He might be better known as rock’s foremost guitar trailblazer, but Mike Bloomfield’s heart belonged to the blues. A white musician from Chicago, of middle-class Jewish stock, Bloomfield became a guitar hero in the 1960s following years of backing the era’s best blues stars. Growing up in the windy city and learning his trade with the likes of Muddy Waters and Sleepy John Estes, Bloomfield went on to swim the mainstream with Bob Dylan before tasting fame on his own terms in The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
Blues Cult: Mike Bloomfield – Blues Guitar Hero
Before all that, however, he grew up on the north side of Chicago and heard music calling his name when he saw Josh White live in 1957. He crossed the tracks to the south side, where many of Chicago’s black musicians were based, and proved himself time and again by sitting in with many of the era’s touring greats. BB King and Buddy Guy were two of the first to recognise his talents, of which journeyman musician and friend Al Kooper said: “They knew this was not just another white boy. This was someone who truly understood what the blues were all about.” Music historians have often focused on the fact Bloomfield’s Jewish upbringing drew parallel problems with the era’s race issues, but the man himself insisted it was all about the music. He became a shape shifter to keep up with the constant change of the 60s and turned into a trusty sideman for Dylan, who utilised Bloomfield’s six string heroics on such influential recordings as ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘Tombstone Blues’. “He could outplay anybody,” said Dylan who also had Bloomfield on-stage with him as he ‘went electric’ at Newport Folk festival in 1965.
Arguably America’s finest white blues guitarist, it was around this point that Bloomfield’s musical sensibilities started to guide him and he played his first shows and made the first recordings with his friends in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Like Bloomfield, Butterfield was a white musician from Chicago whose ability with the harmonica had taken him to the other side of the city’s tracks.
“I admired Paul incredibly for his singing and his music, but I never liked him,” revealed Bloomfield. “Elektra Records asked Paul if he wanted to make a record and Paul asked me if I wanted to play a little slide… by then I had a Fender Telecaster, and for the slide I used a bicycle handlebar, and found that sounded the best.” ‘The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’ album that followed was a collection of blues standards, with red hot Bloomfield guitar solos, that went on to influence the likes of Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But it was the guitar playing that captured such attention: “I like a guitar to give me pull and I like something to pull against,” Bloomfield revealed. “I like strings that aren’t too loose and I want to feel something tactile that I can play against… you should be able to bend notes and sustain them for a long time at the lowest volume possible.”
The ace guitarist went on to form bands, play solo and grace sessions for superstars throughout much of the 1970s, but struggled with addiction and personal problems. “I put the guitar down and didn’t touch it,” he has said of his lost years. “My addiction made everything else unimportant and my playing fell apart. I just didn’t want to play.” He continued to play and record sporadically and sat in with Dylan one more time, joining him for ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ in San Francisco in early 1981, before he was found dead in his car just one week later on February 15th. A posthumous album, ‘Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’’, was released soon after and Bloomfield has since been named one of Rolling Stone’s ‘100 greatest Guitarists of All Time’, alongside being inducted in into the Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll Halls of Fame.
Behind The Song – ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1965)
Bob Dylan has been backed by some of the best in the business, but many still say that the wild mercury music he made in 1965 with a pick-up band of musicians inside Columbia Studio A in New York City is his defining sound. Mike Bloomfield was the driving force behind that music. His stinging top lines and sharp solos meant the blue shades of his guitar dominated ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. Dylan knew it, too: “When it was time to bring a guitar player onto my record, I couldn’t think of anybody but him,” the bard said. “He was the best guitar player I’d ever heard.” Over two days, Dylan’s musicians cut three songs – including the radio-breaking ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – and Bloomfield played his white Fender Telecaster on such seminal songs as ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ and ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’. Bloomfield’s positive energy fed Dylan and his new album sounded like nothing that had come before…