on the traditions. So in that sense, the performers are alive, the recordings are alive and the interest and the culture is alive.”
His love for blues music was not something that was manufactured on a Hollywood sound stage. It is something that has been a part of Aykroyd since he was an impressionable youngster growing up in his native Canada.
“I was fortunate to have grown up in Ottawa, Canada – a town that was sophisticated academically and intellectually – and there was a nightclub there called Le Hibou and the booker there, Harvey Glatt, brought in everybody on the circuit that was playing in Toronto and Montreal and Chicago and Boston,” he said. “So as a teenager, I got to see Chester Burnett perform over a dozen times. I saw Otis Rush, Otis Spann, Otis Clay. I saw Buddy (Guy) and Junior (Wells) when they were together. I saw Sonny (Terry) and Brownie (McGhee) when they were together. I saw James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield, John Lee Hooker. All the major blues stars of the age, I got to see when they came through there. This is what we used to do on a Saturday night. And I also had a friend who had a massive blues record collection, so I’ve been really obsessed with it for quite some time.”
More than just a casual observer, sometimes back in those days, Aykroyd was a participant in what went down on the bandstand. Like one evening when S.P. Leary didn’t quite return to the stage on time after Muddy Waters and the rest of his band came back from a break.
“Muddy said, ‘Anybody out there play drums? I don’t have a drummer.’ And so I walked on stage, sat down and started playing. Muddy said, ‘Keep that beat going! You make Muddy feel good.’ So I played until S.P. decided that his break was over,” Aykroyd said.
While he was definitely interested in playing music when he could, the actual idea of a career as a musician as opposed to being an actor and comedian never really intrigued Aykroyd for very long. But the ability to play some tunes did come in handy, starting with when he was a member of Chicago’s iconic improvisational comedy troupe, Second City.
“Music was always a component of Second City. We’d improvise songs and then we’d do a country parody or a rock parody, a Kiss parody, things like that. We always had great piano players and composers working with us and helping us develop our musical chops,” he said. “But really music only became largely important when John and I came up with the idea to do the record (Briefcase Full of Blues) and sort of had to step in and become actors who were playing blues musicians. We were actors who had to portray blues musicians, but that’s something that’s been done since, spectacularly by Jamie Foxx in the movie, Ray. And it was beautifully done by Beyonce as Etta James in Cadillac Records. So you can have actors that don’t start out as dancers, singers and players step into the roles. Belushi and I, with the training we had and with the band we had behind us, were able to step into those roles and pull it off.”
And as Duck Dunn so eloquently uttered in The Blues Brothers movie, the band that Belushi and Aykroyd had behind them was indeed ‘Powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline.’
“The Blues Brothers came off as a genuine article because we had (Steve) Cropper and Dunn and Matt Murphy – those three magnificent Memphis guitar players. Murphy played with James Cotton and Duck and Steve played on all those Stax/Volt records. That combination was a powerhouse that was not to be duplicated, a Chicago/Memphis fusion band. That’s what the Blues Brothers was and that’s what really made it work. They added legitimacy to our enterprise. It was like they were saying to John and I, ‘We know you’re doing the right thing in recognizing those that have gone before,’” Aykroyd said. “And of course, we had the greatest horn section on the planet: Tom Malone, Lou Marini, Alan Rubin … just incredible. You walk in the door with some really incredible players like that and that gives you instant credibility.”
In the summer of 1979, it was next to impossible to flip on the radio for more than a few minutes before the Blues Brothers’ version of the Sam & Dave classic, “Soul Man” came bursting out of the speakers. The tune quickly found its way into the Top 20.
“When the first album was coming out, Duck Dunn said, ‘You’ve got to put a soul song on this record. It can’t just be a blues record, because a blues record is just not going to sell the way you want it to and it’s not going to reach the audience you want. You’ve got to contemporize it.’ So we did “Soul Man.” And we released the record at a time in American music when there was a desert, a lull, a void. You had disco dying and you had punk and new wave being born,” Aykroyd said. “So we hit with that nostalgic version of “Soul Man” and all the other great blues gems on that record. But “Soul Man” really led the way with a song that people hadn’t heard in a while. It was just the perfect time, what with the void in music at that time, to release it.”
Briefcase Full of Blues turned out to be a smash hit, selling over three-and-a-half million copies. It also led to a memorable concert tour, with one unforgettable stop happening along the way.
Picture the scene – New Year’s Eve 1978 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. It’s closing night at the fabled venue and the Blues Brothers Show Band and Revue is on stage in front of a jam-packed house, kicking off the night’s festivities with New Riders of the Purple Sage and The Grateful Dead set to follow.
Elwood Blues grabs his harp, places it next to his mouth and ..
“As I was doing a solo on my harmonica, I discovered that I was swallowing the instrument. I realized at that point that I had been dosed,” Aykroyd said. “I had a beer about 15 minutes before going on stage and someone had put an LSD tablet into my beer and I had consumed it. It turns out the whole band had been dosed, even those that didn’t want it. It was blues on acid that night.”
Sounds like a typical late-70s New Year’s Eve in San Francisco.
“It was the full Grateful Dead scene. Bill Graham (the late, great rock impresario) came down as Baby New Year and riding an 8-foot-long marijuana joint, throwing joints into the crowd,” Aykroyd said. “We ended up having a spectacular, spectacular performance and then I remember taking off my blues suit and putting on my civilian clothes and walking out into the audience and watching the Dead set from the audience, which was really fun.”
Grateful Dead-spiked misadventures aside, Aykroyd and Belushi knew that the Blues Brothers were just what the record-buying public needed as it was practically starving for anything with some real substance to it.
“Based on the way the record sold, we knew we were doing something that people liked. And from that grew the idea for the movie. We knew from the receipt of our record and the tour that this was something that was cleaning out America’s ears, cleaning the ears of disco and getting it ready for something fresh,” Aykroyd.
A highpoint of that ‘getting it ready for something fresh’ has to be the 1980 big screen extravaganza, The Blues Brothers.
Part comedy, part action flick, part ‘how the heck did they survive a bazooka blast?’ and part musical, The Blues Brothers remains an unconventional work of art, one that will never be duplicated. The flick is chock full of great tunes and great performances, but something that should not be overlooked is the movie’s casting. James Brown, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway and Aretha Franklin all played roles in The Blues Brothers and all of their careers received a nice upward spike because of the movie.
So was that part of the grand scheme?
“Well, we really just wanted those big, giant blues stars in the movie and we knew that they could perform. Cab Calloway was an actor and was in a lot of movies. Ray Charles had no problems doing the lines and James Brown was just a natural. So we specifically wanted those stars in the movie, playing facsimiles of themselves.”
Though Belushi long ago went to that great bandstand in the sky, the Blues Brothers still live on and can be caught from time-to-time laying down the real, deal rhythm and blues.
“I play today with John’s brother, Jimmy, and we do the Blues Brothers Legacy show. It’s Elwood and brother Zee. We still clean the ears of our audiences when we play. That’s what we do, we provide an audio cleansing service, playing songs written prior to 1970 from the African/American songbook,” Aykroyd said. “It’s such a pleasure and such fun to play with these guys. We’re an active, commercial touring blues band that brings a very unique and special caliber of musicianship by virtue of our players. We’ve got Johnny Lee Schell, who used to play with Bonnie Raitt; Jimmy Wood, who used to play with his band the Imperial Crowns and has recorded with Mick Jagger; Little Johnny Taylor’s daughter, Tasha, sometimes plays with us; and we have Tony Braunagel on drums. Then Jimmy and I bring the classic style of front-man showmanship, perhaps not the musicianship of those behind us, but we do bring a showmanship to things.”
Clearly there is a separation between the character of Elwood Blues and its creator, Dan Aykroyd. However, occasionally that separation blurs and the two do share a bit of equal space.
“The reclusiveness and taciturn side, the motor-head side. That’s the parts of Elwood that I’m most like,” Aykroyd said. “That and in the absolute devotion and love and service for the greats of the blues.”
He still devotes a percentage of his time to the big screen and filming recently wrapped in Mississippi on the James Brown bio-pic Get On Up, and the movie, set for an early August release, features Aykroyd as Ben Bart, president of talent agency Universal Attractions.
“It’s packed with great music and a great story and Chad Boseman (the actor that played Jackie Robinson in 42) is the star and there are times in the movie when he’s identical to James in voice and the way he walked,” said Aykroyd. “I knew James well and this actor has him down cold, or should I say hot; “Cold Sweat” and hot performances.”
Aykroyd helped cast JB in a couple of his movie projects – The Blues Brothers and Doctor Detroit – but his connection to The Hardest Working Man in Show Business easily pre-dates the 1980s.
“As a kid, I saw James Brown at the Esquire Show Bar in Montreal and it was this spectacular, intimate venue where the stage joined with the bar, so a bartender would be serving his patrons as the performers skipped by on the bar between them. So I got to see James Brown’s heels click down the bar and back in front of my beer. That’s how close I was to him. And that first experience made me a lifelong follower and fan of James. I really didn’t have a chance to see him live again until we started opening the House of Blues clubs. He ended up opening five House of Blues clubs for me and so I got to see him five times and got to bring my mom and dad and children and those were very special times. I got to jam with him and dance with him on stage.”
That made Aykroyd’s decision to be involved with Get On Up a virtual no-brainer.
“When I was asked to participate in the bio-pic, it just seemed fitting and right that I should take the opportunity to be a part of telling his great story. I felt because I knew James that I could bring something to it – something like a bit of knowledge and truth – that might help the production,” he said. “I felt it was important to help uphold his legacy as such a committed performer, one that truly, truly loved his audiences.”
Another performer who really loves his audiences and still gives it his all every time his boots touch the stage is Hall of Famer Lonnie Brooks. Late last year, Aykroyd returned to the Windy City to help celebrate the legend’s 80th birthday with an all-star shindig at the House of Blues.
“We had Lil’ Ed on stage and two members of the Kinsey Report, we had Otis Clay – whose voice sounds like it’s 19-years-old – we had a really, really tremendous array of talent,” Aykroyd said. “I first got turned on to Lonnie Brooks in the 80s when I was in Chicago, making The Blues Brothers and then Doctor Detroit. I saw him often at Wise Fool’s and Kingston Mines and at Buddy’s old Checkerboard Lounge – the original – and at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted. He always wore that cowboy hat, which was cool. He was like, ‘I ain’t wearing no fedora, I ain’t wearing no sunglasses, I’m wearing a cowboy hat. I’m Lonnie Brooks, man!’ That night was just so much fun.”
In addition to all the other balls that he juggles on a daily basis, Aykroyd is also involved in Crystal Head Vodka, an additive-free vodka that has its origins in the legend of the 13 crystal skulls. Its human skull-shaped decanter helps it stand out from the rest of the pack on beverage store shelves, but its composition is really what Crystal Head is all about.
“Unlike many bluesmen and blueswomen, I don’t have a problem consuming beverage alcohol. I’m fortunate and can do so in moderation. That’s enabled me to sample and taste a lot of beverages and I didn’t like the thick viscosity in a lot of vodkas. So I researched and found all the additives that they put in vodka,” he said. “My friends and I ended up brewing up a batch of vodka in Newfoundland, Canada, using aquifer water from the original ice-age glacier and peaches and cream corn. We didn’t put any additives into it and it is winning awards all over the world. The Russians love it and voted it excellent taste out of 400 beverages, so I’m vindicated there. It’s great, no-sweet, vanilla, dry, crisp with a kick of heat off the finish. It’s selling well because people like something green and clean. They’re responding well to the no additives.”
If by chance a spaceship from another planet (Remulak) made its way to Earth and the occupants of said ship (Beldar, Prymaat and Connie) were ready to consume mass quantities of blues music, but did not know where to start, which CD would Dan Aykroyd hand to the Coneheads as a shining example of the genre?
“That’s a tough one, but I think I would probably play for them Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues (Delmark Records). It’s just so eerie and weird and spooky and the guitar on there is just incredible. That’s blues at its peak,” he said. “And then I would make them (Coneheads) go and see a Bobby Rush show.”
Take a ride on Elwood’s Bluesmobile at www.thebluesmobile.com
Photos by John Hahn © 2014