Rock and Roll Book Club: Michael Bloomfield, 'Guitar King'

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David Dann's 'Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues.'
David Dann's 'Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

David Dann doesn't want anything unreasonable. He doesn't need you to praise Michael Bloomfield's solo albums as undiscovered classics. He doesn't think you need to believe the guitarist was better than this, that, or the other legendary axe-wielder. He just asks, when you're making a list of rock's great performers on that instrument, before you get to, say, Lou Reed or Gram Parsons, spare a thought for Mike Bloomfield.

In his new biography Guitar King, Dann makes a case for Bloomfield as the first real guitar god in American blues-rock. There's a lot of competition in that race, but Bloomfield certainly belongs on any shortlist — particularly given the early timing of his emergence and the influential tracks and tours he played on.

Most famously, he's the lead guitarist on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, and therefore on one of the most important singles of the rock era, "Like a Rolling Stone." Dann credits Bloomfield with the arrangement that turned the song from a meditative waltz into a righteous rocker, and his snarling, unconventional licks supply the instrumental bite to match Dylan's impassioned singing.

Bloomfield and Dylan formed a mutual admiration society when the folksinger visited Bloomfield's native Chicago in 1963. The 19-year-old guitarist impressed Dylan with both his instrumental virtuosity and his passion for the blues, and when Dylan was assembling the band for his first full-fledged electric album, he knew what guitarist he needed to have.

Dylan even asked Bloomfield to serve as the sessions' musical director, but the young hotshot ended up pulling back from that role, trapped between experienced studio aces and the inscrutable Dylan. He shaped the sound of "Rolling Stone," though, in collaboration with Dylan and producer Tom Wilson. That session is also known for the infamous moxie of Al Kooper — who came to play as a guitarist, realized he was outgunned on that instrument, and slipped into the organ chair to improvise a part that became the track's instrumental hook.

That gig also led to Bloomfield playing with Dylan at Newport in 1965 for what unquestionably qualifies as the most historic three-song set in American popular music. Bloomfield actually knew the songs, including the tricky "Stone," unlike some of the players assembled for a set kept deliberately secret so as to maximize its impact. (Dylan returned after the electric set to play two solo acoustic songs.)

The strategy worked, although Dann joins the growing ranks of historians who conclude that the preponderance of evidence suggests a largely favorable reception for Dylan's new sound at Newport. Some of the frustration came from the cacophonous sound — it was supposed to be about the lyrics with Dylan, so what was the point if you couldn't hear them? — but there was certainly also the intended shock factor. As Dann points out, the act immediately preceding Dylan and his electric ensemble on the festival's mainstage was Cousin Emmy, who did "Turkey in the Straw" by beating the notes out on her cheeks.

Dann's hefty biography — 740 pages! — chronicles those contributions, but also documents Bloomfield's extensive career beyond the moments for which he's best-remembered. Bloomfield actually didn't go to Newport for the purpose of playing with Dylan: he was there as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the group that merged electric blues with folk-rock and in so doing helped lay the foundations of classic rock.

Aside from singer/harpist Butterfield, Bloomfield was that band's best-known star. Raised in an affluent neighborhood on Chicago's North Shore, Bloomfield made regular pilgrimages to the South Side to be part of the legendary Chicago blues scene of the '50s and '60s. The young musician ended up booking and performing Tuesday night blues shows at an all-ages club called the Fickle Pickle, and after cutting his teeth with some of the greatest performers the scene had to offer, he impressed Columbia's John Hammond.

Bloomfield's solo career, though, wouldn't officially begin for a full decade. Instead, he jumped on a range of sessions before joining the Butterfield band, which earned international renown and brought a better-rehearsed, perhaps more convincing electric act to Newport. After the Butterfield band, Bloomfield's best-known gigs were in the band Electric Flag — a group co-founded with singer/drummer Buddy Miles — and as part of Kooper's bestselling "Super Session" recordings and live performances.

The guitarist, Dann argues, helped set a new bar for incendiary leads in blues rock. So why isn't he better known? Well, he didn't have the seismic gifts nor the onstage charisma of Jimi Hendrix. "Bombs exploded! Airplanes took off! Buildings collapsed!" That was Bloomfield's impression of the first time he heard Hendrix play. "I was just blown away. It was no contest."

Technically, he came closer to a match with Eric Clapton — and could deploy a more fiery style than the British bluesman, whose immaculate technique he didn't hesitate to praise. He didn't have Clapton's voice or songwriting skills, though, and he was too generous a colleague to take an opportunity to show Slowhand up when they shared a stage at the Fillmore in 1967. In fact, Bloomfield made a point of telling the audience the Cream member was the greatest player ever.

Bloomfield's Electric Flag bandmates thought their guitarist was being too modest, and that modesty might be part of the reason why he's not a household name today. He does, at least, now have a magisterial biography, exhaustively researched and vast in scope for an artist who was yet another member of his generation to die too young, of a 1981 drug overdose at the age of just 37.

Part of Bloomfield's legacy, Dann writes, was to introduce many of his white audience members to the black blues artists he revered. He made such a point of his ultimate respect for African-American artists and audiences, in fact, that he earned rebukes from critics who took exception to Bloomfield's distinction between white artists (he included Butterfield) who delivered performances of total commitment and those whose take on the blues was more studied. Did Bloomfield think he was black?

Of course not, but it's a debate that continues today with respect to white hip-hop artists: what does it mean for a white artist to perform in a genre that grew out of, and is inextricable from, the African-American experience? There's no simple answer, and Dann doesn't offer one; instead, he adds detail and nuance to our understanding of the life and career of a guitarist who was one of the most respected performers of his generation.

Even when his behavior became erratic late in life — in part due to substance abuse, in part due to mental health challenges, in part due to a frustration with the music industry — he kept getting call after call from artists (including Dylan) who wanted to jam with him, because there was nobody but nobody who could play like Mike Bloomfield.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Dec. 18: Best music books of 2019

Dec. 25: No feature due to holiday programming

Jan. 1: No feature due to holiday programming

Jan. 8: Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie 1976-2016 by Chris O'Leary

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