Saturday, August 23, 2008

MIKE BLOOMFIELD: The Best White Blues Guitarist Everybody Has Forgotten

One of the first blues albums I ever owned was the first release by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I'm sure that I bought it on a trip to Robert's Records with "Guitar Johnny" Nicholas in the summer of 1967.

Up until that time, my musical education, which began with the Kingston Trio and Bobby Darin, had only advanced from AM Radio and Spector's Wall of Sound to the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Dylan's early albums. Like a lot of American kids, I got my first taste of blues and roots music through the cover versions recorded by the English groups like the Beatles, Stones, and Animals. Before that, I had very little exposure to the blues.

I can still remember dropping the needle on the first track of the album and hearing the blast of Born in Chicago. First, the rhythm section kicks in with Butterfield's harp right there. After the vocals start, there is that distinctive lead, like the buzz of an angry bee, from the guitar of Mike Bloomfield. It was a kind of music I had never heard before and I couldn't get enough of the whole album. Something about the look of the band and the raw sound captured my imagination and made me hungry to hear more blues.

Within the year, I was diving deeper into Dylan's music and history. I found a newspaper article about Dylan's electric breakout at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1965. Looking at a newspaper picture of the band from that night, I recognized Bloomfield on the bandstand. There he was with his Jew-Fro and trademark hunched stance over the Telecaster. Later someone gave me a bootleg tape of that night. His guitar jumped off the tape at me. It was vintage Bloomfield and loud enough to help Bob shake up the folk establishment.

Next, I realized that the lead guitar on my new favorite album, Highway 61 Revisited was Mike Bloomfield as well. The story of the contribution of Al Kooper and Bloomfield on Highway 61 is well known. In his fantastic book, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards (available at Amazon and highly recommended), Kooper describes the scene when Bloomfield arrives in the studio:

                  "Suddenly Dylan exploded through the doorway, and in tow
 was this bizarre-looking guy carrying a Fender Telecaster
 without a case. Which was weird, because it was the dead of winter 
 and the guitar was all wet from the rain and snow. But he just
 shuffled over into the corner, wiped it off , plugged in and
                   commenced to play some of the most incredible guitar I ever heard."

Notice the difference between the guitar on Dylan's previous album, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61. Bruce Langhorne plays some nice fills on the electric side of the album, but his playing is no match for Bloomfield's take charge licks on Highway 61. Although it may not be the guitar of the "Thin Wild Mercury Sound" Bob was searching for, it certainly was an important stop on the way to Robbie Robertson and that sound.

Raised in Chicago, Mike was exposed to the blues scene of the South Side at a very early age. He earned the respect of the established players because of his obvious and enormous talent. After his work with Butterfield and Dylan, he formed a band called The Electric Flag. They played at the Monterey Pop Festival and released one pretty good album, A Long Time Comin'. In 1968, he teamed up with old friend Al Kooper for the Super Session albums. Although popular at the time, they seem a little uneven and dated to me now.

After that, Bloomfield continued to do session work and made a couple of solo albums. He lived in San Fransisco and played at local clubs. Unfortunately, his heroin habit became a big factor. On February 15, 1891, he was found dead of an overdose in a parked car. A brilliant career cut short.

Well before Clapton became "God", Mike Bloomfield was the best in the land. It is a shame that he gets so little recognition today. If you are not familiar with his music, add some to your playlist. Essential Mike Bloomfield:
  1. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (1965)
  2. East-West   Paul Butterfield Blues Band (1965)
  3. Highway 61 Revisited  Bob Dylan (1965)
  4. A Long Time Comin'   The Electric Flag (1968)
  5. Super Session  Bloomfield, Kooper and Stills (1968)
  6. The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper (1968)
  7. Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield; The Lost Concert Tapes (1968)

Next Post: Al Kooper



  1. You should track down a copy of "Me and Big Joe," Mike Bloomfield's account of his early days in Chicago and his travels with Big Joe Williams, part of which read like a collaboration between Flannery O'Connor and Hieronymus Bosch. interesting encounters with Tampa Red, Sonny Boy Williamson and Lightnin' Hopkins. It's just a pamphlet, so be a savvy shopper.

  2. In addition to Mike Bloomfield being a forgotten guitarist, he has one incredible forgotten album: Steelyard Blues. It was a Jane Fonda/Donald Sutherland movie soundtrack, a collaboration among Electric Flag, Maria Muldaur, and Paul Butterfield, squashed in the anti-Jane Fonda hysteria of the early 70s. As far as I know, it was never transferred to CD. I have it on vinyl, and it still holds up.

  3. you guys are great to listen to....thanks for all the personal tidbits and insights into the music of our lives......

  4. i was glad to read the blog about Arthur Alexander. i've been a fan of his for many years. in case you didnt know, there's a great biography about him written by Richard Younger. it's called "Get A Shot Of Rhythm and Blues; the Arthur Alexander Story". i'd recommend it if you like Arthur's work.

  5. 100% right about Bloomfield. Check out the PBBB album with three versions of east-west.