By Josh Tapper
On February 15, 1981, Michael Bloomfield’s body was discovered in a parked car on a San Francisco side street. The 37-year-old Jewish blues guitar player, one of the most influential of the 1960s, was dead of a drug overdose. The body lay, unrecognized, in the morgue for days.
In his heyday, Bloomfield, who would have turned 70 this year and is the subject of a new documentary, Sweet Blues, was the king guitarist of American blues, emulated by Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia, idolized by Carlos Santana and lauded by Bob Dylan, who once called him “the best guitarist I ever heard.” In June 1965, Dylan recruited him for the famously shambolic sessions that produced Like A Rolling Stone—arguably the greatest rock song of all time—and he played with the folk singer during his controversial electric set at the Newport Folk Festival later that year. After helping Dylan pioneer his folk-rock sound, Bloomfield cut two highly influential albums with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the country’s first predominantly white electric blues group, including the explosive East-West in 1966, which would inspire the psychedelic sound burgeoning on the West Coast.
In the mid-1960s, snappy pop songs such as the Beatles’ 1963 hit, I Want to Hold Your Hand, were in vogue, and Bloomfield helped usher in a new way of thinking about lead guitar work. “He had this unabashed, fearless virtuosity,” says Bob Sarles, the director of Sweet Blues. “Every time he took a lead, it was like jumping off a cliff into the unknown.” Lanky with a tall shock of dark curly hair, Bloomfield attacked his instrument with a vicious temerity uncommon for blues guitarists, and his string bending was unseen and unheard at the time. For Bloomfield, who also dabbled in folk blues, country and jazz, the guitar was his vehicle for “pure expression,” he told Rolling Stone in 1968. “Without a guitar, I’m a poet with no hands.”
Born in 1943, Bloomfield grew up in Chicago’s suburbs, the son of a wealthy restaurant supply manufacturer. A largely indifferent student with a proclivity for bad behavior, he rebelled against his father’s wish for him to join the family business. Instead, he gravitated to Chicago’s gritty South Side, where he spent his teenage years hanging out in traditionally black clubs, learning firsthand from legendary bluesmen such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Across the Atlantic, Clapton, Keith Richards and other British guitarists who would soon invade American airwaves were listening to these same blues idols on the radio, but Bloomfield was, quite literally, sitting at their feet. They invited their enthusiastic pupil up on stage to jam, and he became part of the family: King often referred to Bloomfield as a son, and Waters had him babysit his grandchildren, according to rock legend Al Kooper, who cut the incendiary jam Super Session with Bloomfield in 1968.
This proximity to some of history’s key blues figures had made Bloomfield a primary channel through which their sound reached white musicians and audiences. “It’s hard to overstate his influence on guitarists,” says former Guitar Player magazine editor Tom Wheeler, who has written extensively about Bloomfield. “Blues had really yet to take hold, and that’s why Bloomfield made people sit up and take notice.”
Chronic insomnia had afflicted Bloomfield since childhood, and while it made his comportment jittery, it also meant he could stay awake hours noodling, talking blues theory and history. “Once he got going, you could hand the guitar back and forth and he would talk you under the table,” Wheeler recalls. Bloomfield also possessed a keen awareness of how he fit into a music culture that naturally saw him as an outsider: “I was a Jewish kid, I knew what I was,” he told an interviewer in the early 1970s. “But I knew I was playing the music, and that’s what counted to me.”
Bloomfield found a way to connect his Jewishness to the blues. “He used to say in the 1960s that the common thread between Jews and blacks is that black people suffer externally and Jewish people suffer internally,” says Kooper, a frequent Dylan collaborator and founder of Blood, Sweat and Tears. In 1969, Bloomfield and organist Barry Goldberg, a longtime friend, released an album called Two Jews Blues and in 1977, four years before he died, he recorded a song called “I’m Glad I’m Jewish” featuring the hokey refrain: “I’m glad I’m Jewish / I’m glad I’m Jewish / Hebrew to the bone.” Bloomfield—who kept his Jewish-sounding surname at a time when Jewish entertainers often adopted Americanized alternatives—would seek out a synagogue if a road date coincided with Yom Kippur. “We were really proud of our heritage,” Goldberg says. “We carried it around with a lot of pride and honor.”
By the time of his death, Bloomfield was largely forgotten. He had little interest in the spotlight and increasingly turned to drugs to self-medicate his insomnia. Based in San Francisco, he released a string of little-heard solo albums in the 1970s, collaborating with old friends from Chicago, and lecturing intermittently on ethnomusicology at Stanford University and other area schools. Yet young guitarists, including Santana, still flocked to his Nob Hill home to sit at his feet and learn the blues. Says Sarles: “Even artists who have never heard of Michael Bloomfield, they don’t realize it, but their playing has been altered by his existence.”