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Guitar great Michael Bloomfield immortalized in new box set

If Michael Bloomfield is known at all today it’s as a footnote, a guitar legend who played on historically significant recordings and at legendary events, yet lacks the name recognition of contemporaries like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

Barry Goldberg, left, and Michael Bloomfield.
Courtesy of Barry Goldberg

Much, if not all, of the reason is that Bloomfield was largely a group member or stellar instrumental sideman not known for his singing, and died of a drug overdose in 1981 at age 37, before he had the chance to really step out on his own. But even then, he is rightly credited as one of the greatest guitarists of his time, and a key link between the urban blues of his hometown Chicago and the mid-‘60s and onwards rock that it begat.

Michael Bloomfield’s extraordinary talent and enduring, if underappreciated legacy, is immortalized on the new Michael Bloomfield: From His Head to His Heart to His Hands—An Audio/Visual Scrapbook, a four-disc box set consisting of classic tracks, rarities and previously unreleased material, and the DVD documentary Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloomfield.

The set covers Bloomfield’s celebrated work with the likes of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, the Electric Flag, Al Kooper and Janis Joplin.

“I probably played with him more than anyone,” says keyboardist Barry Goldberg, himself a legend for his play with Bloomfield in the Electric Flag and other groupings, as well as his own scores of notable credits elsewhere.

“But I really can’t describe him,” Goldberg concedes. “He had an intensity in his playing, and a tone that was so distinctive. He had his own tone, man! An electrifying sound that was so original that he developed and no one else had. That’s what made him stand out.”

Goldberg, also a Chicagoan who now plays in The Rides with Stephen Stills and Kenny Wayne Shepherd as well as the Chicago Blues Reunion featuring other ‘60s Chicago blues scenesters including Nick Gravenites, Corky Siegel, Sam Lay and Harvey Mandel, further points out that Bloomfiled’s “electric presence” had nothing to do with his equipment.

“It wasn’t the amp,” he says, “and most of the time he played one guitar. It’s not like the line of 20 different guitars you see on stage today. To Michael, all of that was bulls—t: If you can play, you don’t need a hundred guitars or an effects box. The old blues guys couldn’t afford any of that elaborate s—t and made their mark with one guitar.”

It was the old blues guys, of course, who were Bloomfield’s inspiration—which is evidenced in the acclaimed Chicago blues documentary Born in Chicago, which Goldberg co-produced and in which Bloomfield is a central figure.

“Michael was a student of the blues,” continues Goldberg. “He knew everything from Delta Blues—Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, Charley Patton, all those people--up through every aspect of Chicago blues. As a teenager, he struck up relationships with the Chicago guys—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush and anyone else he could meet—to learn firsthand from them, as we all did. He’d bring people like Big Joe Williams to his house and his wife Susan would cook for them.”

Bloomfield also brought Goldberg into the fold.

“We both wound up at Central YMCA High School—after being asked to leave our regular high schools,” says Goldberg. “He was very charismatic, and stood out even then. We were in rival bands, and then he was the emcee at this coffee house called the Fickle Pickle. It had the college crowd, and folk groups like the Kingston Trio and The Highwaymen. He brought in blues people and introduced them into the white community.”

But Goldberg later played in a “twist band.”

“We wore Continental suits and played on Rush Street, and Michael came in and told me it wasn’t a good lifestyle for me and that I should come to Old Town and play with Paul Butterfield and the folkies and beatniks, who were way cooler. I was playing the Playboy Mansion and going out with the Bunny of the Year and told him, ‘I’m not doing so bad!’ But he said, ‘This is not for you, man,’ and he had such a strong personality that I went to the other side—and wore work shirts and Levis and sport coats. It led to Butterfield and Big John’s and Newport and that whole thing.”

Goldberg is referring to his experiences at the famous mid-‘60s Chicago blues bar Big John's where they all played, Butterfield, Bloomfield, Goldberg, Waters, Wolf, Rush, the Siegel-Schwall Band, and on and on. And the reference to Newport, of course, was the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan notoriously went electric with Goldberg, Bloomfield, and members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band—of which Bloomfield was a charter member.

After Bloomfield split form Butterfield, he formed the Electric Flag with Goldberg and Nick Gravenites. The seminal blues-rock band (also starring Harvey Brooks and Buddy Miles) debuted at the momentous 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and while Bloomfield and Goldberg only stayed for one landmark album, they teamed again in 1969 on the album Two Jews Blues.

“We hung out everywhere and did everything together,” says Goldberg, who’s well-represented in the Bloomfield box with cuts from Electric Flag and Bloomfield’s famed Super Session album with Al Kooper. “We roomed together and roamed the streets of Chicago and grooved together—and it’s lasted all my life.”

Sadly, Bloomfield, who even introduced Goldberg to his wife, was plagued by insomnia.

“His intensity and electrifying personality and fiery style of playing probably got the best of him in the end,” Goldberg reflects. “He had so much energy that it was hard to turn it off in his head and he became an insomniac.”

He points to an original Bloomfield song that is not in the box set, “Prescription for the Blues.”

“If any one song defines the pain and anguish he went through because of the sleep factor, it’s that song,” says Goldberg. “I believe that’s what drove him crazy: He couldn’t rest.”

But Bloomfield played “the authentic blues,” Goldberg concludes.

“He was the real deal,” he says. “Even though he was white, he mastered the blues and developed his own style. Like the title says, ‘from his head to his heart to his hands.’ That’s pretty right-on.”

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