“Without a guitar, I’m like a poet with no hands.” Appearing at number 22 in the Rolling Stone top 100 guitarists, Mike Bloomfield assimilated the licks and nuances of countless blues players to arrive at his own heartfelt style. He was born today in 1943.
Guitarist Michael Bernard Bloomfield was born in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Inspired to take up the guitar by his cousin Chucky, a teenage Bloomfield was given a guitar for his Bar Mitzvah and although left-handed, began playing right-handed in imitation of his first musical heroes such as Chuck Berry.
Even described by his brother as something of a misfit, the resolutely unsporty Mike found solace in playing guitar and placed himself in further conflict with his all-American father when beginning to discover – and frequent – the electric blues scene of Southside Chicago when aged just 14.
Finding acceptance there that was lacking either in school or the middle class neighbourhood his family had moved to, Bloomfield befriended the likes of Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and came into contact with fellow pilgrims such as Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop on his frequent returns to Chicago from the boarding school his anxious parents sent him to.
Working at a local music club – The Fickle Pickle – allowed Bloomfield to book (and accompany) an older generation of acoustic blues players including Sleepy John Estes plus more contemporary folk performers such as Odetta. Encountering Big Joe Williams, he went out on the road with him in a vain attempt to live the authentic life of a Delta Bluesman – chronicling his misadventures in the book, “Me And Big Joe.”
Picking up work as a session player, Bloomfield earned a recording deal with CBS Records in 1964 but his own sessions remained unreleased – as did studio work to add slide guitar to some early Paul Butterfield Blues Band sessions. Despite that setback though, Bloomfield teamed up with Butterfield on a more permanent basis, featuring on their first two albums – their self-titled debut and follow-up, “East West”.
1965 meanwhile brought an association with Bob Dylan (whom he’d met in a Chicago club some years earlier) that would see Mike and Butterfield Band colleagues provide electric backing at his controversial Newport Folk Music Festival appearance. And although refusing an offer from Dylan to join his touring band, Bloomfield played on the sessions in New York City that resulted in the landmark album, “Highway 61 Revisited”.
“Flipping out” and separating from Butterfield in 1967, Mike formed his own band - The Electric Flag – making a public debut at the Monterey Pop Festival that year, although in Bloomfield’s own words, they “played abominably”. However the band soon short-circuited and fragmented almost before their lone album, “A Long Time Comin’” appeared.
Stepping back from the limelight and cutting down on touring, Bloomfield retreated back to session work and appeared (along with Electric Flag alumni Barry Goldberg and Harvey Brooks) alongside keyboardist Al Kooper, who had also contributed to “Highway 61….”
The fruits of their single day of studio improvisations – plus tracks subsequently recorded with Stephen Stills after Bloomfield went AWOL were released as “Super Session”, although Bloomfield ducked out after a follow-up live album was recorded at the Fillmore West in San Francisco.
Affected by the commercial failure of his 1969 solo debut album “Its Not Killing Me”, the following decade saw Bloomfield maintain a lower profile, with a failed Electric Flag reunion and intermittent record releases on minor labels as heroin addiction took its toll.
A one-off reunion with Bob Dylan during a live show in San Francisco during November 1980 proved to be something of a swansong for Bloomfield, who died of a drug overdose the following February, aged just 37. He’s buried at the Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, California.
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And here’s some footage of Mike in action: