Our Forgotten Guitar Hero, Michael Bloomfield
Editor’s Note: Michael Bloomfield would have turned 76 today. Here’s a look back at the life of the Jewish guitar legend.
Back in 1977, Michael Bloomfield, the seminal white blues guitarist from Chicago who studied at the feet of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, took to the stage for a performance at the intimate McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California. Late in the show, letting his three accompanists sit out for the moment, he began picking out a halting blues pattern on his guitar. Then, after setting the tone with an extended introduction, he leaned into the microphone to sing, “I’m glad I’m Jewish, I’m glad I’m Jewish, Hebrew to the bone, Lord, Lord, Lord.”
The small audience responded to Bloomfield’s mirthful smile with chuckles of their own, as the man whom some consider one of the best blues artists of all time — of any race or ethnicity — sang about how being Jewish “kept me strong all my life.”
But there was no irony intended in his lyrics. The moment, captured on film, is part of “Sweet Blues: A Film About Michael Bloomfield,” a documentary on DVD that is included in a box set of music encompassing Bloomfield’s hugely influential but unsung career.
“He considered himself a Jewish man, and he was proud of it,” said film director Bob Sarles, the documentarian who produced the film for the music collection, “From His Head to His Heart to His Hands.” “He respected that those were his roots, and he embraced it.”
The box set was produced by Bloomfield’s good friend and collaborator Al Kooper, who founded the rock-soul band Blood, Sweat & Tears. Together, Kooper and Sarles hope to give the Jewish bluesman the legacy they feel he deserves.
That legacy is an indelible part of the 1960s, even for those who don’t know his name. It is Bloomfield’s guitar that is heard on Bob Dylan’s mega-hit, “Like a Rolling Stone,” and on “Highway 61 Revisited,” the album wherein he went electric, transforming both his own career and the decade itself. Bloomfield’s recordings with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag, are also heard here. Bloomfield worked with Kooper on the Moby Grape album “Grape Jam,” and the two collaborated on the “Super Session” studio album and its sequel, “The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper,” before Bloomfield launched his solo career.
But all of that promise came to an end when Bloomfield died on February 15, 1981, at the age of 37, from a drug overdose in San Francisco.
“He was just special,” said Kooper, who first met Bloomfield during the Dylan sessions, on which Kooper played organ. “As a guitarist he did things that other people couldn’t — especially white, Jewish ones. He was just a very unique player, with his own sound and his own take on the blues.”
For Sarles, Bloomfield was “one of the main, key linchpins” in the blues-rock movement that began during the mid-1960s and remains a vital and vibrant synthesis today.
“When people tell the [blues-rock] story, they often talk about the British bands, like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Cream, Fleetwood Mac and those guys — and that’s true,” Sarles said. “The difference is that those cats learned the music off of records, and Michael learned it at the feet of the originators on the South Side Chicago and then brought it into the [rock] world from there.”
Born July 28, 1943, Bloomfield was hardly a likely candidate to be that crucial bridge between blues and rock. His father, Harold Bloomfield, operated Bloomfield Industries, a restaurant supply firm that ensured the family a life of prosperity. “I’m not born to the blues,” Bloomfield said during an interview at a Newport Folk Festival during the mid-60s. “It’s not in my blood, in my roots or my family. I’m Jewish. I’ve been Jewish for years. I’m not Son House. I haven’t been pissed on or stepped on or shitted on like he has. I haven’t gone through that. Man, my father’s a multimillionaire. I lived a rich, fat, happy life. I had a big bar mitzvah, y’know?”
Yet Bloomfield, a high school rebel, found himself in the blues — which he called “a mystic thing” — and in the musicians who played it. He got his first guitar from his grandfather’s pawnshop. A natural southpaw, he nevertheless taught himself how to play right-handed. He began frequenting the South Side’s blues clubs, of course drawing attention for both his age and his color. But his sincere appetite for the music won over musicians and patrons alike. He began playing with the likes of Muddy Waters, who referred to Bloomfield as his “son” — Howlin’ Wolf, Sleepy John Estes, Big Joe Williams and others.
“The history of the Jews is, they’re a downtrodden people who have been not really respected in all the societies they’ve been ultimately thrown out of,” Sarles explained. “I think Michael embraced the story of the Jews as a way to relate to the black culture. He saw the similarities, but he knew the differences, too.”
In Sarles’s view, the older generation of black Chicago bluesmen “adopted Michael, in a sense, as the next generation because they saw his talent and they saw his passion for this [music], and the color thing went away. He became one of them and spent his formative years down in that neighborhood and learned from the source.”
But Bloomfield didn’t remain an oddity or a secret for long. John Hammond, the Columbia Records executive who launched the careers of Dylan, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and many others, discovered Bloomfield and brought him to New York to audition for the label. (The tapes from that audition kick off the “From His Head” box set.) But Bloomfield eschewed a solo career at that point to become part of the Butterfield band — the audacious mixed-race ensemble of young black and white blues musicians that stormed out of Chicago’s South Side after their tutelage under Waters and Wolf.
In 1965, Dylan, whom Bloomfield had first met at a Chicago folk club, recruited the white guitarist and some other members of the Butterfield band, along with Kooper, to back him up for his live debut going electric before a shocked crowd of folkies at that summer’s Newport Folk Festival. In Sarles’s film, Dylan recalls Bloomfield as “the greatest guitar player I’ve ever heard.”
The July Newport appearance took place in between the two recording sessions during the summer that produced “Highway 61 Revisited.”
“[Bloomfield] was in an untoward position because everybody else in the session knew each other, and he was the odd guy out,” remembered Kooper, who played keyboards on those sessions. Kooper had actually expected to play guitar on the album, but he quietly moved to keyboards, intimidated, after hearing Bloomfield warming up.
“I think Dylan had asked him to take charge, which [Bloomfield] wasn’t particularly comfortable with,” Kooper recalled. “But it just worked. It was a very strange session, but as the week went on, everybody was comfortable and it was better.”
Bloomfield also played some shows with Dylan beyond the controversial Newport performance. He was offered the opportunity to become the bard’s regular guitarist, but he opted to devote himself instead to the Butterfield band. That marked the beginning of a shiftless pattern by a man whose ferocious talent was tied to a personality intensely resistant to fame. Bloomfield would leave and join bands on a whim, and sometimes abandon projects with no notice and seemingly no cause.
He left “Super Session” after the first day of recording in May 1968, forcing Kooper to recruit Stephen Stills. He did the same thing during “The Live Adventures” shows four months later. A then-unknown guitarist named Carlos Santana filled his spot.
“He had his faults like everybody else — except his were bizarre,” Kooper recalled. “His toleration wasn’t the same as everybody else’s. But with unique people you have to give them some space because they’re different, and those differences are what make them so special.”
In his personal life, Bloomfield battled crippling demons: intense insomnia (“He wouldn’t get any sleep,” Kooper recalled) and heroin addiction that at times robbed him of both his ability and his desire to play. “Shooting junk made everything else unimportant, null and void, nolo contendere,” he said at one point. “My playing fell apart. I just didn’t want to play.”
Even as his addiction deepened, however, Bloomfield did have productive periods. He recorded eight solo albums during his lifetime, and collaborated with onetime Electric Flag bandmate Barry Goldberg on “Two Jews Blues” in 1969 and with Dr. John and John Hammond Jr. on the ” “Triumvirate“ album in 1973. He formed the short-lived “supergroup” KGB, with Goldberg, Rick Grech and Carmine Appice, in 1974. The following year he played on John Cale’s soundtrack for the film “Caged Heat.”
“Michael didn’t really want to be a rock star,” Sarles explained. “He was really into the music. When he found himself in this rock star treadmill, he would just escape it.”
The documentarian added that a modest trust from his family allowed Bloomfield to follow his music. “His rent was paid,” Sarles said. “He had the freedom to walk away from it if he wanted to. If he smelled it being a scam or a shuck or a showbiz thing, he would walk away from that.”
As a result, “He kind of walked away from his career,” Sarles said. “He was always doing music, but he walked away from the rock star thing” — though Bloomfield did return to it, momentarily, for a one-off performance with Dylan during 1980 at the Warfield Theater. in Los Angeles.
Sarles is hoping that the inclusion of “Sweet Blues” in the “From His Head…” collection will help him expand the film, which he’s been working on loosely since the mid-1980s.
“There are a couple choice performance clips I was not able to afford for this version, and there are a lot of wonderful testimonials and great stories that did not make it in,” he said. “At some point I’ll put all this stuff on the Internet if we can’t do the [full] film, but I definitely want to give a fuller, more complete view of Michael and his life.”
Kooper is all for that. But he stresses that the music itself is the best way for anyone to get to know Bloomfield.
“I really was trying to educate someone who didn’t know much about [Bloomfield],” he said. “There are a lot of people out there who grew up with it and understand it and all that. I’m not trying to get sales from them. I wanted younger people to hear it, people who think Kenny Wayne Shepherd is the end of the world.”
Gary Graff is a Detroit-based author, journalist and music critic. His work regularly appears in Billboard, Revolver and The New York Times Feature syndicate.