THE AUTHOR'S CUT

This website is a supplement to Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues, a biography of America's first great blues-rock guitarist. Certain passages were necessarily omitted from the book's nearly 800 pages, due to space limitations. But those passages are offered here as a digital appendix.

'GUITAR KING' BONUS PAGES

MUSIC MAD

Chuck Berry and On the Road

1958 | By David Dann, supplemental to Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues

Chuck Berry, one of Michael Bloomfield's rock 'n' roll heroes, came to Chicago in April 1958 with an Alan Freed revue. Bloomfield attened the show and was thrilled by Berry's performance. vintag.es photoIN APRIL, MICHAEL GOT his first chance to see some of the rock ’n’ roll stars he heard every night on his transistor radio and whose records were some of his prized possessions. A full-page ad in the paper announced that on the last Saturday of the month promoter and disc jockey Alan Freed was bringing one of his reviews to the Loop. Featured acts were to include Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Diamonds, the Shirelles and one of Michael’s favorites – guitarist Chuck Berry. Mike was excited, and he enlisted Bob Greenspan and another friend to go with him to the concert.

The night of the show, the boys caught a train into Chicago and made their way to the Civic Opera House on North Wacker Drive. A huge auditorium originally built for performances by the city’s opera company, the Opera House had begun to offer jazz and pop shows by the mid-fifties. It could hold an audience of 3,500, and that evening it was filled. Mike and his friends found their seats on the main floor and surveyed the crowd. Everyone in the auditorium was charged up by the prospect of seeing some of the biggest names in rock ’n’ roll.

Once the show got started, the audience grew more and more animated. Alan Freed introduced each succeeding act with DJ patter calculated to pump up the excitement. It reached a fever pitch when the guitarist from St. Louis came out on stage.

“The set-up of the place was like the seating in a movie theater – you had the seats, then an orchestra pit, and then the stage,” Bob Greenspan recalled. “Well, Chuck Berry was in the middle of one of his songs and Bloomfield and several other people ran down into the orchestra pit. Chuck started doing his duck walk and Bloomfield jumped right up and tried to grab him by the leg. In his enthusiasm, he tried to literally tackle Chuck Berry!”

With his hyperactive nature, Michael had gotten carried away by Berry’s performance. All he could think to do was make contact with one of his idols. Bob was impressed.

“It took a certain amount of guts to do that,” Greenspan recalled. “He could do it because he was somewhat outrageous, really hyper in his enthusiasm!” (1)

Seeing Chuck Berry in person made Michael more determined than ever to master his instrument. He could do many of Berry’s lead lines and he could play like Scotty Moore or Cliff Gallup, but he also wanted to learn to play like Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Michael knew his guitar teacher, Tony Tenaglia, wasn’t going to teach him those styles. He’d learned the chords to all of the tunes he and Tony would practice, and he’d mastered the scales and progressions in the books the teacher had given him. But by 1958, Michael’s lessons with Tony Tenaglia were winding down.

In one of their last lessons, Mike told Tony he was also eager to play in public, to see if he could play in a band. As a parting gesture, Tony introduced him to some friends who had a working pop music combo. It was an unusual group – and not exactly the sort of band Michael had in mind – but he soon became its guitarist.

“When I was fourteen years old, I was in a very strange band,” Michael wrote many years later. “There were three other guys in it – two played accordion, one played drums. Their names were Gary Fox, Tony DeFalco and Palmer Gevirtz.” (2)

Gevirtz was the senior member of the group; at 46, he seemed impossibly old to Michael. He and the other band members drank and smoked while they worked, and they treated Mike as an equal. They performed at weddings, anniversary parties and social functions, playing an endless stream of chestnuts like “Lisbon Antigua,” “The Poor People of Paris,” “Moonglow,” “The Bunny Hop” and “Kiss of Fire.” Though Michael only comped along, playing rhythm chords from lead charts, he was delighted to be working with them. It was his first experience playing music in an adult environment.

1958 Gibson ES-175To play with Gevirtz’s group, though, Michael couldn’t use his acoustic Harmony. He needed an electric guitar to be heard over the drums. His teacher, Tony Tenaglia, had a top-of-the-line Gibson electric that he occasionally let Michael play. It was a jet-black Les Paul Custom model, a guitar that had been nicknamed the “fretless wonder” because of its low action. But none of the guitar players that Mike admired played a Custom, and he wanted a guitar like his heroes used. He decided he would get a mid-line Gibson, a fat-bodied ES-175 with two pick-ups and a single cutaway. It looked just like the instrument Elvis’s guitarist, Scotty Moore, played.

But it cost nearly $200. And it needed an amplifier. How was 14-year-old Mike Bloomfield going to raise that kind of money?

Luck came to the rescue. One evening, Michael joined a poker game that his father, Harold, and a few business friends were holding. After a few hands the cards began to go his way, and by the time Mike left the table he had won all of $500.

“That amount bought one heck of a good instrument a half-century ago,” wrote Michael’s Sunday school teacher, Harriet Gross. (3) She was folk music enthusiast and an occasional performer with her husband in coffee houses around the North Shore. She frequently took Michael along when they’d go to hear music, and the boy told her about his luck at cards and his intention to get a real guitar. But first he had to convince his parents, he said.

Harriet took up the cause. She recalled advising Mrs. Bloomfield to allow her son to spend the money on the new guitar. Dottie was apprehensive about such a purchase because an electric instrument was likely to be loud, and loud music was not going to improve the mood in the Greenleaf Avenue household. But Harriet was resolute.

“I said it was his money,” Gross recollected. (4)

Dottie eventually relented, and Michael bought the ES-175 and got a matching Gibson GA 20T amplifier to go with it. He’d strap on the big-box instrument and admire himself in the mirror, believing for just a moment that he really was that lanky, rebellious, pompadoured hillbilly rock ’n’ roll singer he so desperately wanted to be.

It came as no surprise that Harold Bloomfield was not pleased with his son’s hefty investment. But he liked the idea that Michael wanted the instrument so he could play with a group of adults – and he also liked that the teenager would be paid for his services. The music the combo played was the kind that Harold understood and appreciated, a fact that also worked in Michael’s favor. Mr. Bloomfield was not particularly musical himself, but he could play piano a little and he very much enjoyed the show tunes and musicals of the day. “Oklahoma” was a particular favorite around the Bloomfield household.

Mike knew his dad’s tastes and saw a chance to gain his father’s approval, if only for a moment. One afternoon, he set up his amplifier on the veranda outside his parents’ bedroom, plugged in his new guitar and ran through every show tune and standard that he knew his dad liked. As he’d hoped, Harold was delighted – and quite impressed.

“Mike was playing all these show tunes, like from the ‘Hit Parade’ – just a kid playing for his pop. Dad knew then that he had real talent,” Allen said. (5)

With his dad’s tacit approval, Michael began working with Palmer Gevirtz’s combo. While he was not playing music he especially liked, Mike enjoyed being with working musicians – and being accepted by them. With their guidance, he began to understand how to blend in musically and how to accompany. The experience proved invaluable, and so did another that band member Tony DeFalco called to tell Michael of one afternoon.

“We’re going on the road, boychik,” said DeFalco over the phone. (6)

Palmer Gevirtz informed the group that they would be playing at a “resort” in the western part of the state. The Bloomfields trusted the band leader because, as Michael put it, “he was Jewish and real old,” and they readily gave permission for their son to go on the trip. It would be Michael’s first time away from home entirely on his own.

Heading west on Rte. 17, outside of Kankakee, IL, in the late 1950s. wikimedia.org photoThe quartet loaded themselves and their equipment into Gewirtz’s car and drove for many hours across the flat expanse of Illinois. Eventually they arrived up at a summer camp far out in the western countryside, accessible off the main highway only by a long, rutted dirt road. It was shortly after they began to set up on a small outdoor bandstand that Michael realized the camp was no ordinary summer facility. The quartet had been hired to perform at an institution for mentally and physically challenged adolescents and adults.

The camp’s inmates suffered from a host of debilitating maladies, but they thoroughly enjoyed the band’s music during the several days the group performed. The adult members of the quartet took it all in stride, but 14-year-old Michael was frightened by the increasingly chaotic exuberance of the audience.

On the final day, a huge picnic was held for the patients, their family members and the camp staff. It was followed by a wild dance party, music courtesy of the Palmer Gevirtz accordion combo. As the afternoon wore on, the celebration got completely out of hand.

“They were getting more and more into it and finally rushed the stage and started climbing up. One chap … knocked my amp over. Some started singing and dancing right where we were playing,” Mike said. “I went and hid in the car.”

The band was well paid for its performances and made it back to Glencoe without incident, but for Michael it would be the first of many difficult road experiences. Many years later he came to see a humorous side to his first “road gig” and wrote about it in broadly comic terms. But the trip effectively ended his relationship with the accordion combo.

“Shortly thereafter, I quit the band and got another job. That one was with Little George’s Polka Teens, way out on Milwaukee Avenue, where everyone spoke Polish and nobody spoke English. I played four-string banjo.” (7)

Mike Bloomfield was clearly willing to play with any group that would have him.

NOTES

1. Bob Greenspan interview with Bill Keenom, 1996

2. Michael Bloomfield, letter to friend, 1980, shared with author

3. Harriet Gross, email to author, 2008

4. Ibid

5. Allen Bloomfield, author interview, 6/12/2008

6. Michael Bloomfield, letter to friend, 1980, shared with author

7. Ibid

HOTSHOT

Gigging with Michael

1959 | By David Dann, supplemental to Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues

Michael Bloomfield jams at the Maxwell Street market in 1963. George Mitchell photoBY HIS SIXTEENTH BIRTHDAY, Mike Bloomfield wanted only to play music, and he took every opportunity to hone his skill in groups of any and all sorts. He made music with fellow New Trier students, he made music with kids he met from other schools and – whenever possible – he played music with professionals like those he met on Rush Street. It was in a setting of the latter sort that another high school guitarist first encountered Bloomfield.

Michael “Mick” Weiser, a student at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago’s Rogers Park, was also playing regularly with a group. His band had a steady gig performing two nights a week at a recently-opened coffee house called It’s Here on Sheridan Road near Loyola University in the city. On one Sunday afternoon, Weiser arrived at the club and found they were holding auditions. He was stunned by the band he saw on the stage.

“I saw this young kid up there – he had this professional jazz band playing behind him. He had a black bass player and drummer, and a white pianist and trumpet player,” Weiser said later. “He was doing all this Barney Kessel shit, and he was blowing me away!” (1)

Mike was on stage playing with his friend Ace Cathcart and one of the adult bands that Cathcart occasionally worked with. Bloomfield had played at the coffee house before, in a trio with Gerry Pasternack and his cousin Chuck Bloomfield. They had performed at the venue during its inaugural weekend. Now Michael was back, this time playing jazz. For him, it was just another opportunity to perform in public, a chance to revisit some of the tunes he’d played with his teacher, Tony Tenaglia, and with Palmer Gevirtz’s accordion quartet. But for Weiser, it was an eye-opening experience. At the break, he sought Mike out.

“It was very unusual at the time to see a white guy playing with blacks, and Mike said he loved blues,” Mick remembered. “I played blues, too, so we decided to get together.” (2)

The two guitarists met several times in the summer of 1959 and – as was Bloomfield’s wont – decided to form a band. “We played really off-the-wall Elvis tunes – ‘Mystery Train,’ ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy,’ lots of Sun Records stuff,” said Weiser. (3) They worked occasionally at different venues, but Michael was going in so many directions and was so preoccupied by everything he was hearing that it was often hard for Mick to pin him down.

“Michael was always off on his own, you never knew where he was. Working with him on a regular basis was tough,” acknowledged Weiser. (4) Even so, the boys had some memorable gigs.

“Once we played a battle of the bands at a Jewish Community Center and he blew everybody away,” he said. (5) During the break, Michael told Mick that he was going to crawl under the stage with his amplifier and, when the next band came up, play loud and off key. That way he’d ensure a win for their band. Of course, they won anyway, even without Bloomfield’s off-stage assist.

Despite their shared musical tastes, the guitarists were sometimes at odds. Weiser was used to working in a formal group and familiar with the discipline that required. Michael’s was a more casual approach, and occasionally he’d excuse his organizational shortcomings with boasts about his musical abilities.

“Mike would claim he could play a thousand notes a minute. He was an ego-maniac!” Mick said with a laugh. Weiser shared Mike Melford’s opinion regarding Bloomfield’s immodest attitude. “A couple of times I had some real problems with him. You know, he was real conceited. But he had a right to be. His playing was right on.” (6)

By the time he and Mick were performing together, Michael had become quite proficient as a rock ’n’ roll guitarist, and he knew it. “When I was around fifteen, I was a monster rock guitar player,” Bloomfield later asserted in an interview. (7) “I was the best I knew – or that anyone around me knew – at rock ’n’ roll, which is all I was interested in playing.” (8) Within a year, Michael was indeed one of the best – and not only by his own estimation.

“Mike had his ego thing going by the time he was 16,” agreed Weiser. “But he was known throughout the city as a hot guitar player. There were guys who could cut him, but Michael was Michael.” (9)

Even Mike’s dad, Harold, had to acknowledge that his son had real talent – and that he was becoming quite good. As a vote of confidence, Mr. Bloomfield arranged to have promotional photos taken of the band.

“His dad would bring photographers with him to take pictures of Mike,” recalled Mick Weiser. And Michael seemed not to lack for quality gear. “The kid had the best guitars, the best amps.” (10)

As the winter of 1959-60 approached, Michael Bloomfield found himself playing in a number of different bands. He was involved with musicians of all sorts and all skill levels, and he was listening to and learning music from a variety of cultures and traditions. It appeared he was well on his way to becoming a professional musician, a guitar player of some great skill and stature.

But things continued to be troubled at home.

NOTES

1. Mick Weiser interview with Bill Keenom, 1995

2. Ibid

3. Ibid

4. Ibid

5. Ibid

6. Ibid

7. Michael Bloomfield interview, Rolling Stone, 4/06/1968

8. Michael Bloomfield interview with Walter Rimler, 1976

9. Mick Weiser interview with Bill Keenom, 1995

10. Ibid

BONUS PAGES continued

 

MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD | AN AMERICAN GUITARIST

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