The Blues Brothers - Biography

The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers was a rhythm and blues/blues band fronted by comedians Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in character. Belushi (as lead vocalist "Joliet" Jake Blues) and Aykroyd (as harpist/vocalist Elwood Blues) were both members of the original cast of NBC's Saturday Night Live. The Blues Brothers' television debut was as the musical guest in the April 22, 1978 episode of Saturday Night Live, often cited as one of the best-ever SNL episodes.

The Band's Formation

The genesis of the Blues Brothers was a January 1976 SNL skit. In it, "Howard Shore and his All-Bee Band" play the Slim Harpo song "I'm a King Bee", with Belushi singing and Aykroyd playing harmonica, dressed in the bee costumes they wore for the "Killer Bees" sketch.

In the January 4, 1979 edition of the Eugene Register-Guard, an article provides key details about the real origins of Belushi's serious interest in blues music. Belushi was in Eugene, Oregon, filming National Lampoon's Animal House. In October 1977, he went to a local hotel to hear 25-year-old blues singer/harmonica player Curtis Salgado. After the show, Belushi and Salgado talked about the blues for hours. Belushi, interviewed for the article, found Salgado's enthusiasm infectious, saying:

I was growing sick of rock and roll, it was starting to bore me...and I hated disco, so I needed some place to go. I hadn't heard much blues before. It felt good.

Salgado lent him some albums by Floyd Dixon, Charles Brown, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and others. Belushi was hooked.

Belushi began to appear with Salgado on stage, singing the Floyd Dixon song "Hey, Bartender" on a few occasions. He used Salgado's humorous alternate lyrics to "I Don't Know" that Salgado used in his act. Salgado gave the innuendo-laden lyrics to him:

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.

In the Blues Brothers debut SNL performance, he used the lyrics, and also borrowed John Lee Hooker's trademark sunglasses and soul patch for his Jake Blues character. The suits were inspired by beatnik fashion.

First album

The Blues Brothers recorded their first album, Briefcase Full of Blues, in 1978 while opening for comedian Steve Martin at Los Angeles' Universal Amphitheater. The album went double platinum, and featured Top 40 hit covers of Sam and Dave's "Soul Man" and The Chips' "Rubber Biscuit". Despite the name of the act, most of the songs performed by The Blues Brothers throughout their existence were soul music or R&B classics rather than actual blues music.

The Blues Brothers, along with the New Riders of the Purple Sage, opened for the Grateful Dead for the final show at Winterland, New Year's Eve 1978.

The Blues Brothers Band

The two "brothers" assembled what could have possibly been the greatest concentration of studio talent in the history of music: The Blues Brothers Band. These men having played with Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Paul McCartney & Wings, Miles Davis, and everybody in between.

Their style was fresh and in many ways, different from prevailing musical trends: a very raw and "live" sound compared to the increasing use of sound synthesis and vocal-dominated music of the late 1970s and 80s.

While the music of the Blues Brothers is always said to be based on rhythm, blues, and soul, it also drew heavily on rock and jazz elements, usually taking a blues standard and bringing a rock sound and style to it. The band could be drawn into three sections: the four man horn section, the traditional rock instruments of the five-man rhythm section, and the two singing brothers. The sound of the band was an odd (but successful) synthesis of two different traditions: the horn players all came from the clean, precise, jazz-influenced sound of New York City; while the rhythm section came from the grittier soul and blues sound of Chicago and Memphis. The success of this meld was due both to Paul Shaffer's arrangements and to the musicians' talents.

In a documentary included on some DVD editions of the first Blues Brothers film, guitarist Steve Cropper reports that some of his peers thought that he and the other musicians backing the Blues Brothers were selling out to Hollywood or using a gimmick to make some quick money. Cropper responded by stating that he thought Belushi was as good as (or even better than) many of the singers Cropper had backed; he also noted that Belushi had, early in his career, briefly been a professional drummer, and had an especially keen sense of rhythm.

The full band (not all appeared in the movie) was:

  • "Joliet" Jake E. Blues - vocals
  • Elwood J. Blues - harmonica, vocals
  • Steve "the Colonel" Cropper - lead/rhythm guitar former Booker T & the MG's
  • Donald "Duck" Dunn - bass guitar former Booker T & the MGs
  • Steve "Getdwa" Jordan - drums (first recording) SNL band member
  • Willy Hall - drums, former Bar-Kays drummer
  • Tom "Bones" Malone - trombone, trumpet, saxophone SNL band member
  • "Blue" Lou Marini - saxophone SNL band member, formen Blood, Sweat & Tears
  • Alan "Mr. Fabulous" Rubin - trumpet SNL band member
  • Matt "Guitar" Murphy - lead/rhythm guitar blues and rock 'n' roll session player
  • Paul "the Shiv" Shaffer - keyboards, arrangements
  • Murphy Dunne - piano, as an actor in the movie after Paul Shaffer dropped out
  • Tom "Triple Scale" Scott - saxophone (though he doesn't appaer in the movie)

The band later included:

  • Zee Blues (James Belushi) - vocals
  • "Mighty Mack" McTeer (John Goodman) - vocals
  • Buster Blues (J. Evan Bonifant) - harmonica, vocals (actual harmonica recorded by John Popper)
  • Cab Chamberlain (Joe Morton)- vocals

The Blues Brothers movies

In 1980, The Blues Brothers film, directed by John Landis, was released, featuring cameo appearances by Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Carrie Fisher, Frank Oz, Steven Spielberg, Twiggy, Joe Walsh, John Candy, Steve Lawrence, and Paul Reubens playing a waiter in the Chez Paul restaurant. The motion picture is set in Chicago, Illinois and the surrounding area. Chaka Khan is credited as the lead soloist at the Triple Rock Church where Jake and Elwood have their revelation to re-form the band, and Twiggy also cameos as a driver of a Jaguar E-type, whom Elwood hits on at a gas station. Charles Napier, well known from various Russ Meyer films, appears as the leader of "The Good ol' boys".

Blues Brothers 2000 picks up 18 years after The Blues Brothers, with Elwood being released from prison, this time a rather high-tech private prison rather than the old Illinois state prison depicted in the first film. He learns that Jake has died, along with their surrogate father figure Curtis (Cab Calloway), and the orphanage the two had saved in the first film is no more. He takes a job as an announcer in a nightclub, where he discovers that the bartender (played by John Goodman) has singing talent, while getting on the bad side of the Russian mafia who have been demanding payoffs from the nightclub. After the Russian mafia burn down the club, Elwood resolves to put the band back together once again with John Goodman's character as his new partner and a 10-year old orphan named Buster also tagging along. The band travels to several locations shown in the first film with a depiction of how they have changed in the intervening years (Bob's Country Bunker for example is now Bob's Country Kitchen, a family restaurant). Finally they head south to Louisiana with the intention of entering a battle of the bands held at the home of a voodoo practitioner named Queen Moussette, played by Erykah Badu. At the battle of the bands they compete against B. B. King's band, which by ironic or writer plot only started the band after Elwood bought a police car from him in the beginning of the film.

Later activity

At the time of the movie's release, Belushi's wife, Judith Jacklin, and his friend, Tino Insana, wrote a book, Blues Brothers: Private, fleshing out the Blues Brothers universe and giving backstory for the first movie. The book is now somewhat difficult to find.

In 1981, The Best of the Blues Brothers was released; this album would be the first of several compilations and hits collections issued over the years.

On March 5, 1982, Belushi died in Hollywood of an accidental overdose of heroin and cocaine.

An animated sitcom with Jake and Elwood was planned, but scrapped after only a couple of episodes were produced.

To promote Blues Brothers 2000, Dan Aykroyd and John Goodman performed at the halftime of Super Bowl XXXI, along with ZZ Top and James Brown. The performance was preceded with a faux news report stating the Blues Brothers had escaped custody and were on their way to the Louisiana Superdome. (The raucous innuendo-laden performance was considered somewhat scandalous at the time, although it was eclipsed by the Super Bowl XXXVIII show which culminated in Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction".)

After Belushi's death, updated versions of the Blues Brothers have performed on SNL and for charitable and political causes. Aykroyd has been accompanied by Jim Belushi and John Goodman in character as "Zee" Blues and "Mighty Mack" Blues. The copyright owners have also authorized some copycat acts to perform under the Blues Brothers name; one such act performs regularly at the Universal Studios Florida theme park in Orlando, Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood.

In 1988 Cropper, Dunn, Murphy, and others re-formed The Blues Brothers Band for a world tour. They released an album of new material in 1992 entitled Red White and Blues, which included a guest appearance from Elwood Blues.

Several Blues Brothers video games have been made, including two Amiga/PC platform games by Titus. In 1991, the same company produced a Blues Brothers video game for the NES and Super NES. A Nintendo 64 Game titled Blues Brothers 2000 was also released.

Aykroyd has continued to be an active proponent of blues music and parlayed this avocation into foundation and partial ownership of the House of Blues franchise, an international chain of nightclubs. In character as Elwood, he also hosts the syndicated House of Blues Radio Hour.

The movie also became a staple of late night cinema, even slowly morphing into an audience participation show in its regular screenings at the Valhalla Cinema, in Melbourne, Australia. John Landis acknowledged the support of the cinema and the fans by a phone call he made to the cinema at the tenth anniversary screening, and later invited regular attendees to make cameo appearances in the sequel (they are members of the crowd during the performance of "Ghost Riders in the Sky").

John Belushi's brother Jim Belushi toured with the band for a short time, and even recorded the album "Blues Brothers & Friends: LIVE! From Chicago's H.O.B" with Dan Aykroyd but unfortunately, he didn't appear in "Blues Brothers 2000"(1998). It's rumoured he was approached to play not the role of Mighty Mack (played by John Goodman) but the role of the local Sheriff Chamberlain (which later went to Joe Morton). Jim would later reunite with Aykroyd to record yet another album, not as the Blues Brothers but as themselves: 'BELUSHI/AYKROYD - "Have Love Will Travel(Big Men-Big Music)."

In 2004, the musical "The Blues Brothers Revival'" premiered in Chicago. The story centered around the character of Elwood Blues trying to rescue his brother Jake from an eternity in limbo/purgatory. The musical was written and composed with the approval and permission from both the John Belushi-estate (including his widow Jackie Belushi Pisano) and Dan Aykroyd.

In August 2005, there was a 25th anniversary celebration for the Blues Brothers movie at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in LA. Attendees included director John Landis, former Universal Studios executive Thom Mount, movie editor George Folsey Jr., and cast members James Brown, Henry Gibson, Charles Napier, Steve Cropper, and Stephen Bishop. It featured a press conference, a panel discussion where Dan Aykroyd joined via satellite, and a screening of the original theatrical version of the film. The panel discussion was broadcast directly to many other cinemas around the country. In August 2006, a streaming video of this event was made available for online viewing by the Stiyl agency.

The Blues Brothers featuring Elwood and Zee regularly perform at House of Blues venues and various casinos across North America. They are usually backed by Jim Belushi's Sacred Hearts Band.

The Blues Brothers Band tours the world regularly. The only original members still in the band are Steve Cropper, Lou Marini, and Alan Rubin. The lead singer is Rob 'The Honeydripper' Paparozzi, and they are frequently joined by Eddie Floyd.

The Blues Brothers Bar

The Blues Brothers Bar was an illegal basement tavern operated on Wells Street In Chicago's Old Town in the 1970s and 1980s which was started by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. The Bar was down the street from The Second City theater. In the DVD commentary of the film Thief (a film staring James Belushi shot in Chicago in 1981), James Caan mentions the bar. The bar was run by a college friend whom Belushi met at College of DuPage, the friend often operated as a bouncer. As the bar was un-licenced, alcohol was bought by the purchase of 'tickets' which were then traded to the bartender for the drinks.

Takeoffs

There have been various takeoffs and parodies of The Blues Brothers, most notably in the Chicago area.

  • During their drive to the Super Bowl in 1985, the Chicago Bears, members of the "Black and Blue Division" of the NFL, issued a poster of nine of their offensive linemen wearing sunglasses and black hats. The poster was titled, "The Black and Blues Brothers". The poster was an incredible success, and led to a series of similarly-themed television commercials which parodied scenes from the movie. The catch phrase of the commercials was, "We're on a mission", eliminating the "from God" portion of the original phrase.
  • The Chicago Cubs produced a TV ad similar to the movie scene in which the brothers arrive at a brownstone apartment seeking some former band members. When the landlady asks, "Are you the police?" they answer, "No, ma'am, we're Cubs fans". Then they launch into a parody of "Soul Man": "Comin' to ya... In the summertime... Cubs baseball... Here on Channel 9... I'm a Cubs fan... I'm a Cubs fan..."
  • A similar idea was used in a Budweiser ad campaign featuring Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray in the Blues Brothers costume, also known as the "Cubs Fan Bud Man" campaign.
  • During the Oakland Athletics' run of success from 1988 to 1992, sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire were tagged "the Bash Brothers" and appeared in Blues Brothers costumes for a promotional poster.
  • While the NBA's Chicago Bulls were making their championship runs in the 1990s, an act called "the Bulls Brothers" often performed at halftime, with the performers bearing striking resemblances to Belushi and the younger, thinner Aykroyd.
  • In the Nickelodeon show, Drake & Josh, there is one episode entitled "Blues Brothers", in which both Drake Parker and Josh Nichols sing their song in their talent show, Soul Man.

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