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October 19, 2019

David Dann's Playlist for His Book "Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues"

Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

David Dann's book Guitar Kingis an exhaustive and engaging biography of Michael Bloomfield, a guitarist whose blues influence changed rock and roll.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"This monumental book illuminates the legacy of a musician who has been overshadowed by other Sixties luminaries but who helped bring the vernacular of the blues to rock and whose playing influenced the course of rock and roll. "

In his own words, here is David Dann's Book Notes music playlist for his book Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues:

Michael Bloomfield was America’s first great guitar player of the modern rock era, a talented and troubled artist who developed a style that fused aspects of folk, blues, rock, and jazz into an entirely new and exciting sound. His explorations set the standard for American guitar players throughout the 1960s, but his reluctance to live in the spotlight coupled with personal struggles with drugs and emotional demons eventually consigned his formidable contributions to obscurity. Few today are aware of Bloomfield’s influence on American popular culture, and fewer still know the epic adventure that was his life. Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues is an attempt to remedy those oversights with a detailed recounting of that epic life and a thorough examination of the guitarist’s extensive discography.

But perhaps the best way to assess Mike Bloomfield’s impact is simply to listen to his recordings. While he recorded only a handful of albums under his own name, he participated in many more, in almost every case as a featured soloist. The following playlist identifies several of his most important recordings, some that were controversial and a few that are personal favorites, all presented in chronological order with a bit of explanatory commentary.

1. “One More Mile” (What’s Shakin’), Paul Butterfield Blues Band and others, Elektra)

Probably recorded in April 1965, James Cotton’s “One More Mile” was a departure for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The quartet’s previous recordings for Elektra had usually featured Butterfield as soloist, and for the initial sessions, in March, Bloomfield had played organ on several tunes. But the producer, Paul Rothchild, invited him and his guitar back to New York for additional sessions with the band. Though he was not officially a member of the quartet, Michael quickly became the band’s lead guitarist in the studio. Butterfield acknowledged as much by featuring him on “One More Mile,” and the result is an early display of Bloomfield’s formidable powers. His guitar here, a 1963 Fender Telecaster, is louder than loud and drenched in reverb, and his single-chorus solo is so intense that it elicits a shout from Paul. Elektra’s engineers, still learning how to record amplified music, were doubtless riding the gain knobs in the control room.

2. “Like a Rolling Stone” (Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan, Columbia Legacy)

The song that Rolling Stone magazine considers the greatest pop tune of all time, “Like a Rolling Stone,” was worked out by Bob Dylan and Michael Bloomfield in Bearsville and recorded in Columbia’s New York studios in June 1965. Bloomfield’s contribution, playing “none of that B. B. King shit,” as he recalled Bob instructing him, resulted in Dylan’s first “folk-rock” release and led to the poet-musician “going electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in July. It’s arguable that without Michael’s participation in that historic moment, Dylan might not have been able to break away from the limitations of traditional folk music as thoroughly as he did. Bob said of Michael, “He was just the best guitarist I had ever heard.”

3. “Shake Your Money Maker” (Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elektra)
4. “Our Love Is Drifting” (Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elektra)

These two selections, from the first Butterfield album, released in October 1965, are early examples of Michael Bloomfield’s mastery of blues techniques. “Shake Your Money Maker,” the Elmore James song, features Michael’s wailing slide, while his single-string lead provides the focus on “Our Love Is Drifting.” The latter tune shows the guitarist’s skill as an accompanist as Bloomfield inserts stinging fills between Butterfield’s vocal phrases, after which he takes a fiery solo chorus for himself. Michael had played organ on the original version of this tune, a Butterfield composition, but the remake, rerecorded in September with the addition of Mark Naftalin’s keyboards, makes it into vivid showcase for the guitarist. “Money Maker,” driven by Bloomfield’s slide, shows his skill at a technique that few white guitarists at the time could execute—or were even aware of. Note that the series of licks Michael uses in his second chorus comes from a Cliff Gallup solo on a Gene Vincent record that Michael had heard as a teenager. One of the guitarist’s great contributions to American popular music was his ability to fuse elements of disparate styles into exciting hybrids. In this case, a Gene Vincent rock ’n’ roll interlude became part of an Elmore James blues classic

5. “I Got a Mind to Give Up Living” (East-West, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elektra)
6. “Work Song” (East-West, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elektra)
7. “East-West” (East-West, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elektra)

When the Butterfield band’s second album, East-West, was released in August 1967, it was immediately evident that the sextet’s music had evolved greatly from the Chicago blues repertoire of its early days, and Mike Bloomfield was largely responsible for expanding the group’s musical horizons. The album’s title tune is a case in point. His composition “East-West” was unusual in 1966 for its length, clocking in at more than thirteen minutes. But it also was distinctive in the way it fuses elements of blues, rock, jazz, and Indian classical music into an exciting collective improvisation. Though Butterfield and Elvin Bishop both solo, the piece is essentially a demonstration of Bloomfield’s unparalleled virtuosity. Moving through three sections—one modal, a second blues-rock based, and a third quietly melodic—Michael plays with an intensity that set a new standard for serious rock guitarists everywhere. Of note is a forty-bar exploration of a simple phrase in “East-West’s” third section that is Bach-like in its theme-and-variation development and stunning in its musical cohesion. A whole category of late-1960s music was derived from “East-West,” which became the progenitor of a style known as “psychedelic rock.” Conversely, the band’s rendition of “Work Song,” a tune by cornetist Nat Adderley, is a jazz performance filtered through blues-rock sensibilities. The soloists—Bloomfield, Butterfield, Naftalin, and Bishop—each exhibit their distinctive styles, but Michael again dominates. He takes seven thrilling choruses, more than any of his bandmates, while shaking out screaming high notes and then switching to Wes Montgomery–style octaves. In the concluding choruses, the soloists “trade twos,” rotating the lead every two bars, and Bloomfield’s lines become exotic, musically sophisticated beyond anything previously heard in rock. Finally, B. B. King’s “I Got a Mind to Give Up Living” is a Bloomfield tour de force. Butterfield sings the verses and then gets out of the way as Michael cranks up his Les Paul Goldtop. In the ten months the band had been together, Bloomfield’s blues playing had become more nuanced. He could shade notes with subtle bends, vary the dynamic of his attack and imply phrases without fully stating them. In a word, Bloomfield's playing has become more “vocal.”

8. “A Little Head” (The Trip, Electric Flag, CURB)
9. “Green and Gold” (The Trip, Electric Flag, CURB)
10. “Fine Jung Thing” (The Trip, Electric Flag, CURB)

After leaving Butterfield’s band in February 1967, Mike Bloomfield formed the first brass-rock band (Au.: accurate? Technically, Chicago (then called the Big Thing) formed on Feb. 15, 1967.}, the Electric Flag, with his Chicago friend, keyboardist Barry Goldberg. The group’s first assignment was to create a soundtrack for a Roger Corman film titled The Trip. Because the low-budget flick was about LSD and its effects on the movie’s protagonist, played by Peter Fonda, Bloomfield was able to incorporate a variety of musical styles and sounds into the film’s accompaniment. “A Little Head,” one of several mood-setting group improvisations that the band created, is noteworthy for its use of the Moog synthesizer. Bloomfield may have been the very first pop musician to use the electronic instrument on record. Featuring Marcus Doubleday’s bright trumpet, “Green and Gold” is a set piece that effectively evokes Mexican mariachi music and displays the breadth of Bloomfield’s musical range as a composer and arranger. In a different mode entirely, “Fine Jung Thing” is an up-tempo blues with an inverted turnaround that is much rockier than anything Michael had ever played with Paul Butterfield. It harks back to his early days with the Group at Big John’s in Chicago’s Old Town. Though Bloomfield had acquired his Les Paul Standard Sunburst by the time of this recording, it sounds as if he’s using a different guitar here, perhaps a studio instrument, and playing it with little or no reverb, a real departure from his usual sound.

11. “Groovin’ Is Easy” (A Long Time Comin’, Electric Flag, Columbia Legacy)
12. “Texas” (A Long Time Comin’, Electric Flag, Columbia Legacy)
13. “Another Country” (A Long Time Comin’, Electric Flag, Columbia Legacy)

Nick Gravenites’s “Groovin’ Is Easy” was one of the first tunes the Electric Flag recorded after they completed the soundtrack for The Trip. Released as a single in October 1967, the song is a solid pop tune from start to finish. Adroitly arranged, it features the Flag at its brass-rock best, and though there are no solos, Michael Bloomfield does get in a brief bagpipe-like cadenza midway through the tune. It’s clear from this selection that the Flag, including its leader, were eager to create a Top 40 hit. But by the time the band’s first album, A Long Time Comin’, was released in March 1968, “Groovin’” was already sounding a bit dated. Nevertheless, it is a masterful conception from the writing to the arrangement to the execution. “Texas,” on the other hand, is stone blues, a timeless classic written by Bloomfield and Buddy Miles and featuring them in a hot duet with superlative horn accompaniment. In live performance, Michael would solo on multiple choruses to start “Texas” and then play stunning accompaniment behind Miles’s plaintive vocal, often duplicating the drummer’s phrases note for note. Here, he limits himself to a single chorus, but it’s a superb twelve bars—just what his blues fans were eager to hear. From an entirely different place is “Another Country,” an epic aural landscape that is at once a rock anthem, a psychedelic sound excursion, a jazz-rock instrumental, and a potent bit of political agitprop, all fused together in one nine-minute mini-suite. Bloomfield’s jazzy extended solo sounds very much like the inspiration for Carlos Santana.

14. “Albert’s Shuffle” (Super Session, Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills, Columbia Legacy)
15. “His Holy Modal Majesty” (Super Session, Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills, Columbia Legacy)

As he was in the process of quitting the Electric Flag in May 1968, Bloomfield received an invitation from keyboardist Al Kooper to record an unusual album—a studio “jam session.” Though he was reluctant to participate, Michael agreed and, over the course of a single day, captured some of the best playing he ever recorded in a studio. He famously left before all the tracks were was recorded, but the resulting album, Super Session, became an unexpected hit. Though its sales were largely driven by Kooper’s arrangement of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” with Stephen Stills filling in for the AWOL Bloomfield, Michael’s contribution was, for many budding guitarists, a clarion call. The guitarist’s masterful choruses on tunes such as “Albert’s Shuffle” (named for Bloomfield’s ambling manager, Albert Grossman) made blues converts of young players from Boston to Santa Monica. In his three choruses, Bloomfield creates a primer on blues phrasing and dynamics, his soloing honed by years on the road playing multiple sets five and six days a week. The way he plays behind and around the beat, a technique employed by the great players of modern jazz, is wholly Bloomfield. Few rock guitarists of the time had that skill; even today, few do. His ability to bend notes with precision, giving them a vocal-like fluidity while still remaining in tune, is breathtaking. Moving into jazzier territory, “His Holy Modal Majesty” was built on a simple three-chord progression in G with an interlude and a tempo change, as well as a modulation to the relative minor. Created in the studio and the session’s only original, “Majesty” was partially inspired by the music of John Coltrane. Accordingly, Al Kooper opens the piece on ondioline, an early synthesizer-like instrument, which he uses to evoke the sound of a soprano saxophone. Bloomfield’s improvisation, using both E-minor and G-major scales, creates a fantastic tonal landscape, erecting spires of auditory ornamentation, populating space with ambulatory sound, moving from one improvised edifice to another. It stands in sharp contrast to the earthy poetry of his Super Session blues performances and provides another example of Bloomfield’s mastery of multiple styles and his great skill as an improviser.

16. “Mary Ann” (The Live Adventures of . . . , Kooper/Bloomfield, Columbia Legacy)
17. “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong” (The Live Adventures of . . . , Kooper/Bloomfield, Columbia Legacy)

These two selections, from the first of the live shows for a follow-up album to Super Session, in September 1968, gave many of his fans a first opportunity to hear Bloomfield in a live setting. Though the guitarist claimed he was suffering from insomnia-induced “stage fright” at the time, his playing here is excellent and assertive, redolent with the distinctive tone only Michael could get from a Les Paul. Live Adventures also introduced fans to Bloomfield as a vocalist, and he sings both these blues convincingly, despite not being a natural singer. “Mary Ann,” a Ray Charles tune, is driven by Michael’s lead lines, and though he largely improvises its lyrics, his solo choruses give the tune an intensity that underscores the passion expressed in the words. “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong,” the Albert King blues, is taken at an achingly slow tempo, but bass and drums handle it without faltering. Al Kooper's organ provided the perfect foil for Michael's guitar commentary, bridging the gap between his phrases with uncanny intuition. Following his vocal, Bloomfield digs in for a solo and then, on the downbeat of the fifth bar, stops the music completely. A trick that Albert King frequently used to set up a flurry of notes and amp up excitement, Michael’s stop is all silence aside from his exclamation, “Whoa! Have mercy, have mercy!” The band comes in on the seventh bar, releasing the tension as the guitarist solos out the chorus. It’s a remarkable moment, clearly demonstrating Bloomfield's awareness of phrasing and tempo, a hallmark of every authentic blues performance and one of the genre's most difficult techniques to master.

18. “Killing My Love” (My Labors, Nick Gravenites, Columbia Legacy)
19. “Carmelita Skiffle” (Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, Michael Bloomfield, Columbia Legacy)

Following his appearances with Al Kooper, Michael Bloomfield decided he, too, would record a live jam album and thus fulfill one of his contractual obligations to Columbia. He organized several weeks of performances at the Fillmore West with a group of friends and recorded dozens of blues and original tunes, several of which were issued on Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West and on Nick Gravenites’s My Labors. These two selections, one an original by Gravenites and the other a Bloomfield instrumental, feature more of Michael’s stunning guitar work, both as a rock improviser behind Nick’s vocal on “Killing My Love” and as a blues soloist on “Carmelita Skiffle.” The intensity of his solo on the former tune is almost frightening, providing a potent example of just how overwhelming Bloomfield could be in live performance.

20. “The Ones I Loved Are Gone” (It’s Not Killing Me, Michael Bloomfield, Columbia Legacy)
21. “Next Time You See Me” (It’s Not Killing Me, Michael Bloomfield, Columbia Legacy)

Bloomfield’s only solo release for a major label came in the fall of 1969 and was largely a disappointment to fans and critics alike. The record, It’s Not Killing Me, consists primarily of original compositions, songs of a highly personal nature that addressed Michael’s mental state at the time. The guitarist was going through a protracted period of depression complicated by drug use, and many of the tunes—all of which he chose to sing himself—speak of pain, sorrow, and loss. Perhaps the most disturbing of those is “The Ones I Loved Are Gone,” with its obvious reference to Michael’s failed marriage. A soulful ballad with swelling horns and an angelic chorus, the song showcases Bloomfield’s singing at its rawest as he shouts, moans, and even howls his way through the lyrics. It’s obvious the singer is in distress. For fans expecting more blues pyrotechnics, It’s Not Killing Me was a confusing jog in the heretofore exhilarating road of Bloomfield’s career. The album’s one exception was Junior Parker’s “Next Time You See Me,” an up-tempo blues shuffle with smart lyrics, tricky stops, and some inspired soloing. But that tune alone was not enough to carry the record, and It’s Not Killing Me failed to sell. Bloomfield himself later discounted it, saying simply that it was “pretty bad.”

22. “Long Hard Journey (One More Mile)” (Barry Goldberg and Friends, Barry Goldberg, Record Man)

This selection comes from a Barry Goldberg appearance at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, probably from 1969. Michael sat in with Barry on several selections, and “Long Hard Journey” is one that featured both his singing and his guitar playing. A James Cotton blues originally known as “One More Mile,” the tune was first recorded by Bloomfield during his early sessions with Paul Butterfield. But the version here is by the mature Michael Bloomfield, now an acknowledged blues master, brilliant soloist, and superb accompanist. His single solo chorus is hair-raising in its intensity; his shared chorus with Goldberg then takes things even higher. Though this selection is not well known, even by hardcore Bloomfield fans, it equals his best live Super Session and Fillmore West performances. It also shows how casual the guitarist was on stage. If you listen closely to “Long Hard Journey,” you’ll hear him call out the key well into the first chorus after Goldberg and the bass player can’t find it, most likely because Michael neglected to tell them before starting the tune.

23. “Since I Fell For You” (Brand New, Woody Herman Orchestra, Fantasy)

Here is Michael Bloomfield as a jazz soloist. Reportedly, Miles Davis had told the big band leader Woody Herman that Herman could revitalize his career by recording with a young rock guitarist, and Bloomfield’s name quickly came up. Not long afterward, in March 1971, Fantasy Records brought Michael into the studio with the Herman orchestra to record a quartet of tunes. Of the four, band leader Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell for You” is exceptional. The guitarist’s restraint, coupled with a quiet intensity, produces phrases that approach B. B. King’s best work. Though the arrangement suggests a lounge act in places, it is tastefully played by Herman’s men and provides an effective backdrop for Bloomfield’s exertions. The performance offers a fleeting glimpse of what Michael might have sounded like with the support of a schooled and professional ensemble.

24. “When It All Comes Down” (Try It Before You Buy It, Michael Bloomfield, CBS Records)

This selection comes from Bloomfield’s second solo album for Columbia, the long-unreleased Try It Before You Buy, completed in 1974. A tune with a catchy melody, smart lyrics, and a great beat, “When It All Comes Down,” sung by Nick Gravenites, had real hit potential, something Bloomfield had sought when writing it. He had decided, after the failure of It’s Not Killing Me, to record an album of original material that people would actually like, and he labored long and hard to produce music that had integrity but also was broadly appealing. Though he solos only briefly (on what sounds like a nylon-string classical guitar), the wholly satisfying tune is a prime example of Bloomfield’s skill as a composer and arranger.

25. “WDIA” (If You Love These Blues, Michael Bloomfield, Kicking Mule)
26. “Thrift Shop Rag” (If You Love These Blues, Michael Bloomfield, Kicking Mule)

After his disastrous involvement with the supergroup KGB, Mike Bloomfield felt the need to produce an album of uncompromised quality. His quasi-instructional record for Guitar Player Records, If You Love These Blues, was the result; the guitarist felt that it featured his “hottest playing on record.” That observation is confirmed by “WDIA,” a blues named for the Memphis AM broadcaster of blues and R&B that Michael listened to in his teens. The instrumental shuffle is played in B. B. King’s style from the early 1960s, as Bloomfield indicates in his introduction, and is one long solo whose opening chorus evokes King but whose remaining choruses are pure Bloomfield. Along with the other acoustic selections on the album, “Thrift Shop Rag” was a revelation to most Bloomfield fans. Few knew that the electric guitarist of the Butterfield Band, the Electric Flag, and Super Session was also an accomplished fingerpicker. This tune, a Bloomfield original, was intended to evoke the early recordings of Blind Blake and is played “piano-style,” with Michael executing tricky contrapuntal rhythms and a mid-piece modulation. Though he had been playing acoustic blues and ragtime tunes since his teen years, very few listeners had ever heard him play traditional music prior to the release of If You Love These Blues in December 1976.

27. “Greatest Gifts from Heaven” (Great Dreams of Heaven, Michael Bloomfield, Rockbeat Records)

In January 1977, Bloomfield gave a performance at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, opening the show with an acoustic set. He played classic blues and vaudeville tunes as well as a few originals, much to the delight of the audience. But one song he did during that set was exceptional not only for the playing but also for the soulful feeling Michael imbued it with. Composed by Bahamian singer and guitar player {Au.: okay? He is known more for his highly idiosyncratic guitar playing, yes?}Joseph Spence, it was a spiritual Bloomfield had recently heard on an album by guitarist Ry Cooder, and Michael had been inspired to create an interpretation of his own. His rendition here perfectly captures the beauty of the melody while bringing it to life through rubato and subtle embellishments—an extraordinary performance, if only for its lyricism and restraint.

David Dann and Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues links:

Kirkus review
Library Journal review
Wall Street Journal review

Chicago Reader interview with the author
Literary Hub essay by the author

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