There were four films on heavy rotation in our house. Stir Crazy, Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles and The Blues Brothers. I say on rotation, there was the small matter of some choice language and snippets of nudity that curtailed our viewing, but once we were all passed that, they were fair game.
The Blues Brothers began life as a Saturday Night Live sketch, first aired in January of 1976. This was a show, that as far as I know, would have been pretty hard to watch in rural Ireland. We had three channels, the fourth, Channel 4, didn’t appear through the fogs of the Antrim hills until sometime late in 1982.
What we did have was a Betamax video player that was beaten into submission at some point prior to our securing a VHS player through nefarious channels. That machine opened the door of a new world, that of S&A Electronics, a video shop with an amazing selection of audio and video tapes.
Its owner, one Winston Samuels, was a music buff, having played across Ireland in showbands and reggae outfits. Sam, as he was called, was our dealer, and The Blues Brothers was our entry-level drug into a world of blues, jazz, rock and roll, and reggae.
The Blues Brothers film came first, but the backstory to the enterprise is a fascinating insight into what a creative partnership Aykroyd and Belushi created.
Dan Aykroyd owned a bar near the studio where SNL was taped, on most nights the crew would descend on the bar and descend into chaos. The concept of The Blues Brothers came from that room, from Aykroyd, and John Belushi was sold on the idea pretty quickly.
The first sketch, when the duo played two songs, was meant as a laugh, little did anyone know what was likely to develop. That first performance saw the band perform the Floyd Dixon song, Hey Bartender with a host of alternative and often risque lyrics. Though the lyrics to the reworked version of I Don’t Know by Willie Mabon raise an eyebrow or two along the way…
I said Woman, you going to walk a mile for a Camel
or are you going to make like Mr. Chesterfield and satisfy?
She said, that all depends on what you’re packing,
regular or king-size.
Then she pulled out my Jim Beam and to her surprise
It was every bit as hard as my Canadian Club
The band that Aykroyd and Belushi pulled together were a formidable troupe. It started with ‘Blue’ Lou Marini, who worked the jazz clubs and toured with some of the greats, recording with Frank Zappa, Blood Sweat & Tears, Aretha Franklin, Levon Helm, B. B. King, Meat Loaf, Lou Reed, and Ringo Starr.
Tom ‘Bones’ Malone led the band and played trombone, the list of people he has played with, arranged for or recorded is phenomenal. It is probably easier to list the people he hasn’t worked with. A career that includes credits with James Brown, Al Green, Usher, Van Morrison, Jeff Beck, Pink Floyd, Robert Plant and 50 Cent would suggest this is a man who knows his trade.
Steve Cropper and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn were the backbone of Booker T and the M.G’s, if it came out of Stax Records in the 60’s they probably played on it. Steve Cropper is considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, Dunn is considered one of the best bass players. It’s hard to argue with that.
Mr Fabulous, Alan Rubin, is another artist who played with them all. From Sinatra to the Stones, from Miles Davis to Ray Charles, his career spans a stunning period in recorded music. Mississippi born Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy was the last string added to the Blues Brothers bow, not that this suggests a drop in quality. Murphy recorded with Chuck Berry and Etta James, to name just two.
Everything about the Briefcase full of Blues plays to the SNL skit, the album sleeve, the liner notes, all tell the tale of the Brothers Blue. They grew up in an orphanage in Illinois, learned their trade from the janitor and they spliced their fingers with a string from Elmore James guitar to become blood brothers. The album itself was recorded live as they opened a show for Steve Martin in the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A.
Yeah, recorded live. In a support slot to a comedian. It went to Number 1 in the Billboard charts, went double platinum and sold in the region of 3.5 million copies, making it one of the highest selling blues records of all time.
With the SNL crew bolstered by talents of Paul Shaffer (David Letterman’s Musical Director, recorded with Diana Ross, Yoko Ono, George Clinton), Steve Jordan (John Mayer Trio, Chuck Berry, John Mellencamp, Bob Dylan) and Tom Scott, who recorded the theme to Taxi Driver and worked with the likes of the Grateful Dead, Sinatra and Quincy Jones. They were clearly not messing about.
As for the album itself, it comes in a hair under 40 minutes and is a masterpiece. It begins with Aykroyd’s typically dry wit introduction, where he raves at the state of music, the state of the blues and suggests that music will only exist in plastic form in years to come. How right he was. Stick with me for 12 tracks of joy.
Can’t Turn You Lose
Originally recorded by Otis Redding in 1967, Can’t Turn You Lose, is the very definition of soul cool, on this album and in later shows it is where Elwood rails at the world and introduces the band…
Hey Bartender is where we hear how good Aykroyd is on the harmonica, Murphy strolls through a sublime guitar solo and Belushi gives it both barrels in the wild man role, it’s all double entendres and alcohol.
Messin With The Kid
Messin With The Kid is a Junior Wells original, recorded in 1960, a blues standard, introduced to the Blues Hall of Fame. it is part Little Richard, part downtown Chicago. It oozes soul and was reportedly written in five minutes, based on a jibe about one of the session musicians running late. Junior Wells was one of the Godfathers of the modern blues sound, where he led everyone followed.
(I got everything I need) Almost
A cover of a Downchild Blues Band track, possibly Aykroyd’s gateway blues drug, he was heavily influenced by the Toronto Blues revue and it all played into this album and the follow-up film of the same name. If you haven’t seen that, you probably should.
The brothers cover of The Chips Rubber Biscuit is lyrically pretty close to the original and not an easy one to sing along to. A 1956 Doo-Wop song if ever there was one, The Blues Brothers version speeds it up, and brings it bang into the blues kicking and screaming, sometimes audibly.
Shotgun Blues is an original track by Toronto’s Downchild Blues Band and the reason why we’re probably all here, given its influence on Aykroyd, slower, grittier, and grimy when Belushi sings, it is beautiful.
It is highly unlikely that this recording of Groove Me by King Floyd would ever see the light of day if it appeared on publishers desk today. For one simple reason, Belushi and Aykroyds’ Jamaican accents, its probably a little close to the bone, but very SNL circa 1978.
I Don’t Know
Originally recorded in 1952 by Willie Mabon on Chess Records it topped the Billboard chart and found itself being covered on a number of standard blues albums and in countless bars around the globe. We see Belushi in the lead role and lyric improv mode, more screaming, more passion, a little bit of anger and a lot of soul. The lyrics on this one might have rendered it unpublishable in 52.
For many Blues Brothers aficionados, The Blues Brothers wouldn’t be The Blues Brothers without Soul Man. A hit for Sam & Dave on Atlantic Records it is pure, sweet blues, gnarly, and eminently singable. A song about the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, it has been covered by everyone Lou Reed to Prince and is quintessentially The Blues Brothers.
‘B’ Movie Box Car Blues
B Movie Box Car Blues was written by Delbert McClinton and released in 1972 to little fanfare, it rattled around for a while and was picked up by Emmylou Harris in 1978 as a B side to Two More Bottles of Wine, The Blues Brothers got their hands on it in the same year and, well, gave it a different tone. Belushi appears to be working his way across the country to see a long-lost love with one thing on his mind.
Flip, Flop & Fly
If I were the musical director, recording a live album of tracks associated with The Blues Brothers this is probably the one I would bring an album to a close with too. It is as much as a statement of intent as it is a foot stomping, smile generating ode to the blues. Written by Big Joe Turner in 1955 it was given a number of run-throughs by a number of artists, including one known as Elvis. That the song was lambasted by critics and still hit the top of the charts tells you all you need to know about music critics.
The album finishes with a reprise of I Can’t Turn You Loose, and the rest is history. Alongside the SNL skits, they played live, opening for the Grateful Dead on their final show on New Years Eve of 1978.
The Blues Brothers film, directed by John Landis and released in 1980, is a preposterous romp through Chicago that includes helping orphans, paying bills, being chosen by God, Bobs Country Bunker, one of the most remarkable TV car chases ever created, one smashed up shopping mall and one last show in a prison.
The cast is a who’s who of Hollywood, music and popular culture. John Lee Hooker, John Candy, Twiggy, Steven Spielberg, Frank Oz, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Carrie Fisher, and Aretha Franklin.
It is a beautiful thing that comes complete with a sublime soundtrack by the band. They toured as a live show to promote the film, released a second live record and a best of by the end of 1981.
John Belushi died of an overdose on March 5th, 1982 at a hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood after spending the night with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. His death sent shockwaves through the band. While it took time there have been new revisions, reworkings, and a sequel, Blues Brothers 2000 that was roundly panned and everyone agreed we could have done without.
But for me, The Blues Brothers will always be about The Briefcase Full of Blues, it opened a door into another world, a world of sounds that were, frankly, strange and out of place in a bedroom in Antrim.
I will always remember being stunned that this thing existed before the film, it has given me immense joy over the years and one that I’ll hold dear for many years to come. Maybe they were on a mission from God.
As Belushi announces at the end of I Don’t Know, ‘I suggest you buy as many blues albums as you can’.