A Wee-Hour Wakeup Call From The Great Mike Bloomfield
by Tom Ellis III
It was the summer of ’67, but from my vantage point, not exactly the “Summer of Love.” Living seaside in Northeast Florida and working as a beach lifeguard, my days were filled with surfing, girls and lots of parties, few of which could compare to what we heard about from buddies who’d been to the West Coast and indulged. In fact, if there was any similarity between our experience and those in San Francisco, it could only have been the music, the richness of the fare served up by our local AM radio station.
Jay Thomas was the DJ, and he lived in my neighborhood, in a cave-like efficiency a block back from the Atlantic. He may have been working at a tiny 1,000-watt station, but his presence in our minds was huge – his weekday show from 3-7 p.m. and on Saturday afternoon captured our attention in late 1966, when he started playing album cuts from groups like the Beatles, Beach Boys, Stones and other bands who had top-40 hits. Jay was AOR before there was AOR. He supplied a rich soundtrack to high school life, one that led many of us to the record store where we began to see and hear all kinds of albums by all kinds of bands, stuff we’d never heard of and gobbled up.
That summer the music scene exploded across the U.S. Even in my little beach town it was hard to escape the gusher of musical talent that we started to hear about, buy albums by, and turn our friends onto. But something else happened that summer, for me it was momentous – I was introduced to Rolling Stone magazine, brought back from San Francisco by a girl I was chasing.
There it was: The voice of the Bay Area, music central, right in my hands. And as I read those pages – all those bands, the reviews, interviews, the ads for gigs – my musical jones went off the charts. I immediately subscribed.
A few issues later I found an article in which a guy named Paul Butterfield lambasted the Doors (who we were covering in a garage band I was playing with) for their insincere take on the blues. The blues? Paul Butterfield? Who was this guy?
Only one way to find out – I grabbed the keys and headed directly to the Record Bar. One hour later I was on my way home with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band LP lying beside me on the passenger seat. Little did I know how seminal that trip and discovery would be.
I had been messing around with the harmonica for a year or two, never figuring it out, frustrated that I couldn’t understand how it could fit into our band’s covers of the Stones and Yardbirds. I guess my ear was more attuned to guitars. Jeff Beck, Brian Jones, George Harrison and a few other guys defined my ideal of great “soloists.” Rock was all about guitars anyway, right? But Butter totally, totally turned me around.
First, there was the music. So tough. No girls or love songs. Hard emotion, adult stories. And played loud, as the album commanded, the band had a sound that grabbed me much more tightly than anything I’d ever heard. Then there was Butter – the weary voice and that incredible harmonica sound, diving, swooping, punching, weeping, speaking directly to you, not a single note wasted, nothing overplayed.
But most of all there was Bloomfield.
Which one was he in that picture? Big hair or short hair? Who cared? I’d never heard anyone play like that, and I haven’t since.
Blame some of it on my buddy Charlie. His mom had been a jazz singer in San Francisco in the early ’50s, and he was a guitar player in a house filled with all kinds of cool music played all day. Getz, Miles, Coltrane, but also lots of guitar – Charlie Byrd, Wes, the nasty Howard Roberts stuff. My Dad, too – his love of Mel Torme, Sinatra, Basie, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and other vocalists had helped refine my ears a bit beyond the great AM radio we had.
That is what hooked me about Bloomfield. His playing was so exact, so spot-on. There was a lyricism and vocalese to it that was closer to jazz than anything I’d heard on my albums or the radio. But he could cry, too, and give up such sadness. It was so sophisticated, even inside the edgy dynamics of the Butter band. The phrasing was so unique. “Poobah” was one of the happiest, greatest guitar romps I’d heard and it was an INSTRUMENTAL! No words! None of my guitar touchstones could play like that, and maybe wouldn’t dare to. They weren’t even playing in the same park with Mike.
The playing on the first, then second, Butter LP just touched me, and nothing had more resonance than Bloomers. I memorized those solos and played them over and over in my head. Butter became my soundtrack. Time to kick the party into gear? Turn on Butter. Want to impress my music buddies? Drop the needle on East-West. Had a bad day? More of it. I was hopelessly, deeply hooked. Butter would turn me into a harp player, but Bloomfield fed my soul.
For a while it just kept coming. The Electric Flag blew me out. There were guitar lines in the first Super Session LP that were like emotional mazes, the notes twisting and turning in your head, apparently avoiding the possibility of resolution, when, suddenly, MB would pull it all together into one tight statement. Breathtaking stuff. And that tone – no fuzz, no feedback, no attempt to be “contemporary,” to be Hendrix or Page or anybody else.
But access to Mike started to dwindle. Another Super Session LP. The solo album. His brilliant playing for Tim Davis on his first LP. But his name didn’t pop up much in Rolling Stone. As the mid-’70s neared, Mike started to more a part of history than currency. What had happened to him?
By then I was living in Atlanta, writing for a music magazine there, soaking up the burgeoning music scene. I heard live music all the time. But no one like Mike. So, like any fan, I did what fans are wont to: I sat down one night and wrote him a letter. I wanted him to know there were guys out there like me, not residents of San Francisco or California, but guys far removed who hadn’t forgotten him. That solo in “Far Too Many Nights.” Someone who still listened to his work. Who could cite some of his greatest solos, even hum them out loud. I told him there were lots of us out here and we missed not having him playing, right now. Stamped, sealed and addressed to Columbia Records, the message went into the mailbox the next day, probably, I thought, on it’s way to a black hole. But I had gotten it off my chest.
About a month later my first wife and I were wrapping up a long night of partying, both of us dozing off after a combination of too much workday, dinner, friends and alcohol, nightcapped with a bit of the bud. It had to have been 1 a.m. or so, and I had just dozed off. The phone rang. I sat up, pre-hungover, dazed a bit, sensing the anxiety that normally comes with those late night calls (Family tragedy? Buddy in jail? Tom, get down here now – you won’t believe who’s sitting in with the band tonight!)
I said hello. A voice asked me to ID myself. I did. Asked again. I did. Some laughing on the other end. “Who the hell is this?” from me. “It’s Mike Bloomfield, the guy you wrote the letter to,” was the response.
It seemed a bit dreamy, the whole thing. The combination of drugs and alcohol didn’t help, but I remember bits of what turned out to be a 30-minute conversation. Mike telling me how much he appreciated the letter. How he couldn’t believe I had cited so many solos. More laughter as he and a buddy seemed to be partying a bit themselves. Crazy questions about where I lived in Atlanta, if I played music, who were my favorite guitarists. Some sideways comments about Butter, who had by then become my gold-standard when it came to harp players. That staccato conversational attack. Suddenly becoming soft-spoken explanating about why he wasn’t playing outside San Francisco much. Kind of like his soloing – full of emotion, twisting and turning, succinct then rambling. And then it was over. And I was into a deep sleep.
The next morning it was like I had walked through surreal terrain. But I was STOKED. My wife couldn’t figure out why a meandering half-hour conversation in the middle of the night had me so turned on. Bloomfield albums were pulled out and played. All day. All the next day.
And the next month. The next year. Next decade. Last year. Last week. Bloomfield forever, still there, sitting right beside me in the passenger seat.
(Postscript: Cut to the mid-’90s and I’m deep into a five-part, two-year series on Butterfield, written for Blues Access magazine. Mike’s been gone a while, Butter too, but I’m living vicariously, getting to talk to so many of their musical friends – John Hammond, Musselwhite, Elvin, Sam Lay, Naftalin – and friends – Peter Butterfield, Allan Bloomfield, John Court, Sally Grossman. Norman Dayron asked me to write the liner notes to “Live at the Old Waldorf.” It’s hard to focus just on Butter, with all of these Bloomfield memories swirling around. Someone should write a book!
Someone is – Jan Wolkin! He and I hook up by phone, trade stories, contacts, etc. He and his partner, Bill Keenom, are published and he sends me a copy. I start it, ravenous for more Bloomfield. I’m reading, quickly. And then I’m there, misidentified – but it’s my story, told by one of Bloomer’s buddies – about the late night call to the fan. History corroborates my memory. It really happened. Yes it did. Yes it did.)
(Tom Ellis III has written for a variety of music publications, the Dallas Morning News, and for Elektra and Rhino Records. He is a biographer of Paul Butterfield and he has played the harp for 40 years. Ellis also is a noted expert on vintage American microphones. His encounter with Mike Bloomfield is documented in Jan Wolkin and Bill Keenom’s book “If You Love These Blues.”) Contact him here.