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