Born: July 28, 1943 in Chicago IL
Died: February 15, 1981 in San Francisco CA
Michael Bloomfield was the first white blues guitarist of note, a skilled technician that was taught his craft by the Chicago bluesmen that took the teenaged prodigy under their wing. As talented as he was, however, Bloomfield suffered from deep-seated insecurities and constant insomnia, which in turn resulted in a long-time battle with drugs and alcohol that the guitarist inevitably lost. At his best, though, Bloomfield was a transcendent talent, and he helped popularize authentic Chicago blues with white audiences during the mid-1960s, thereby influencing a generation of young blues-rock guitarslingers.
Troubled By The Blues
Born Michael Bernard Bloomfield to a wealthy Jewish family, Bloomfield was a shy, unassuming child who got interested in music by listening to Southern radio stations playing blues, R&B, and rockabilly music. Bloomfield received a guitar for his bar mitzvah, and as a teen he would often sneak into Chicago's South Side clubs to hear the blues. Finding the attraction of the music intoxicating, the young guitarist would frequently jump on stage to jam with blues legends like Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam.
The teenage Bloomfield made quite an impression on the older bluesmen, and they mentored the teenage guitarists and smartened him up to the way of the blues. Worried by the education their son was receiving on the street, Bloomfield's parents sent him east to an exclusive boarding school. He would return to Chicago, and graduated from a school for troubled youth. Bloomfield took a job managing a folk music club near the University of Chicago, often booking acoustic bluesmen to perform. By this time, Bloomfield had also begun picking up gigs as a session player.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
Because of his fast-blooming reputation as a session guitarist, Bloomfield would be discovered by the legendary Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond in 1964, and signed to the label. Several recordings that Bloomfield made for Columbia went unreleased at the time as the label had no idea how to market a white blues guitarist. Also during the early-1960s, Bloomfield would befriend fellow musicians Nick Gravenites and Charlie Musselwhite, performing in bands with both.
While running his own little blues club, the Fickle Pickle, Bloomfield met up with harp player Paul Butterfield and guitarist Elvin Bishop. In 1965, he would join the Paul Butterfield Blues Band with the two musicians, and bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay, veterans of Howlin' Wolf's band. The multi-racial outfit would break through several musical barriers with their self-titled debut album, released later that year. They quickly followed up with the explosive East-West in 1966, the album mixing Chicago blues with psychedelic rock, jazz, and even Indian raga to critical acclaim.
Bob Dylan & Electric Flag
Bloomfield continued with his lucrative session work at this time, and was enlisted by Bob Dylan to play on his groundbreaking 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, the guitarist lending his talents to songs like "Tombstone Blues," "Like A Rolling Stone," and "Desolation Row." Dylan asked Bloomfield to join his touring band, the guitarist declining in favor of the Butterfield Blues Band, but Bloomfield did appear alongside Dylan for his controversial first electric live performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, backed by his bandmates Arnold and Lay.
After the release of East-West, Bloomfield tired of the Butterfield Band's constant touring, and he relocated to San Francisco. Forming Electric Flag with vocalist/guitarist Nick Gravenites and keyboardist Barry Goldberg, two old Chicago friends, and drummer Buddy Miles, the band debuted at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and released a single album, A Long Time Comin', in 1968. Although praised by critics as a unique blend of psychedelic rock, blues, jazz, and soul, many considered the album uneven. Drug problems and personality conflicts would break up the band up shortly after the album's release.
Al Kooper & Super Session
Bloomfield reunited with fellow Dylan session player, keyboardist Al Kooper, who had the idea of showcasing the guitarist's skills with a studio "jam" session. With a backing band that including former Electric Flag bandmate Goldberg, bassist Harvey Brooks, and drummer Eddie Hoh, Kooper and Bloomfield recorded five songs for the first side of the Super Session album, which would be released in 1968. Unable to return to the studio because of health problems, Kooper recruited former Buffalo Springfield guitarist Stephen Stills to record four songs for the album's second side.
Bloomfield and Kooper continued their collaboration in 1968, recording The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper over three nights at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. The album featured Bloomfield's blistering guitarwork on a collection of original and cover material.
Bloomfield's Solo Work
Bloomfield released a bona fide debut album, It's Not Killing Me, on Columbia in 1969, but the album's uneven performances and weak vocals (Bloomfield was a musician, not a singer) held it back from commercial success. During the 1970s, Bloomfield shied away from his fame and partially retired from touring, performing in San Francisco with friends like Gravenites. During this time, Bloomfield began scoring films like The Trip and Medium Cool, and even played on the soundtracks of several porno movies.
In 1973, Columbia convinced Bloomfield to record with bluesman John Hammond, Jr. and Dr. John, calling the trio Triumvirate. The band's lone album went nowhere, and after a couple of other misguided band efforts (KGB, and a re-formed Electric Flag), Bloomfield would subsequently record a string of poorly-distributed solo albums. The best of these would be recorded for musician John Fahey's Takoma Records label. Tragically, Bloomfield would be found dead in his car of an overdose on the day of the release of his 1981 album Cruisin' For A Bruisin'; the guitarist was just 37 years old. In 2014, Bloomfield's old friend Al Kooper curated From His Head To His Heart To His Hands, a multi-disc career-spanning box set of Bloomfield's music.
Recommended Albums: Bloomfield's solo albums are a confusing mess of mediocrity with a few moments of brilliance. The guitarist's best work was done with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, while the surprising If You Love These Blues, Play 'Em As You Please, originally intended as an instructional album, is a career high point. The posthumously-released Live At The Old Waldorf, recorded in 1976, offers Bloomfield's best live performances.
Michael Bloomfield - Select Discography
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- The Paul Butterfield Blues Band - The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (Elektra Records, 1965)
- The Paul Butterfield Blues Band - East-West (Elektra Records, 1966)
- Electric Flag - A Long Time Comin' (Columbia Records, 1968)
- Super Session w/Al Kooper (Columbia Records, 1968)
- The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper (Columbia Records, 1968)
- It's Not Killing Me (Columbia Records, 1969)
- If You Love These Blues, Play 'Em As You Please (Guitar Player, 1976)
- Live At The Old Waldorf (Sony Legacy, 1998)
- From His Head To His Heart To His Hands (Sony Legacy, 2014)