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Mike Bloomfield: Tombstone Blues

A 60s guitar prodigy who shaped Dylan’s sound and blew Clapton away, Bloomfield had the world at his feet. But he would never quite fulfil his promise.

Bob Dylan isn’t usually one for banter between songs, but tonight is an exception. It’s November 15, 1980 at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre and he’s relating a story about a guitarist he first met in a Chicago blues club two decades previously: a skinny teenage hotshot with a towering stack of black curly hair and a dizzying arsenal of licks copped from Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson. “He just played circles around anything I could play,” marvels Dylan. “And I always remembered that.”

Dylan goes on to explain that, some years later, he was recording in New York and needed a guitar player. So he called him up. “Anyway,” he concludes, “he played on Like A Rolling Stone and he’s here tonight. Give him a hand – Michael Bloomfield!”

The crowd roars its approval as Bloomfield, 37 years old, ambles on stage in his bedroom slippers and starts ripping into the song in question. He stays for another, The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar, before leaving to deafening applause.

It was to be the last gig of Mike Bloomfield’s life. Exactly three months later, on February 15, 1981, the man who Dylan cited as “the best guitar player I ever heard” was found dead in the front seat of his Chevrolet Impala. He’d succumbed to a drug overdose.

At his peak, Bloomfield was arguably the most important guitarist of his generation. His burning intensity and fearless assimilation of rock’n’roll and black American blues helped define the emergent sound of the 60s. His session contributions to Highway 61 Revisited were one thing, but it was his tenure in the Butterfield Blues Band that cemented his reputation. A bunch of Chicagoans who lashed hard electric blues to the free-form digressions of the new counterculture, Bloomfield’s guitar was as crucial to their sound as the harmonica runs of gruff leader Paul Butterfield. As the group’s rhythm guitarist, Elvin Bishop, once declared: “No one was as good as Bloomfield. Technically he was a monster.”

Bloomfield’s work with the Butterfield Blues Band, and later as the engine of soul-blues hybrid the Electric Flag, had a profound effect on those around him. Muddy Waters referred to Bloomfield as his “son”. Eric Clapton, who called him “music on two legs”, cited Bloomfield as a primary influence. “His way of thinking really shocked me the first time I met him and spoke to him,” Clapton told Rolling Stone. “I never met anyone with so many strong convictions.”

Others, like Carlos Santana, Jorma Kaukonen and Jerry Garcia, saw him as the benchmark for expressionist guitar in the psychedelic era.

“He was absolutely the best guitar player of his generation,” says Nick Gravenites, co-founder of the Electric Flag with Bloomfield. “Dylan thought he was. Hendrix thought he was. Clapton thought he was.”

Friend and blues singer John Hammond Jr adds: “Michael could just about do anything. His talent was phenomenal. He had that instant ability to adapt to whatever he was playing and an instinct for what a song needed. He was an inspirational guy, just spectacular.”

Yet, for all his abundant talent, Mike Bloomfield never felt comfortable in his chosen career. All he wanted to do was play guitar, to connect on a physical and emotional level without having to kowtow to the bullshit trappings of rock’n’roll. Factor in a mercurial personality, accentuated by a hyperactive mind and chronic insomnia, and it was clear that he and the music business were never going to get along. “I realised that it was the name that was being sold, the hype,” he once confessed in a radio interview. “That rock star mantle doesn't rest easy on my shoulders.”

Mike Bloomfield was always a rebel. Born into an affluent Jewish family on the North Side of Chicago, he turned his back on a career in the family business (his father Harold founded the restaurant supply empire Bloomfield Industries) and immersed himself in rock’n’roll. He received a transistor radio for his bar mitzvah and, soon after, a guitar.

His earliest six-string heroes were Chuck Berry, Scotty Moore and Cliff Gallup, though the illicit pull of the blues soon captured his imagination. As a teenager he frequented the black clubs on the city’s South Side, hanging out at boozy sweatboxes like Silvio’s and Pepper’s Lounge, where he got to see blues icons up close: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Spann, Junior Wells and Magic Sam.

These were places where few white people ventured. But Bloomfield was one of a small coterie of young players, alongside Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites and Elvin Bishop, who found their spiritual calling on the South Side. Buddy Guy was one of those they encountered.

“When we played the small blues clubs back then, you hardly saw a white face unless it was a policeman,” Guy recalls today. “So when Mike or Butterfield would sneak in, I’d tell my three-piece band to hide the wine because I thought two cops were in. But they were sittin’ there loving the music all night, so we couldn’t drink the wine until they left. I didn’t know they were just listenin’ to Wolf, Muddy and myself.”

It wasn’t long before Bloomfield became part of the scene, joining his heroes on stage for impromptu jams. When John Hammond Jr first met him in Chicago in 1961, the young guitarist already knew everyone on the blues scene. “Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, they’d call him uponthedancestandtositin,”says Hammond. “And bear in mind this was when Michael was 17. He was that good. A lot of guitar players were very jealous of his incredible technique.”

A deep thinker with a rapid-fire intellect, Bloomfield viewed blues as much more than a stylistic form. He devoured its folklore and soaked up influences like BB King, Albert King and Buddy Guy. But above all, the guitar was the conductor for his emotions, the intensity of his personality pouring through a flaming river of melodies and scales.

He also drew parallels between his own upbringing and those of his mentors. “Black people suffer externally in this country,” he once said. “Jewish people suffer internally. The suffering’s the mutual fulcrum for the blues.”

By 1963 Bloomfield had met and befriended many great acoustic bluesmen he admired, among them Sleepy John Estes and Big Joe Williams. He’d book the latter at local coffeehouse the Fickle Pickle, where he started regular blues nights.

At the same time, Bloomfield and Musselwhite’s band, The Group, were attracting attention. Columbia staff producer and scout John Hammond, father of Bloomfield’s friend of the same name and the man who signed Billie Holiday and Dylan, was quick to jump in. He invited Bloomfield to audition in New York early the next year, and duly snapped him up.

But despite his brilliance on guitar, it was apparent that Bloomfield was no singer. Enter Elektra producer Paul Rothchild, who suggested he join Butterfield’s band. Both parties were initially wary. Butterfield had a reputation as a taskmaster, running his troupe with the same exactitude as Howlin’ Wolf had with his players. “I didn’t like him,” Bloomfield admitted later. “He was just too hard a cat for me. It took all the persuading to get me to join.”

“Paul Butterfield was a real egomaniac,” says Hammond Jr. “He didn’t want any other guitar player in his band. He already had Elvin Bishop, but Elektra insisted that Michael play electric guitar. Butterfield really bridled at that, but it worked out really well.”

He privately admitted as much. In the summer of ’65, keyboardist Mark Naftalin, soon to join the Butterfield Blues Band, saw him before a gig in New York. “I went for a beer with Paul at the Bitter End, across the street from the Cafe Au Go Go,” he says. “That was when he told me that there was no blues guitarist in America that he’d rather have in his band than Michael Bloomfield.”

Their common ground was blues. Both men deeply respected the other’s talents and appreciated the wider picture. Bloomfield later conceded it was the best group he’d played in. So much so that when Dylan offered him a place in his touring band he turned it down to stay with Butterfield. Fame and fortune meant little to Bloomfield, but devotion to the blues was everything.

Dylan briefly met Bloomfield in Chicago’s Bear Club in the early 60s, although John Hammond Jr says he was the one who properly introduced them. “Bob and I were very good friends at one time,” he explains. “He used to come to my recording sessions and I used to go to his. So when I put Levon & The Hawks together, who later became The Band, Michael was in New York at the time and I invited him down to the session, along with Dylan. And Dylan flipped out over Michael. It was very fortuitous for everybody, I guess.”

In the summer of 1965, Dylan invited Bloomfield to join sessions for his sixth studio album, Highway 61 Revisited, at CBS’s studios in Manhattan. Bloomfield’s first task was to figure what to bring to opening track Like A Rolling Stone.

“I figured he wanted blues, string bending, because that’s what I do,” the guitarist recalled. “He said: ‘Hey, man, I don’t want any of that BB King stuff.’ So I really fell apart. What the heck does he want? We messed around with the song. I played the way that he dug, and he said it was groovy.”

As well as the opening track, Bloomfield’s Telecaster runs added bite to feverish classics like Tombstone Blues and Desolation Row. He relied on instinct and exhaustive knowledge of style. “There was no concept,” he said. “No one knew what they wanted to play, no one knew what the music was supposed to sound like – other than Bob.” The results were spectacular, and Bloomfield backed Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival weeks later. That performance, in July 1965, was a watershed moment in Dylan’s career. Corralling the black Butterfield rhythm section in Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay, with Bloomfield on boisterous lead, he shocked folk purists by going electric. It was a stance the guitarist warmed to. “I would’ve plugged my guitar into Pete Seeger’s tuchus and put a fuzz tone on his peter,” Bloomfield quipped later.

By September, Bloomfield was back in the studio with Butterfield, recording their debut album. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was a voluminous blast that hipped the white college crowd to the electric roar of black America. Waspish covers of Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Elmore James jostled for space with Bloomfield originals like Screamin’ and Our Love Is Drifting.

Their moment of glory arrived the following year. The band caused a stir at San Francisco’s Fillmore in March ’66, where they unleashed jazz-like improvisations such as Nat Adderley’s Work Song and an epic Bloomfield that wrote with Nick Gravenites, East-West. The latter, a raga-blues with piercing solos and free-form guitar, became the title track and centrepiece of their second album that August.

“Mike used to come by my house and Elvin Bishop used to sleep on my floor when they first came to Boston,” recalls ex-J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf, who was then fronting The Hallucinations. “Mike really was something else. He was just this constant ball of energy. We were pretty friendly with the Butterfield Blues Band, so they asked if they could come up to our loft for rehearsals. They put the entire East-West album together there. Mike told me that the inspiration for the melody of East-West came from a Chico Hamilton song called Passin’ Thru.”

Bloomfield also immersed himself in John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, paying attention to their modal qualities. “East-West was strictly Bloomfield’s influence,” asserts Elvin Bishop. “It’s like a hippie raga superimposed on a blues tune. Jerome [Arnold] and Sammy [Lay] were playing an exotic-sounding groove from the blues revue shows in Chicago, where you’d play behind a chick who danced with a snake. It was like a blues form of striptease. Then Bloomfield had been taking acid and listening to Ravi Shankar.”

On stage too, East-West was an event. Bloomfield, for reasons known only to himself, would breathe fire whenever they played it. “Mike had a thing like a kettledrum mallet,” Bishop explains, “and would pour lighter fluid on it. He said it was no problem as long as you didn’t inhale. The fire-eating was extremely effective on a crowd of LSD trippers.”

The Butterfield records never sold in great numbers, but Bloomfield’s reputation was growing apace. Young West Coast players like Carlos Santana and Jorma Kaukonen were influenced by his style. Santana has likened him to “a salmon going against the current. He came from BB King, but he went somewhere else.”

Yet the demands of touring, coupled with nagging insomnia, were taking effect. “I admired Michael more than I can say, but he’d just go crazy on the road,” recalls John Hammond Jr. “He didn’t have an inner balance to keep him grounded. He had a problem with being out there with other maniacs, so it became hard for him. He’d take pills to go to sleep, but he didn’t sleep very much. He’d hang out and play all night at parties. He didn’t take care of the basics and ended up losing it a little.”

In February ’67, Bloomfield quit the Butterfield Blues Band and moved to San Francisco. There he formed a new outfit, to reflect his love of American music and “prove that white boys have soul”, called the Electric Flag. With old friend Nick Gravenites sharing vocals with drummer Buddy Miles, Harvey Brooks on bass, pianist Barry Goldberg and robust horn section Marcus Doubleday and Peter Strazza, the band made their live debut at the Monterey Pop Festival. Their brew of brassy R&B and zestful blues was an instant success, even landing them an appearance in Peter Fonda/Roger Corman flick The Trip, for which they provided the soundtrack.

But Bloomfield wasn’t satisfied. Personality clashes with Miles and widespread heroin use within the group destabilised things. The adrenalin rush of Monterey must have seemed a distant memory by the time the Electric Flag’s debut, A Long Time Comin’, lived up to its title by arriving in March ’68. Despite such prime guitar mastery as You Don’t Realise and a freak-blues extrapolation of Ron Polte’s Another Country, Bloomfield left by mutual consent come summer. The atmosphere surrounding the Electric Flag was just too divisive. “We never had time to mature as a band, dialectically, or even as people,” he bemoaned later.

Not that he was short of offers. At the end of May, Bloomfield took one up from old mate Al Kooper, who he first met at the Dylan sessions, to take part in a two-day jam in LA. Convinced that the guitarist’s best work had never been captured, Kooper brought in Brooks, Goldberg and drummer Eddie Hoh to allow him to let fly in the studio. Nine hours later they had some extraordinary music. This was Bloomfield in his raw state, unhindered by squabbling egos or label protocol. He excelled on Albert King tribute Albert’s Shuffle, and brought funk-soul licks to Mort Shuman’s Stop. Best of all was the seven-minute His Holy Modal Majesty, a Coltrane-like trip with pulsing echoes of East-West. “When he shook that string it just went right through you,” Goldberg marvelled later. “The intensity in his playing was like no one I’ve ever played with – including Jimi Hendrix.”

After the party retired following a fruitful day’s play, Bloomfield never returned. Kooper found a scribbled note in his room: “Alan, couldn’t sleep. Went back home to San Francisco. Sorry, thanks, and good luck. MB.”

With one side of an album done, Kooper started ringing around for a replacement. (Stephen Stills came to the rescue.) Released in July ’68, Super Session was a hit, just shy of the Billboard Top 10, and went gold. Bloomfield reunited with Kooper a couple of months later for six shows at the Fillmore West (issued as The Live Adventures Of Mike Bloomfield And Al Kooper), though the guitarist again bailed halfway through due to insomnia.

The rest of the year found him playing with Janis Joplin, Otis Rush, Albert King, Canned Heat, and Mother Earth led by Tracy Nelson, an acquaintance from his Chicago days. “I told him that I’d love to have him play on an old Memphis Slim tune [Mother Earth] for our album Living With The Animals,” recalls Nelson. “He was signed to Columbia at the time and they wouldn’t give him a release, so he was credited as Makel Blumfeld. To this day, whenever I hear Michael’s solo I’m just blown away. Every note he played was the right note. And nothing less. He was just jaw-dropping.”

Bloomfield’s 60s ended with an uneven solo album, It’s Not Killing Me. It’s tempting to decode that title as a desperate rally against forces slowly conspiring to snuff him out. Not only had record companies cooled on him, his lifestyle wasn’t helping either. Al Kooper remembered him checking in to an asylum because he hadn’t slept for a week. Tracy Nelson describes his extended demise as “absolutely heartbreaking. Michael simply had a lot of demons and dealt with them in a harmful way. My understanding is that he got into some bad habits.”

Those close to him now suspect he was bipolar, using drugs to self-medicate. As Nick Gravenites notes in the documentary Sweet Blues, part of the Bloomfield box set From His Head To His Heart To His Hands: “His awareness, his consciousness, was elevated a lot. His brain was going all the time. That’s why he took heroin, that’s why he took downers.”

The 70s found him evermore reclusive. He played sporadically in San Francisco with old buddies Gravenites and Naftalin. There was an ill-advised Electric Flag reunion, a short-lived band called KGB and, bizarrely, scores for porn movies like Hot Nazis and Rampaging Dental Assistants. In among all this were flickers of his 60s brilliance, namely an instructional guitar album (If You Love These Blues, Play ’Em As You Please) and 1973’s three-way collaboration with John Hammond Jr and Dr. John, Triumvirate. “A couple of years after we’d released the Triumvirate album, he was really out there,” Hammond remembers. “I knew that he’d fooled around with taking anything and everything, but I didn’t know that he was into it quite like that.”

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By the end of the decade, Bloomfield was playing a Bay Area bar called the Old Waldorf, or occasionally recording with newcomers like Woody Harris. His guitar work still sparkled, although his behaviour was erratic. When Dylan sought him out for the Warfield Theatre gig in November 1980, he found him at home in his slippers, where he presented Bob with his grandmother’s Bible. “I figure you might as well have it,” said Bloomfield. “You can make better use of it than me.”

The circumstances of Bloomfield’s death remain hazy. What testimony there is suggests he accidentally OD’d at a San Francisco party, then was driven in his car to a nearby location by persons unknown and simply left there. It was a tragic end to a too-brief life. But his legacy continues to exert extraordinary power on those he knew. “He was like a guy who’d just taken 30 cups of coffee, just going 99 miles an hour,” offers Peter Wolf. “And it was all music. He was playing in a way that so many guitarists got into later, but Mike was one of the first ones to be really able to nail it as a young white player.”

“There were a lot of people in San Francisco who alleged to be blues players,” recalls Tracy Nelson. “People like Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead were listening to Michael and calling themselves blues bands, but they just played nonsense. Jerry Garcia has been quoted as saying he was really influenced by him, but he didn’t learn well enough. Michael was the next generation from the old blues guys. He’d absolutely sat with them and learned from them. He played a little more modern than they did, but it still had that essence, that soul of the music. That’s what made him stand apart from any of the others who alleged to play the blues at that time.”

Perhaps the ultimate compliment comes from a Bloomfield hero, Buddy Guy: “Every once in a while some journalist would look at me and say: ‘Y’know, I don’t think a white person can play the blues, because they haven’t lived through that.’ And I’d say: ‘Man, that’s a learnin’ experience. Mike Bloomfield is playin’ more blues than I am. If you listened to people like that, you’d stop askin’ stupid questions about whether they can play the blues or not.’ Mike was the tops, one of the very best.”

The box set From His Head To His Heart To His Hands is available via Sony Music.

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