Remembering Mike Bloomfield

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I’ve been reading the excellent Greil Marcus book, “Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads” (2006),  and reencountered the phenomenal Michael Bloomfield.  Mike was born in Chicago July 28, 1943, and died in San Francisco February 15, 1981.

For several years in the sixties (1965-67), Bloomfield was the hottest U.S. blues/rock guitarist, a guy who rivaled Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.  Then Mike fell into addiction and faded away.

In 1959, Mike began playing guitar in Chicago clubs.  He performed with a wide variety of blues legends, including Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachell, Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf.

If there was a first generation of Chicago Blues stars (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and others), and a second generation (Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and others), Mike was a key part of the third generation that included Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, and Steve Miller.  In the early 60’s, Mike began playing with Butterfield.  In 1965, they released “The Paul Butterfield Blues Band,” which was hugely influential.  (Im 1966, I saw this saw this band in Southern California.)  From this period, key Bloomfield solos are: “Shake your moneymaker,” “Blues with a feeling,” “Born in Chicago,” and “Mystery Train.”

In 1963, Mike met Bob Dylan.  In July of 1965, he put together a backup band for Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival.  This was where Dylan went electric (publicly) with an over-the-top version of “Maggie’s Farm” — where Bloomfield’s guitar was so loud, no one could hear Dylan’s voice.

However, Bloomfield’s signature contribution to Dylan-lore happened June 15 and 16, 1965, when Mike was responsible for the classic “Like a Rolling Stone.”  In the epilogue to Greil Marcus’ book it’s clear that Bloomfield, not Tom Wilson produced the song; it’s Bloomfield who gives the musicians direction, who translates Dylan.

Over the two days there were 19 takes.  The winner was take 4 on day 2.  The personnel were Dylan, Bloomfield, Al Kooper (organ), Paul Griffin (piano), Bruce Langhorne (tambourine), Joe Macho, Jr. (bass), and Bobby Gregg (drums). It’s clear that Mike Bloomfield drives the song.

In 1967, Bloomfield left the Butterfield Band, moved to San Francisco, and formed the memorable “Electric Flag.”  (From this period, epic Bloomfield solos are “Killin’ Floor” and “Texas.”)  in 1968, Bloomfield broke up the band,  In 1970, his heroin addiction was so acute that he gave up playing.  For the next eleven years, he performed irregularly, mostly in the Bay Area,  In February of 1981, Mike died of a heroin overdose.

There have been three generations of blue guitarists.  The first, Mississippi Delta Blues, is epitomized by Robert Johnson (1911-38),  the second, Chicago Blues, is epitomized by Muddy Waters (1913-1983).  For the third period, full electric blues, the mantle passed to Michael Bloomfield, but he dropped it and Eric Clapton has become the preeminent blues guitarist of the modern period.

Bloomfield, Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix learned the blues by listening to records.  Because he lived in Chicago, only Bloomfield had the opportunity to also learn at the feet of the second-generation masters.  For reason, he had a distinctive sound.  And died way too soon.

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Clapton and Bloomfield

One thought on “Remembering Mike Bloomfield

  1. Mona Silipo

    Hi Bob. I’m reading Carlos Santana’s memoirs right now, and his descriptions of the blues, and how he came to play blues, and whom he admires… you would love it. I’m now getting to the period when Santana started his fusion music, bringing his Latin heritage and African rhythms into the blues. He writes a lot about Bloomfield and about the times, atmosphere, highs (both kinds) and lows of the musicians who played the Fillmores in those early days. Hope you and Kathy are well.

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