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