February 1, 2014

Michael Bloomfield



by Harvey Kubernik~

Legacy Recordings, the catalog division of Sony Music Entertain-ment for February will release From His Head To His Heart To His Hands, a career-spanning 3CD/1DVD box set anthology chronicling the music of Michael Bloomfield. The collection also premieres Sweet Blues: A Film about Michael Bloomfield directed by Bob Sarles.

Produced and curated by Al Kooper (who played with Mike Bloomfield on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited sessions in 1965 and the Super Session album in 1968), From His Head to His Heart to His Hands houses a wealth of previously unreleased tracks — including Bloomfield’s first demos for John Hammond Sr. in 1964 and his final public performance, concluding with a track from the 1980 Bob Dylan concert in San Francisco — alongside essential key recordings, both live and studio, from his all-too-brief life and career.

The anthology collates solo material, work with ensembles including the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag, tracks with Muddy Waters and Janis Joplin, Highway 61 band outtakes and more.

Director Bob Sarles’ From His Head to His Heart to His Hands Sweet Blues: A Film about Michael Bloomfield documentary combines vintage audio interviews and live performance footage of Bloomfield with newly lensed reflections on Bloomfield from the guitarist’s friends and fellow musicians.

The box includes a 40-page booklet displaying a gallery of terrific photos covering the various phases of Mike’s extraordinary career and extensive liner notes by musician, MOJO contributor, and lifelong Bloomfield fan Michael Simmons.

Born in Chicago in 1943, Mike Bloomfield learned blues guitar as a teenager hanging out in the clubs of the South Side, where he “played with every living musician who played electric blues” in real time with masters like B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Joe Williams and many more) from 1959 into the early 1960s.

A blues artist, Bloomfield was a prodigy who assimilated jazz and a plethora of global rhythms into his fluid improvisations. As a final cog in the wheel of the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band, one of rock’s first interracial bands and an example of the blue’s first experimental ensembles, Michael Bloomfield helped open new vistas of cultural and musical possibilities in 1965-66.

Bloomfield, who’d been signed in 1964 by legendary A&R man John Hammond Sr., was called into duty as a session guitarist for Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album. The results, particularly the single “Like a Rolling Stone,” took AM rock radio in a whole new direction.

Best guitar player I ever heard” — Bob Dylan

Michael Bloomfield &Bob Dylan at the Columbia Recording Studios, New York, 1965

Mike Bloomfield went to work on the Butterfield Band’s psychedelic blues masterpiece, East-West (1966), a landmark recording combining elements of blues, jazz, psychedelia, Eastern music and more.

“The future of rock guitar was in East-West. At one point or another you’re hearing what would become the Grateful Dead, Santana, the Allman Brothers, Crazy Horse, Television and the Tedeschi Trucks Band.” — Dave Alvin

In 1968, Bloomfield founded the Electric Flag, an experimental soul band with horns. That same year, he sat in for the Grape Jam disc in Moby Grape’s sophomore double album and collaborated with Al Kooper on the platinum-selling Super Session LP.

“The first time I saw Michael play guitar…it literally changed my life enough for me to say, ‘this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’” — Carlos Santana

From 1968-69, Bloomfield would continue to release innovative, guitar-heavy works, including his debut solo album It’s Not Killing Me and My Labors with Electric Flag member Nick Gravenites. Bloomfield’s career was later highlighted by session work including Muddy Waters’ Fathers and Sons and Janis Joplin’s solo debut I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! As well as recorded sit-ins with Woody Herman and Tracy Nelson.

“I became a Bloomfield fan when I was a 10-year old Beatlemaniac in 1965 and my best friend’s 16-year old brother played us the first Butterfield album with Michael on lead guitar,” remembers music journalist Michael Simmons. “I was astonished by his fleet fingers, his ringin’-a-bell tone, his ferocious attack. I dug Electric Flag’s debut, but it was Super Session with Michael and Al Kooper that sent me over the top. The A-side of that album with Bloomers is still one of my fave rock recordings of all time. It’s got chops, improvisation, intelligence, soul — things I’ve found lacking in a lotta rock for the last 40 years.

“I spent about 8 months researching and writing the liner notes for the box set — only three months past the deadline! — during which time I fully immersed in Bloomfieldiana and interviewed dozens of family, friends, musicians and archivists” Simmons explains. “Like all genii, Michael was one-of-a-kind. Several friends call him the most intelligent person they’ve ever known, he was completely committed to making music for art’s sake and not for commerce, and he thought for himself. He was hysterically funny, generous to a fault, human and imperfect and undependable and a fantasist, and the first guitar god of ‘60s rock. While he influenced every rock and blues guitarist who followed, no one sounds exactly like him and I can’t say that about many of his peers. Plus he was a nice Jewish boy, which warms the pastrami of my Yiddishe heart.”


Q: Tell me about your initial encounter with Michael Bloomfield?
A. Well, Michael and I met on the “Like a Rolling Stone” session. I had read about him in Sing Out magazine, and saw a picture of him where he looked a little more rotund then he was when I met him. His brother says he was a fat kid growing up. So we met on the ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ session and really hit it off. So we played together on that.

Q. He blew your mind, didn’t he?
A. Oh, absolutely! I was supposed to play guitar on that record. I packed up my guitar when I heard him warming up. It never occurred to me that somebody my age, and my religion could play the guitar like that. That was only reserved for other people. It never even occurred to me that that was an option for someone my age and my color. I had never seen that, or heard that up to that day.

Q. And you brought bassist Harvey Brooks into that session as well.
A. That’s right. So, that pretty much ended my guitar playing by and large. I said, ‘well OK, he’s as old as me and he can play like that. I’m never gonna be able to play like that. Thank you, goodbye.’ And, you know, I ended up playing organ on that record, and then I became a keyboard player really that day. So, it was a damn good thing because, you know, that was competition I couldn’t deal with.

Q: You knew Tom Wilson who produced the “Like a Rolling Stone” date and was working with Bob Dylan. I know you used to lift Bob Dylan acetates out of Tom’s office.
A. I did. I was a bad boy. Tom was sort of a spectator sport producer. He didn’t do all that much. He’d put you in the studio and got the job done. He didn’t interfere in anything. At least when I worked with him.

“Tom earlier worked for Savoy Records. He was a very bright guy. He was like ‘what’s happening man?’ That kind of guy. But you knew he was bright and he talked about very erudite things, and he really saved my life that day on that Dylan “Like a Rolling Stone” session. Because, he could have…I went to him and said, ‘Man, let me play the organ.’ They had just moved Paul Griffin from the organ to the piano. And I went over to Tom Wilson, and I was invited just to watch, you know, and I said, “Man, why don’t you let me play the organ, I got a great part for this.’ Which was bull shit. I had nothing. And he said, Man…You’re not an organ player…’ And then they came to him and said, ‘phone call for you Tom.’ And he just went and got the phone. And I went in to the studio and sat down at the organ. He didn’t say no. He just said I wasn’t an organ player. OK.

“On the Highway 61 Interactive CD put out a few years ago, they have the multiple takes of ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ and on there you can hear Tom Wilson, ‘OK. This is take 7. Hey! What are you doing in there?’ Then you hear me laughing, and that was the moment he could have just thrown me out and rightfully so. And you know what? He didn’t. And that was it. That was the beginning of my career. Right then and there. That studio dialog is documented. Wilson is the guy who invited me to the session first of all, which is really nice. You didn’t get invited to Bob Dylan sessions, you know, especially if you were a nobody like I was. And there it was. There was the chance he had to toss me, and it would have reflected back on him because he had invited me to the session.

Q: On that “Like a Rolling Stone” date, was there a reason why you “played behind the runner” on the track? The organ follows the Dylan vocal.
A: No I did that because I was waiting to see what chord they were going to do. There was no music or lead sheet, or anything. I was just playing by ear and I didn’t want to be the one making a mistake because I was doin’ like a rebel run there. But anyway, we played together on that session, and the rest of the (Highway 61) album.


Q: On this new Mike Bloomfield anthology you assembled a different mix of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
A: I took the Dylan’s voice off the master tape and put the backing track on and re-mixed it. You know, in ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ there are three things that I made louder than they were: The piano, because that guy, (Paul Griffin) was so brilliant. So the piano is louder in the parts that he plays amazing things. And the thing that is really eye-opening about it are the drums are louder. And you hear some things you’ve never heard before.

“Besides Michael’s playing you can really hear the drums of Bobby Gregg. I had all the tapes transferred to digital. I didn’t want to touch those tapes. There’s a version of ‘Tombstone Blues’ with the Chambers Brothers singing. I remixed that.

Q: You got to know Bloomfield in 1965 and ’66 in New York.
A: I joined The Blues Project. He was in Paul Butterfield’s band. Two blues bands. And we both left the blues bands to start horn bands, which we were both kicked out of again. The horn bands that we started. Very amazing parallel in our careers. Starting from the day that we met. So it seemed to me, in hindsight, looking at that, when I started producing at CBS, that we should make a record together. We were like destined to do something together. Now this whole time we had been friends since we met. I’d go visit him when I was in his town.

Q: You were an A&R man and staff producer at Columbia Records in 1967.
A: I came to Columbia Records in 1967 after the June Monterey International Pop Festival where I had been assistant stage manager. I assembled BS&T and joined the label as a staff producer. I brought BS&T to Columbia.

“John Hammond staff producer at Columbia and my office was next door to Hammond. We became very good friends. We spent time together and it was very unusual for him to do that. He would play me stuff. He would talk to me about music. And I was friends with his son. He loved that I was there and that I had long hair and that I wasn’t like the rest of them at the label. That’s why we got along. After he signed (Bob) Dylan he was second-guessed. Some called it ‘Hammond’s Folly.’ Then in 1965 “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Q. You caught Bloomfield play many times with Paul Butterfield.
A. Yeah! He ended my guitar playing I’m tellin’ ya. Both of us had just played on that Grape Jam album. So that sort of gave me the inspiration to say, “Why don’t we make a record.” I wanted to make a record with Bloomfield, and I wanted to make a record that was a very simple, basic record, not a ‘weighty’ record. So inspired by the Grape Jam thing, I said, “let’s make a rock ‘n’ roll record based on the way jazz records are made. You pick a leader, or two leaders, and then you just go in, you pick some songs, you pick sidemen, and you just blow. No rehearsing or anything. You just go in and blow.” So I said “I don’t want to make a jazz record.” And I was very dissatisfied with the way he was recorded up to that point.

Michael Bloomfield CoverQ. Your Super Session production gave us a chance to really hear Michael Bloomfield in a studio setting.
A. His live playing was like 300 times better than performance on a record to that point. In my opinion. So, what I wanted to do was put him in a situation where he was uncluttered by his career and uncluttered by his situation in the recording studio, which must have inhibited him.

“So I made it as uncomplicated as possible for him. Because that was the goal of the sessions for me, was to get amazing playing out of him like I heard him do on stage. And I felt really vindicated that I had done that. And that’s what I wanted. I did what I set out to do.

“And, the other thing was, we both had been kicked out of the bands, and then Stills, too. He was out of his band (Buffalo Springfield). So Stills fit in, in a really weird way. Because none of us had anything at stake and that was the whole point of that record. There was no career thing goin’ on. We just did it because we played music. That’s what’s so wonderful about that. Super Session wasn’t made to sell records. It was just made like those jazz records were made for Blue Note, except it wasn’t “Blue Note” kind of music.

“I had no expectations for that record. I mean just none whatsoever. I just did it because I had a job as a producer and I had no one to produce, and I went in because I thought Michael and I should make a record together, because how our careers were parallel. And also because we were friends, and it would be fun to work together. Michael brought Eddie Hoh (drummer) in, and I brought Harvey in (bass). I said, “you pick the drummer, I’ll pick the bass player.” Again, sort of like a Blue Note concept.

“The most im-portant thing is the playing of the two principals, Bloomfield and Stills. It’s timeless. Bloomfield’s stuff is some of the greatest blues playing that there ever was.

“Mike Bloom-field is music on two legs.” — Eric Clapton.

“Mike Bloomfield was an all-star guitarist,” offers MsMusic label owner and Foothill Records operator, Carol Schofield.

“His guitar (s) sang… the long smooth notes wafted through the air… He had a lot of feeling when he played. His love for music was on display. Soul and heart. And he was such a caring person that he taught music in Marin County. I also had the opportunity to be at his funeral memorial on Geary Street. He is one of the great music icons and spirits of our music generation. He and Al Kooper complimented each other completely.”


Los Angeles native Harvey Kubernik has been an active music journalist for over 40 years and the author of 5 books, including This Is Rebel Music (2002) and Hollywood Shack Job: Rock Music In Film and on Your Screen (2004) published by the University of New Mexico Press.

In 2009 Kubernik wrote the critically acclaimed Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon, published by Sterling, a division of Barnes and Noble. In summer 2012, the title was published in a paperback edition.  

Otherworld Cottage Industries during February 2014 will publish Kubernik’s It Was Fifty Years Ago Today: The Beatles Invade America and Hollywood.  

In April 2014, Harvey Kubernik’s Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972 will be published by Santa Monica Press.

In fall of 2014, Palazzo Editions will publish Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows, a coffee-table-volume with narrative and oral history by Harvey Kubernik.

This century Harvey penned the liner notes to the CD re-releases of Carole King’s Tapestry, Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” the Elvis Presley ’68 Comeback Special and the Ramones’ End of the Century.

He is the Contributing Editor of Record Collector news.

In 2013, Kubernik was seen on the BBC-TV documentary on Bobby Womack, Across 110th Street, directed by James Meycock and lensed for the spring 2014 Neil Norman–directed documentary about the Seeds.


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