Book Review – Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero

 

bloomIt was back in 1962 when Michael Bloomfield heard Bob Dylan’s first album. He didn’t think much of it.  A year later, Bloomfield met Dylan and watched him perform when the folk singer was appearing in a Chicago club. This time he was knocked out by him. They spent some time jamming and evidently got along well. They met again in 1964 when Bloomfield was in New York for a recording session with John Hammonds Jr. In June 1965, Bloomfield received a phone call from Dylan saying he’s making a new album. Would he like to play on it? Bloomfield, at the time, was part of the still unrecorded Paul Butterfield Blues Band quickly agreed and flew to New York. The album would turn out to be Highway 61 Revisited. He didn’t play on all tracks, but his guitar was featured on Like a Rolling Stone, Tombstone Blues and Maggie’s Farm.   It was the start of a personal and professional relationship that lasted on and off almost until Bloomfield’s death in 1981.

1965 would turn out to be a pivotal year for the guitar man. Recording on Dylan’s historic album was only the start. During those sessions he met Al Kooper who would become an important part in Bloomfield’s career later on. The year would also see Bloomfield play at the famous Newport Folk Festival, not only as part of the Butterfield Blues Bland, but as part of  Dylan’s band during his infamous “going electric” set. Later that year, The Butterfield Blues Band, up to this point only known in their hometown of Chicago, would record their first album.

Ed Ward’s revised biography, Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero is an aptly titled, essential and absorbing read for anyone interested in the history of rock and roll. This edition includes new interviews as well as the complete Rolling Stone interview. Born to a upper middle class family, Bloomfield. like many artists, was an outsider growing up. By the time he was 15 he was frequenting Chicago’s Southside nightclubs where blues singers like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf performed.  The black musicians didn’t take him seriously at first and he admits that in the beginning he wasn’t very good. He learned quickly and he had the talent and style to convince one and all.

Bloomfield made two albums with Butterfield before differences between the two made him leave the group. Fortunately, that was not before the second Butterfield album, East-West, added to Bloomfield’s growing reputation.

After leaving Butterfield, he formed the Electric Flag which included Nick Gravenites and Buddy Miles. Their first project was the soundtrack for Roger Corman’s The Trip. They appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and also released their first real album. However, for  Bloomfield, it would not last long. He left the group soon after.  In 1968, he reunited with Dylan session player Al Kooper, and along with Stephen Stills, unintentionally formed what was essentially the first super group. Their album, Super Session, was an artistic and commercial success. It was followed by The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, recorded live at the Fillmore West. Bloomfield felt the albums were “scams” and calling it “super” was just a way to sell records.

Ed Ward (Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll) chronicles Bloomfield’s career with plenty of first hand accounts from family, friends and fellow musicians plus interviews the author did with his subject. Like many musician’s of the era, Bloomfield was plagued by drugs. Insomnia was also a life long problem he had since his teen years.

Compared to many of his contemporaries, Bloomfield is less remembered today than he deserves. One only has to listened to his work on Highway 61 Revisited or Super Session to realize this is a guy who could give Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix a run for their guitar money. This book, along with the 1984 album, Bloomfield: A Retrospective, which includes 27 essential tracks as well a documentary film, hopefully will remedy that.

On February 15, 1981,  Michael Bloomfield, like Hank Williams,  was found dead inside an automobile. He was 37 years old.

 

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