Michael Bloomfield was the first American guitar hero to emerge in the sixties, the first to stand up beside such noted English players as Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. It's his soaring guitar heard on Dylans break-through single "Like A Rolling Stone", and he was in the backup band at Newport in 1965 when Dylan set the folk world on its ear by going electric. As lead guitarist in the Butterfield Blues Band, Bloomfield soon gained notoriety with his rapid-fire multi-noted solos and his blues-based passionate playing. With their second album, EAST-WEST, the Butterfield Band became a hot ticket on the psychedelic ballroom circuit, doing a heady mix of blues/jazz/raga based instrumentals that fit just fine into the chemical journeys their listeners were embarking on.
The picture the book paints is that of a gifted kid born into a well off family (most of Bloomfields early friends and playing partners had maids) who was drawn both viscerally and intellectually to the funky south-side world of blues. He began hanging out in southside Chicago blues bars at 18, sitting in with his idols Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams and others. His first recordings were as a sideman with Yank Rachell and Sleepy John Estes and he was involved with finding bluesmen who hadn't worked since the forties and booking them in small clubs near the University campus. He became a real champion of the form and its practitioners, interviewing Muddy Waters for several publications, and worked on a documentary film about the fabled Maxwell Street musical scene.
He was brash, energetic and charismatic--he had the ebullience of a speed-freak, though its said he hated amphetamines. Interestingly, he was a late addition to the Butterfield Band, joining after they'd already done several album sessions, adding his slide guitar to the mix. He and Butterfield became sparring partners, and their mutual approach of not only leaving no note unplayed, but also cramming every conceivable one possible into a solo, made for fiery, if sometimes over-wrought stage shows.
But at the height of their fame, Bloomfield walked out, to form his own group, The American Flag, a horn-band that embraced blues and soul material. That lasted only a couple of albums, once again Bloomfield split. He was talked into a so-called "super-session" jam with keyboardist Al Kooper, and the resulting double album sold well. Apparently Bloomfield wanted no part of it, and he more or less withdrew from the scene, surfacing from time to time with miscellaneous neighborhood groups to do sporadic album projects. In the mid seventies these mostly concentrated on acoustic old-timey blues and ragtime picking and were not what his following wanted to hear him do.
One fact the authors uncover was that while drugs may have had something to do with his reticence to go out and play, his selective worklife was also facilitated by annual trust fund payments. He received $50,000 a year, left him by his grandmother. Several bandmates thought he only wanted to work when the annual check was gone. In 1981, his body was found locked inside his car, he'd died of a cocaine OD, though his drug of choice had long been heroin. (He'd been an avowed addict for several years.)
That's the outline of a life, and the authors explore it as an oral history, meaning the story is told more or less chronologically, using interview quotes, without any connecting author narration. Their were 80 some people interviewed, from friends and family to wives and lovers. An earlier bio, THE RISE AND FALL OF AN AMERICAN GUITAR HERO by Ed Ward in 1983 laid the ground work, but Wolkin and Keenom delve further--they had more time on their side. Consequently they range both wider and deeper. The picture that emerges is of a bright, impassioned musician who lost his drive behind the
price of fame, and wound up squandering his talent. The only drawback to the book is that while his life is well covered, due to the anecdotal form you don't get much of a real sense of his musical contributions-maybe interviews with fellow players like Clapton or B B King might have helped round out that part of the picture.
Included with the book is a 43 minute CD with seven unreleased tracks, recorded in 1964 by cohort Norman Dayron, who also produced the Muddy Waters FATHERS & SONS album that featured Bloomfield and Butterfield. This CD contains some of Mike's earliest recordings. Three come from January 1964, with Mike on acoustic guitar, cut at Dayrons apartment. "Bullet Rag" is a flash finger-picking showcase, "J P Morgan" is a jokey rag-time number. On "King Pin" Bloomfield experimented with overdubbing a lead solo on top of a rudimentary bass riff, his guitar is better than the vocals by some
distance. The other 4 tracks were cut at Big Johns, the near campus club where the Butterfield Band got its start. There are a couple of long instrumental jams, an uptempo finger-twister clocking in at 9:22, the other, with Charlie Musslewhite on somewhat buried harp (Mike played loud), is an almost 13 minute slow blues. "Country Boy" is a Muddy Waters tune, again with Musslewhite, Mikes vocal fares a bit better here. There's also a ramshackle piano piece cut during a break, with Bloomfield noodling pleasantly. This is the work of a young hot shot in his early days, sometimes the flash takes precedence over the content. Despite that there are real glimpses here of what a powerful, intuitive player he would become.
Altogether the package gives a good look at the life and times of one of the early white champions of the blues--he paved the way for a lot of guitar slingers to follow.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Tony Glover, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
Click button to join
our mailing list!