The Mike Bloomfield Story
The Evolution of an American Guitarist

By David Dann 

Right: Michael Bloomfield recording for Columbia and John Hammond, December 7, 1964. Photo by Mike Shea; courtesy of Rene Agaard and Peggy McVickar

 

MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD was born into an upper-middleclass family on July 28, 1943 in Chicago, IL. He was the eldest of two sons of Dorothy Shinderman 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 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 Avenue, just a block from the wealthy residences along Lake Shore Drive.

While living on Melrose, Bloomfield and his brother, Allen, encountered a variety of cultures – Polish and Irish kids from the working class neighborhood a few blocks west, newly-arrived Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, and rural whites from the Ozarks and the south. Most importantly, Michael was exposed to African-American culture, from the blues and soul music he heard on street corners and emanating from nearby shops to his days spent with the various black maids that worked in the Bloomfield home. Michael loved the city and took advantage of its many facets, riding his fat-tired Schwinn around Chicago's North Side.

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. Harold's brother had built a house there, and the Bloomfields felt that suburban schools would be better for their young sons.

But Michael immediately felt like an outcast in the competitive, preppy environment that prevailed on the North Shore. 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 used the surname Carmen. The adolescent learned show tunes and chords at first, and spent all his time in his room practicing with fake books. At thirteen, Bloomfield had his Bar Mitzvah, and among the gifts he received was a pocket transistor radio. With it he discovered the wealth of music being broadcast – particularly the blues and gospel heard locally on WVON and over WDIA out of Memphis, among others. These were the same stations that the family's maid often listened to as she went about her duties.

In school – New Trier High School in Winnetka – fourteen-year-old Michael met other misfits like himself. Fred Glazer and Roy Ruby became close friends, and Ruby, who was also developing an interest in the music emanating from Chicago's South Side, accompanied Michael to the Gate of Horn to see singer Josh White. Bloomfield had convinced his maid, Mary Williams, to take them to see White after he discovered that the popular bluesman was a personal friend of hers.

The Ruby family maid was also soon taking the boys to blues clubs on the South Side of the city, and it was there that Michael first encountered Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Otis Rush and other legendary Chicago blues artists.

By fifteen, Bloomfield had become proficient enough on his instrument to join a band. He acquired an electric guitar and began working with his own combo comprised of Ruby and other friends, and with pianist Hayden Thompson in nearby Highwood. Thompson had recorded several singles for the legendary Sun label in the mid-'50s, and Michael later described him as a "Jerry Lee Lewis imitator."

Bloomfield also began sitting in with his idols in blues clubs on the South Side. While he was tolerated by many in the audience as a novelty – a young white boy climbing onstage with the likes of Muddy 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 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. By coincidence, Roy Ruby was also attending a private school in nearby Pittsfield, and the two organized a band. Ruby had discovered marijuana and paregoric, at the time an over-the-counter remedy for gastric distress that was a derivative of opium, and he doubtless shared these indulgences with Michael. Not surprisingly, Bloomfield's academic performance did not improve and the following year he was back in Chicago, enrolled in the Central Day YMCA High School in the Loop. Central Day was the last stop for students who couldn't hack it anywhere else.

By now, however, school held little interest for Bloomfield. He was deeply involved in music, and while he was playing primarily on the North Side and the suburbs in rock 'n' roll bands, he was a frequent visitor to the South Side where he could play the music that was rapidly becoming his passion – the blues.

At the end of the fifties, interest in authentic folk music was growing on college campuses around the country, and 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 country blues styles. The University of Chicago on the South Side was a place where young folk and blues enthusiasts congregated, and its students began hosting an annual festival of folk music at the school. Not far from the university in Hyde Park was the Fret Shop, a store that sold acoustic instruments, and Michael began hanging out there. His skill at playing traditional styles created a stir among the local players, and it was not long before Bloomfield was performing at the university's Chicago Folk Festival – including an appearance on upright bass with Big Joe Williams in 1964.

Other young blues players were spending a lot of time at the university. 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. He and Gravenites had a folk-blues duo for a time, and then 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 Bishop and Naftalin. These twist party jam sessions would form the basis for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

IN SEPTEMBER 1962, Bloomfield married an attractive folk music enthusiast named Susan Smith. Both were 19 years old, and both were desperate to leave home and start a life of their own. Susan had met Michael at his grandfather's pawn shop, a store called Uncle Max's, on Clark Street on Chicago's North Side. Bloomfield worked there on weekends, and the two had hit it off over their shared interest in music. After hearing Michael play, Susan was quick to encourage Michael's exploration of the more traditional side of the blues. One thing led to another, and after they had been seeing each other for a while, they ran off to Buffalo, MI, and tied the knot in a civil ceremony. Despite Michael's parents' dismay at what they saw as his premature marriage, they eventually accepted the arrangement. The couple soon took up residence in an apartment in Sandburg Village, a trendy development just north of the city's Loop.

In the spring of 1963, Bloomfield met a musician who would play a pivotal role in his career. In March, Albert Grossman, an entrepreneur and co-owner of the city's Gate of Horn, opened an unusual three-story night club in an old mansion on E. Ontario Street called the Bear. Michael's friend, Roy Ruby, had been hired as the club's resident classical guitarist, and he told Bloomfield that a hot young folksinger from New York named Bob Dylan would be the featured performer for the venue's opening week. Bloomfield had heard Dylan's first record, and both he and Susan thought the folksinger's efforts were pretentious and laughable. So Mike decided he'd go down to the Bear and show the club's opening act how folk music should be played.

The two met in the restaurant on the first floor of the Bear, and Michael was immediately charmed by the charismatic, engaging Dylan. Bob, in turn, was deeply impressed by Bloomfield's extraordinary guitar playing and his deep knowledge of traditional tunes and styles. Michael stayed to catch Dylan's set and was enchanted by the folksinger's sincere, disarming stage presence. 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 along with George Mitchell. Bob Koester, owner of the Jazz Record Mart, a record store on the near North Side where Michael would hang out, had started a similar series but was having little success with it. George Mitchell worked for Koester, and knew quite a bit about traditional blues, and he and Michael had learned that many of the blues players who had recorded in the thirties and forties were living in and around Chicago. They 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 – were soon featuring Kokomo Arnold, Arbee Stidham, Tommy McClennan, John Henry Barbee and many other more obscure players. The shows were a huge success with the growing audience of young white folk enthusiasts and college students who were beginning to frequent Old Town, the neighborhood in Chicago where the Fickle Pickle was located.

Earlier, in March, Bloomfield had recorded with several of the artists he and George featured at the Pickle. He played guitar along with Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon on a date led by mandolinist Yank Rachell. Big Joe sat in for good measure, and Bob Koester issued the results on his Delmar label (later changed to "Delmark"), the Jazz Record Mart's imprint. It was Michael's first recording session for a legitimate record company, and his first real commercial release. He played in a traditional Delta style, using a Martin D-28.

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 who had been working as the Pickle's manager.

Harlib was convinced Bloomfield was a major talent and was determined to find him a recording contract. In the winter of 1963-64, Joel traveled to New York City with a tape of some tunes Michael had recorded. Joel intended to shop it around, and while there called on legendary producer John Hammond at his Columbia offices. With typical brash Chicago confidence, Harlib talked the Hammond into listening to the demo. Hammond, who had recently been put in charge of procuring new talent for the label, was enough impressed by Michael's playing to want to meet him and have the guitarist do a demo session. He told Harlib he might be interested in signing Michael to a Columbia or Epic Records contract.

Bloomfield came to New York City in late February or early March 1964 and auditioned for Hammond at Columbia's midtown studios. The producer was suitably impressed and signed Michael to an Epic label deal. The terms of the contract were in the process of being negotiated when Hammond was suddenly stricken by a heart attack. Michael, back in Chicago, resumed gigging around town while he waited for Columbia to decide how it wanted to proceed.

Michael went into the studio again for Delmark in March 1964, this time as an accompanist for Sleepy John Estes. He also participated in a number of impromptu sessions for Olle Helander, a Swedish radio producer who was working on a series of programs on Chicago blues. For both projects he played acoustic guitar and demonstrated a thorough knowledge of traditional blues styles.

By 1964, Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite were making occasional trips to New York City to check out the music scene there and sit in wherever they could. On one such trip in the summer of 1964, Michael ran into someone he'd met in Chicago a few years before, a blues guitarist and singer named John Hammond. Hammond, the son of the Columbia impresario, was about to record an historic album for Vanguard, and he asked Michael to play on it. John said he was going to record music just like he had heard in Chicago when Michael had taken him around to the clubs on the South Side. Bloomfield agreed, and Hammond wanted him to play guitar, but Michael opted to perform only on piano. He had been intimidated by the other guitarist Hammond had invited to his electric blues session – a Canadian named Robbie Robertson, member of a band called the Hawks and future guitarist with Dylan and the Band. Robertson played in an aggressive, authentic style, and Michael, for whatever reason, didn't feel up to the challenge.


BACK IN CHICAGO, Bloomfield and 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 Musselwhite and Bloomfield continued as featured performers. Earlier in the year, producer John Hammond told Michael's manager, Joel Harlib, that he wanted to see Bloomfield perform with a band, and while Hammond was recuperating from his illness Michael decided he would to put something together. As would be his habit throughout his career, Bloomfield took a casual approach to creating a band, asking friends or friends of friends to join. Charlie Musselwhite was the natural choice for harmonica, and an acquaintance named Norm Mayell was talked into playing drums. Roy Ruby, Michael's high school friend from Glencoe, occasionally played bass with the group, but he was eventually replaced by "Silver" Sidney Warner, an Old Town jewelry shop owner and professional musician with a background that included stints with cowboy singer and TV star Roy Rogers and R&B saxophonist Big Jay McNeely. The rhythm guitarist, a jazz-oriented player named Mike Johnson, was known to the others in the band simply as "Gap" for the space between his front teeth. A keyboard player named Brian Friedman was the band's pianist for a while, and Nick Gravenites would sometimes sit in as guest vocalist.

Bloomfield and the group – simply called "The Group" by its members – began performing one night a week at Big John's, playing electric Chicago-style blues much like the blues heard in South Side clubs. But because they were an immediate hit, the club management expanded their shows to three and eventually four nights a week. Bloomfield would play his Fender Duosonic for a set, and then switch to piano during intermission. Sometimes Musselwhite would be the featured performer, but more often than not Michael's lengthy pyrotechnic solos would steal the show.

It was this band that impresario John Hammond came to see. The producer's illness had delayed his trip to Chicago long enough to give Bloomfield time to get the group's sound together. But when Hammond went to see them perform – not at Big John's but at an uptown club called Magoo's – he was not terribly impressed. Still, he arranged for The Group to make a demo recording at Columbia's studios in Chicago, and on December 7, 1964, the band waxed six titles with Michael at the helm. Michael was sure that his big break was imminent.

Meanwhile, Paul Butterfield had also connected with a record company. His band – consisting of himself, Elvin Bishop, and the bass player and drummer from Howlin' Wolf's group, Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay – had replaced The Group at Big John's after Bloomfield had taken the gig at Magoo's. It was there that Paul Rothchild, a producer for an emerging folk label called Elektra Records, saw Butterfield's group and decided to record them. Rothchild had also seen Bloomfield perform on his visit to Chicago, and when he brought Butterfield's band to New York City for the session, he suggested that Michael be added to augment the quartet's sound. Rothchild felt that Bloomfield's piano and slide guitar would give the Paul Butterfield Blues Band an even more exciting sound than it already had.

Butterfield went into the studio in March or April of 1965 and recorded a full album's worth of classic Chicago-style electric blues with a skill and panache that belied the participants' average age of 22. Bloomfield was primarily heard in a supportive role, but he was also given solo space on several titles.

Prior to the Butterfield date, Michael had been playing around Chicago with a band he'd briefly assembled with Nick Gravenites. The Group had fallen apart after its residency at Magoo's had failed to draw much of an audience, and no one had made an effort to find the band other bookings. It didn't matter, though, because Bloomfield was destined for other things.

John Hammond had been dissatisfied with the quality of the recordings The Group made in Chicago, and he was eager to get Michael into a studio in New York for a proper session. He arranged for the guitarist to record a second demo, this time in Columbia's facilities in the city. Michael recruited several former members of The Group and a few friends for the session, and on March 1, 1965, recorded three more titles for Hammond. He had recently purchased a new Fender Telecaster on the strength of his Columbia contract, and he used it for the date.

Meanwhile, Paul Butterfield was appearing on a regular basis at the prestigious Village Gate, and Michael was often sitting in with the band. Elektra producer Paul Rothchild was convinced that Bloomfield should become a permanent part of the Butterfield group and urged Paul and Michael to make the band to a quintet. Butterfield was amenable, and Michael – despite his personal dislike for the harmonica player – was willing try it out. By early summer, the band was appearing at the Café Au Go Go, and – even though he was under contract to Columbia – Michael was there with them, a defacto part of the group.

In June, Bloomfield got a call from the folksinger he had met in Chicago two years earlier. In the intervening time, Bob Dylan had established himself as the most original voice in the new folk vanguard, and he was about to record a ground-breaking album. He wanted the best guitarist he could find for the date, and Dylan knew that there was no one better than Michael. Bloomfield agreed to do the session despite his doubts about Dylan's musicianship. He and Bob rehearsed the new tunes at Dylan's Woodstock home for a few days, and then journeyed to Columbia's studios in New York City on June 15 for a series of sessions that would result in the tunes that comprised Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited." Bloomfield later described the recording process as disorganized and chaotic, but the sound he and Dylan created was nothing short of revolutionary. Within a few weeks, one of the tunes they had waxed, the emblematic "Like a Rolling Stone," was climbing the charts and getting airplay nationwide.

Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager, had taken on the Paul Butterfield Blues Band as another hot prospect in the spring of 1965. Now Grossman arranged for his new clients to appear at the Newport Folk Festival in July. By the mid-'60s, Newport was the venue for folk and traditional musics, and musicians who appeared there were almost guaranteed a moment in the national spotlight. Grossman was hoping that the exposure Butterfield would receive would create a buzz that could be translated into record sales and concert appearances for the band.

Because they were a late addition to the roster at the festival, the Butterfield Band was only scheduled to appear at two afternoon workshops. And the fact that they were an electric band 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 ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Lomax felt that authentic blues could not be played on electric instruments by kids barely out of their teens – white kids, at that – and he said as much in his introduction. As the band began its performance, Grossman confronted Lomax, accusing the folk icon of insulting his clients. The confrontation became heated and the two got into a tussle.

Despite the fisticuffs, the Butterfield Band was huge success. When they played their second workshop the following day, a film crew was on hand to capture the excitement. Documentary filmmaker Murray Lerner realized that things were changing at Newport, and he saw that the band from Chicago was a large part of that change. He sought Michael out for an on-camera interview.

Despite Grossman's run-in with one of the founding fathers of the festival – or perhaps because of it – the manager succeeded in securing a Sunday afternoon main stage appearance for the band. They were scheduled to close the "New Folks" program, but a sudden downpour caused the cancellation of their performance. Instead, the Butterfield Band was given the opening slot for the evening show, a show that was also to present the wildly popular Bob Dylan. The band ran through their set as many in the huge crowd were filing in and finding their seats.

Dylan had heard about the excitement surrounding the Butterfield Band's two appearances, and he was inspired to try something new. He had been looking for a way to break out of the role of "folk savior," and here was a perfect opportunity. Bob had just recorded a successful single with an electric band, and the guitarist who helped him do it was right there at Newport. Why not perform some of his new material with a similar band? He approached Bloomfield, and Michael was willing to do it. The two musicians got busy Saturday afternoon auditioning players for the impromptu performance. Three days shy of his twenty-second birthday, Michael Bloomfield was about to secure his place in music history.

When Dylan came out on stage Sunday evening after emcee Peter Yarrow's gushing introduction, 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 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. Peter Yarrow scampered back on stage and attempted to adjust Michael's volume, but there was no pulling back. The band went on to perform Dylan's current hit single, "Like a Rolling Stone," and a new, unfinished tune called "Phantom Engineer" (later renamed "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry"). And then they 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 words 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, and he gave Michael a choice. Would he like to go on the road with Bob, or would he prefer to become a permanent member of the Butterfield Band? Michael chose to play the blues with Paul, rightfully sensing that joining Dylan would mean his playing would take a subservient role. Dylan was disappointed, but in an ironic twist, he quickly found a replacement in the Hawks' Robbie Robertson.

In September, the Butterfield Blues Band was in the studio, re-recording their album for Elektra for the third time. This time, however, they were joined by Mark Naftalin on keyboards. Naftalin had come to New York to attend Mannes College of Music, and had been sitting in with the band on occasion. After he dropped by one of their recording sessions in September, Paul invited him to join the band. Mark readily accepted, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was now complete.

The new band began a rigorous schedule of touring in the fall of 1965. Grossman got them a mini-van and the six band members drove around the Northeast, setting up and breaking down the equipment themselves. Their album, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, had been released in October and, though Elektra provided little in the way of promotion, the recording was doing well 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.

Electric blues was not unheard of in California. The Rolling Stones, the Animals and other English bands had recorded tunes by Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. But real blues soloists were something unknown in the pop world outside of Chicago. Very few white listeners had ever heard – or even heard of – B.B. King, Albert King or Freddie King. When the Butterfield Band arrived in Los Angeles in the first months of 1966, the music they were playing – authentic, no-nonsense electric blues – was given a cool reception. The couples at the Whisky A Go Go were used to dancing and dining to polished acts like Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett or the Righteous Brothers. Butterfield and his men had no matching outfits, no stage routine and no medley of Top 40 hits. They simply played loud, solo-based music with a precision that more closely resembled jazz players. Things were off to a slow start.

By early spring, the band had found a sympathetic venue in the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, south of Los Angeles. A club not unlike Big John's in Chicago, the Bear had a cliental consisting primarily of hipsters, beach nomads and locals. The Butterfield Band took up residence there whenever other employment was sparse, and they were there in March when a couple of promoters from up north came down to check them out. The promoters were little more than kids themselves, and they were from San Francisco.

John Carpenter and Chet Helms had been hosting dances in San Francisco under the name Family Dog for a while, and they had heard from friends about a band from Chicago that was tearing it up. Through Albert Grossman they arranged to hire the group for a weekend stand at an old dance hall in San Francisco's black neighborhood called the Fillmore Auditorium. They had joined forces with another promoter, an ex-New Yorker named Bill Graham who held the lease on the hall, and they had invested heavily in the show. But now Carpenter and Helms were dismayed to find the band performing to an almost empty house. They began to wonder if they'd made a mistake.

There was no mistake. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band debuted at the Fillmore Auditorium on March 25. They shared the bill with a popular local band, the Jefferson Airplane, and they were unprepared for what they encountered. Instead of the well-dressed couples they had played to in Hollywood, or the tavern denizens they had entertained in Huntington Beach, here were kids with long hair, beards and beads. The smell of marijuana was everywhere, and the kids cavorted and danced with wild abandon. And when the Butterfield Band began to play, many of the dancing kids stopped to listen. With drummer Billy Davenport now driving the band, and Paul and Michael trading fiery solos, people were astonished. They had never heard playing as inventive, proficient or exciting before. The audience at the Fillmore came back for the second night and the third, and they brought their friends. The Butterfield Band was a hit.

Bill Graham saw instantly that Butterfield was a marketable commodity. He contacted Albert Grossman the next morning and arranged to have exclusive rights to present the band whenever they appeared in San Francisco. Carpenter and Helms, the fellows who had taken the risk to hire the Butterfield Band in the first place, were effectively cut off from any further association with the band. But Graham was a consummate businessman, and in his hands the band was assured of success, at least in San Francisco.

Bloomfield recognized in Graham those same qualities that his father, Harold, possessed. Bill was a no-nonsense, hard-nosed macher in the world of rock music business, and Michael found him both amusing and real. Graham saw in Michael a musician of immense talent, a kid who for once was not easily intimidated or manipulated by his promoter's bluster. The two became immediate friends.

Graham brought the Butterfield Band back for a second weekend of performances in April, and then 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.

While "East-West" was a conscious effort to push the limits of pop music, rock and blues, it also owed its genesis in no small part to the emerging drug culture of the mid-'60s. During the band's stay in Boston the previous winter, Michael and Mark Naftalin had taken acid for the first time. On one such trip, Bloomfield had experienced what he called a "revelation" about Indian music. He told Mark that he now understood how the music worked, and soon afterwards he got the band to play an extended jam he called "The Raga." Bloomfield based his improvisations in "The Raga" on various scales – scales that were highly unorthodox by rock standards but were common in the playing of jazz musicians like John Coltrane. Michael had been exposed to Coltrane's music back in the early '60s by friend and Downbeat editor Pete Welding, and while Bloomfield's interest in jazz was largely academic, he greatly admired the tenor player's music. Michael wanted to create a piece of music that merged Coltrane's intensity with the virtuosity of Ravi Shanker while simultaneously exhibiting the tough directness of the blues and the brash swagger of rock 'n' roll. That piece became "East-West."

The Fillmore kids 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 Jr. had urged Michael to check out James, and Bloomfield and a friend stopped by 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. Michael realized right away that Hendrix knew who he was, and that Jimi was throwing down a musical gauntlet by running through all his innovative tricks. Bloomfield was so shaken he later claimed he didn't touch his guitar for a week.

Meanwhile, the Butterfield Band had been logging time in the studio for Elektra, recording tunes for their follow-up album. In July 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. This time, the young company invested in promotion and placed ads for the record in newspapers and pop music magazines across the country. 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 music scene was suitably transfixed.

On the other hand, Elektra was eager to have the Butterfield Band record something with real commercial potential. Albert Grossman, who was making arrangements for the band to tour England in the winter, also wanted a chartable tune that could enhance the band's visibility. So in September, the Butterfield Band returned to the studio in Chicago to record a collaborative effort by Paul, Elvin and Michael – a high-energy rock 'n' soul number called "Come On In."

Then it was on to California for an appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival and a series of shows in San Francisco for Bill Graham at the Fillmore and at Graham's new venue, the Winterland Ballroom. San Francisco had become the band's home base, and Michael was particularly taken with the city's moderate climate, both in terms of its weather and in terms of the attitude its inhabitants took toward counterculture indulgences. Drug use was a fact of life in the City by the Bay.

On October 17, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band arrived in London for the start of a two-week-long 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. Bloomfield had first heard Eric's playing on What's Shakin', a compendium LP put out by Elektra in 1965. The album coincidentally included the Butterfield Band's "Born in Chicago." But 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.

Bloomfield also remarked that he was surprised – and not a little disappointed – that he went unrecognized while wandering around the streets of London. Though the band's records had been selling well in the city, he surmised that the buying public had no idea what the band members looked like. 

The Butterfield Band embarked on a series of concert dates the following Thursday, mostly taking day trips to theaters in towns near London. They were a part of a package tour headed by the Georgie Fame and Chris Farlowe groups, and – much to the Butterfield Band's dismay – they were forced to play with borrowed equipment.

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.

Melody Maker, the British pop music tabloid, ran stories on the band and did interviews with Butterfield and Bloomfield while following the group's progress. The publication delighted in comparing the Chicagoans to home-grown blues bands, declaring the question of which played better blues to be a draw. After their two-week run with the tour closed on November 6, Butterfield decided to spend several more weeks in London gigging at local clubs while waiting to tape an appearance on Ready, Steady, Go, the BBC's equivalent to American Bandstand. The band appeared at numerous local clubs and drew large crowds, playing standard Chicago blues, material from their new Elektra release and their two show-stoppers – "Work Song" and "East-West." They did a lip-synced version of their latest single release, "I'm Droppin' Out on You," for Ready, Steady, Go on November 18, and that same day Butterfield recorded for Decca with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. A final show south of London in Lewes on November 19 concluded the Butterfield Blues Band's trip abroad, and the sextet was back in New York City for Thanksgiving.

A gala homecoming concert was arranged for the Saturday following the holiday at the city's Town Hall. 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. They had held their own abroad and were glad to be back. And they were more than glad to be using their own equipment again.

According to the New York Times, they made full use of those big Fender amplifiers. The paper's reviewer was forced to flee to the lobby, complaining that the band was too loud. But the rest of the audience was wildly receptive, and the concert sold well enough that extra seats had be set up on the stage. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band had become the country's premiere blues-rock group.

But Michael Bloomfield was not happy. An insomniac since childhood, he had occasionally been hospitalized for the condition.  Now he found that being on the road seriously disrupted his already tenuous ability to sleep. A non-stop schedule of playing all night and traveling all day caused Bloomfield to go for days without any real rest. Then he would collapse in a state of nervous exhaustion and sleep for twenty-four hours, only to repeat the cycle over again. Sleeping pills only exacerbated the condition, and the temptations of the road further complicated the situation. After a year-and-a-half of constant touring, Michael Bloomfield was reaching the breaking point.

And he was not the only one who was unhappy. Elvin Bishop, Butterfield's original guitarist, had been relegated to the role of rhythm guitar when Michael arrived. Even though Bloomfield was a far better soloist in the band's early days, Elvin still resented his diminished status. By 1967, though, he had considerably improved as a lead player and he very much wanted more time in the spotlight. Michael, increasingly aware of Elvin's ambition, decided to do something about it. 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 Collins 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 Buddy Miles. Michael and Barry saw Buddy perform at one of Murray the K's rock 'n' roll marathons and convinced him to join, despite incurring the wrath of soul singer Pickett. 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 friend he had worked with in Chicago, a New Haven native named Peter Strazza. Strazza played both tenor and baritone saxophone and was an aspiring jazz soloist. Guitarist Larry Coryell recommended a session player he knew from Seattle named Marcus Doubleday. A trumpeter with exceptional tone, Doubleday had worked with the Drifters, Jan and Dean, and Bobby Vinton.

Albert Grossman agreed to manage the new group.

Bloomfield decided to base the band 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.

Corman put the band up in a sprawling mansion in the Hollywood hills, a Spanish-style "castle" of sorts that had previously been occupied by members of the Andy Warhol entourage. The cultural climate in L.A. at the time was highly volatile, and drugs – an increasingly common indulgence in the pop music world in 1967 – were everywhere. Bloomfield's men experimented both in the studio and out in capturing sonically the nature of the experience that Corman wanted to bring to the big screen. They no doubt took inspiration from the very substance that gave the film its name. Under Bloomfield'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 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 production work, 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. Bands from Los Angeles and San Francisco would be featured along with top acts from New York and London. Rock, blues, soul, folk and even Indian music would be presented. In addition, Grossman informed Michael that representatives from the Columbia and Atlantic record labels would be on hand to see the 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. To Roger Corman they were simply "The American Music Band," and they would be listed that way in the credits to "The Trip."

Ron Polte, manager of a San Francisco group called Quicksilver Messenger Service and a friend of Nick Gravenites, had a novelty American flag that he'd gotten from a local Elks lodge or other community hall. It had a small fan in its base that, when switched on, caused the flag to flap in the breeze. Michael thought it was hilarious, and persuaded Polte to give it to the band. In the months after Monterey, it would sit atop Barry Goldberg's Leslie speaker cabinet and wave every time he switched on his Hammond B-3's tremelo. For now, though, the flag provided Bloomfield's new band with its 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 – listed in the program only as "The Michael Bloomfield Thing" – scheduled to close the show. It was a prime slot for a band that was highly anticipated by audience members and fellow musicians alike. The critical world was eager to hear what Michael Bloomfield had been up to since his departure from the Butterfield Band. Nearly every discerning pop music fan agreed that Bloomfield was America's finest rock guitarist, and whatever he was putting together for Saturday's marathon show was sure to be nothing less than extraordinary.

The Electric Flag arrived a few days early for the festival. The band members spent their waking hours rehearsing the tunes for their set. Drained from the creative effort needed to produce Corman's soundtrack, Bloomfield was at first unaware of the buzz that surrounded him. But as musician after musician stopped by his motel room to pay their respects, Michael began to sense 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.

Michael Bloomfield hated that.

But he tried to rise to the occasion. Saturday afternoon was warm and overcast, and the show got underway with the Los Angeles band Canned Heat. Janis Joplin created real excitement with Big Brother and the Holding Company and stage manager Al Kooper did an impromptu set with Elvin Bishop sitting in. Michael, who had been sharing joints backstage with Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, went out front to watch the show. When Paul Butterfield took the stage with his new horn band, Michael was taken by surprise. Butter was in top form and the band was professional and tight, sounding every bit like the blues band with horns that he, Elvin and Paul had so often talked about. Then came the Steve Miller Blues Band. Miller, a kid from Wisconsin who had come to Chicago hoping to break into the scene that Michael and Butter had created, pulled off a very effective set. And now it was the Flag's turn.

Bloomfield suddenly felt real insecurity, perhaps for the first time since climbing onstage with Muddy Waters back when he was an inexperienced fifteen-year-old. Would the Electric Flag be able to rise to the level of these performances? Would they meet expectations? Would Michael Bloomfield?

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, the only black man to be seen on stage that afternoon, sang two ebullient numbers while Nick Gravenites did the band'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.

Continued on Page 2

 

© 2011 David Dann