Guitar Aficionado

Super Session Man: The Late, Great Mike Bloomfield is Remembered with a New Box Set and Film

Why are the blues the lingua franca of guitarists everywhere? Why is the 1959 sunburst Les Paul one of the most coveted axes in the universe? The answer to both questions has a lot to do with guitarist Mike Bloomfield.
Publish date:
Updated on
Image placeholder title

Super Session Man: One of the most influential Sixties blues rockers, the late, great Mike Bloomfield is remembered and revered with a new box set and film covering his brief but brilliant career.

By Alan di Perna

Why are the blues the lingua franca of guitarists everywhere? Why is the 1959 sunburst Les Paul one of the most coveted axes in the universe? The answer to both questions has a lot to do with guitarist Mike Bloomfield.

Though he is often overshadowed by Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and other electric blues guitarists who emerged in the mid Sixties, Bloomfield set the pace for the disruptive fervor of that period’s youth revolution with his deep-fried mix of Chicago blues and freak-out frenzy. The steely urgency of his guitar solos energized the music of groundbreaking artists like Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Janis Joplin, Al Kooper, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Dylan himself once called Bloomfield “the best guitar player I ever heard.” Many would agree.

The late guitarist is the subject of a forthcoming Sony Legacy box set, Mike Bloomfield: From His Head to His Heart to His Hands, and a film documentary, Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloomfield. These releases will likely bring his exemplary work to an audience beyond the handful of baby-boomer guitar geeks who currently venerate him. Indeed, nothing compares with the purity of Bloomfield’s tone and the edgy fluidity of his style.

Unlike other Sixties guitar icons, he never embraced big Marshall stacks, fuzz boxes, or other effects. He was all about the truth of touch, transmitted from an electric guitar down a patch cord to a combo amp. His fate of being born Caucasian tends to get him pigeonholed alongside white bluesmen like Clapton and Green, but it is really more accurate to think of him as a contemporary and peer of guitarists like Albert and B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Otis Rush. At one point in the Seventies, when Bloomfield was thinking about quitting music, B.B. King called him up and begged him not to.

Every bit the equal of rock guitar gods like Clapton and Page—some would even say better—Bloomfield is nonetheless not as widely celebrated today. This is partially because his career was tragically brief. Though he was open hearted and absolute in his devotion to the blues, Bloomfield was intense, brilliant, and troubled, affirmed by his struggles with insomnia, drugs, and a deep-seated discomfort with musical success. He lived fast, died young, and left a six-string legacy that is deeply seared into the very sinew of rock and blues music.

“Mike was irrepressible,” says keyboardist Mark Naftalin, Bloomfield’s Butterfield bandmate and lifelong musical collaborator. “You could hardly contain his energy. He was superabundant in every characteristic: extremely emotional, extravagantly intellectual, and extraordinarily capable.”

African-American bluesmen often say that playing the blues is like being black twice. So where in the karmic scheme of things does that put an affluent, white, Jewish kid from the North Side of Chicago with a burning desire and ability to play the blues for real? Bloomfield was still a teenager when he started venturing into the sweatbox blues clubs of the city’s African-American South Side, reveling in the glory of giants like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Spann, and Magic Sam, who were dishing out dirty electric blues to boozy, boisterous crowds. Soon the young guitar player was venturing onto the stage himself, sitting in with Muddy, Wolf, and others at their invitation, hanging with them, getting high with them, and becoming very much one of them.

“Michael came up through the real, no-bullshit blues scene,” says Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, another of Bloomfield’s friends and acolytes. “I remember going to some of those blues clubs much later, in 1965, and you needed somebody to go with, otherwise you’d get your ass whipped. Today there are blues bars and people playing the blues everywhere, but Michael was one of the guys spearheading it for us back then.”

The depth of Bloomfield’s authenticity was boundless, and his roots ran deep and in many directions. He went through a folk music phase in the early Sixties, switching to the acoustic guitar, studying assiduously at seminal Chicago’s Old Town School of folk music, and becoming quite an accomplished fingerpicker. He also ran his own folk coffeehouse, the Fickle Pickle, where he hosted many of the great acoustic bluesmen. He even recorded with a few of them, including Yank Rachell, Sleepy John Estes, and Big Joe Williams. His published memoir of his time with Williams, Me and Big Joe, conveys a sense of Bloomfield’s incredibly hungry eyes and ears—a wide-eyed kid leaning intently forward to learn the truth of music and life from the elder bluesman.

Although the folk scene is often overlooked in latter-day accounts of Sixties music, it was an enormous influence for many great guitarists, singers, and songwriters of that period, including Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Jerry Garcia. A common grounding in folk was one source of the incredible musical bond that Bloomfield shared with Bob Dylan.

That connection, in turn, led to the guitarist playing on Dylan’s groundbreaking 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited—the performance that really put Bloomfield on the map. The hot-wired frenzy of his Telecaster set fire to the album’s epic, breakthrough radio hit, “Like a Rolling Stone.” The sound burned itself deep into the tender young minds of incipient rock and pop music fans, many of whom had little or no prior acquaintance with folk, blues, or, for that matter, Bob Dylan.

Dylan had made a first foray into electric instrumentation on his previous album, Bringing It All Back Home, but Highway 61 was a total immersion, and he could hardly have chosen a better lead guitarist for the venture than Bloomfield. The two were kindred spirits in many ways—hip, literate Jewish guys from the American Midwest, weaned on folk music, blues, and early rock and roll, and drawing on it all to create a new musical idiom that people would soon be calling folk rock.

On keyboards for the Highway 61 dates was Al Kooper, another up-and-coming young musician, songwriter, and producer, who would also go on to play a key role in Bloomfield’s career. But although Dylan had surrounded himself with great players to cut Highway 61, the sessions, which took place in the summer of 1965, were directionless.

“You wouldn’t believe what those sessions were like,” Bloomfield later recalled. “There was no concept. No one knew what they wanted to play, no one knew what the music was supposed to sound like—other than Bob, who had the chords and the words and the melody… They had the best studio drummer [Bobby Gregg]. They had a bass player, terrific guy, Russ Savakus. It was his first day playing electric bass, and he was scared about that. No one understood nothing.”

Yet, from the freeform chaos, Dylan and his musicians wrested the brilliant razor-blade bite of “Tombstone Blues,” the glorious wreckage of “Queen Jane Approximately,” and other marvels of sheer musical and poetic genus. The intensity of Bloomfield’s guitar work beautifully underscored the amphetamine rush of Dylan’s kaleidoscopic lyrical imagery. Bloomfield’s guitar at the time was a 1964 Fender Telecaster, an instrument ideally suited to cut through the cacophonous sound and carnivalesque poetic fervor of Highway 61 Revisited.

Bloomfield was one of the musicians who accompanied Dylan on his controversial performance at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965, shortly before the album’s release. Later, in the first of many curious career moves seemingly calculated to impel him away from major success, he declined Dylan’s offer to go on the road as his touring guitarist. He opted instead to throw his lot in with a new group he’d just joined, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Dylan was a far bigger name at the time, but the Butterfield Blues Band would quickly acquire the kind of underground artistic cred that always meant far more to Bloomfield than fame or money.

Hailed as the first bi-racial blues group, the Butterfield Blues Band boasted Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section of Jerome Arnold on bass and Sam Lay on drums, both of whom had also joined Dylan and Bloomfield onstage at Newport. Riding atop this venerable foundation were singer/harmonica ace Paul Butterfield, organ/piano man Mark Naftalin, and the guitar duo of Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop.

The band’s eponymous 1965 debut and 1966 follow-up, East-West, were essential items for any mid-Sixties hipster’s record collection. Bloomfield’s churning guitar leads on tracks like the minor-key blues “I Got a Mind to Give Up Living” inspired countless guitarists, and his telepathic trade-offs with Butterfield’s harp exemplified ensemble playing at its best.

The Butterfield Blues Band was an early exponent of the blues as a platform for adventurous musical experimentation and improvisation. At the time, neither Hendrix nor Clapton had broken out yet, and Bloomfield satisfied the nascent counterculture’s hunger for a musical hero all its own—someone who had the cred of a jazz virtuoso or streetwise bluesman but who was entirely part of the new music movement coalescing around the hippie scene. Following a triumphant debut at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1966, the Butterfield Blues Band became the toast of San Francisco, ground zero for the new psychedelic rock music and culture. Bloomfield’s work had a profound influence on soon-to-be prominent guitarists, like Carlos Santana and Jorma Kaukonen.

“It was just a fabulous band,” Kaukonen says. “They were tight. The combination of Michael, Elvin, and Butterfield was incredible. The music they was the shit.”

During his tenure with Butterfield, Bloomfield traded his 1964 Telecaster for a goldtop 1956 Gibson Les Paul, an instrument remembered as one of Bloomfield’s iconic guitars. Although he always kept a Telecaster around (he soon replaced the 1964 with a 1966 model), Bloomfield was heavily associated with Les Pauls and their big, warm tone from about 1966 onward. However, he was by no means precious about his guitars. Generally indifferent to material things, he could be rough on his instruments.

“Some guys have a body chemistry that can kill a set of strings over the course of just one live set,” Kaukonen recounts. “Michael was one of those guys.” Kaukonen found this out the hard way when he lent Bloomfield his guitar at a gig that Jefferson Airplane shared with the Butterfield Blues Band. “When I got it back from him, I said, ‘The guitar’s unplayable now!’ The strings were all cruddy and needed to be changed.”

A mercurial figure in many regards, Bloomfield suddenly and unexpectedly left the Butterfield Blues Band in 1967, saying that he wanted to give his co-guitarist Elvin Bishop “more space.” Although the group would continue to enjoy success in the late Sixties, things were never quite the same without Bloomfield.

The guitarist’s next venture was to start his own band, the Electric Flag, in 1967 with bassist (and fellow Highway 61 Revisited alumnus) Harvey Brooks, pianist Barry Goldberg, drummer Buddy Miles, singer Nick Gravenites, and a full horn section. Rock bands of the time rarely had horn sections, but Bloomfield took his cue from soul music and the R&B end of the blues spectrum. The Electric Flag got off to an auspicious start with a high-visibility live debut at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and a spot in the Peter Fonda/Roger Corman counterculture feature film The Trip, for which they also provided the soundtrack.

Sadly, things quickly went downhill from there as Bloomfield began using heroin, the drug that would ultimately kill him. There were delays in completing the Electric Flag’s debut album, the appropriately named A Long Time Comin’, and while the band had originally been Bloomfield’s vision, he didn’t shine as brightly in this context as he had in the electric-blues and folk-rock idioms. To make matters even worse, he’d already begun to lose a battle for band leadership to the brash, demonstrative Miles, who would go on to lead his own Buddy Miles Express and perform with Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys.

As a result, Bloomfield was kicked out of the Electric Flag shortly after the March 1968 release of A Long Time Comin’. He was bitterly disappointed, but quickly found himself engaged in a new project with his old pal Al Kooper. As it happened, Kooper had himself just been canned from his own group, Blood, Sweat & Tears. A resourceful producer and A&R man as well as one of era’s definitive Hammond B-3/keyboard stylists, Kooper decided to take the “rock musician as jazz hero” conceit to its logical conclusion, arranging a two-day all-star recording session in Los Angeles patterned after a jazz date, with plenty space for live-in-the-studio jamming. Bloomfield was Kooper’s first choice for the lead guitar role. The ensemble was rounded out by old friends Harvey Brooks and Barry Goldberg, on electric piano, along with session drummer Eddie Hoh.

The result was the 1968 release Super Session, one of the most influential albums of the late Sixties. Bloomfield displayed his considerable blues chops on tracks like the Albert King tribute “Albert’s Shuffle” and the slow blues “Really.” Other tracks showed his broad stylistic range to great advantage. “His Holy Modal Majesty” harks back to “East-West” trippiness; “Stop” is a funky Mixolydian workout; and the cover of the Curtis Mayfield song “Man’s Temptation” is an exercise in pure soul.

Surprisingly, Bloomfield played guitar on only five of the original album’s nine tracks. After the first day of recording, he departed without explanation. Kooper has speculated that Bloomfield couldn’t score dope and was unable to cope with his insomnia, leading to his hasty retreat. Kooper quickly recruited Stephen Stills, fresh from the recently disbanded Buffalo Springfield, to finish out the record.

Released on July 22, 1968, Super Session was a hit, peaking at Number 12 on the Billboard 200 and going Gold. The following September, Kooper and Bloomfield reunited for six shows over three nights at the Fillmore West. Once again, Bloomfield’s insomnia kicked in and he bailed midway through the schedule. Kooper managed to save the shows by bringing in Elvin Bishop and Carlos Santana, who was then relatively unknown beyond the San Francisco music scene. The resulting recordings, issued in 1969 as The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, are loose but lively documents of Bloomfield’s blues mastery.

The pervasive influence of the Super Session album helped boost interest in the instrument that Bloomfield is seen playing on its cover: a sunburst 1959 Les Paul Standard. Like many players at the time, Bloomfield first became interested in the Les Paul Standard, a.k.a. Burst, through Eric Clapton’s prominent use of it on John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album, from 1966. He’d also spent quite a bit of time playing one that belonged to John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Bloomfield acquired his 1959 Standard from guitar dealer/player/luthier Dan Erlewine in 1967, offering his Les Paul goldtop plus 100 bucks in trade. The legendary guitar can be heard on the first Electric Flag album and on both of Bloomfield’s albums with Kooper, among other recordings. His use of the 1959 Les Paul helped to elevate the Burst’s status, particularly among guitarists in the United States. Prior to then, Les Paul goldtops commanded higher prices than sunburst Standards, but by 1967 the market had flipped, and the Burst would go on to become one of the most desirable electric guitars of all time.

Bloomfield ended the Sixties in top form. He scored the radical chic film Medium Cool, worked with Janis Joplin on her album I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, and performed on Chess Records’ all-star Fathers and Sons album with Muddy Waters, blues piano great Otis Spann, Paul Butterfield, Stax bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, Sam Lay, and Buddy Miles. The guitarist also released his first solo album, It’s Not Killing Me, in 1969.

Sadly, Bloomfield’s popularity began to fade as the Seventies wore on, as did the man himself. An Electric Flag reunion and the short-lived group KGB both fizzled. He hit a new low scoring several “artistic” porn films for San Francisco’s notorious Mitchell Brothers, including Hot Nazis, Rampaging Dental Assistants and Sodom and Gomorrah, in 1974 and 1975.

Bloomfield still managed to deliver occasional quality work strewn amid the dross, including 1973’s Triumvirate album with Dr. John and John Hammond Jr., a handful of albums for the Takoma label, and an instructional album recorded for Guitar Player magazine, If You Love These Blues, Play ’Em as You Please. Unfortunately, none of these efforts resonated on the same grand scale as Bloomfield’s Sixties work.

During the late Seventies, Bloomfield gigged sporadically around the Bay Area with various incarnations of Mike Bloomfield and Friends, sometimes returning to the acoustic blues and ragtime idioms he had explored in his pre-fame days. “I worked with him on and off—more on than off—through most of the Seventies, until the last years of his life,” Mark Naftalin says. “Our work together tapered off quite a bit then. He had really gone into not a very good place. I wasn’t gonna follow him there.”

One final scene of triumph was Bloomfield’s gig with Bob Dylan at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater on November 15, 1980. A Mike Bloomfield fan to the very end, Dylan had sought him out and brought him onstage to revisit their mutual moment of glory, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Bloomfield played the show in his bedroom slippers. A few months later, on February 15, 1981, Bloomfield was found dead in the front seat of his 1965 Chevrolet Impala. He died from a heroin overdose.

“Michael Bloomfield is an important figure in American music,” Kaukonen concludes. “It’s tragic that he died the way he did. He made the blues accessible to a lot of guys like me. He loved life so much. There weren’t enough hours in the day for him to get done all he needed to get done.”

Photo: Jim Marshall