Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Are The Blues Brothers the most important artist of my generation? Read on to find out why I think this could be the case.
I started writing this post two weeks ago, postulating that The Blues Brothers might be the most influential band of my generation. Then I got extremely busy at work, which put this post…and my thoughts about this subject…on hold. It did, however, allow me enough time to revisit the three albums released by the original incarnation of the group, as well as the original artists’ recordings of songs that The Blues Brothers first introduced to me when I was between 12 & 14 years old. When I finally returned to this post a few days ago I realized that “influence” is only one aspect of their greatness. Some readers might scoff, but now I’m suggesting that The Blues Brothers are the most “important” artist of my generation. By the end of this post I hope to convince some skeptics that this is a reasonable argument, even if you don’t agree.
For clarification purposes, I should point out that I was born in 1966 and came of age in the ‘70s & ‘80s. Legendary artists like Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground, Black Sabbath, David Bowie, and even my favorite band of all time, Led Zeppelin, were all around prior to my immersion into music by the mid-’70s, so I don’t consider any of them “my generation” (which reminds me that The Who should also be included on that list) even though I love them all. For many people in my age group, it’s often argued that punk acts like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash wielded the most influence and have had the longest-lasting impact, while others might cite The Smiths, Michael Jackson, R.E.M., Metallica or Nirvana. It’s hard to argue against any of those artists even though, with the exception of R.EM., none of them are among my favorites, but as a musician since I was 8 and an obsessive music collector for almost as long, I believe that The Blues Brothers are important in more ways than any artists that began their careers during my musically formative years.
Background, The Debut Album and That Killer Band
If you’ve read this far you’re probably already familiar with The Blues Brothers, but I should still provide a brief history. The group was started by Saturday Night Live cast members John Belushi (aka “Joliet” Jake) and Dan Aykroyd (aka Elwood) in 1976 after a sketch where the house band played the old blues song, “I’m A King Bee,” with Belushi & Aykroyd dressed in the “killer bee” costumes which had become such a popular recurring gag during that first season. In 1978 they made two appearances on SNL as The Blues Brothers and opened for comedian Steve Martin at L.A’s Universal Amphitheater, where their debut album Briefcase Full Of Blues (1978) was recorded. The band featured SNL mainstay Paul Shaffer on keyboards along with a stellar lineup of musicians, including Stax Records legends (and Booker T. & The MG’s members) Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn on guitar & bass, respectively, future David Letterman/Keith Richards drummer Steve Jordan, blues guitar legend Matt “Guitar” Murphy and the amazing horn section of Alan Rubin, Tom Scott, Tom “Bones” Malone and “Blue Lou” Marini. Since 1978 each of these players has been a huge inspiration to me, and it helped that their names were highlighted throughout the album by Belushi, showing that the musicians were every bit as important as the frontmen and the songs they were playing.
Hit Movie and Resurrected Artists
Many people are probably most familiar with The Blues Brothers via the brilliant over-the-top comedy/action/musical film The Blues Brothers and its accompanying Original Soundtrack Recording (1980). I saw it in the theater during opening weekend and a few more times after that, as well as dozens of times on TV in the ensuing years. Not only was the film hilarious and endlessly quotable, but it also shone a light on some performers who were at a commercial nadir (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway), all of whom appeared on screen and won over this 14-year-old viewer…and millions of others too. I’m not sure how many white kids from Staten Island were listening to these artists at the time, but thanks to The Blues Brothers they now account for 50-60 CDs in my collection. In addition to the artists who appeared in the film, the list of legendary performers & record labels that I discovered via The Blues Brothers’ albums expanded my musical horizons far beyond anything I would have experienced without them. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Solomon Burke, Taj Mahal, Booker T. & The MG’s, Wilson Pickett and even Randy Newman are just some of the artists that eventually became part of my musical journey, and labels like Atlantic, Chess, Motown & Stax became bastions of greatness that I continue to explore so many years later. It’s hardly surprising that Atlantic released all three Blues Brothers albums, including a chart-topper and a Top 20 record.
Their performances on SNL offered a brief glimpse into the showmanship of Jake & Elwood, while their debut album allowed listeners to hear the diversity of styles they covered: rhythm & blues, soul, funk, reggae and…of course…blues. The film expanded the backstory first established in the liner notes of Briefcase Full Of Blues, adding a much-needed visual component and allowing the musicians & performers to take center stage while never losing the plot. The main story arc, where Jake & Elwood set out on “a mission from God” to reunite the band, made it clear to me at an early age why every musician is essential. This didn’t just apply to The Blues Brothers but to every band I’ve played in and listened to.
That Incredible Horn Section
The aforementioned horn section ignited my love of horns ever since the first time I played Briefcase Full Of Blues. From large brass sections like Chicago, Earth Wind & Fire, Tower Of Power and Blood Sweat & Tears to artists as diverse as James Brown, Huey Lewis & The News and Van Morrison, I immediately smile whenever I hear a cleverly arranged horn chart. I was fortunate to play in a cover band during college that featured a 3- to 5-piece horn section (depending on the players’ availability) and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more exhilarating feeling on stage than drumming away behind that wall of brass. Naturally, a couple of Blues Brothers songs were featured in our set: the “I Can’t Turn You Loose” fanfare (originally by Otis Redding), “Hey Bartender” (originally by Floyd Dixon, as well as a ska version by Laurel Aitken) and “Soul Man” (originally by the incomparable Sam & Dave).
The Underrated Third Album
Their final album, Made In America (1980), was recorded live at the same venue as their debut. At the time it seemed like a disappointment, and it was their least commercially successful record, but over time I realized that it might be the most diverse album in their brief catalog. In addition to blues, soul & funk covers of Wilson Pickett, The Bar-Kays, James Brown, The Contours and Booker T. & The MG’s, they also included a stirring rendition of the theme from the TV show “Perry Mason.” This showed me that even incidental music like a TV theme song can be incredibly musical in the right hands. They also introduced me to the Lieber & Stoller composition “Riot In Cell Block No. 9,” which I’ve since heard by many different artists, as well as Randy Newman’s piano ballad “Guilty.”
Highlighting Their Influences
One of the joys I had in preparing this post was checking out the original versions of songs that I had never heard before. On the debut album, Jake implores people to “buy as many blues albums as you can” and to check out artists like The Downchild Blues Band, a Canadian group they championed via killer renditions of “(I Got Everything I Need) Almost” and “Shot Gun Blues.” Listening to the originals now, I can hear why they were so enamored of this group. Over time I’ve heard the majority of the original versions, but a few had slipped under my radar until the past few weeks, notably “Rubber Biscuit” by The Chips, “Going Back To Miami” by Wayne Cochran, “Messin’ With The Kid” by Junior Wells, “‘B’ Movie Box Car Blues” by Delbert McClinton and several others. In most cases the originals are the definitive versions, but part of The Blues Brothers’ greatness was adding a cool ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll attitude to every song they played. Their references to sex, alcohol & marijuana were also educational to me as an adolescent, yet my parents had nothing to worry about, something I would credit to the cartoon nature of their personas (the band, not my parents).
As discussed above, here are the reasons why I think The Blues Brothers are so important:
* They introduced an entire generation (and others that followed) to some of the most exciting & groundbreaking artists & songs of all time. The fact that the majority of these artists were black while most of their fans were white was no small feat.
* Their name may include the word “blues” but they covered so much musical ground over a short period of time without a single song sounding out of place. Only the most gifted musicians can pull that off. I would have eventually come around to reggae, funk, soul, ska and various forms of blues, but my education on these genres started much earlier thanks to The Blues Brothers.
* Although most casual fans are only aware of Belushi & Aykroyd, every member of the band was an essential component of their sound. Thanks to them, I’ve always scanned the credits on every album I own for the names of the musicians, and to this day if someone mentions Lou Marini my immediate response is, “Blue Lou!”
* Their debut album went to #1 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart and their movie was a huge hit in theaters & subsequently on home video. I realize that album sales & chart positions don’t always go hand-in-hand with musical quality, but in this case the cream really rose to the top.
* Belushi wasn’t technically a very good singer and Aykroyd was only a decent harmonica player, but they turned these limitations into strengths, providing yet another lesson to future generations of musicians: If you play with passion & integrity you can create great music, regardless of your skill level.
* Some fans might dock them points for not writing their own songs, relegating them to a cabaret act. This is a point that’s hard to argue, since there are so many incredible artists who have written & produced their own songs, but I can’t think of many (from my generation, at least) that had the same wide-ranging cultural impact as The Blues Brothers.
So am I completely off-base here? Is there another artist from that era who ticked as many musical boxes as The Blues Brothers, and whose work still sounds great today while pointing new fans to the source material? Please let me know your thoughts in the Comments section.
I’ll leave you with the original version of “(I Got Everything I Need) Almost” by The Downchild Blues Band: