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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 2)

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 [1982], 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."

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