The Blues Brothers

TrackAlbum
Messin' With The KidBriefcase Full Of Blues
Flip, Flop & FlyBriefcase Full Of Blues
GuiltyMade In America
Riot In Cell Block Number NineMade In America
Who's Making LoveMade In America
She Caught The KatyThe Blues Brothers (OST)
Gimme Some Lovin'The Blues Brothers (OST)
Minnie The MoocherThe Blues Brothers (OST)
Cheaper To Keep HerBlues Brothers 2000 (OST)
John The RevelatorBlues Brothers 2000 (OST)

 

The Blues Brothers photo 2

The Blues Brothers – Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi

 

 

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Blues Brothers playlist

 

 

Contributor: David Lewis

Elwood: It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.

Jake: Hit it!

It’s an iconic movie. It is, despite its flaws, a classic musical movie. Scene after scene has seared itself into its fans’ consciousness. Yet, the Blues Brothers band has its detractors. “Two movie stars fronting a band.” “Belushi can’t sing.” “Aykroyd can’t sing and isn’t a great harp player.”

Yet, here I am, about to bang on again about growing up in the middle of nowhere. Actually, that’s not fair. It wasn’t the middle of nowhere but if you climbed to the top of the nearest hill – Bald Hill just out of Geurie (about 25 kms east of my home town) you could actually see the middle of nowhere. While living in Dubbo, NSW (population then was about 30,000) had its advantages (particularly in retrospect), access to all the world’s best music wasn’t one of them.

The Blues Brothers poster

When we watched The Blues Brothers (1980, director John Landis), most of my friends loved the car stunts. The Bluesmobile was an ex-cop car – cop engine, cop shocks, cop transmission. The film held the record for the most cars wrecked in a single film – 101 – then the record was taken again by Blues Brothers 2000, who totalled 102 cars. However, I also loved the music, and the appearance of some familiar names, and some then unfamiliar names, sent me on a journey in which I discovered the blues. But also, as we shall see, soul music and gospel music, and allowed me to dig deeper into country music and New Orleans second line jazz, jump blues and early rock and roll. It also taught me about the history of what might be termed American vernacular music.

The Blues Brothers didn’t actually start in the movie. They were a sketch on America’s Saturday Night Live, a show that didn’t broadcast in Australia, though we had heard of it, thanks to advance publicity about movie stars like Aykroyd, Belushi, John Candy, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and others. The sketch wasn’t a comedy sketch. Two figures dressed in black suits, with white shirts, black hats and Ray-Ban sunglasses would sing classic blues and soul in front of a band. Joliet Jake was the short one, and Elwood was the tall one. (Jake was played by John Belushi and Elwood by Dan Aykroyd.)

The Blues Brothers photo 3

Now, I suppose the band was an in-joke. There was an incredible array of players – some of the best players in the world. The rhythm section was Willie “Too Big” Hall on drums, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass and Steve “The Colonel” Cropper on rhythm guitar. Those familiar with these names will know Dunn and Cropper as part of the M.G.’s, of Booker T. fame. Hall played with the Bar-Kays and later Isaac Hayes. The horn section was Alan “Mr Fabulous” Rubin on trumpet, Tom “Bones” Malone on trombone and occasional saxophone, and “Blue” Lou Marini on saxophone. This was the horn section of Blood, Sweat and Tears. On lead guitar was Matt “Guitar” Murphy. He had played with Howlin’ Wolf. The band leader was the band leader of Saturday Night Live, Paul Shaffer. An extremely talented keyboardist and a great bandleader, he later went on to lead the house band on the Letterman show (which featured Tom Malone and Blue Lou). He also, among other things, co-wrote the Weather Girls smash hit It’s Raining Men. In most of the sketches and in live shows and on the first records, the sax was Tom Scott and the drums, Steve Jordan.

It was the first time a southern rhythm section and a northern horn section had been matched. And it was electrifying. Shaffer’s arrangements played to everyone’s strengths, and a very powerful and enjoyable band – one of the best live bands I’ve seen, in fact – was the result.

They had recorded a couple of albums before the film: Briefcase Full Of Blues (1978) and Made In America (1980). These are two great albums of people enjoying themselves. Now, purists will scoff and say ‘The originals are better’. Yes, perhaps they are – but the point of the Blues Brothers was not to be the endpoint, but the start of a journey. They wanted to introduce you to what they saw as real American music – blues, New Orleans jazz, gospel, country, soul. When you listen to these two live albums, nearly every original artist is acknowledged and Jake in live performances would exhort audiences to buy the original albums. They also made a studio album in 1992, Red, White & Blues, but it’s as a well recorded live show that they will be best remembered.

From Briefcase Full Of Blues, I’ve gone with Messin’ With The Kid. This is a Junior Wells composition, but Rory Gallagher and Albert Collins did notable covers. It’s a terrific vocal performance from Belushi who uses his acting skill to bring out a menace that other versions don’t have. I can sense the unpleasant tool in Belushi’s pocket – knife? knuckle-duster? pistol? razor? Who knows? And I don’t want to.

Flip, Flop & Fly, originally by Big Joe Turner, exuberantly finishes the album; a superb arrangement with the band sounding like it came right out of the early fifties. Dan Aykroyd shows off his chops on harmonica and the audience claps along. I love it.

From Made In America, John Belushi attempts a torch song in Guilty. What he lacks in vocal technique he makes up in dramatic expression. This shouldn’t work but his emotional input makes it, for me at least, a highlight. It’s followed by the Perry Mason Theme and then a superb rendition of Leiber and Stoller’s Riot In Cell Block Number Nine. Aykroyd takes the lead in his bass/baritone voice, and when the backing vocals kick in it’s great. Tom Scott shines here on saxophone.

The other track from this album I’ll point out is Who’s Making Love. The muscular chant gives it an energy that in lesser hands might have flopped. The band shines here, with a particularly nice guitar part by Cropper. A cheeky, funky, cool track.

They toured, they were popular, and of course popular Saturday Night Live characters got movies. The Blues Brothers is a film that shouldn’t work. It has a plot that makes no sense, several unconnected subplots, great set pieces, great driving scenes, hilarious moments and a magnificent soundtrack. It introduced me to such acts as John Lee Hooker (whose performance on the street in Chicago also featured Pinetop Perkins and Big Walter Horton), Cab Calloway, and the soul stylings of Aretha Franklin (as opposed to her pop stuff), James Brown and Ray Charles (excluding Hit The Road Jack).

One of the missions of Aykroyd and Belushi was to introduce these acts, as well as many others, to the public. They were surprised to find all these huge stars were available; the music market had moved on and so they were able to find time in their schedules to appear in the film. Paul Shaffer was unable to take part due to contractual obligations, so Murphy Dunne filled in on keyboards. Dunne was also an actor and added a memorable turn as a maitre d’ in a key scene. He’s a terrific pianist as well.

The muted guitar, followed by the blast of horns that opens the film – She Caught The Katy is as great a musical start to a film as any other candidate. Written by Taj Mahal and blues mandolinist Yank Rachell, the Katy is the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad. Apparently, Belushi’s favorite blues song, it’s one of the few blues on the soundtrack.

Some of the standouts of the film aren’t even on the soundtrack album. Aretha’s Think is brilliant:

As Charles Shaar Murray pointed out in “Crosstown Traffic”, his book on Hendrix, this sequence is a reductive expression of one of the tensions in African-American culture. While it is up to the man to provide for his family, it is also ‘male’ jobs – construction, manufacturing, maintenance – that are first to go in a recession. ‘Female’ jobs – food preparation, cleaning, health support (nurses’ aids etc.) are more recession proof. So the tension is between unemployed men and employed women. I have reduced the argument as well, as it is complex and comes with many social issues. But this is a lighthearted take on the subject.

Speaking of gender roles, the Stand By Your Man scene is hilarious and effective:

So, with those two excluded (but check them out) where else should you look? Well, The Blues Brothers album is one of the very best soundtracks and while Shake A Tail Feather was a big hit (so you probably know it), I’m going with Gimme Some Lovin’. This is an example of great English Blues – Spencer Davis Group recorded it (and incidentally, Steve Winwood makes an appearance in the next movie). It’s energetic, fun, tight and the band is superb.

The other one I’m picking from this soundtrack is Minnie The Moocher. Cab Calloway, who plays the Brothers’ father figure, fills in for the missing brothers (who are avoiding the police, the owner of a country bar and a Buck Owens’ style country band, and members of the Illinois Nazi Party – I told you the film had a plot that makes no sense). The band is instantly transformed into the Cotton Club orchestra while Cab plays with the audience. The song opens with St James’ Infirmary but tells the tragic story of a heroin addicted prostitute. It’s a standard and he recorded it dozens of times (even doing a polka version and a disco version). He wanted to promote his disco version but John Landis rejected that. Apparently Calloway then did a lacklustre version, but Landis yelled at him, telling him if he’s the best performer of this song, the film better get the best performance. Calloway rose to the occasion, and I will happily admit that it’s my favorite version of the song. (Guitar geeks will enjoy spotting Cropper’s ’51 Esquire.)

The film also features Henry Gibson, John Candy, and has my favourite performance by the late Carrie Fisher as a spurned ex-girlfriend of Jake. She also played some kind of space princess in a science fiction movie a few years earlier, and she was great in it, but watching her fire that M-16 after Jake and Elwood still makes me laugh. Just go and watch the film, if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

After the film, the band toured for many years. The death of Belushi through drug misadventure was a terrible blow. He was a great talent. Cropper said he was better than many of the singers he had written for and produced and played behind, praising in particular his keen sense of rhythm. The Blues Brothers band toured with various vocalists. I saw them around 1994 in Sydney’s Enmore Theatre. The film played (and it was glorious hearing that soundtrack through massive speakers). At the end of the film, the band played a 90 minute set. Tom Malone was replaced by another trombonist and I think Willie Hall was also replaced. It didn’t really matter. Wilson Pickett – WILSON FREAKING PICKETT! – and Eddie Floyd – EDDIE FREAKING FLOYD! – were on vocals! The group I was with dressed in the requisite uniform (1 hat, black; 1 pair of sunglasses; one pair of trousers, black; one tie, black; one shirt, white; 1 pair of shoes, black) and it was magnificent.

In 1998, the long awaited sequel was released to the enjoyment of very few, sadly. The death of John Belushi had left a big hole. They replaced him with three people – John Goodman, Joe Morton, and the (then) child, J. Evan Bonifant. Now, these are three major talents but they don’t really fill the gap of Belushi. The film, in my view, tried to catch the lightning but really doesn’t, except in one area. There are a couple of good scenes and cameos by Pickett and Floyd; Junior Wells; B.B. King; Jonny Lang; and Erykah Badu don’t hurt. But the brothers have nicely pressed, dry cleaned suits, unlike Jake and Elwood whose clothes were grimy. The Bluesmobile was a bit shinier and didn’t sound as hotted up. Elwood didn’t have the recidivist vibe Aykroyd gave in the first movie – they were hardened criminals, although he was released from jail in the beginning. Bonifant gives a cutesy factor that doesn’t really work.

Where the second film really shines though is the magnificent soundtrack. My god, is it good. Lonnie Brooks and Junior Wells join Elwood and the band for Cheaper To Keep Her.

While I was tempted to put in Ghost Riders In The Sky, I’ve already got their country music covered above. So, what about gospel? I’ve put in John The Revelator. Well, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), Solomon Burke and James Brown (all ordained ministers in real life) are joined by Taj Mahal (who does the a cappella introduction). Joe Morton joins in, and its backed up tremendously by Sharon Riley and the Faith Chorale. Even a poor backslider like myself might just go to church. Or at least form a band.

It’s not the Blues Brothers, but the closing scene of the film features a head cut between the Brothers and the Louisiana Gator Boys. We’d already met Malvern Gasperone (played by B.B. King) but now we meet his band. The Louisiana Gator Boys do an absolutely superb version of How Blue Can You Get – I can’t really include it in the final 10 as only Shaffer appears from the Blues Brothers but it’s a veritable Who’s Who of blues and soul music.

Oh, for a backing vocals section that included Lou Rawls, Koko Taylor, Isaac Hayes and Gary U.S. Bonds (the other singer is Tommy “Pipes” McDonnell who is a vocalist in the touring Blues Brothers band). Both Stevie Winwood and Billy Preston on keyboards join Dr. John on piano; Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Travis Tritt, and Jimmie Vaughan on guitar; Charlie Musselwhite on harp; Jack DeJohnette on drums; Willie Weeks on bass. A horn section of Clarence Clemons, Jon Faddis, Grover Washington Jr and Joshua Redman round it out. I still should write to the cinema – I think there was dust in there, my eyes watered as soloist followed soloist. Just magic. (In the clip, they’re playing to Erykah Badu, the Voodoo Queen, who’d already sung in the outstanding Funky Nassau.)

The Blues Brothers may not quite have been a blues band, and they may be eclipsed by their heroes. But there is no doubt of their importance, even if as only a gateway to the originals. I caution against dismissing them – there are some great versions in there, and Dan Aykroyd in particular is to be acknowledged for his contribution to blues and soul music.

For a young kid, stuck halfway across the world, the band opened me up to a musical wonderland I am still exploring decades later. That alone makes them worth it in my view.

 

 

 

John Belushi (1949-1982)

 

The Blues Brothers official website

Making of The Blues Brothers – full documentary

Dan Aykroyd wikipedia

The Blues Brothers biography (AllMusic)

David Lewis is a regular contributor to Toppermost. A professional guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country in several bands and duos. He is a professional historian and a public speaker on crime fiction, adventure fiction, philosophy art, history and popular culture. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
B.B. King, Big Joe Turner, Bo Diddley, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Eric Clapton, Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Spencer Davis Group, Taj Mahal

TopperPost #808

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Aug 18, 2019

    Thanks for this very evocative piece. Will add that Johnnie Taylor did the original version of ‘Who’s Makin Love’. For me at least, as you say, The Blues Brothers (like The Commitments) work best as an entry point rather than the main course.

  2. Peter Viney
    Aug 18, 2019

    I like the “entry point” idea very much and love the Blues Brothers. My favourite Blues Bros is illustrated on the video above … Everybody Needs Somebody To Love. The talking is very funny, and while I guess you’d go for Solomon Burke or The Rolling Stones for the song, this entry point would lead you there. Solomon caught the “I’m so glad to be in your wonderful city” so beloved of singers who couldn’t remember which town they were in.

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