The son of a wealthy restaurant supply manufacturer, Michael Bloomfield was meant to go into the family business. But it was the music of his Chicago neighborhood that caught his attention.  Given a guitar at age 13, he became the country's first great blues-rock master.


Michael Bloomfield with his paternal grandmother, Ida, at his bar mitzvah in 1956. Photo courtesy of Allen Bloomfield


Model and actress Dorothy Klein, circa 1940, prior to her marriage to Harold Bloomfield. Photo courtesy of Allen BloomfieldMICHAEL BLOOMFIELD was born into an upper-middleclass family on July 28, 1943 in Chicago, Illinois. He was the elder of two sons of Dorothy Klein Bloomfield and Harold Bloomfield. Dorothy was a former actress and Miss Illinois runner-up, and Michael's father, Harold, was a partner with his brother in a food service equipment business, a company that would later become part of the industry giant, Beatrice Foods. The family lived in several locations on the north side of the Chicago and, as Harold's business prospered, eventually moved into an apartment building on Melrose Street, just a block from the wealthy residences along Lake Shore Drive.

When he was twelve, Bloomfield's parents decided to leave the city and move to Glencoe, an upscale bedroom community of stately homes and green lawns on Lake Michigan's North Shore. Michael immediately felt like an outcast in the competitive, preppy environment that prevailed in the suburbs. An indifferent student at best, he soon began having trouble at school and was getting into mischief around the neighborhood. It was only after he received a guitar – a 3/4-size Harmony – that he found a place to focus his adolescent energies. His cousin, Chucky Bloomfield, had gotten one and Michael pestered his parents until he was given one, too.

Dorothy arranged for Michael to take lessons with her hairdresser, Tony Tenaglia, who performed under the name Tony Carmen. The adolescent learned show tunes and chords at first, and spent all his time in his room practicing with fake books.

By seventeen, Bloomfield had become proficient enough on his instrument to sit in with his idols in blues clubs on the South Side. He had initially heard the blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and others on the radio, and it wasn't long before he was regularly making the long trip from the North Shore to Chicago's South Side to play with them. While he was tolerated by many in the audience as a novelty – a young white boy climbing onstage with the likes of Mike Bloomfield jams with fellow students at Cornwall Academy in 1960. Photo courtesy of Rei ReynoldsMuddy Waters was highly unusual – Waters and other musicians recognized that Michael had real talent. They encouraged him, and he in turn absorbed everything he could from them.

Because he was such an indifferent student – and also a behavior problem – Bloomfield was eventually expelled from New Trier. His father felt he needed a more structured environment, and for the second half of his junior year Michael was shipped off to Cornwall Academy in Great Barrington, MA. A preparatory school with its share of difficult students, Cornwall likely was the place where Michael first encountered drugs.

While school held little interest for Bloomfield, he was becoming deeply involved in music. At the end of the Fifties, Mike Bloomfield found himself caught up in the desire to return to the roots of American music. In 1961, he took up the acoustic guitar and began teaching himself traditional country, bluegrass and rural blues styles.

The University of Chicago on the South Side was a place where young folk and blues enthusiasts congregated, and several, including Elvin Bishop, Nick Gravenites and Mark Naftalin, were students there. One – Paul Butterfield – had attended the university's Lab High School. Butterfield was also gigging around the South Side, performing with black bands as more or less an equal. In 1961, he began playing with Elvin Bishop at Wednesday evening "twist parties" in one of the student dorms. Bloomfield would also occasionally perform at these dances, and it was there that he met Butterfield, Bishop and Naftalin. These twist party jam sessions would form the basis for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.


Bob DylanIN SEPTEMBER 1962, Bloomfield married an attractive folk music enthusiast named Susan Smith. And then, in the spring of 1963, Bloomfield met a musician who would play a pivotal role in his career. In April, Bob Dylan came to town to perform at a new folk club, and Michael was immediately charmed by the charismatic, engaging folksinger. Bob, in turn, was deeply impressed by Bloomfield's extraordinary guitar playing and his deep knowledge of traditional tunes and styles. It would be an encounter neither musician would forget.

The following June, Michael began producing a Tuesday night blues series at a coffee house called the Fickle Pickle. He began with Big Joe Williams and – after combing the city's South Side for legendary Bluebird and Okeh recording artists with Big Joe's help – was soon featuring Kokomo Arnold, Arbee Stidham, Tommy McClennan, John Henry Barbee and many other more obscure players. The shows were eventually a huge success with the growing audience of young white folk enthusiasts and college students who were beginning to frequent Old Town, John Hammondthe neighborhood in Chicago where the Fickle Pickle was located.

While Bloomfield was producing shows at the Fickle Pickle, he was also occasionally playing solo gigs around town and had become serious enough about music that he acquired a manager, a promoter named Joel Harlib.

Harlib was convinced Bloomfield was a major talent and was determined to find him a recording contract. In the winter of 1964, Joel traveled to New York City with a Bloomfield demo and played the tape for Columbia producer John Hammond. Hammond was impressed, and said he might be interested in signing Michael. Bloomfield came to New York City the second week of February 1964 to audition for Hammond at Columbia's midtown studios and was quickly signed to an Epic label deal.


BACK IN CHICAGO, Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite began performing regularly at a neighborhood bar in Old Town called Big John's. Charlie had started the gig accompanying Big Joe Williams, but Joe soon left to go on tour and Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite performing at Big John's in 1964. Donna Gower photoMusselwhite and Bloomfield continued as featured performers. By early fall, Bloomfield had formed a blues band with Musselwhite called The Group and was performing regularly at Big John's.

It was this band that impresario John Hammond came to Chicago to see. He arranged for The Group to record at Columbia's studios in the Loop, and on December 7, 1964, the band waxed six titles with Michael at the helm. Michael was sure that his big break was imminent.

But John Hammond wasn't so sure. He was dissatisfied with the quality of the recordings The Group made in Chicago, and he decided to get Michael into a studio in New York for a proper session. In March, he arranged for the guitarist to record a second time, this time in Columbia's facilities in the city.

Paul Butterfield was also in New York that spring, recording for Elektra Records. His producer suggested that Bloomfield become a permanent member of Butterfield's group. Butterfield was amenable, and Michael – even though he was under contract to Epic – was soon a de facto part of the Butterfield Band.


Bloomfield solos during the Butterfield Band's first workshop appearance at the Newport Folk Festival on Friday, July 23, 1965. Photographer unknown

IN JUNE, BLOOMFIELD journeyed again to Columbia's studios in New York City on June 15, this time for a series of sessions with Bob Dylan for "Highway 61 Revisited." Within a few weeks, one of the tunes they recorded, the emblematic "Like a Rolling Stone," was climbing the charts and getting airplay nationwide.

Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager, was interested in acquiring the Paul Butterfield Blues Band as a client, and he arranged to have the band appear at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The fact that the band played electric instruments was quite controversial – many of the organizers of the festival felt strongly that folk music was inherently an acoustic music. The band's presence at Newport created a stir among the younger musicians, many of whom were familiar with traditional blues but were only vaguely aware of the Chicago version. Everyone was eager to hear them.

The Butterfield Band played its first workshop on July 23, and the performance was introduced by the musicologist Alan LomaxAlan Lomax. Lomax felt that authentic blues could not be played by kids barely out of their teens – white kids, at that – and he said as much in his introduction. Following the band's first tune, Grossman confronted Lomax, accusing the folk icon of insulting his prospective clients. The confrontation Albert Grossmanbecame heated and the two got into a tussle.

Despite the fisticuffs, the Butterfield Band's performance was huge success. They played a second workshop the following day, and then did a set on the closing night of the festival. Dylan had heard about the excitement surrounding Butterfield's appearances, and he was inspired to recreate the music he had just recorded in the studio with an electric band. He recruited Bloomfield, and the two musicians got busy Saturday afternoon auditioning players for the impromptu performance. Three days shy of his 22nd birthday, Michael Bloomfield was about to secure his place in music history.

When Dylan came out on stage Sunday evening, he brought with him a band that consisted of Michael and two other members of the Butterfield Band – Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay – and Michael's Chicago pal, keyboardist Barry Dylan goes electric at the Newport Folk Festival on Sunday, July 25, 1965, with Mike Bloomfield on guitar. From "Festival"Goldberg. Also joining them was organist Al Kooper. Kooper had also played on Dylan's June recording sessions and had come to the festival as a member of the audience. No one but a few Newport insiders had any idea what Dylan was up to, and the appearance of the troubadour on stage with a crew of musicians caused consternation. And when the band launched into a roaring version of "Maggie's Farm," the crowd's reaction was visceral.

Some fans loved it. Others were outraged. The music was loud – loud enough to drown out Dylan's lyrics – and, worse, it was aggressive. At the center of that volume and aggression was Michael Bloomfield's overpowering guitar. Dylan's "rock" band played two more tunes and then left the stage.

The audience, stunned at first, raised a cry of "More!" And many booed the performance, outraged that their idol had not done his usual set with acoustic guitar and harmonica, and frustrated that his all-important lyrics were all but unintelligible. To appease them, Dylan returned and sang two of his acoustic tunes solo. One – "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" – aptly said it all.


FOLLOWING NEWPORT, the Butterfield Band returned to New York City and the Café Au Go Go. And Michael was back in the studio with Dylan, recording additional tunes for "Highway 61 Revisited." Albert Grossman was eager to arrange a tour for the songwriter in support of the new album, but Michael chose to play the blues with Butterfield. He rightfully sensed that joining Dylan would mean his playing would take a subservient role.

In September, the Butterfield Blues Band was in the studio, re-recording their album for Elektra for the third time. Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield perform at the Cafe Au Go Go in New York City in 1966. Photo by Don Paulsen for Hit ParaderThey then began a rigorous schedule of touring in the fall of 1965. The album, "The Paul Butterfield Blues Band," was released in October and quickly became a favorite on college campuses. The band had month-long stays in Chicago and Boston before heading to the West Coast in late December. On January 2, 1966, they opened at The Trip in Hollywood, and in March brought their hard-edged Chicago blues to the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. With drummer Billy Davenport now driving the band, and Paul and Michael trading fiery solos, people were astonished. The Butterfield Band was a hit.

After a second weekend of performances at the Fillmore in April, the group journeyed cross-country for a few weeks in New York City at the Café Au Go Go. Michael had been wowing crowds wherever the band went with his evermore adventurous soloing, and one tune the band played was a perfect vehicle for displaying his prodigious technique. Called "East-West," it was a composition that Michael had developed out of a tune by Nick Gravenites called "It's About Time," a piece he and Nick had played at Magoo's in Chicago. Built around an ostinato bass part, "East-West" consisted of a succession of intense improvisations by each member of the band, solos that were punctuated by roaring crescendos. The piece culminated in a series of lengthy solos by Bloomfield in a variety of modes.

The band's fans loved it. The term "psychedelic" had been coined on the heels of the LSD craze, and "East-West" seemed to define it. And Michael would further blow minds by occasionally eating fire in mid-performance. He was rapidly becoming known as one of the best and most exciting rock guitarists on the scene.

But that summer in New York City, Bloomfield had a startling experience. For the first time, he encountered a guitarist who was as good as he was.


PLAYING AT THE Café Wha?, just a few blocks from the Café Au Go Go, was a rag-tag band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. Singer John Hammond had urged Michael to check out James, and Bloomfield and a friend stopped Jimi Hendrix, known as Jimmy James, just prior to forming the Blue Flames and appearing at Cafe Wha? in 1966. Unknown photographerby to see the show. Michael quickly realized he had seen the slender guitarist before – as an inconspicuous member of the Isley Brothers rhythm section. Bloomfield hadn't been impressed by him then, but now he was amazed! Jimmy James, who would soon be known far and wide by his given name, Hendrix, was using feedback and distortion as musical devices, and was exhibiting a command of his instrument that was staggering.

Meanwhile, the Butterfield Band had been logging time in the studio for Elektra, recording tunes for their follow-up album. In May they were in Chicago, working on capturing "East-West" at the legendary Chess Studios at 2120 S. Michigan. The piece clocked in at over thirteen minutes, even in edited form, and was unlike anything previously recorded by a pop group. Though less adventurous than the versions the band played live, the studio take of "East-West" was still a formidable display musical risk-taking. Central to it were Michael Bloomfield's complex solos, but the band's tight ensemble sound was also integral to its overall success. Mike described it as "pseudo jazz."

In August, Elektra released "East-West," the second album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The album was a mixed bag of blues, pop tunes and two tour de force instrumentals – the title track and a jazz standard by Nat Adderley called "Work Song." Guitarists with aspirations immediately took note, and the burgeoning underground Eric Clapton solos during the debut of Cream at the National Jazz & Blues Festival in London, 1966. Photo by Michael Putlandmusic scene was suitably transfixed.

On October 17, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band arrived in London for the start of a tour of the British Isles. In a press conference given at Ronnie Scott's jazz club, Michael spoke enthusiastically about English guitarist Eric Clapton and said he wished he could play as well as his British counterpart. It was Clapton's work as a member of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers that had really impressed Bloomfield. Michael said he was eager to get the same equipment as Eric so that he too could get Clapton's tone.

The Butterfield Band embarked on a series of concert dates the following Thursday, mostly taking day trips to theaters in towns throughout England and Scotland. They were a part of a package tour headed by the Georgie Fame and Chris Farlowe groups.

On October 22, Michael met Eric Clapton for the first time. Clapton was gigging with his new band, Cream, at Leeds University, and the Fame tour came to town to play the Odeon Theater. Butterfield's crew met the members of Cream between the trio's sets at the university, and Michael and Eric spent a few minutes jamming together backstage. Bloomfield noted with envy that Clapton was playing a Les Paul Standard – a Sunburst model.

A GALA HOMECOMING concert in New York's Town Hall followed the group's tour of Great Britain. When the Butterfield Band had appeared there a year earlier, they had only been together a few months as a band. Now they were real pros, hardened veterans of the road with a sound that had gone well beyond the music of their native Chicago. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band had become the country's premiere blues-rock group.

But Michael Bloomfield was not happy. A frequent insomniac, he now found that being on the road seriously disrupted his already tenuous ability to sleep. Sleeping pills only exacerbated the condition, and the temptations of the road were a further complication. After a year-and-a-half of constant touring, Michael Bloomfield was reaching the breaking point. On a cold evening in February 1967, he quit the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

While recuperating in New York City and pondering his next move, Bloomfield spent several months playing sessions as a sideman. He recorded with jazz and blues saxophonist Eddie Vinson, folk singer Judy Barry GoldbergCollins and rock 'n' soul artist Mitch Ryder, among others. It was at the Ryder session, organized by Bloomfield's Chicago friend, Barry Goldberg, that Michael decided he would start his own band – a band with horns. For a long time he and the other members of the Butterfield Band had talked about adding horns to expand their sound, and Michael was particularly inspired by the R&B horn sections that recorded for the Memphis-based Stax label. He had also noticed that American listeners were increasingly infatuated with British bands that played American blues, bands that often didn't play it particularly well. Michael decided that his horn band would play music of all sorts – but that music would be exclusively American music, the way it should be played.

Michael asked Barry Goldberg if he'd help form the band. Goldberg readily agreed. The two first enlisted Harvey Brooks, a bassist Michael had met at the Dylan "Highway 61" sessions. Brooks suggested a drummer he knew of who was working with Wilson Pickett, a huge teenager from Omaha named George "Buddy" Miles. Nick Gravenites, who had left Chicago and was living in San Francisco, was selected to be the band's singer. For the horn section, Barry recruited a saxophonist he had worked with in Chicago, a New Haven native named Peter Strazza. Guitarist Larry Coryell recommended a trumpeter with exceptional tone that he knew from Seattle named Marcus Doubleday. Doubleday had worked with the Drifters, Jan and Dean, and Bobby Vinton.

The Electric Flag, an American Music Band, in he summer of 1967. From left, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg, Marcus Doubleday, Harvey Brooks, Peter Strazza, Michael Bloomfield and Buddy Miles (and friend). Photo taken for ABGM promotional materialAlbert Grossman agreed to manage the new group, and Bloomfield decided to base it in San Francisco, a town that in 1967 was at the epicenter of American pop culture. By April he had rented a house in Mill Valley and was beginning to work on material with the group. But before he could even decide on a name for the band, actor Peter Fonda came calling. Fonda, Jack Nicholson and filmmaker Roger Corman were working on a feature film about LSD called "The Trip" and they wanted a cutting-edge band to create its soundtrack. Fonda knew of Bloomfield from his days with Butterfield, and in short order he arranged with Grossman for Bloomfield and company to travel to Los Angeles to record music for the film.

Bloomfield experimented both in the studio and out in capturing sonically the nature of the experience that Corman wanted to bring to the big screen. Under Michael's guidance, the band created music in a variety of styles that ranged from sound pieces and free jazz to pop ditties and hard blues. In all, they spent a week-and-a-half in the studio. Bloomfield remained in L.A. to edit the material to the on-screen action for an additional few weeks.

Roger CormanRoger Corman was exceedingly pleased with the music and used it in nearly every scene of "The Trip." Plans were made for a Capitol subsidiary, Sidewalk Records, to release the soundtrack concurrent with the opening of the movie in the fall.

While Bloomfield was finishing up the soundtrack, Grossman sent word that the band would be making its debut in June – at the Monterey Pop Festival. Originally proposed as an event to validate rock music as an art form, much as the Monterey Jazz festival had done for jazz, the Monterey Pop Festival had grown into a major industry showcase for dozens of underground American and British acts. Grossman informed Michael that representatives from the Columbia and Atlantic record labels would be on hand to see the new group perform. If they liked what they heard, Albert said, it was quite likely that the band would receive a very generous contract from the winning bidder.

The pressure on the band was enormous.


BLOOMFIELD HAD ONLY a few weeks to rehearse the group and get its sound together. While they had begun work on several original tunes before focusing on "The Trip," they really had no repertoire to speak of. In addition, the band had no real name. A friend of Nick Gravenites had a novelty American flag with a small fan in its base that caused the flag to flap in the breeze. Michael thought it was hilarious, and persuaded the friend to give it to the band. The new Mike Bloomfield and Harvey Brooks conclude "Groovin' Is Easy," the Electric Flag's opening number at the Monterey International Pop Festival on June 17, 1967. From "Monterey Pop"group suddenly had a name: the Electric Flag.

Monterey was organized as a three-day cultural extravaganza with Saturday afternoon reserved for the blues. It was to feature a line-up of eight bands, with Bloomfield and company scheduled to close the show. It was a prime slot for a band that was highly anticipated by audience members and fellow musicians alike. Michael soon realized that the band's performance would be more than just the auspicious debut of a new, horn-infused rock band. It would be the measure of himself as a musician and as an American icon.

Saturday afternoon the show got underway with the Los Angeles band Canned Heat, and progressed through performances by Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield and several other groups. The Flag's set was short – they'd only prepared four tunes – but it was driven by an exciting, barely-contained manic energy. Buddy Miles sang two ebullient numbers while Nick Gravenites did the Jimi Hendrix, playing guitar behind his back, gives a career-making performance at Monterey in June's signature tune, "Groovin' Is Easy," and the closer, "Wine." Michael soloed like a man possessed and turned in a thrilling performance on "Wine." The audience stood and cheered, demanding an encore, and the band reluctantly complied. The Electric Flag had not disappointed.

But Michael Bloomfield was shaken. He later said he thought the band played badly, well below the standard they set for themselves. He said that even though their performance was off, the audience loved them anyway. "Festival madness," he called it. For the first time, he said, he realized that much of what the music industry was about had little or nothing to do with music. Hyping a commodity, selling an image, marketing a product – the music business was about business. And Bloomfield did not want to be a part of that.

It was a turning point for Michael. But there was another reason he was distressed.

When Jimi Hendrix took the stage on Sunday evening, he was largely unknown in America. Forty-five minutes later, he had created a sensation and the pop world would never be the same. Whatever the audience may have thought of his onstage antics, the Seattle guitarist was clearly a extraordinary player. And his approach brought something entirely new to pop music.

Seeing Hendrix's set, Bloomfield – the greatest American blues-rock guitarist – must have realized that he was seeing the future. A future that he, Michael Bloomfield, could not be a part of. He had known that Hendrix was great, but now for the first time he saw that Jimi's abilities as a performer were as electrifying as his guitar playing. Hendrix was doing things that Michael couldn't do, for Bloomfield was a player – and an extraordinary one – but by his own admission he was not a entertainer. That evening Michael Bloomfield must have felt like one of the old folkies at Newport when Dylan walked onstage with an electric guitar.