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Singin' the Blues

Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi carry a musical torch across America as the Blues Brothers.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
The Blues Brothers, Jan/Feb 2008

(continued from page 1)

Aykroyd went through some vagabond years in the late '60s, and in 1970 spent a summer working in the oil fields of northern Canada. He ended up in Toronto, where he auditioned for the Second City improvisational group, a branch of the original group in Chicago. He tried out the same day as John Candy, Gilda Radner and Valri Bromfield, all comedic actors. Although he went to Chicago several times, he never encountered John Belushi, who was also deeply involved in the improvisational world there with the original Second City. It was during his Second City stint in Toronto that Aykroyd began to experiment with his musical passion on stage. "We used to do things called Make a Song, and there was always a piano player at a Second City Improv show. So we did Make a Blues Song, Make an R&B Song, Make a Rock and Roll Song. I was playing harp and singing and dancing…it was a furthering of the education and practice of the blues."

In 1974, John Belushi came to Toronto, recruiting for National Lampoon Radio, and, according to Aykroyd, successfully talked Gilda Radner into leaving for New York. Aykroyd, who didn't want to leave because he was having a modicum of success in Canada, describes his first meeting with Belushi as if it were yesterday. "I remember John coming through the back door at Second City on Adelaide Street, the old fire hall that we operated out of, and he had a kind of tweed driver's cap on…and a scarf—he was, you know, the grand actor—and he came on and he did the set with us.

"And basically, you know, we looked at each other, and it was love at first sight," Aykroyd says, conveying the genuine affection he still clearly feels for John, more than 25 years after his death. After the Second City show, Aykroyd and Belushi returned to a small blues club that he operated in "the worst part of Toronto." Aykroyd said he put a song on the record player, "Straight Up," by a local blues band, Down Child Blues Band.

"So we're sitting there…the windows all fogged up, and John listens and says, 'Hey, what's that music?'" Aykroyd recalls.

"Well, I say, 'John, that's a local blues band,' and he said, 'Wow, that's great.' 'Well, it's just local…you come from Chicago, which is the home of the blues.' But John said he was into heavy metal, and I said, 'Well, you can teach me 'bout that, and I'll teach you about the blues.'"

"So we started listening to this record, and Howard Shore [who wrote the score for Lord of the Rings] says, 'Yeah, you guys should start a group. You could call yourselves the Blues Brothers.' So that early, even back then, before we went to 'Saturday Night Live' and were hired there, we were thinking about doing a band together."

Within the year, Aykroyd decided to go to New York, where he joined the "Saturday Night Live" cast, one of the most incredible groups of comedians ever assembled: Belushi, Radner, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Garrett Morris, among them. One of his first nights in the city, he went over to Belushi's apartment. Aykroyd recalls that John said, "Hey, remember when we were in Toronto and we were talking about doing some music? Well, I got these blues albums." Aykroyd pauses for a moment with a slight tilt of his head, looking out from under one arched eyebrow, and repeats what he said then: "Oh, yeah."

It turned out that since that night in Toronto about a year earlier, Belushi had bought more than a hundred blues albums and had been listening to all the classics, obsessed with his newfound musical passion. "He said we should pick a couple of songs…. 'You could play harp, I could sing,'" recalls Aykroyd. "I said, 'Who's going to back us up?' and he said, 'Ah, we'll figure that out.'…So we began together to figure out songs we could do effectively that wouldn't sound too bad."

Next, they talked about how they were going to look. Since they were both fans of Lenny Bruce, who wore a thin tie and a white shirt—"just to fool the straights," Aykroyd says—they decided to copy that look. "So we got the suits from Lenny Bruce, the shades and hat came from a record that John Lee Hooker had called House of the Blues, " Aykroyd says. "All of a sudden, we had material that we could do. We had a look. So how and where were we going to play?"

"Saturday Night Live" become one of the hottest shows on TV in its first season in 1975, and many musicians were vying to be the guest acts. Belushi struck up a friendship with Willie Nelson, who appeared on the show, and, according to Aykroyd, Belushi spoke with the country music star about his and Ayroyd's musical aspirations. Nelson said his band was playing at New York's Lone Star Cafe, and the Blues Brothers were welcome to come down, and the band would back them up. "We did five songs the first night, and it was a big hit," Aykroyd recalls, "and the next night it was a bigger hit and the next night it was an even bigger hit. We did three nights, with the briefcase on the arm, and John would unlock it and out would come the harmonica…we thought to ourselves, We really have something here."

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