David Dann – Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield’s Life In The Blues
Younger blues fans have probably heard the name Michael Bloomfield at some point, but fail to understand the his place in the pantheon of blues guitar players. Almost four decades after his passing, his name is rarely mentioned and his legacy has , for many, faded into the mists of time. Yet there have been two biographies about Bloomfield. The first, Ed Ward’s Michael Bloomfield: The Rise And Fall Of An American Guitar Hero, was published on a limited basis in 1983, then updated in an expanded edition released in 2016. The second title, Michael Bloomfield – If You Love These Blues: An Oral History by Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenom, saw the light of day in 2000, with interview segments from Bloomfield and his contemporaries used to tell his story.
Now author David Dann takes his turn at tracing Bloomfield’s life and career in music, in addition to reaffirming the guitarist’s standing as a “Guitar King” by taking in-depth looks at those moments when Bloomfield was involved in music that changed the world. At 740 pages, his biography stretches well beyond the combined total of the preceding two titles. Fortunately, Dann quickly establishes that he is a skilled storyteller. Despite his extensive research – the “Notes” section runs fifty pages – he never allows the story to get bogged down in the details. Holding a reader’s interest through hundreds of pages is a daunting task in a work of non-fiction, but Dann keeps the story flowing in a way that steadily helps readers develop a truer sense of Bloomfield the artist, and the person.
The first two chapters quickly deal with Bloomfield’s early years in the Chicago suburbs, where he was smitten first by rock ‘n’ roll records on the radio before falling under the spell of blues tunes heard late at night on his transistor radio. His parents bought him a guitar at age thirteen, and it took over his life with a passion that had been missing up to that point. Music further separated Bloomfield from his father, a successful businessman who envisioned that his oldest son would join him in running his company. But the budding guitarist spent most free moments practicing when he wasn’t making trips to Chicago to hear the blues greats in clubs scattered throughout the city.
Two chapters in, Dann has already progressed to 1961, leaving over 600 pages to cover the final twenty years that Bloomfield walked the earth. The chronicle moves from playing the folk clubs on Chicago’s North side through his friendship with Big Joe Williams and on to his band’s tenure at Big John’s, a noted club in the Old Town area. Already the guitarist is experimenting with drugs, partly to cope with insomnia issues. And he has fallen in love, marrying Susan Beuhler but keeping their union a secret from their parents. His first big break comes when his manager is able to generate interest from noted producer John Hammond , who first heard of Bloomfield from his son, John Hammond Jr., the famous blues singer.
The arc of Bloomfield’s career picks up speed once he officially becomes a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, an integrated group that quickly proved that the white members could play music every bit as tough as what was heard in clubs on Chicago’s South and West sides. The author really shines when he tackles the band’s second release, East-West, going into detail on the unique modal tuning at the center of several tracks. Dann offers in-depth analysis of the title cut, giving readers a deeper understanding of what made the track so unique at the time. Due to their rising popularity, the band was now on the road touring constantly, which created more issues for Bloomfield, who had to self-medicate to deal with the effects of his rampant insomnia.
Another portion of the book looks at Bloomfield’s relationship with Bob Dylan. When they first met after the folksinger did a performance at a Chicago venue, Dylan was quickly captivated by the high-energy style of Bloomfield, as well as his amazing knowledge of the first generation of blues performers, many of whom were also favorites of his own. Later Dylan enlists the guitarist help on recording sessions for his his upcoming project, Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan wants to change his approach, looking to adopt a harder-edged amplified sound, and figures Bloomfield is just the man to help accomplish that goal. As Bloomfield relates, “So we get to the session. I don’t know anything about it. All these studio cats are standing around. I come in like a dumb punk with a guitar over my back, no case, and I’m telling people about this and that, and this is the arrangement, and do this on the bridge. These are like the heaviest studio musicians in New York. They looked at me like I was crazy”.
Despite the rough start, Bloomfield’s contributions helped Dylan move his music forward. The change was finalized once and for all at the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival. As a long-time supporter of the event, Butterfield’s manager, Albert Grossman, was able to get the Butterfield Band added to the line-up. Their presence gave Bloomfield the opportunity to put together an electrified band to back Dylan for performance at the event. Much has been written about this watershed moment in the history of American roots music. Suffice to say that more than a few attendees were stunned by the wall of sound surrounding Dylan’s songs, driven by Bloomfield’s fierce fretwork at a high volume setting. There was greater acceptance for the guitarist’s efforts with the Butterfield Band, who garnered a host of new fans, many of whom were hearing Chicago blues for the first time.
Just twenty-two years old, Bloomfield had already solidified a lasting place in history for his associations with Dylan and Butterfield. The latter affiliation came to an end after an exhausting tour of England, after which the guitarist had had enough. He did meet the reigning king of British blues guitarists, Eric Clapton, and heard him play with Cream. Bloomfield walked away impressed with the rich tone that Clapton got from his Gibson Les Paul Sunburst, starting a quest to secure one for himself. Back home, he was planning a new venture with his long-time friend, singer Nick Gravenites, and working on the soundtrack for the Peter Fonda feature film, The Trip. Originally referred to as the American Music Band, the group featured a horn-driven approach that mixed blues, soul, and rock into a tight package fueled by Bloomfield’s guitar and their powerhouse drummer and vocalist, Buddy Miles. Eventually their name was changed to Electric Flag, and they tore it up at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, only to be overshadowed by later historic performances by Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company plus a new artist on the scene by the name of Jimi Hendrix, who literally set the stage on fire.
But Bloomfield soon tired of the grind of running a band, so he once again trotted off to the sidelines. But fate was not done with him. An invitation from a friend from the Dylan sessions, keyboardist Al Kooper, got him back in the studio for a “jam session” that Kooper felt could finally showcase Bloomfield’s talents as a blues player. It worked for the first day. But then Bloomfield’s demons got the best of him, and he headed back home without telling anyone. Kooper has to make a series of phone calls to find a replacement on guitar, finally connecting with Steven Stills. Despite the chaos, the resulting album, Super Session, hit #12 on the Billboard charts and was awarded Gold Record status. That meant that Bloomfield was once again faced with pressure to go back on the road to capitalize on the album’s popularity. His reluctance to tour simply couldn’t be overcome, although his financial debts with Grossman meant that he would make infrequent attempts to satisfy the manager and his fans.
As chronicled by Dunn, Bloomfield spent most of the last twelve years making music for himself, some acoustic, and some plugged in but without the same fierce, biting approach that had made him a star not that many years before. Some of the later recordings have tunes with Bloomfield on piano, showing that he also knew his way around the keyboard. He had an engaging vocal style and a humorous nature that came together on performances like “I’M Glad I’m Jewish,” from a 1977 show at McCabe’s. He enjoyed making music with his friends in low-key environments, far from the bright lights of the big stage. His feelings were summed up in comments he made in 1971 interview, stating “All of a sudden I realized it was the name that was being sold, the hype was being sold. Cats were applauding the idolatry……And sometimes it got very confused with quality and non-quality. Man, this seemed like a very jive thing to me at that time, and it still does”.
Despite his retreat from the spotlight, Bloomfield continued to suffer from his anxieties, magnified by the insomnia and his tenuous financial situation. Efforts to break free from the weight of drug addiction seemed to be working until one evening in February, 1981, when the unresponsive guitarist is found slumped over in his sedan. The author offers some theories as to what may have happened in the hours before his death, and also who may have been responsible for supplying the fatal dose.
No matter how much knowledge you may already have about Michael Bloomfield, reading Dann’s biography will certainly add multiple layers of understanding about his life and the extent of his influence on the lineage of blues guitar playing. Included are twenty-four pages of black & white photos, two pagers of resources for further study, and a two page listing of Bloomfield’s recordings on LP and subsequent CD issues. It all adds up to magnificent tribute to a man who undoubtedly was a “Guitar King,” making this book a highly recommended addition to any musical library!