In his documentary film included with a new box set, director Bob Sarles shines light on the artistry and enigma of the legendary late guitarist.
BY DENISE SULLIVAN
Bob Dylan calls him “the best guitar player I ever heard.” Carlos Santana remembers his distinctive style: “With an acoustic guitar, a Telecaster, a Stratocaster or Les Paul, you heard three notes, or you heard one note and you knew it was Michael.” B.B. King credits him with his own crossover success with young, white audiences. “I think they felt if Michael Bloomfield said if he listened to B.B. King, we’ll listen to him too,” said King, still on the touring circuit at age 88.
So how is it in the age of excess information about guitar styles and rock ’n’ roll, Mike Bloomfield isn’t cited more often as a major contributor to the music’s evolution? West Coast filmmaker Bob Sarles has been in search of that answer for 20 years, charting the mystery, tracking down interviews, and compiling reels of footage. But he didn’t have a finished film until he was encouraged by Bloomfield friend and collaborator Al Kooper to deliver an hour-long cut of Sweet Blues: A Film About Michael Bloomfield, for inclusion in the four-disc collection, Mike Bloomfield: From His Head to His Heart to His Hands, released this week by Columbia/Legacy.
“Piedmont, finger-picking, slide…normally people specialize, but Michael mastered it all,” explains Sarles, whose Ravin Films specializes in music documentary (Soulsville, Coldplay LIVE! At The Fillmore) “He could play like T-Bone Walker, he could play like Albert King, he knew what to do with his fingers, how to handle strings, all the minutiae of technique, he knew it all, and he still put his signature on it.”
A Bloomfield fan since way back, Sarles initially gravitated to the guitarist’s supersonic electric feedback assaults and fearless psychedelic improvisations, but he eventually grew to understand and appreciate the deep ways Bloomfield impacted rock ’n’ roll. It’s the latter story he attempts to unreel in Sweet Blues with the help of some rare audio and visual footage that underscores just how far Bloomfield got into his blues. “He had ambitions of bettering himself, of learning more about music,” says Sarles. “But in terms of accumulating material wealth or becoming famous, he had no interest in that at all.” It’s possible Bloomfield could’ve been a bigger star had he not walked away from its trappings; but there were also darker forces at work that conspired to bring him down.
Born in Chicago in 1943, and raised in suburban, well-to-do Glencoe, Bloomfield took up guitar despite assumptions that a good Jewish son would follow his father into the family’s lucrative restaurant supply business. Driven in part by his father’s hatred of the guitar and his insistence on calling it a “fruitbox,” Michael became a blues musician. “That’s where he found his solace,” remembers his mother, Dottie. As a lefty who played right-handed, it took Bloomfield extra hours of arduous practice to play properly. Further educating himself in style and technique, Bloomfield stole away from the family home and burrowed his way into Chicago’s Southside blues scene. He sought out the players and even the homes of the local blues greats — Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Freddie King, Washboard Sam, Kokomo Arnold, Tommy McClennan — until Muddy Waters would come to refer to him as his “son.” Eventually Bloomfield landed his first recording date: Broke and Hungry by Sleepy John Estes, with the Tennessee Jug Busters: Yank Rachell and Hammie Nixon (Rachell remembers him as “a nice young white boy”).
Bloomfield was a voracious reader and a talker; he never slowed down and suffered from perpetual insomnia. His young white Chicago blues contemporary, Charlie Musselwhite, characterized it as his energy for the music and for life: “He wanted to just eat it all up.” Musselwhite says sometimes he couldn’t tell if Bloomfield’s tales were tall or the truth, (“He told both equally well”); naturally he was skeptical when Bloomfield told him about a contract with Columbia and upcoming session with John Hammond, but he showed up with his harps anyway (Musselwhite went on to international fame as an electric blues harmonica player; he and Ben Harper won this year’s Grammy for Best Blues Album for their collaboration, Get Up!).
The Columbia sessions ultimately went unreleased for many years, (a few selections are included on the new collection), but Bloomfield forged a career by joining Paul Butterfield’s band. Signed to Elektra and playing a high-octane form of Chicago Blues, Butterfield, Bloomfield, Mark Naftalin, Elvin Bishop, Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay, as the Butterfield Blues Band, were among the first interracial groups on the rock scene. Acquainted with Dylan, it wasn’t long before Bloomfield received the call to prepare and play on the session for Highway 61 Revisited.
Pulled in to perform at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival for the famous electric set, Bloomfield’s contribution was key to that performance, though he was ultimately happier staying on with Butterfield — with whom he was often at odds. Yet, the Butterfield Band went on to break further ground with projects like East/West: Influenced by LSD, Indian classical music and free jazz, its title track is widely acknowledged by music historians for introducing the concept of the extended jam into rock.
Naftalin and Bishop recall their band’s transition from tough Chicago blues act to becoming fixtures on the San Francisco psychedelic scene. “We took right to it,” says Bishop. “They took the town by storm,” remembered Bill Graham, the larger-than-life rock promoter who along with promoter Chet Helms explain how Bloomfield influenced local bookings and tastes in elder blues and gospel players, from the Staple Singers to Howlin’ Wolf. Sarles was lucky to have been so long collecting footage of Bloomfield’s friends, loved ones and fellow musicians — those who knew his playing styles and personal quirks the best — since many, like Graham and Helms, have since passed. But perhaps most interesting of all the words spoken in the film are Bloomfield’s own, his lust for the blues crackling through the tape. Bloomfield’s longstanding association with the San Francisco scene influenced the style of many of its key players, from the aforementioned Santana, to members of Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. The Airplane’s (and later Hot Tuna’s) Jorma Kaukonen says, “He was one of the first guys that took some time and showed me to do stuff…how to bend notes and sustain things…he was really instrumental in getting me to be an electric guitar player.”
Though the San Francisco sound was loose by comparison to Chicago standards (Santana called it “cute” versus the “gutbucket switchblade music” of Bloomfield and Co.) and Bloomfield agreed with the assessment, he loved the people and easily fell in with them. Settling across the Golden Gate Bridge in Mill Valley, he formed the Electric Flag with Nick Gravenites, Buddy Miles, Barry Goldberg, Harvey Brooks and a horn section. Bloomfield and Electric Flag performed at yet another watershed festival — Monterey Pop — and produced some great traditional blues (as on “Texas”) and experimental soul, but Bloomfield really only supplied precious seconds of screaming leads and the sweet blues (as on “Easy Rider”). As time went on, it was revealed that Bloomfield wasn’t very prolific as a composer of original material; Electric Flag was a mixed bag but largely unsatisfactory. A push-pull with Buddy Miles and merely adequate vocalizing by Gravenites made the act a cross between a derivative show band and one that had yet to find its groove. Again, touring didn’t suit Bloomfield so he quit them. By the time the call came from Kooper for a collaboration, Bloomfield was resistant, but the guitarist gave himself over to one night of recording Super Session (Stephen Stills recorded his contribution the next day) and the follow-up onstage testament, The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.
Kooper provides many of the film’s more poignant recollections of his friend. The pair’s professional bonding occurred at the epic recording session for Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited; as it turned out, they shared an extraordinary musical kinship. Both saw Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers on their 15th birthdays; they called each other by their birth names Alan and Michael “because that’s who we felt we were addressing,” writes Kooper in the liner notes he prepared while collecting the tracks for From His Head To His Heart To His Hands. He pulled just a few selections from Super Sessions, as well its follow-up The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper and Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes, plus a rare, previously unreleased live recording of “Glamour Girl,” from a 1978 appearance at New York’s Bottom Line.
Just as they were making plans for another collaboration, Bloomfield died on February 15, 1981. “Michael’s accidental premature ascent to the heavens hit me hard especially as I was notified by reading about it in the newspaper,” writes Kooper. Filmmaker Sarles chose not to dwell on the sordid and still somewhat mysterious circumstances of Bloomfield’s death on a San Francisco hilltop, an unsurprising end given how he’d been living: he’d found the only way to quell his undiagnosed manic energy and lifelong insomnia was heroin. “And he died young because of it,” says Sarles.
“Michael had isolated himself and people isolated themselves from Michael because it was such a downward spiral, it was dangerous to be around. I could’ve told that story more explicitly, but in the hour long format, I didn’t see the point of it,” says the director. “If Errol Morris had made the film, the mystery might be solved, but for me, it was just like a sad epilogue. I wanted to point the way toward a guy who was really brilliant and whose music deserves to be listened to and appreciated; his impact on what happened in the history of music in the second part of the 20th Century was enormous. To me, that was much more important than the way he died.”
For now the only way to see Sarles’ film is through purchase and download of the Columbia/Legacy box set, though it will continue to screen at festivals; it debuted in 2013 in Bloomfield’s adopted hometown, at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Sarles hopes the film will pique the attention of an investor who may want to fund a feature-length documentary about the guitar player who friends and peers characterize as “brilliant,” and a “genius,” even if he hasn’t been as well-remembered as some other fretboard masters. Though Bloomfield also left another legacy: “He was very kind,” remembers Santana. “He was a good person,” adds Musselwhite. “He was a loving, caring person…a good friend of mine,” says B.B. King.
Though it might not be what makes a guitarist a legend, among men, Bloomfield was quite a guy.
Photos: Mike Shea, Don Hunstein
Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing, Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop and Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors.