MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD’S LEGEND WON’T go away. Though he is passionately committed to discovering, dusting off, and reinterpreting the dozens of musics in virtually every corner of America’s post-Civil War folk heritage, his audiences are often unaware of that fact, or are more interested in hearing him recreate the sounds of the records that made him one of the world’s preeminent blues-rock guitar superstars more than a decade ago.
“It’s a real problem,” he says. “A big one.”
In the eyes of the late-’60s record buying public, Bloomfield was tall in the saddle. After all, he was an onstage accomplice the day Bob Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and, after several albums and tours with various bands, he turned on thousands of guitar players—and probably millions of other fans—to Chicago-style electric blues. His guitar technique churned with such soulfulness that he broke a color line of sorts, demonstrating a blues sensibility uncommon among white instrumentalists, and earning respect from the sacred heroes of his youth.
You never saw yourself as the American Eric Clapton, did you?
Never. About Clapton, I thought, “Now here’s a rock star.” Boy, did he play. I thought he had taken the blues just absolutely as far as it could go. And when Hendrix came along, I wanted to burn the guitar. I’m sure Eric felt the same way. So I didn’t relate to being a rock star at all. All of those social implications and ramifications of the rockstar trip—I was never into it.
Who was your first rock and roll influence?
Scotty Moore—Elvis’ guitar player. Also, Cliff Gallup, who played with Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps. See, when I was around 15, I couldn’t really differentiate between rockabilly and blues. It all sort of sounded the same to me. I lived in the suburbs of Chicago, and all I knew was that it all had a lot of energy. It all had this sort of outlaw quality to it that I was dying to get into any way I could. I couldn’t tell what I wanted to be more—a Presley-esque greasy hillbilly or a jivey blues singer.
Where did you first encounter the blues?
On the radio. As I searched the dial at night when I was a little kid, I found that Chicago had seven or eight black stations. About three of them catered to southern blacks, and they played nothing but blues. Then I heard the difference. The rockabilly was fabulous, and I loved it, but then I started hearing nothing but endless B.B. King records, endless Magic Sam and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and so on. I was thinking, “Oh my God—this is another world, another realm, the jungle, the city. And when I found out that these guys all lived right here in my town, and that all I had to do was to take a subway and I could actually go see them—that just killed me.
Do you see yourself as a musical caretaker of sorts?
Well, a lot of these songs are dying. I don’t know how many people our age care about blues. Where are the young bluesmen? I would like to keep those forms alive so that people will know that this is how America played. —Excerpted from Tom Wheeler’s piece in the April 1979 Guitar Player