Singin' the Blues
Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi carry a musical torch across America as the Blues Brothers.
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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.