Guitarist, singer, songwriter
Considered one of the best American practitioners of blues and folk guitar styles during the mid-1960s, Bloomfield rose to prominence as guest guitarist on Bob Dylan’s 1965 million-selling rock single, “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan’s 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited, as well as the songwriter’s controversial electric guitar performance the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Bloomfield shared lead guitar credits with Elvin Bishop in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on the band’s self-titled debut and subsequent release East/West, and an album of blues, rock, and jazz improvisations with keyboardist Al Kooper and guitarist Steve Stills entitled Super Session and the followup Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. Despite attempts to recapture the artistic and commercial success of his work with Butterfield, Dylan, Stills, and Kooper, Bloomfield’s reputation suffered in the 1970s due to the uneven quality of his recordings and persistent unreliability as a live performer. He eventually succumbed to drug addiction and alcoholism, dying from a heroin overdose in San Francisco in 1981.
Bloomfield and his younger brother Allen were born and raised in Chicago, the sons of wealthy industrialist Harold Bloomfield, a man who earned a fortune manufacturing and selling such restaurant supplies as sugar dispensers, creamers, and salt-and-pepper shakers. Bloomfield and his father never shared a close relationship, however, and Bloomfield was often in trouble at school. His first guitar was a bar mitzvah present, and he learned to play in a style he borrowed from such acknowledged masters of the Chicago style of electric-guitar playing as Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy.
As a teenager Bloomfield sneaked out of his parents’ home to visit the blues clubs on Chicago’s south side. It was there that he and his school friends and future bandmates Barry Goldberg and Fred Glaser met Waters, singer and guitarist Big Joe Williams, and harmonica player Little Walter, as well as such future blues stalwarts as harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, singer and producer Nick Gravenites, and harmonica-player and bandleader Paul Butterfield. Bloomfield soon became an adept guitarist, and began playing in bands for dance parties in University of Chicago dormitories. He also worked in his grandfather’s pawn shop and the Jazz Record Mart while organizing weekly blues jams at the Fickle Pickle coffee shop that featured Big Joe Williams, Sunnyland Slim, and other blues legends.
Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond, Sr., who signed Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and, later, Bruce Springsteen, heard about Bloomfield’s guitar playing and signed him to a record contract in 1964. The resulting sessions, however, were unsuccessful, and plans for an album were canceled. In the meantime, Bloomfield was a regular performer at the Blue Flame, a south side blues club.
Born Michael Bernard Bloomfield on July 28, 1944, in IL; died on February 15, 1981, in San Francisco, CA; son of Harold (a manufacturer of restaurant supplies) and Dorothy Bloomfield (later Shinderman); married Susan (later Beuhler); divorced, c. 1968.
Signed by John Hammond, Columbia Records, 1964; joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, 1965; played guitar on Bob Dylan single “Like a Rolling Stone,” 1965; performed with Paul Butterfield Blues Band and accompanied Bob Dylan at Newport Folk Festival, 1965; recorded East/West, final album with Paul Butterfield Blues Band, 1966; left Paul Butterfield Blues Band and debuted new band, the Electric Flag, at Monterey Pop Festival, 1967; released Super Session with keyboardist Al Kooper and guitarist Steve Stills, 1968; released Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, recorded in 1968 at the Fillmore West, 1969; recorded Triumvirate with Dr. John and John Hammond, 1973; reunited with Electric Flag, 1974; formed band KGB with Rick Grech, Carmine Appice, and Barry Goldberg, 1976.
When Butterfield landed a recording contract with Elektra Records, the company’s producer Paul Rothchild asked Bloomfield to join the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. “Elektra brought me into the picture,” Bloomfield explained in an interview included in Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues. “I didn’t like him, and he didn’t like me. It was the record company’s choice—Rothchild wanted me.”
The group—comprised of Butterfield, Bloomfield, drummer Sam Lay, guitarist Elvin Bishop, keyboardist Mark Naftalin, and bass player Jerome Arnold—garnered critical and public acclaim for its faithful blues renditions. Elektra released the band’s version of the Nick Gravenites’ song “Born in Chicago” on the label’s sampler album Folk Song ‘65, which sold more than 200,000 copies in three months. The band also recorded its first album, but plans to release the album were scrapped after Rothchild convinced Elektra that the band could do a better recording. Rothchild explained in Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues, “During that time, I called George Wein and asked him to put them on at the Newport Folk Festival that summer. I called Albert Grossman [Bob Dylan’s manager] and told him I had a band that was way beyond my capabilities and asked if he would consider managing them. He came down and heard them and said, ‘I’ll see them at Newport.’”
Before the band even got to Newport, however, Bob Dylan met Bloomfield. “I was playing in a club in Chicago,” he explained in Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues. “[Bloomfield] came down and said that he played guitar. He had his guitar with him, and I said, ‘Well, what can you play?’ And he played all kinds of things—Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, that type of thing. He just played circles around anything I could play, and I always remembered that.” Impressed, Dylan invited Bloomfield to play lead guitar on his seminal album Highway 61 Revisited, which included the hit single “Like a Rolling Stone.” When Dylan needed a band to back him at the Newport Folk Festival, he hired the Butterfield Blues Band. The poor quality sound equipment and the less-than-enthusiastic reception of an electric-guitar-wielding Dylan, however, resulted in a performance of dubious distinction.
Subsequent to their appearance at Newport, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band released their first album, Paul Butterfield Blues Band and contributed songs to another Elektra sampler, What’s Shakin’. While admired by critics, the band’s debut was overshadowed by the 1966 follow-up, East/West, which included New Orleans funk, R&B, and covers of such jazz standards as Nat “Cannonball” Adderley’s “Work Song.” The title track, according to Don Snowden in Record Collection Journal, “is the real crusher, a thirteen-minute instrumental extravaganza with a decidedly Indian feel based on scintillating dynamic changes, laid-back moods of peace and serenity spiraling to passages of raga-like intensity. The track runs you through the mill emotionally—recorded in 1966, it is still one of the finest pieces of guitar-based instrumental music ever recorded.”
Bloomfield left the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1967, and formed Electric Flag with Nick Gravenites, Mark Naftalin, Buddy Miles, and Ira Kamin. The band, which also featured a horn section, debuted at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. They recorded Long Time Comin’ in 1968, but disbanded shortly thereafter due to personal conflicts and drug abuse within the band—Bloomfield left even before the album was released. They reunited in the early 1970s, but the reunion was short-lived.
In 1968 Bloomfield released Super Session, an album that featured him and Al Kooper jamming on one side, and Kooper and Steve Stills jamming on the other. The album became the best-selling record of Bloomfield’s career due to the expansiveness of his guitar playing, which Neil McGarity described in Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues “as a life-changing event. Bloomfield’s astonishing display of technique—and his cool, self-assured delivery of sledgehammer emotional power—opened a brave new world to rock fans accustomed to getting their music in neat little three-minute packages…. Super Session indeed made Bloomfield a bona fide Guitar God—and, perversely, he spent the rest of his life trying to shake off the glory this record created for him.”
Kooper and Bloomfield released Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper in 1969, but Bloomfield’s recurring insomnia prevented him from playing the final live dates reserved for the recording of the album, and several of the tracks feature replacement guitarists Carlos Santana and Elvin Bishop. Bloomfield shunned the celebrity of the music industry for much of the next five years, preferring instead to record soundtracks Steelyard Blues, Medium Cool, Andy Warhol’s Bad, as well as music for several pornographic films produced by the Mitchell Brothers. In 1973 he teamed with John Hammond, Jr., and Dr. John to record Triumvirate, an album that was dismissed by critics. In 1975 he joined the “super group” KGB, which featured Carmine Appice of Vanilla Fudge and the Jeff Beck Group and Rick Grech of Family, Traffic, Blind Faith, and the Gram Parsons Band.
Bloomfield continued to record solo albums of uneven in quality for the remainder of the 1970s. Of these, If You Love These Blues, Play ‘Em as You Please, released in 1976, is considered the best. Produced by Guitar Player magazine as an instructional album on the various styles of blues guitar playing, the album was nominated for a Grammy Award. He was found dead from a heroin overdose in 1981.
(With Al Kooper and Steve Stills) Super Session, Columbia, 1968.
It’s Not Killing Me, Columbia, 1969.
Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, Columbia, 1969.
Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, Columbia, 1969.
(With Dr. John and John Hammond, Jr.) Triumvirate, Columbia, 1973.
Mill Valley Session, Polydor, 1975.
Try It Before You Buy It, One Way, 1975.
If You Love These Blues, Play ‘Em as You Please, Guitar player, 1976.
Live at the Old Waldorf, Columbia/Legacy, 1976.
Root of the Blues, Laserlight, 1976.
I’m with You Always, Demon, 1977.
Best of Michael Bloomfield, Takoma, 1978.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Takoma, 1978.
Count Talent and the Originals, Clouds, 1978.
Michael Bloomfield, Takoma, 1978.
Live in Italy, Mama Barley, 1980.
Living in the Fast Lane, AJK, 1980.
Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’, Takoma, 1981.
Red Hot & Blues, U.N., 1981.
Bloomfield: A Retrospective, Columbia, 1984.
Rx for the Blues, U.N., 1996.
Knockin’Myself Out, Prestige Elite, 2002.
With Electric Flag
Long Time Comin’, Elektra, 1968.
KGB, MCA, 1975.
With the Paul Butterfield Blues Band
Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elektra, 1965.
East/West, Elektra, 1966.
Buckley, Jonathon, Orla Duane, Mark Ellingham, Al Spicer, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, Ltd., 1999.
Clifford, Mike, editor, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia f Rock, Salamander Books, 1977.
George-Warren, Holly, and Patricia Romanowski, editors, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 2001.
Marsh, Dave, and John Swenson, The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Random House, 1979.
Wolkin, Jan Mark, and Bill Keenom, Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues —An Oral History, Miller Freeman Books, 2000.
“Intimations of the Electric Flag,” Rock’s Back Pages: The Online Library of Rock & Roll, http://www.rocksbackpages.com/article.html?ArticlelD=807 (August 31, 2002).
“Michael Bloomfield,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusicguide.com (August 30, 2002).
“Muddy Waters,” Rock’s Back Pages: The Online Library of Rock & Roll, http://www.rocksbackpages.com/article.html?ArticlelD=833 (August 31, 2002).
“The Paul Butterfield Blues Band,” Rock’s Back Pages: The Online Library of Rock & Roll, http://www.rocksbackpages.com/article.html?ArticlelD=2386 (August 31, 2002).
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