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Mike Bloomfield

The blues is a harsh mistress they say, a revelation that has never been far from the truth for several of the genre’s devotees, a lengthy list that included “Sessions” legend MIKE BLOOMFIELD. While life in the fast lane of drugs and booze had its fair share of ups and downs, the guitarist’s rollercoaster ride was cut short all too soon. Behind him he left a trail of 60s success stories with DYLAN, The PAUL BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND and The ELECTRIC FLAG, but also 70s solo sour notes, collaborations and a sub-par supergroup KGB.
Born Michael Bernard Bloomfield, July 28, 1943, Chicago, Illinois, the young Jewish boy became enamoured with R&B and the rockabilly sounds beaming into his living room from his local radio station. An awkward shy lad who received his first guitar at his bar mitzvah, Michael played the blues to his friends. He finally plucked up the courage to gate-crash a stage down at the booming South Side club scene, but this was curtailed when he was subsequently sent to a private boarding school on the East side and, in turn, a local college for unruly kids.
The early 60s saw BLOOMFIELD hitch a ride on the burgeoning beatnik scene, and with a little help from his friends, he secured a management spot at a folk club. Here, he was in his element; booking blues acts whilst consequently finding a range of session work. The legendary JOHN HAMMOND was so impressed with the performances of the young star that he helped ink a deal at Columbia Records.
In the mid-60s, the British blues movement was spawning white boy lead guitarists on every corner (the YARDBIRDS and JOHN MAYALL’s BLUESBREAKERS had enveloped most of them), but Stateside, especially Chicago, they’d difficulty marketing a “watered-down” version of the genre for the urban blues community.
As a result, Michael was licensed out to Elektra Records act, The PAUL BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND, where the harmonica man must’ve thought all his birthdays and Christmases had come at once. And for a couple of storming, racially integrated LPs, namely “The Paul Butterfield Blues Band” (1965) and “East-West” (1966), Michael had most certainly played his part in redefining the genre; he’d also helped a revolutionary BOB DYLAN plug-in folk music to the mains by augmented the bard at the Newport Folk Festival, and on his sublime “Highway 61 Revisited” album.
Michael had witnessed the times a-changin’ during the previous few years, but he’d always drawn inspiration, not from psychedelic, experimental, soul and jazz, but pure blues. It was then a major surprise when he took the commission to lay down tracks for Roger Corman’s cult exploitation movie, “The Trip” (written by Jack Nicholson and starring Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper). Short of group names, he and his compadres came up with The ELECTRIC FLAG, AN AMERICAN MUSIC BAND.
By March 1968, Columbia Records were now in charge of the decidedly soulful blues-rock combo, and on their second outing, “A Long Time Comin’”, they’d secured a near Top 30 place. When players such as singer Nick Gravenites and keyboardist Barry Goldberg were bailing out in quick succession, MIKE BLOOMFIELD’s interest also waned. The great guitarist loved working alongside his peers, so roping in friends in hiatus, such as organist AL KOOPER (ex-BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS, ex-BLUES PROJECT) and guitarist STEVE STILLS (ex-BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD), was jaw-dropping from the outset. The thought that another wondrous triumvirate was about to rival that of CREAM and The JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE, was a mouth-watering proposition.
1968’s SUPER SESSION {*8} caught the imagination of the buying public, who helped the set go all the way to No.12. However on closer inspection, the top billing led by BLOOMFIELD was a misnomer, as only KOOPER had bonded with the other main protagonists: firstly by working with Mike on side one, and secondly with Steve on side two. It was clear though the ingenious concept was Mike’s baby, who on `Albert’s Shuffle’, `His Holy Modal Majesty’, and covers of CURTIS MAYFIELD’s `Man’s Temptation’ and Jerry Ragovoy & Mort Shuman’s `Stop’, stole the show. On the other side, there would be the KOOPER/STILLS re-treads of DYLAN and DONOVAN tracks that Mike was not involved with.
By and large it worked a treat; though the decision to cut another, a double-LP this time, without their CROSBY, STILLS & NASH-bound buddy, was stretching the off-shoot motif to its limit. Still, THE LIVE ADVENTURES OF MIKE BLOOMFIELD AND AL KOOPER (1969) {*7} – recorded at Fillmore West the previous September – kept the pair’s profile high enough to harvest another Top 20 set. The record was still something of an improv “session” if one counted the appearances of devotees CARLOS SANTANA and ELVIN BISHOP; aside from rhythm section John Kahan (bass) and Skip Prokop (drums), so in a plethora of covers by way of SIMON & GARFUNKEL’s `The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)’ and The BAND’s `The Weight’, to TRAFFIC’s `Dear Mr. Fantasy’ and BOOKER T. & THE MG’s `Green Onions’ (thrown in with material from RAY CHARLES, SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON, ALBERT KING et al), it certainly had everything but the kitchen sink.
On the back of an appearance on MUDDY WATERS’s live project LP, `Fathers And Sons’, MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD turned in his debut solo set, IT’S NOT KILLING ME (1969) {*4}. Panned for his squeaky singing abilities rather than his guitar prowess, this was not his finest moment(s), despite scribing all its eleven cuts. Groomed to be the next CLAPTON by someone at Columbia, it was puzzling to think that seasoned pro Gravenites was only there as producer among a raft of session people. Someone might’ve said something.
There was something of recompense when said singer Nick Gravenites received support-star billing (with friends) on a belatedly-issued MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD recording, LIVE AT BILL GRAHAM’S FILLMORE WEST 1969 (1970) {*6}. A double-set of jams that highlighted covers from WILLIE DIXON/OTIS RUSH, ARTHUR CONLEY and JOSEPH COTTON, Gravenites’ songs and performances were surely understated in relation to the guitarist’s top billing. Friends included a plethora of session people, including TAJ MAHAL, Mark Naftalin, AL KOOPER, John Kahn, Ira Kamin, Snookey Flowers, drummers Bob Jones and Skip Prokop et al.
As with his British counterpart CLAPTON, BLOOMFIELD spent a good part of the early 70s in recovery mode, although he did arise now and then to play sessions, produce, and perform live. That was probably the difference between the two self-confessed addicts: while Eric was willing to go cold turkey so to speak, Michael was basically going through the motions.
After a drift into the world of soundtracks as NICK GRAVENITES’ collaborator via 1973’s “Steel Yard Blues” (that also credited PAUL BUTTERFIELD and MARIA MULDAUR), BLOOMFIELD was again part of a priol – alongside mentor JOHN HAMMOND and New Orleans funkster DR. JOHN – concerning the joint effort aspect of TRIUMVIRATE (1973) {*5}. The album restored some chart action; though not much. And if there was any bend to the right or the left, one supposed that DR. JOHN’s voodoo spells won the day; as his own `Sho Bout To Drive Me Wild’ and `I Yi Yi’, plus a cover of WILLIE DIXON’s `Pretty Thing’ (with the exception of B.B. KING’s `Rock Me Baby’ and JOHN LEE HOOKER’s `Ground Hog Blues’) would unfetter.
Desperate to claw back the years he’d missed, Mike re-formed The ELECTRIC FLAG for a one-off set, `The Band Kept Playing’ (1974). Out of sync with the ever-changing mood of the mid-70s that had little time for sentiment, the guitarist then took on the task of leading out subsequent supergroup, KGB, with Messrs Barry Goldberg, Ray Kennedy, Rik Grech and Carmine Appice. Even Mike thought this was up the Suwannee without a paddle when he bailed after an eponymous LP for MCA Records in 1976; and prior to a BLOOMFIELD-less `Motion’ follow-up.
As basically honest as it seemed, his reason to defect from his previous band was to finalise the release of “Try It Before You Buy It” – an ironic title, as it was duly shelved by his former paymaster generals at Columbia.
A year down the line and with a further request, IF YOU LOVE THESE BLUES, PLAY ‘EM AS YOU PLEASE (1976) {*7} found BLOOMFIELD back on song. Dispatched by Guitar Player magazine, the blues axeman abandoned any predilections of what others thought of his music by introducing his heroes one by one in his own finger-pickin’ back-porch aplomb. Okay, it played out like a instructional manual, but Mike was able to showcase country-blues songs made famous by B.B. KING, JIMMIE RODGERS, The CARTER FAMILY, T-BONE WALKER and others; best examples `Death In My Family’, `WDIA’ and `Mama Lion’.
Takoma Records took up the mantle for BLOOMFIELD’s next solo venture, ANALINE (1977) {*7}. No one was expecting much from Mike these days, so the guitarist was at ease at developing and re-arranging trad material like `Frankie And Johnny’ and Duke Ellington’s `Mood Indigo’, alongside his own `Big `C’ Blues’ and the Gravenites-penned title track.
An ill-advised decision to turn in an R&B set rather than purist blues unceremoniously back-fired with COUNT TALENT AND THE ORIGINALS (1978) {*4}, but by then only his Dutch devotees were sounding this one out. With a line-up that consisted of Gravenites, Bob Jones, Roger Troy, Mark Naftalin and David Shorey, there was promise but no substance in covering the likes of `When I Need You’ (a massive UK hit for LEO SAYER), alongside saving grace tracks, `You Was Wrong’ and `Bad Man’.
The eponymous MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD (1978) {*7} album was next up in the firing line, but stalwart blues fans and the guitarist’s unwavering devotees would still hook into his way of sketching out the likes of `See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’, the self-deprecating `Sloppy Drunk’ and his jilted ode to lesbianism, `Women Loving Each Other’.
Although Mike’s life would be a struggle fighting alcoholism and drugs, he was still quite prolific in his album-a-year ratio. Punk rock had virtually come and gone by the time BETWEEN A HARD PLACE & THE GROUND (1979) {*6} had slid by without much ado. His marriage too was on the rocks. And no one was really paying attention to the blues man’s re-treads of LITTLE WALTER’s `Lights Out’, Robert Brown’s `Orphan’s Blues’ or Deadric Malone’s `Your Friends’. The same could be said for his MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD & WOODY HARRIS (1979) {*5} collaboration, and the frustratingly underrated solo set, LIVING IN THE FAST LANE (1980) {*7}. For the latter album (spun after an appearance with DYLAN performing `Like A Rolling Stone’), the guitarist had took up a funkier, groovier and soulful motif; and on `Maudie’, `Roots’ and `When I Get Home’, the man was almost like a gospel-blues TEMPTATIONS.
And with, presumably, another album in the can (the posthumous CRUISIN’ FOR A BRUISIN’ {*6}), tragedy struck when Mike was found dead in his car on February 15, 1981, the result of a drug overdose. The 37 year-old had never fully put all his demons behind him.
© MC Strong/MCS 1994-2009/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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