Mike Bloomfield is one of the best guitarists in history. Although his name doesn’t resonate as much as others, his contribution is fundamental when it comes to uniting blues and rock, being one of the few white guitarists who could play alongside the original bluesmen in the juke joints of Chicago. Yet, Bloomfield never was satisfied with merely copying the masters, and always had his own personality, being also one of the firsts to use Indian and modal music as influences within a rock context, becoming the reference for white blues and rock musicians that came afterwards. From Jerry Garcia to Duane Allman, and on to Carlos Santana and Jimmy Page, there are so many we have seen influenced by him. But beyond his enormous influence is his incredible way of playing, which we will highlight in ten marvelous examples here. Because despite his demons taking him down in the end, Mike Bloomfield played like the angels.
Tombstone Blues (July 29, 1965)
Mike Bloomfield was born and raised in Chicago, the paradise of electric blues. As a teenager, he became one of the few whites who never missed a performance of Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Otis Spann, Buddy Guy, or the greats of the style Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Over time they would let him up on stage with them, being one of the fortunate few who suckled from the original source. In the mid-60s, Bob Dylan, a total fan, turned him into the secret ingredient from his conversion to electric. They recorded Like a Rolling Stone together, and the rest of my personal all time favourite album, Highway 61 Revisited. The moment when he stands out most its his work on Tombstone Blues, where he responds with fierce bitter bursts from his ‘63 Telecaster to Dylan’s lyrical storm. The incredible thing was that, as it was common in him, Bloomfield never used any effect except for volume and tone controls, and his Telecaster was plugged direct into an Ampeg Gemini I. Four days before the recording, Dylan and Bloomfield had caused a commotion when they overwhelmed the ‘folkie’ purists at the Newport Festival by playing their abrasive music, mainly the frenetic version of Maggie’s Farm with Bloomfield in incendiary mode.
Blues With A Feeling (September 9, 1965)
The Paul Butterfield Band were the first to show that whites could also play the blues, formed by Butterfield himself, lead vocals and harmonica, Elvin Bishop on guitar, Mark Naftalin on keyboards, and the amazing rhythm section made up of Sam Ley and Jerome Arnold, ex-components of Howlin’ Wolf’s band, they were also one of the first racially integrated bands in the U.S.. Their sound was pure Chicago blues, but when Bloomfield joined the group as lead guitarist at the start of ‘65, they became an unstoppable machine. By listening to their first record you can see why he snubbed Dylan, here Bloomfield could expound freely and give it all he had. In Blues With a Feeling we can find one of the first and best examples, with a tone and technique absolutely remarkable for 1965, ahead by a year of the legendary Beano by Mayall and Clapton, and in three to the debut of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, to create the first great blues/rock record in history. You can see here the perfect interaction between player and singer, adding anger to Butterfield’s lament. It is the emotion that flows from Bloomfield on the guitar which gives it that rock sediment, and which would become an absolute beacon for the rest of white American guitarists.
East West (July 1966)
If Mike Bloomfield had only played on this song, which he also helped write, from the second release of the Paul Butterfield Band, his name would still be one of the most important guitarists in rock history. Recorded in July of ‘66 it is not just one of the first forays of rock into the modal music of John Coltrane, but you can also trace the sound of the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. In short, East West is the first great ‘jam’ in rock history and Bloomfield’s sound is absolutely incredible. In those days he didn’t play the Telecaster anymore, he used a Les Paul Goldtop from 1956, and a Gibson Falcon amp. His style was evolving, perfecting his own voice with the instrument. In the first part he gets into Indian music territory, getting ahead of the flourishing psychedelia, creating the ‘definite trip’ (back in the day they would say you’d get high just listening to the song without the need for drugs). In the second bit, around minute 7, Bloomfield creates his own world, his tone is sweet and smooth, he’s building something new over a solid blues base he was coming from, but it is also obvious that like McGuinn, he’d been listening to Ravi Shankar. At the end, Elvin Bishop begins to harmonise with him, way ahead of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. To make it even more intense, onstage Bloomfield used to accompany his long improvisation (sometimes longer than a half hour) with fire breathing (literally) creating the perfect trance among the blooming hippies.
I Got A Mind to Give Up Living (July 1966)
Another fabulous cut from East West, (Butterfield Blues Band), where you can see the enormous influence of B.B. King and Otis Rush in his way of playing, although always keeping it completely personal. It’s one of the songs where he is more emotional and deep, and shows how he was broadening his vocabulary, adding to the nervous explosions of his beginnings, some smooth colourful executions where an idea is never repeated. One of the emotional peaks of his career.
Killing Floor (January of 1968)
After leaving Butterfield, Bloomfield formed Electric Flag, together with his mate Nick Gravenites and the great Buddy Miles. They made their first appearance at the Monterrey Festival in 1967, where he also debuted the most mythic guitar of his career, the ’59 Gibson Les Paul Standard. One of the songs they played there was this version of Killing Floor by Howlin’ Wolf which also appears on his debut album, A Long Time Comin’. The piece begins with an extract from a speech by Lyndon B. Johnson followed by laughter. Then his Les Paul enters like thunder backed by some winds in charge of the making the riff, then Gravenites begins to sing while Bloomfield has total freedom to throw flames (this time with just the guitar) all throughout the song. The end delivers a jazzy bridge instrumental before returning to this blues that they made completely funky.
Texas (January 1968)
This soulful blues, written by Bloomfield and Buddy Miles, was a big moment for Electric Flag’s drummer, but it’s the guitarist that shines with force, answering each vocal inflexion with a hefty display of nuances and subtlety on his Les Paul.
Albert's Shuffle (28 May 1968)
The Electric Flag adventure didn’t last long either, Bloomfield was reaching his peak as guitarist but, at the same time, he was crumbling on a personal level. His chronic insomnia and divorce were worsening his drug use. Yet, he was still admired by most of the musicians of his generation. That was how Al Kooper, whom he had met on the recording of Highway 61 Revisited, chose him to realise his dream of having a session like jazz musicians did, but focussed on rock, leaving room to move instrumentally. In May of ‘68 he rented a studio and the magic began to flow. Bloomfield played like he never had, with his Les Paul plugged into a Twin Reverb, with no effects other than the magic in his fingers and incredible tone. One of the best examples is Albert’s Shuffle, a tribute to Albert King, where he shines with the fierce intensity that made him completely different from the orthodox.
Stop (28 May 1968)
Another song from the ‘Super Session’ with Kooper, it’s called Stop but they should have been called it Don’t Stop, because once he starts to play the last thing that everyone wants it’s him stopping. I’m not exaggerating by saying rarely has there been better blues played in history. This is possibly the best solo of his career, one where you perfectly understand what Buddy Guy meant when they asked him if a white boy could play the blues, “Mike Bloomfield is playin’ more blues than I am. If you listened to people like that, you’d stop askin’ stupid questions about whether they can play the blues or not.’ Mike was the tops, one of the very best”. His whole performance is amazing , with the first solo serving as a presentation of his peculiar style, which shows he learned from the best, like B.B. and Albert King, yet is capable to have his own personal sound, not just a mere copycat. On the second bit, that starts after minute 3, he lets rip some pure soul licks on his remake of Curtis Mayfield, which will make your hair ruffle. The surprising thing about all of this is, even here, in his moment of glory, his demons wouldn’t release him. After recording some of the best solos of his career, he left without saying a word, just leaving Kooper a note, forcing Koop to call in Stephen Stills to complete the record, ironies of destiny, it would turn into the most successful of Bloomfield’s career.
Moon Tune (30 January 1969)
Nick Gravenites was Bloomfield’s main collaborator, he composed several songs for Paul Butterfield Blues Band (like Born in Chicago), he sat in with Electric Flag and he left at the same time than him. The concerts they played at Bill Graham’s Fillmore in San Francisco on the 30-31st of January 1969 provided material for both their debut albums. On both records appears the incredible Moon Tune, composed and sung by Gravenites. But the guy who can take this to the altitudes (to the celestial moon shall we say), is Bloomfield with two dazzling solos where he gives it his all. This is my favourite moment of the guitarist, it’s almost a farewell, seeing that ‘69 was the last year he was in top form before the drugs left him quite frail until his early death in 1981.
One Good Man (June 1969)
We wrap up with this excellent solo on the record I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! by his friend Janis Joplin, who he helped, along with Gravenites, to form a band after she left Big Brother & The Holding Company. It is a great example of his mastery of the slide, which he’d been playing since the time of Highway 61. Again, he shows his telepathy with singers, with a perfect accompaniment to Janis’ bleating blues.