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.



Life on Melrose

1943-1955 | By David Dann, supplemental to Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues

The building at 424 Melrose Street is typical of the opulent apartment buildings near Chicago's Gold Coast. The Bloomfield family lived in a 9-room apartment there from the late 1940s until 1955. Google Street View photoBY THE END OF THE WAR, the Bloomfields – Harold and Dottie – had moved their family to a comfortable nine-room apartment in a high-rise building at 424 West Melrose Street. It was a fitting location for the family of an ambitious young businessman. At the end of the block, Lake Shore Drive, the main lakefront artery, merged with Sheridan Road, a thoroughfare that, 20 blocks to the north, was the prestigious address of many of the city’s wealthy elite.

Harold Bloomfield was rapidly becoming one of those wealthy residents. The business generated by Sam Bloomfield’s War Department contracts had resulted in huge growth, and the family’s company was now known more impressively as Bloomfield Industries. Harold managed the plant along with his father, while brother Daniel was in charge of sales. The product line now included many hundreds of items and the factory to create them employed hundreds of workers. Father and sons continued to work tirelessly to build the company and expand its catalog even as their wealth increased.

Eighteen months after Michael’s birth, the Bloomfield’s second son, Allen, was born. As the brothers grew, they were encouraged to be independent. They attended nursery school at Anshe Emet Synagogue, some ten blocks north of the family’s apartment, and little Michael and Allen would ride city buses there and back by themselves. At home, they shared a bedroom and were looked after by a live-in au pair, but they also spent much time on their Schwinn bikes exploring the neighborhood.

In 1940s Chicago, Belmont Avenue, just a few blocks south of Melrose Street, traversed a broad range of the city’s cultures, classes and races. It ran from the prosperous high-rises of Lake Shore Drive and Sheridan Road to the German, Polish and eastern European enclaves along Halsted Street, to the Hispanic barrio skirting Western Avenue, to the mini-ghetto of African American emigrants from the deep South living west of the Loop between Division Street and Chicago Avenue. The boys encountered people from all these communities and many others – including poor whites from the coal fields of Kentucky and Arkansas, and newly-arrived Mexicans working as domestics – on their daily escapades around the neighborhood.

There were sounds of all kinds to be heard on the streets of Chicago, too. It was a common practice for neighborhood shops to attract business by hanging small loudspeakers in their doorways. These would play music popular with prospective clientele and often featured ethnic music of one sort or another. Riding through the neighborhoods in the family car, the boys would hear a variety of sounds at every intersection. On warm summer months with the car windows open, Greek clarinet music or twangy country reels might alternate with Mexican conjunto ballads and jumping black blues and R&B as Harold Bloomfield drove the family to the Northwest Expressway on an afternoon outing.

Blind street singer, Chicago, early 1960s. Peter Amft photoThere were occasional street performers in their neighborhood as well. On Sundays gospel groups could be heard harmonizing on the corners of Clark and Diversey. A solo saxophone player might run through a few jazz standards on the steps of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel cathedral. And sometimes an African American blues singer would venture up from the Cabrini Rowhouses to perform bottleneck-style Delta blues in front of one of the taverns on North Clark, singing for spare change.

The boys heard and absorbed all these musics, and young Michael was particularly affected. In later years, he would recall with pride how the sounds he heard around Melrose were an important part of his childhood.

The blocks surrounding the Bloomfield residence were consequently populated by kids of every ethnic strain and economic class. They all came together at the neighborhood’s elementary school, the Nettelhorst School on North Broadway. An imposing four-story red brick structure covering the better part of a city block, the school was just a short walk down the street and around the corner for the Bloomfield boys. Mike started there in 1948 and Allen followed several years later. Because of the rich diversity of students at the school, the brothers had no trouble fitting in. They were accepted right along with the Hispanic kids, the “hillbilly” children, the Polish, Greek and Irish boys and girls. How they dressed and the way they looked mattered little to their fellow students.

From the start, Michael Bloomfield was no scholar. Though exceedingly bright and precocious, the Bloomfield’s elder son was far too active to sit still for the rote drilling often required in elementary school classrooms. He was talkative, interested in everything, an enthusiastic reader and – when encouraged – the class clown. While he was often a handful for his teachers, he could also be motivated to work exceedingly hard. One of his teachers sensed that about him and pressed Michael on an English assignment to create an original work of poetry. He eventually took to the task and produced a poem of such beauty it was acclaimed throughout the school and published prominently in the Nettelhorst yearbook. (1)

On another occasion, Michael wrote an essay entitled, “What Freedom Means,” and it captured its subject so well it was read aloud at a school-wide assembly.

But such moments of academic excellence were the exception. Mike Bloomfield thrived at Nettelhorst, but not because of his enthusiasm for the conventional methods of learning. Knowledge was something he seemed to acquire in spite of the best efforts of his teachers. His memory for facts and figures was nearly photographic, and if a subject caught his interest, there was soon very little he did not know about it.

“I remember one time he got into a heavy discussion about gerunds with my father, also a real intellect,” said Allen. “And Michael held his own with him – no easy thing!” Language was one place where the older Bloomfield boy excelled. Allen later observed, “He was as articulate with words as he was with music.” (2)

On the weekends, the Bloomfield boys played with friends, lingering in front of the windows of the ABC Toyland store on the corner or spending the afternoon watching cartoons and movies at the Diversey Theater. They lunched on barbecue beef sandwiches and bought lime rickeys from the theater’s lobby vending machines. Sometimes the boys would wander over to the playground at school where other kids would bring wagonloads of old comic books for sale. At a few cents each, the books were a bargain that would provide Mike and Allie and their friends with a long afternoon of pleasant reading.

And when Michael wasn’t engrossed in the adventures of Captain Marvel or a case involving the Batman, he was busy reading whatever books he could get his hands on. Though not at all studious, he was an avid reader and frequently would finish an entire volume in one sitting. He was particularly fond of the work of L. Frank Baum.

“He was a voracious reader – he read every one of the Wizard of Oz books when he was a kid,” said Allen. And his brother didn’t just consume the stories with his eyes.

“He would devour books – literally,” laughed Allen. “He'd eat the edges of the pages as he read. The books would look like these expensive first editions when got through with them – with deckle-edged pages.” (3) Page-chewing was a habit that would stay with Michael throughout his life.

The Oscar Mayer "Wienermobile." photoThere were other pleasures for kids growing up on Melrose. Chicago was home to the Oscar Mayer Company, and its surreal “Wienermobile” was a frequent visitor to Chicago’s North Side neighborhoods. It made regular stops along Clark Street and dispensed hotdog-shaped whistles and other novelties to eager kids. The Bloomfield boys coveted theirs.

On special occasions the brothers would walk to the Belmont L stop and take a train into the Loop to spend the day at Harold Bloomfield’s athletic club on Dearborn Street. Called the Covenant Club, the huge facility catered to Jews who were excluded due to anti-Semitism from the city’s more prestigious men’s organizations. It took a lot of courage for the boys to navigate the big, intimidating subway system by themselves and successfully make their way downtown. But once safely inside the Covenant Club, they were free to swim in the pool, use the weights and steam room, run around the indoor track or take a Turkish bath. In the dining room, they’d order lunch on their father’s tab, and Mike would often get three and four helpings of his favorite dishes. Harold frequently was there, too, but he had little patience for tagging after his active, mischievous sons and would frequently send them off on their own. He would even get a separate table at lunch.

As Michael grew, he added extra bulk. He was tall for his age and not particularly coordinated, and his increased weight amplified his awkwardness. He loved food, and when the family would go to a restaurant he relished impressing his father by how much he could eat. He would often order exotic dishes that most kids wouldn’t touch, just to prove his willingness to eat anything. Once he even finished off a plate of oysters – and then asked for seconds. (4)

His gusto for food also earned him a reputation among his friends. The Bloomfield boys spent their early summers attending a day camp on Chicago’s North Shore, and on the camp’s grounds was a Dairy Queen stand. Counselors would occasionally treat the campers to ice cream, and Michael would always order the stand’s biggest – a deluxe five-scoop cone. The six-year-old would then finish the whole thing, much to the disbelief of the staff and his fellow campers.

Harold Bloomfield was a very physical man and he naturally expected his sons to be athletic. His eldest son, however, was not particularly interested in sports and showed even less aptitude for them. To remedy this, Harold sent Michael to Camp Ojibwa when he was seven. An overnight camp for boys located in northern Wisconsin, Ojibwa specialized in rigorous instruction in “land and water sports.” Midway through the season, Harold drove up to Eagle River to check on his son’s progress. As Allen recalled it, their father arrived just as a ball game was getting underway. There was Mike, out in right field, casually blowing on a dandelion and paying no attention to the game. When a ball was hit in his direction, he simply watched it roll by. That was too much for Harold. He found the camp’s director and, as Allen told it, “laid into him for allowing his son to be neglected.” (5)

It was a first indication that Michael Bloomfield was someone other than the son his father expected him to be. And for Michael, it was an early and undeniable instance where he failed to win his father’s approval.  When Michael turned eight, he joined the Cub Scouts. The boys’ mother, Dottie, was enlisted as a Den Mother in the Pack Mike belonged to and, though Allen was too young to officially join, he was also included in the group. On one memorable occasion, Dottie took the Den to see a live broadcast of the “Captain Midnight” radio show in the Loop. After herding her group of twenty Cubs onto a city bus, she found she lacked sufficient change to pay all their fares. Without a moment’s hesitation she offered to write the bus driver a personal check. (6)

While Michael was not at all athletic, he could be assertive, especially when he sensed an injustice. ABC produced a TV show in Chicago for children called “Super Circus,” and Mike went with his family to see one of its broadcasts in the early ‘50s. During a contest segment, he was picked from the audience to come up on stage. On a table were three fish bowls filled with coins – one containing dimes, one full of nickels and a third loaded with pennies. Mike was given the nickels bowl and was told that when the music started he should reach in and grab as many coins as he could hold in one hand. Whatever he retrieved from the bowl was then his to keep.

When the band began to play, Michael dug deep into the fish bowl and, because he was big for his age and had large hands, hauled up a huge quantity of nickels. There was much applause and cheering from the kids in the audience, and Michael beamed over his triumph. But when the camera panned away, a clown reached over and slapped Mike’s hand causing him to drop most of the coins back into the bowl. Undaunted, the boy threw the remaining coins on the stage floor and defiantly dug back into the bowl, pulling out an even larger fistful. With that, Mike turned and scampered back to his seat, pockets jingling. (7)

Michael’s keen sense of fairness occasionally extended to his little brother. While the boys were close, they were often at odds due to the rivalry common among siblings separated by only a year-and-a-half. But Mike would stand up for Allie when he felt his brother was being assailed. He did so one summer when the boys were away at camp together.

The Bloomfield boys head off to summer camp in the Southwest, probably in 1954. Michael is third from the right; Allen is on his left. Bloomfield Estate photoFrom 1953 to 1956, the Bloomfields sent their sons to a dude ranch and summer camp called El Carnila Ranchito in Tucson, Arizona. The boys would be there for two long months, and during one stay another camper began routinely picking on Allen. Michael would defend him, telling the other boy to stop pushing his brother around. Eventually the conflict escalated, and the camp staff decided to resolve the issue by letting the boys fight it out in a make-shift boxing ring. Michael, looking comical in adult-sized boxing gloves, went at the other ten-year-old with such fury that he astonished the counselors. The normally passive, awkward boy was determined to right the wrong done to his brother, and he pummeled the bully.

“He just wouldn’t stop!” said Allen (8). “There was a part of Michael that was very strong about righteous indignation. If something was wrong, nothing would shut him up … he never cowered under.” (9)

Young Michael Bloomfield also exhibited a trait that would play an integral role in shaping his adult life.  From early on, he craved sensation. When the boys’ grandfather Max – Dottie’s father – would take them to Riverview, Chicago’s 74-acre amusement park along the north branch of the Chicago River at Belmont and Western Avenues, it would be a day of thrills. Just twenty-five blocks from the Bloomfield’s Melrose apartment, Riverview was famed for its parachute drop, Ferris wheel and multiple roller coasters. The grandest of those was the wooden coaster called the “Silver Streak.” It was Michael’s favorite and he would insist on sitting in the front car. Once they were loaded, the art-deco styled cars would clank up the 45-dgree incline of the initial hill and then pitch over the top and plummet at break-neck speed downward, slamming into turns and twists, first left and then right, rising again and falling to the screams of the riders.

“He would always have to sit in the very first car and, when we got to the top of the apex of the first drop, he’d have to try to stand up,” Allen Bloomfield recalled. “Michael was always pushing the envelope.” (10) After a hair-raising 60-second ride on the Streak, the cars would come to a stop back where they started. As the attendants lifted the riders’ safety bars, Michael would invariably shout at them, “I’m gonna go again!” And often he did go again, as many as five times in a row.

The Bloomfield boys’ life on Melrose was one of childhood pleasures – Duncan yo-yo demonstrations at the Diversey Theater, summer days frolicking in Lake Michigan at nearby Montrose Beach, seeing “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T” while wearing the film’s trademark hand beanies, trick-or-treating in costume with Doris Wright, the family’s 300-lb. au pair, walking to and from school with neighborhood pals. Michael and Allen were an integral part of their neighborhood and both boys had a deep enthusiasm for Chicago’s many attractions. They were real city kids. (11)

But all that was about to change.


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

2. Ibid

3. Ibid

4. Ibid

5. Allen Bloomfield, interview with Bill Keenom, 1996

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

7. Ibid

8. Ibid

9. Allen Bloomfield, Vintage Guitar, 1997

10. Allen Bloomfield, interview with Bill Keenom, 1995

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



Josh White at the Gate  of Horn

1957 | By David Dann, supplemental to Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues

Wieboldt's Department Store in Evanston had a music section that sold records, and it was once place Mike Bloomfield would occasionally find blues albums. photoBY THE WINTER OF 1957, Michael had immersed himself in the sounds he was hearing over the radio, buying whatever records he could find at Wally King’s Music Shop on Vernon Avenue in Glencoe’s small business district, and at places like Rose Records and Wiebolt’s Department Store in nearby Evanston. One afternoon he brought home a record called “School Days” (Chess 1653) by a rising rock ’n’ roll star named Chuck Berry. He’d heard Berry’s teenage anthems on the radio – “Maybellene” was the singer’s big hit – and “School Days” was currently climbing the charts. But it was the tune on the 45’s flipside that really caught his ear. It was called “Deep Feeling.”

“That was so heavy and soulful – that was where it was at. I couldn’t even believe it was music,” Michael enthused later. (1) “That was our first introduction to blues,” agreed Roy Ruby. (2)

A slow instrumental that featured Berry’s guitar playing, “Deep Feeling” was an atypical performance for the St. Louis rocker. During his solo he didn’t play his electric guitar but used a lap steel guitar instead. The instrument had an unearthly sound, and at times Berry’s notes eerily evoked a human voice. That quality fascinated Michael. He began to understand that the music he was hearing – the music that excited him to his core – was the blues.

Another tune that grabbed Mike was called “Glamour Girl” (Imperial LP9116). A sultry jazz blues by legendary guitarist T-Bone Walker, Michael would hear it during the “Jam with Sam” show on WGES and would try to play along. Its chord voicings and lead runs intrigued him, and he tried to recreate them on his little Harmony guitar.

By the late 1960s, WVON and other South Side radio stations had switched to broadcasting soul music. But Bloomfield first heard blues over their airwaves in the 1950s. photoInspired by these and other blues he heard on the radio, Michael began in earnest to search out more blues recordings. Eventually he brought home contemporary LPs by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy and Jimmy Reed (3), and even found an album of historic recordings by Texas guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson (Riverside 12-125).  The way other boys his age collected sports memorabilia, Michael amassed recordings; the way other kids memorized ball players’ statistics, Michael learned the names of musicians, their bands and the tunes they played. He combed through fan magazines, looking for any information he could find about the music he was hearing. When he was lucky enough to find a Chess 78 by Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker, or one of B.B. King’s RPM 45s, he’d immediately close himself up in his room and play the record over and over, trying to learn the guitar parts. When a friend asked him many years later how he was able to reproduce a particular solo with such accuracy, Mike replied, “If you had the record I learned it from, you’d hear where I’d picked up the needle and put it down a million times!” (4)

Before long, the young guitarist began to master many of the licks he heard on his records. He found that by practicing the scale exercises that he’d learned from Tony Tenaglia over and over, he soon could play any lead line with surprising speed and accuracy. Recreating a Cliff Gallup solo at a fast tempo gave Michael a real sense of accomplishment, and he was pretty confident that he could eventually play anything he heard. But listening to records in his bedroom was one thing – what Mike Bloomfield really wanted was to see the music that excited him played live.

The DJs on WGES and WOPA frequently promoted club performances by the musicians whose records they played, and Michael would hear the venues’ names repeatedly – places like Silvio’s, Cadillac Baby’s, the Copa Cabana, Theresa’s and the Club Zanzibar. He wished he somehow could get into one of them to see Chuck Berry or Lightnin’ Hopkins or maybe the Howlin’ Wolf. Another club that was occasionally mentioned was the Gate of Horn. It was located on the corner of Chicago Avenue and Dearborn Street, and Mike recognized that address as being just a dozen blocks north of the Covenant Club where he and Allen would spend Saturday afternoons when they were still living on Melrose Street. At least that was one club he knew he could get to.

One afternoon in late January, Mike heard over WGES that folk and blues singer Josh White was going to appear at the Gate of Horn. Michael had one of White’s records – an LP called “Josh at Midnight” (Elektra EKL 102) – and both he and Roy Ruby were big fans. The boys resolved to go see Josh White, though they had no idea whether underage kids could actually get into the nightclub.

It was Michael’s housekeeper, Mary Williams, who solved that problem. It turned out, much to Mike’s surprise, that Mary knew Josh White – she was actually an old friend of his. Once she learned of the boys’ interest in going, Mary called White at the Gate and asked him to arrange for them to get in to see the show. The blues singer said he’d be glad to do it, and Michael was thrilled.

The Gate of Horn, Chicago's famed folk nightclub was originally located on Dearborn and Chicago avenues in the basement of the Rice Hotel. Mike Bloomfield saw Josh White there – his first experience with live blues. photoHe, Roy Ruby and two other friends took the train to the Loop and caught a bus up Dearborn to the Gate of Horn on the afternoon of the performance. None of the other boys believed Mike when he told them that it was Josh White himself who was making it possible for them to see the show, or that the Bloomfield family’s maid knew the singer. But when they arrived at the door, they were ushered into the club and taken to the back room where they got to meet White in person. Josh chatted briefly with the boys and was pleased to learn of their interest in the blues. “He was pretty nice to us,” said Roy. “He got them to give us special seats up on the balcony.” (5)

It would be the first of many trips Michael would make to Chicago to see black performers.

Following their success with Josh White, Michael and Roy realized that their families’ servants probably could help them get into other clubs and shows in the city’s black neighborhoods. If nothing else, the boys could use their maid’s South Side homes as bases for their blues junkets. They might not be able to convince their parents to allow them to wander around the South Side trying to get into bars and clubs, but Mike knew Harold and Dottie wouldn’t disapprove of a trip or two to Bronzeville to visit Mary and Dewey. And the couple lived on Indiana Avenue at 47th Street, in the heart of the South Side. Right away, Michael and Roy began plotting their next musical adventure.

This time, they’d go see Muddy Waters.


1. Michael Bloomfield interview in Rolling Stone, 4/06/1968

2. Roy Ruby interview with Dan McClosky, 5/17/1971

3. Michael Bloomfield interview in Hit Parader, 1966

4. Bob Welland interview with Bill Keenom, 1996

5. Roy Ruby interview with Dan McClosky, 5/17/1971

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