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

November 1st, 2013

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 played…it 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

  • Kelly R Sneed

    Great article, really did not know that much about him, but now I will check out his music.

    • Carlos Esquivel

      I’d been a Bloomfield fan since I don’ t know when / I’d thought he’d drop off the face of the earth / One day I heard the that Marilyn Chambers (remember her?) was going to be signing autographs at one of her porn movies / So I went down to Buena Park to see the movie (I think it was Up N Coming) I’m watching the second movie when all of a sudden I hear the coolest bluesiest guitar coming from this POS movie / I immediately I said to myself that’s fucking Michael Bloomfield / I actually sat through that movie only to watch the credits and see if I was right / of course that was him / sadly that was the last thing I would ever hear from him / Damn that guy could play / really miss him

  • Clayton Williams

    I am 60 yrs young and been playing guitar for 48 yrs and I’ll have to say this publication is like no other. Everything about it is good. Thank you for something that I truly enjoy reading.

    Martin 1939 D18 Authentic, 2011 D41 custom Turbo w/ 1/4 inch bracing, 1951 D28, 1956 D28, also a great playing telecaster, so I have been blessed. Please keep the publication as it is.
    Clay Williams

  • I grew up when Mike Bloomfield was playing with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and to this day I still recommend the East West album!

  • Gary “Schmooze” Gratzer

    I walked into the Norman Rockwell museum north of Rutland, Vermont a few years back and the first piece I noticed was the Kooper/Bloomfield album cover! Great story from Kooper accompanied the exhibit. Nice.

  • Mike

    Bloomfeild was really way overated. His music and guitar playing really wasn’t that good

    • Grant Rowlands

      Well, . . . I’ve heard of Mike Bloomfield, and owned the Supersession record many many ears ago, and I happen to think he is an excellent player with a lot of touch and feel.
      I haven’t heard of you . . . ?? lol ;-))

    • Bob Cramblitt

      And this is based on what? Have you listened to the records?

    • W.D. Ramsey

      Are you trying to be provocative? Or are you a tasteless moron?

    • Say Mike,
      Who do you think is a better guitarist than Bloomfield?
      Somehow, I think that you wouldn’t know a great guitarist if you heard one…oh, wait you did hear a great guitarist, and didn’t know it! You’re just trying to provoke people who know the real score.

  • TJ Colatrella

    I was lucky enough to have first met Michael at 15 just before turning 16. I was already playing guitar by then, struggling to try and play, understand how the real blues players and rockers played, which you couldn’t learn from the average guitar teacher back then and all too often still today.

    Michael was my hero, even more than Eric Clapton who was still more rock than blues pure blues as Michael was. Michael poured his soul into it, I saw many many shows with him anytime he played NYC, most often Fillmore East, I’d get early and late show tickets often. I saw him play with BB King and Johnny Winter, always of course with Al Kooper for those treats, we watched the Sam and Dave Review together then in 1970 we watched The Band at Wolman Skating Rink NYC together during the Stage Fright Tour..

    Michael reveled in outer great players, was super enthusiastic about Matt Murphy in Sam and Dave’s band, and Robbie Robertson back then and all of The Band, especially Levon drumming and singing as he did..!

    Blues is feel, and nobody white, except Johnny Winter in his own way, played with the feel Michael did, his phrasing was the best..he’d improvise blues symphonies in his head, blues counter melodies, when others were obsessed with playing fast Michael would play dangerously slow, if he were a plane he’d have stalled in mid air..

    He’d play voice lead something I learned to do well myself just play off the singer, follow what they sang and play off of that..

    He didn’t use effects just plugged into a Twin Reverb sometimes more than one..

    I saw him play Albert’s Shuffle a number of times it was never exactly the same..

    The old blues guy would say, “God gave them a song to sing”, that’s how it was with Michael he just sang that song God gave him, it was in him, he was just sharing his song with us all..and God gave Michael one hell of at song..

    That picture is how I so often remember him, with his eyes shut or almost closed feeling it inside, not thinking about theory or rules or technique, just feeling that note the note he was playing not even thinkin about what note he play next, he was that note he was playin and until he had poured all his emotion and feeling into that note, there was no need to go to another..

    He also loved chord fragments used them all the time and he and I both learned to play and phrase from our mutual friend Paul Butterfield. Michael as do I played Paul’s harp riffs his arpeggios on guitar.

    Not ever guitar player will get it with Michael Bloomfield not every guitar player’s got soul and heart to go where Michael could go, and not being able to go there, they pretend that place doesn’t exist…but it does…

    I’ve been there…

    • Jim Labos

      What a beautiful and eloquent statement of love and appreciation of not only Bloomfield but music. Your love of both shows through.

      I too believe that there is that special place to “go” and as a guitar player all I ever do is strive to get “there”.

      Some can sustain that throughout a musical piece. Bloomfield was one of those.

      • I was going to reply to TJ but you said it better then i could. MB was so into authenticity, something that has been completely lost in todays music,shit for that matter everything. Money has become so paramount, it trumps EVERYTHING.

  • Paul Dean

    The Most Under rated Guitarist in Rock n Blues history , Hopefully this will set the record straight for future generations , he had a complete sound of his own . a major artist .

  • Andy Gilmore

    I met Mike Bloomfield when we were attending summer school together in 1959 in Winnetka, Illinois. I would sit in awe of him as he worked at his craft up in the music building, after Algebra. He even went so far as to loan me one of his now-priceless Gibson ES-350 guitars for a few weeks towards the end of the summer. He tried to teach me a few things, but we played on entirely different skill levels. I went on to play bass with a small group that played locally during the 60’s, and Mike…well, he went on to be one of the best damn guitarists I ever heard. I have a small collection of vintage instruments to this day…but I sure wish I had that old Gibson!!

  • Jeff Kallman

    Wonderful article reviewing Mike Bloomfield’s work and legacy—but I wish there’d been a mention of maybe his most under-appreciated album, “Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West 1969.” (Come to think of it, I wish someone would put out a complete edition of that set, with all the additional stuff from those shows showing up in places like Wolfgang’s Vault.)

  • Marty Brooks

    More tracks from “Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West” are on Nick Gravenities “My Labors” album. Don’t know if there’s even more tracks beyond that.

    As for the “Live Adventures” cover comment posted above, that’s very interesting because Al Kooper claimed in his “Backstage Passes…” book that a Columbia Records executive had the painting and refused to give it up (Al wanted it).

  • silverlakebodhisattva

    The telling comment is from Dylan, on the aborted (outtake) version of “Tombstone Blues” now available on “No Direction Home”; after about the fourth chorus, Bloomfield unleashes a squalling distortion-laden break which completely breaks up Dylan, who stops the band and says “I can’t sing! You gotta put a wall up over him!”

  • Toby Byron

    CORRECTIONS: 1.) Bloomfield was in no way a peer of Muddy, B.B., Albert, etc., 2.) He wasn’t getting high with Muddy and Wolf, 3.) He was playing a Les Paul before the Bluesbreakers album appeared, 4.) He was not kicked out of the Electric Flag, 5.) It was the late ’60s when he gave up playing for a brief time (see Facebook/Michael Bloomfield Legacy), 6.) Some of his greatest and most enduring music and thrilling solos are from the c. ’69-early 70s albums: LIve at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, Nick Gravenites’ My Labors, the Steelyard Blues film soundtrack, 7.) He was not found dead in a Chevrolet Impala, 8.) His death was mysteriously attributed to a heroin and cocaine (something he NEVER did) overdose.

  • steve oh

    Mike regularly jammed with Muddy Waters, B.B., and other Chicago-based bluesmen who ruled the clubs on the South Side. If that isn’t a peer, I don’t know what is.
    Bloomie never had insomnia, that was a code phrase for “can’t score any heroin “.
    favorite quote; Its not the notes, its the spaces beween the notes.

  • LiamRek

    Back in the early 80s, I heard a Woody Herman version of Leon Russell’s A Song for You, on which the DJ said Bloomfield played sax. But I’ve found no account of Bloomfield ever being associated w/ the sax or w/ Woody Herman.
    This wasn’t an aberration: I had the segment on cassette tape for years, w/ that DJ saying, “Mike Bloomfield on saxophone.”

  • Joe LaForest

    I agree with the general consensus that both he and his playing were wonderful additions to our fabulous musical tapestry. In the early 70’s I was learning guitar and bass, jamming daily/nightly with my records. Ten Years After, Humble Pie, B B King and many more random records i dont clearly rrecall. KSHE-95 in St. Louis had a dj that played songs from Supersessions. One day i bought it