Singin' the Blues
Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi carry a musical torch across America as the Blues Brothers.
From the Print Edition:
The Blues Brothers, Jan/Feb 2008
"Good Evening, Ladies and Gentlemen, It's Showtime," the disembodied voice of a backstage announcer echoes over the pounding downbeat of a blues boogie, "as the 11th annual Houston's Children's Charity presents for your exclusive listening and dancing pleasure, two men who live to keep the music of their Brother Jake alive. From Calumet City, Illinois, will you please welcome," the voice gets louder and more staccato, "the legacy Brother Elwood and the blood brother, Brother Zee. Here are Elwood and Zee, the genuine Blues Brothers."
The two men, wearing black suits, black fedoras and black Wayfarer sunglasses, make their entrance to a crescendo in the music, climb up the six feet of stairs and stride across the stage in front of the Sacred Hearts band, their arms straight, swinging in almost perfect unison as they glide from one end of the stage to the other and back again. The band breaks into "Sweet Home Chicago," keeping the rhythm steady and the music loud as the "brothers" reach for the microphones.
Within seconds, women wearing floor-length silk or satin gowns and men in tuxedos are out of their seats and flooding onto the dance floor. By the time Brother Zee, a.k.a. Jim Belushi, grabs the microphone to growl out the first lyrics, the dance floor is jammed, back-to-back and shoulder-to-shoulder, everyone moving to the irresistible beat of one of history's greatest blues songs. Brother Elwood, aka Dan Aykroyd, shakes his thing in a perfect duet with Zee, the music getting louder and the dancing getting more furious.
The Blues Brothers are doing their thing. Again.
Thirty years ago, the world first heard the raucous sounds of the Blues Brothers, as part of a skit on "Saturday Night Live," NBC's legendary comedy show. In three short years, the band, founded by Aykroyd and John Belushi, who was known as Jake Blues, spawned a live record album that sold 3.5 million copies and two additional albums, a 16-city nationwide tour and a movie, The Blues Brothers, that lives on today on DVD and television replays as a monument to America's cultural gem, the music genre called the blues. Some music historians reluctantly even give the black-suited duo credit for expanding appreciation of the blues in the United States. Today, the Blues Brothers Classic Revue with the Sacred Hearts band appears 10 to 12 times a year, mostly at charity and corporate events, at casinos around the country and at openings of House of Blues venues, the chain of music halls and restaurants cofounded by Aykroyd.
Each time they march onto the stage, Elwood and Brother Zee and the band make it clear they are there to do one thing: play the blues. In fact, the original Blues Brothers' movie provides the simple clue to what this band is about and what its two creators meant it to be. It's one line in the movie, repeated several times, but the phrase is still used today by Aykroyd and Jim Belushi when they talk about their music. Early in the movie, Elwood has just picked up Jake from a penitentiary and they've been stopped by the highway patrol, who discover Elwood's license is suspended. As he squeals away from the traffic stop, with the officers running back to their car to begin chase and Jake screaming that he is going to end up "back in the joint," Elwood says calmly, "They're not gonna catch us. We're on a mission from God." For Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and their Blues Brothers characters, the mission is alive and well.
The mission began in Aykroyd's teenage years as a young Canadian frequenting the blues bars of Ottawa where he grew up. His dad, Peter, worked as a bureaucrat in the Canadian government, for many years on the National Film Board.
"Music was a huge part of our lives," Aykroyd explains, a 45-year-old Cuban cigar stuck in his mouth during an interview in New York. "Every weekend he'd look in the paper to see which record collections were being sold, and he would buy secondhand records. I grew up listening to Fats Waller and Jack Hilton." But as he grew older, Aykroyd gravitated to a small blues bar called Le Hibou, where all the great blues stars came to play. "I would be there every weekend when I was 14 or 15," Aykroyd says. "I got to see Muddy Waters, and even jammed behind him one night." The blues legend had gotten impatient that his drummer was taking too long on a break, so he invited anyone in the audience to fill in, and Aykroyd jumped up. "He gave me the beat, and he said, 'You keep that beat going.'"
The weekly excursions exposed Aykroyd to Howlin' Wolf, James Cotton, Cary Bell, Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite, the mouth harp, or harmonica, genius. Aykroyd's fascination with Musselwhite led to his first dabbling in the harmonica, which he continues to play today as part of the Blues Brothers band. But his more extensive, in-depth education in the blues came during his abbreviated tenure at Carleton University, where he connected with Doug Tansley, a man who worked in the university's audiovisual department. "One night I went to his apartment and he had a wall of blues albums," Aykroyd exclaims, waving his hand at a 20-foot wall. "I mean, it was…floor to ceiling, wall to wall, every conceivable blues album…. I started at the beginning of time and listened to Ma Rainy, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House."
Getting Aykroyd talking about the blues is akin to turning on a faucet. There's such a mastery of blues's history that he can spill out a CliffsNotes—like monologue in a few sentences. Unprompted, he ranges from the slave trade origins of the music, to field hollers sung while working, to the Saturday night front porch serenades with "a cheap Chinese harmonica, a cigar box banjo, and gut bucket bass and a washboard." He weaves in the influence of black gospel music with its piano and organ components, to the evolution of the Saturday night juke joint. The narrative spans musical events in America, east of the Mississippi from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta and eventually to the urban centers of the mid-South and North, such as Memphis and Chicago. Aykroyd could expand each topic into a lengthy oral defense for a post-doctoral dissertation.
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."
Since Nelson was on tour, Aykroyd and Belushi had to find another band, which they did in Rhode Island, Duke Robillard and the Roomful of Blues. "Robillard is a giant, giant talent," Aykroyd says. "But it was obvious that John and Duke were going to have an ego clash, and it might not have worked in the long term." Aykroyd and Belushi began jamming with the "Saturday Night Live" band, doing little opening segments for the show.
"At the time, we used to do the 'Killer Bees' skit," Aykroyd says. "One night we decided to perform the song, 'King Bee,' as the bees. Dressed as bees, with John singing and me playing the harp." Aykroyd, leaning back in his chair, intones the chorus of the song: "'I'm a King bee, buzzing around your hive….' That was the first Blues Brothers appearance ever on television." The date was January 17, 1976. Aykroyd remembers Tom Malone, one of three "phenomenal" horn players in the "SNL" band, saying, "You guys, if you're going to do this any further, play or whatever, make a record." Says Aykroyd: "We hadn't discussed making a record at that point, so he was the first one to do it."
In short order, the future Blues Brothers began to take shape. From 1976 through early 1978, the Blues Brothers appeared on the show a handful of times, once with Steve Martin as the host in April 1978, which many fans remember as one of the troupe's greatest performances, with Aykroyd and Martin doing their "Wild and Crazy Guys" and the Blues Brothers performing "Hey, Bartender" and "I Don't Know."
Following further on Malone's suggestion about creating a record, Belushi and Aykroyd asked Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, the backbone of one of the legendary blues record labels, Stax Volt, to join them. The pair had backed up blues greats from Otis Redding to Booker T. and the MGs. They also lined up guitarist Matt Murphy. Once they were signed up, Aykroyd points to that band as the genesis of the act. "So the first real show we did on 'SNL,' I think it was the Carrie Fisher show," Aykroyd says, recalling the November 18, 1978, date. "We brought in Steve and Duck, and they backed us up. Those were the beginnings of the Blues Brothers. Now, there would have been no Blues Brothers if it were not for Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn."
That night, the band played "Soul Man," which would appear on its live album Briefcase Full of Blues, recorded live at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles in 1978. Aykroyd said that Belushi paid for the recording set-up himself with some of his salary from Animal House, the college frat house movie that was released in the summer of 1978. The album would sell 3.5 million copies, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard hottest 200 albums charts in early 1979, and "Soul Man" would climb as high as No. 14 on the Billboard singles charts that same year.
After the record came out in late 1978, Belushi and Aykroyd started working on the Blues Brothers' movie, which was released in 1980. It was a hit, with more than $75 million in theater receipts, and today with rentals, over $200 million in gross revenues according to Aykroyd. That summer, the band toured America, doing 20 gigs in 16 cities. "We had Elvis's Conair 880, that big old plane," Aykroyd says, rolling his eyes as he recalls the scene on the plane. "I remember taking off one time and looking back, and the stewardess had forgotten to close the door…the tour was a big hit."
In addition to Briefcase Full of Blues, the band came out with the soundtrack to the Blues Brothers' movie, as well as Made in America. "You listen to those three records today, and the musicianship, the quality of the sound, the horns, the guitar playing—everything really. I'm really proud of those records," Aykroyd says. "But the tour album didn't sell as well as the movie soundtrack or the first record. We were on the decline, I guess, and we were kind of ready to put the Blues Brothers to bed and say goodbye to them.
"That was 1980, and in 1981, John went on to do some other movies. And in March, March 5 , at, oh I guess about 10:30 in the morning, I'm sitting at my typewriter at 150 Fifth Avenue, at our offices at Phantom Corp., and I was writing a line for John, and the phone rang, and it was Bernie Brillstein telling me that John had died that morning at Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles."
There's a pause in the interview. Twenty-five years later, there's still a pained look on Aykroyd's face.
"It was the end," Aykroyd pauses again. "A bad day. And an end to the Blues Brothers and an incredible partnership. He was 33. I was 29. We had a hit record, a hit movie and a hit TV show. And we were about to build an empire, and then all of a sudden my partner's taken away from me."
Are you ready for me?" Brother Zee is on the edge of the stage, the pulsating sounds of "Too Hot to Handle" blasting out from the band. As Zee lifts his shirt, exposing his smooth and not small stomach, the Houston crowd screams in appreciation, more for the audacity of the move than anything else. By the time the music gets into full swing, more than 20 women are up on stage dancing with Brother Zee and Elwood Blues. "I'm in love," Jim Belushi shouts, dancing with a woman from the audience in a long gown.
Belushi's tenure with the band goes back to 1992. Dan Aykroyd was receiving an honorary degree from his college, Carleton University, in Toronto. When he was told about the honor, he had responded by saying that he wanted to do something in return for the university. He offered to put on a real Blues Brothers concert, the first one since John had died 10 years earlier. His first call was to Jim Belushi, John's brother, who by that point had become a well-known film actor in his own right.
"He said that he was doing a Blues Brothers concert, and he wanted me to do it with him," Belushi recalls during an interview just hours before the Houston performance of the group. "'I don't do that thing,' and he goes, 'Oh yeah, you can do it. I want you to take over the legacy, you know, the blood.' And I said, 'No, I kind of left that stuff to John.' But he wouldn't stop. 'Well, you sing, don't you?' and I said, 'No, I don't sing any songs. I sang on Broadway and that's about it.'
"'Oh, you're a singer,' he said," Jim Belushi continues. "I sing light opera, or Second City singing, but I've never sung with a band. I don't know that stuff. That's the blues. That's what John did. I can't lift a sword, I can't eat a cheeseburger, and I can't sing the blues. I mean, he just cornered all that shit. So, I've got to find myself. But Danny wouldn't give up. 'No, I want you to do it. It'll be great.' But I said, 'I can't do it because of the John thing,' and he goes, 'He willed it to you' and I said, 'I don't remember reading that in the will,' and he just keeps going. 'There was a will. It was in the will. You didn't see the will? It said, "I will Jimmy the Blues Brothers"…come on, it's like a law firm: when one of the partners goes down, the brother or the son steps in.'
"Of course, I'm thinking, You could have brought that will to me a long time ago, but he did the whole will thing, and keeping the spirit of the Blues Brothers and Jake Blues alive, and by the end of his speech, I'm going, Yes. Yes. I'll do it. But then I said, 'But I don't sing the blues,' and he goes, 'Well, you'd better learn.'"
Belushi says he started practicing with the Sacred Hearts band in L.A., which was part of the House of Blues house band, and during the next couple of weeks, he learned three songs that he could handle pretty well: "Sweet Home Chicago," "I'm Ready" and "Hard to Handle." "I was listening to the Blues Brothers album over and over, but I figured those three songs were enough. That's all they'd let me do as a guest anyway," Belushi says.
"Then I was up in Canada doing the sound check and I was told I was going to sing 10 songs," Belushi says, "and that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Belushi went on to explain that Aykroyd had been doing concerts with the original Blues Brothers' band, which had continued to tour in the years after John's death. But it was simply a show called the Elwood Blues Revue. That band, which still performs today with some of the original musicians, including Cropper and Murphy, was given the right to keep on touring by the estate of John Belushi. And that's why the band that Belushi and Aykroyd now appear with is called the Blues Brothers Classic Revue with the Sacred Hearts band. The "Original Blues Brothers Band" continues to maintain a separate tour schedule, appearing at everything from concert venues to music festivals around the world. There are also several copycat acts that are licensed to perform at such places as Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida.
Belushi says that his initial work with the Sacred Hearts band also led to a steady gig with the group. The band now appears 40 to 50 times a year, doing mostly corporate and charity events with some casino theater shows thrown in. Sacred Hearts also does up to a dozen shows a year as the Blues Brothers Classic Revue with Aykroyd. "I designed a show. I call it a show, not a concert," says Belushi. "It's got the overture, the big opening scene, it's got two-person scenes, it's got the girl-boy scene and then it's got a first-act scene and a second-act scene, and then it ends with a big huge ending."
Belushi says that after a few years of doing the Sacred Hearts performances, he convinced Aykroyd to appear with the band on a regular basis. Aykroyd has no other responsibilities, Belushi says, other than to show up and walk out on stage as Elwood Blues. "I've tried to make it fun for him," says Belushi. "And we do have fun."
One element that has changed for Belushi is his own appreciation of the blues. "I mean, I was ignorant of what the blues were all about," he says. He remembers being at a Sacred Hearts gig in Los Angeles and listening to an "old gentleman" play the classic blues song "Reconsider Baby." He asked one of the Sacred Hearts band members who the old guy playing the Eric Clapton song was. "He like rolled his eyes at me, and said, 'Jim, you gotta sit down so we can talk this over. That's Lowell Fulson. He wrote the song." Belushi says that now, apart from John Coltrane and a few other jazz artists, he only listens to blues music.
When asked if he had come around to the anthem in the Blues Brothers movie about being on a mission from God, Belushi just laughs and says, "Yeah. I'm on the mission. I'm one of the disciples. I'm deep into keeping the legacy of Jake Blues alive…. But it is like that connection between gospel and the blues. It is a spiritual experience; that's what I'm seeing with Danny. And I mean, I'm having a ball too.
"The audience loves it when Danny walks on that stage. They go nuts. They still like it. He's the legacy and I'm the blood," Belushi says. He acknowledges that's he's gotten a little more familiar with the whole genre of the blues, enough so that he can sit down with musicians like Steve Miller and discuss the blues knowledgeably.
"That's what Danny has brought to my life," Belushi says. "I'm really, really grateful that he's in my life. I mean, he was like a brother to John, and when John was gone, he was really the only one that turned to me and said, 'Hey Jimmy, how are you?' He's always been…like a brother to me in that way. It took a while, but now he's a dear, dear friend."
Belushi, too, can't shake the horror of that day when John died. "Hey, when there's a sudden death in the family, whether it's a car accident or a casualty of war, or a drug overdose, when it's a young person like that, it's like throwing a hand grenade into the family, and the shrapnel goes through everybody. And when it's public, it only makes it worse. You could have lost a brother, I could have known you for years, and you might never tell me. But for me, it's everywhere I go. People just say, 'I loved your brother.' And I always go, 'I loved him too.' You just can't hide from it."
In a way, Belushi finds a connection to John onstage with the Blues Brothers, and he finds a place in himself that responds to his brother's spirit. "It's a personal place of fun. [It] takes me to a place, well, it's a joyous place," Belushi says. "We do dedicate a song to him, to keep him alive. To keep the spirit alive. It's like he started the law firm and I'm trying to keep the law firm alive. I mean, he willed it to me, so I'm trying to honor it and not blow the estate he left."
But the Blues Brothers are even more than that for Jim Belushi. "When I started this, it was like when they open up your chest to get to your heart and massage it. It just cracked me open and opened me up and pumped me full of life. When I'm out there singing with Danny and singing with the Sacred Hearts, it changes my body chemistry. It changed my passion toward my craft as an actor. That's why I hate to use the word spiritual, but it was a spiritual awakening for me…. I'm eternally grateful to Danny, who included me in this world, and for helping me heal all my aloneness. There's just a spirituality to it that I don't question."
If you're attending a Blues Brothers performance, watching Belushi doing back flips and dancing like a 15-year old—not the 53-year-old that he is—you can't help but understand that being onstage takes him to a mental and spiritual and physical place where he might not otherwise be. As one band member told him, "You know, Jim, watching you onstage reminds us of the reason we started this in the first place."
Gary Becker, a member of the board of directors of the Houston Children's Charity, is watching the sound check on Saturday afternoon in the empty ballroom, the only sounds coming from musicians on the stage, and a few waiters and waitresses setting up the tables. "I've been trying to get the organization to hire these guys for three years. I just love their music." A week later, after the show, Becker says the event had raised more money, $1.2 million, and more people had attended than ever before, at least in part because they wanted to hear the Blues Brothers. "Everything about them was perfect. Their professionalism. Their attitude. I knew that their appeal was strong in the 35- to 45-year-old crowd," says Becker, who ran a concert promotion company for years. "But they also appeal to the 60- to 65-year-old crowd. You have to have that because you don't want anyone walking out on the artists."
Robert Norman, an agent at Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles, who handles all the concert bookings for the Blues Brothers, says there's a good reason why no one walks out. "The tremendous popularity they have enjoyed, even to this day, is a testament to the high energy and quality show that they put on every time," Norman says. "The band is one of the most requested out there for private event dates." He said that past clients have included American Express, AT&T, Microsoft, Comcast, Cadillac and Honda.
At any of those events, it's clear that the audience walking out is never a problem. If the concerts are anything like the Houston show, the problem is finding a spot on the dance floor. Even when the show neared its end, well after 11 o'clock, the dance floor was still rocking.
With good reason. Belushi and Aykroyd put on a display of showmanship and dancing that keeps everybody moving. But for all their energy and enthusiasm, the driving force behind them is the band, the Sacred Hearts (see sidebar, page 105).
Aykroyd's passion for the blues goes beyond the stage. He has worked with foundations through the House of Blues to support the blues, providing assistance for education of school kids about the blues, and he is passionate about keeping the flame of the blues alive. Over lunch one day in October, Akroyd recalls the words of John Lee Hooker, a friend of his: "He once said to me, 'Danny, you've done soooo much for the blues.'" Apart from the Blues Brothers, Aykroyd was an original investor in the House of Blues, which he started with entrepreneur Issac Tigrett, who also founded the Hard Rock chain, in 1992. They had become friends in the wake of John Belushi's death, at which time Aykroyd said Tigrett took him under his wing and "helped me get over my grief. It's almost, in a way, that John left my life, and then another big male figure came in to take over the love." It's through the House of Blues connection that Aykroyd also began, and continues to host today, the "House of Blues Radio Hour," which is heard weekly on several hundred stations around the country. While Aykroyd plays the classics on the show, he says he is always looking for new blues acts to keep the tradition alive.
It's late. You could call it the wee hours in Houston, and by one watch still set on East Coast time, it's 3:30 in the morning. The pizza box is empty. The wine bottles are nearly drained. Dan Aykroyd is talking softly with his wife, Donna Dixon, and Jim Belushi is cheering on a title fight on the Ultimate Fighting Championship on TV. Jesse Donnelly, Belushi's long-time assistant, is holding forth about the goings-on in Hollywood, and there's a lot of reminiscing among the four old friends about movies, about the competition their movies have had from other movie premieres and about the future of the Blues Brothers.
The conversation suddenly turns to business matters between them, about the performance dates of the Blues Brothers, and a visitor, opting for the better part of discretion, and the desire to put his head down on a pillow, stands up to leave. Aykroyd says, "No, no, there's still one thing that I want you to know about the Blues Brothers. Write this down. Write this down, just like this."
He stands up to his full 6 foot 1 inch height, faces the hotel room suite and says, "We, the Blues Brothers, did open for the Rolling Stones, only once and never again. It reminds me of my friend Kim Campbell, who was the only female prime minister of Canada, and only for six months, but she can always say, 'I was prime minister of Canada.' We can always say, 'We opened for the Rolling Stones.'" He sits down to laughter in the room.
No one should be laughing. That's right where the Blues Brothers belong. Among the greatest bands ever to play a blues song. After all, they are on a "mission from God."
Exceeding the Speed Limit
The Blues Brothers and the "House of Blues Radio Hour" keep Dan Aykroyd busy a lot of the time, but after a hugely successful career in TV and the movies, those aren't the only things that keep him going today. This past year, he turned 55, and as he says, he finally reached the legal speed limit. Now he's looking for new challenges.
That's a little hard to fathom since his movie credits read like some of the greatest hits of the 1980s. First, there was The Blues Brothers, a $27 million film that has generated nearly a combined $200 million in gross sales from theaters and rentals. The movie was the peak of the Blues Brothers phenomenon, but it also fostered the cult following of the group over the years.
The 1980 film, in which Aykroyd played Elwood Blues, was followed several years later by Ghostbusters, with Bill Murray, who was one of his comedy partners on "Saturday Night Live." That film has grossed nearly $1 billion, including rentals, since its theatrical release. Of course, Ghostbusters II followed, and it was one of the more successful sequels in history, with a total gross since release that is approaching $500 million.
Aykroyd also had some other great roles. He was in Trading Places with Eddie Murphy and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with Harrison Ford. And who can forget his turn in Driving Miss Daisy? Just last year, he appeared in the film I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, with Adam Sandler and Kevin James.
"I've turned down six movies this year," Aykroyd said in October, adding that he was really trying to focus on other things in life. He said he had some screenplays he'd like to get produced, but "you know, it's a new generation now."
"It's tough for the older guys to get in the door and pitch a concept. It really is," Aykroyd says, puffing on his vintage Cuban cigar. "So I kind of had to let go of the film business a few years ago. It's like a hockey player, or a football player. I wouldn't go ask Gordie Howe [to go] back on the rink now. My choice is to find other things to occupy myself. I'm not going to sit there and wait for the phone to ring. I'm not going to beg some agent for jobs. I'm not going to walk in with hat in hand."
One thing that does remain near the top of his to-do list is the House of Blues, the chain of music venues and restaurants he co-founded with entrepreneur Isaac Tigrett in 1992. Now that the company is owned by Live Nation, the world's largest concert promoter, Aykroyd remains involved as a "founding consultant" and helps with the opening of new facilities. "We've got nightclubs around the world. I help them get clubs open by doing the Charity Harley ride, radio, TV, print and then doing a show with the Blues Brothers. I don't know where they are going to find anyone else to do that."
A few years back, Aykroyd shared drinks one night at the House of Blues with Jean Paul Dejoria, who originated Paul Mitchell hair care products and helped bring Patrón Tequila to America. After trying the Mexican-produced spirit, Aykroyd discovered that Patrón was having problems getting distribution in Canada. So two years ago, Aykroyd found a distributor there and "we have Patron selling across Canada now." He also says the distribution company owned some wineries, and he ended up buying a piece of the distributor. He is now developing some wines the company suggested he put his name on.
Somewhere in the midst of all the activity, Akyroyd finds time for his family, his wife of 25 years, Donna Dixon, and his three girls, Danielle, 17, Belle, 14, and Stella, 9. "When I travel and they are off school, I bring them to the Blues Brothers' gigs," he says. "And, they all work. I mean, you're going to come to a gig, stay in this five-star hotel, fly first-class…you know what, you're working."
He's also an occasional but avid cigar smoker. "My dad used to smoke Reitmeister, those little cheroot-style cigars. But whenever he could get a good Cuban, he would," Aykroyd says. "I discovered those big old Fuente Hemingways a few years ago. The big, long black ones. I loved them."
"For a while there, Jimmy [Belushi] and I would smoke after every show, after every meal; we'd light up a cigar, but we both quit for a while," Aykroyd says, still working on the old Cuban. "But in the summers, up on our family farm in Canada—you know, it's been in the family since 1826—we'll have a lavish dinner and then I'll bring out the Patrón and we pull out the cigars. We'll sit by the campfire, my uncle might bring his ukulele, and we'll sing into the night. Cigars are a big part of the evening."
Spoken like a man who knows what makes him happy.
According to Jim
You won't find Jim Belushi sitting around very much. When he's not filming shows for his successful sitcom, "According to Jim," which will begin its seventh season on ABC in mid-January, he's doing 50 shows a year on the road with the Sacred Hearts band.
"Yeah, sometimes my wife is like, you're gone every weekend," Belushi, who is 53 years old, says during an interview before a Blues Brothers performance in Houston on a Saturday night. "But I say, 'Honey, some guys go on fishing trips, some guys leave the house at 8 a.m., play 36 holes of golf and they're too tired to talk to you at night. Some guys just drink all fucking day, OK. This is healthy. I'm working out. And, I'm making money.'"
And, he could have added, having fun doing it.
But he's also preparing for the inevitable end of "According to Jim," which, in his own words, has forever eliminated any of his financial worries. With some 150 shows already under its belt, and at least a few shows completed for the start of the winter season despite the writers' strike, "According to Jim" has already been sold into syndication around the world.
The other thing the TV show has done for Belushi is to give him genuine celebrity status, despite a long and successful movie career, with hits like K-9, Mr. Destiny, Curly Sue and The Principal. In each movie, he played a sympathetic male character, who often struggles against the system, a role not unlike his real-world persona.
"My brother John had it right," Belushi says. "He told me a long time ago, 'You know why they pay you a lot money for TV? So you can build a fortress not to let people in…so you can protect yourself.'" Watching Belushi move through public places, he's seemingly unguarded, and greets every well-wisher or autograph seeker with a smile and a "how ya doin'?"
"It was different for John, because of Animal House," Belushi says. "People would approach him real physical. They'd want to grab him and put beer cans on his head. But I'm just a nice Midwestern guy with a family and kids on TV. So when people approach me, it's in a nice way."
His public's affection for him also gives him some space to be with his family, his wife, Jenny, and two young children, son Jared and daughter Jaimie, without always having to worry about the paparazzi that lurk around his neighborhood in Los Angeles. He also has an older son, Robert, from his first marriage, with whom he remains close.
Belushi's current passion isn't only TV or his music. He's got a script in production that he is very excited about, called The Catch. "We sold this movie with two and a half sentences," Belushi says. "I'll be acting, directing and producing it." The story is about a middle-aged man who as a teenager promised his father that he would play football at Cal State—Fullerton, but never did for a variety of personal reasons. So he wakes up one day in his 40s and decides to go back to college and play football. The title, of course, reveals everything, but it's a feel-good story about a guy making good on a promise to his dad.
On top of that, Belushi says he has a couple of ideas for TV pilots and other movies, as well as a few scripts he's been working on, but he wouldn't be more specific.
Of course, there's always the subject of cigars, which for Belushi is a love/hate relationship. "Oh, I've quit again. Two weeks ago," says Belushi, who was once an investor in a cigar brand called Lone Wolf, with the actor Chuck Norris. He acknowledges his problem is that he is enamored with cigars, and when he is smoking, he ends up smoking all day long.
"I love cigars. I always have. They're soothing, you know. They're about camaraderie. They're about relaxing, success, joy. You know, all the great things," Belushi says. "I've always liked the Fuentes. But I also had a Padrón the other day. It was so good." He also fondly remembers all his friends in the cigar business: "What a great group of men. Honest family men. I loved them all."
That's not the sentiment of a man who will stay away from cigars forever.
Jammin' with the Sacred Hearts
When the Sacred Hearts band isn't backing up the Blues Brothers Classic Revue, its members often play with other top acts in the business.
"We all play with acts that are maybe a little more polished," drummer Tony Braunagel, an avid cigar smoker, says in a phone interview. "But these guys [Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd] bring everything to the stage. I've had a lot of musicians attend our performances, and maybe they were a little skeptical of the act, but afterwards they all say, 'Wow, you guys really leave it all out there.'"
That's apparently the highest compliment working musicians can give one another.
Braunagel, who has been a musician for 45 years, plays with Taj Mahal on a regular basis and has played on two of Bonnie Raitt's biggest selling albums, Luck of the Draw and Nick of Time.
Julie Delgado, a backup singer who has toured with Al Jarreau, Natalie Cole and Tom Jones, says that performing with the Sacred Hearts is a treat compared with some of the big-name musicians with whom she sings. "Some of them are regimented down to the second…at any point in the show, you know exactly what's coming next. But there's a lot of improvisation with the Sacred Hearts. There's a freedom there, and it shows in that we are always having a good time up there."
Jesse Donnelly, who has been Jim Belushi's assistant for years and manages logistics for gigs of the Sacred Hearts band, says, "There is a chemistry with this group. They seem to love it and each other. Sometimes we have subs for certain musicians, but when the originals come back, everybody is happy to get back together."
Like Braunagel and Delgado, the rest of the Sacred Hearts band members boast extensive résumés. The bassist is Larry Lee Lerma, a veteran of Sam Moore's backup band. Johnny Lee "Shotgun" Schell plays guitar, and has appeared with Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal and Etta James. Glen Clark, the pianist, has performed with Raitt and Rita Coolidge. Joe "Lester" Sublett, the saxophonist, has been on stage with B. B. King and Bruce Springsteen and has earned a Grammy for his work with Taj Mahal. Johnny "The Beast" Rubano says he's an actor who can sing, and, like Braunagel, frequently guest-stars in Belushi's sitcom, "According to Jim." Guitarist J. J. "Taboo" Holiday has appeared with Carole King and Bob Dylan. Jimmie "The Dynamic" Wood has played his harmonica with Springsteen and Gladys Knight. Darrell "The Good Shepherd" Leonard is a trumpet player with credits that include Wilson Pickett and Stevie Ray Vaughn and a Grammy with Taj Mahal.
But it is clear that for the Sacred Hearts, the Blues Brothers gigs are about more than playing with each other. They love playing for and with Belushi and Aykroyd. Braunagel says, "There's an electricity. When those guys walk out, they are icons, and when they strut across that stage in their black suits and black hats, people go nuts. They just go crazy."
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