I’ve had more than one conversation with a colleague when The Paul Butterfield Blues Band album came up, and we said in unison, “That album changed my life.” A big reason for the 1965 LP’s impact was lead guitarist Michael Bloomfield, who, to me and my friends, was the first American to cut the figure that would later be dubbed “guitar hero” – his English counterpart being Jeff Beck with the Yardbirds.
To be accurate, it turns out Eric Clapton was the guitarist on the earliest Yardbirds’ tracks – many of them dazzling. But his name and picture were nowhere to be found on the American releases, and the stuff Beck was in fact on sounded like it came from outer space. Bloomfield was every bit as aggressive, performing in a hardcore blues context, and then, with Butterfield’s followup, East-West, flirting with jazz and psychedelia. (Hendrix, by the way, wouldn’t hit the radar until just before the Monterey Pop Festival in ’67 – at least on underground radio.)
Bloomfield’s brilliance continued when he left Butterfield to form Electric Flag, and then on Super Session with Al Kooper and Two Jews Blues with Barry Goldberg. But by the mid ’70s, Bloomfield’s output was uneven, and he rarely summoned the fire he once displayed.
In 1976, Guitar Player magazine recorded If You Love These Blues, Play ‘Em As You Please, which was ostensibly an instructional album of blues guitar styles by Bloomfield, for its short-lived record label, with producer Eric Kriss (head of GP’s book division) doubling on piano. Bloomfield would later say, “I know it’s my best record,” and while it doesn’t approach the heights of his work with Butterfield, it surpasses any of his so-called “solo” albums. The other major difference is that, instead of taking on the “guitar hero” role and carving out his own style, here he was the ultimate blues chameleon, on acoustic and electric, demonstrating the styles of his heroes – from B.B. and T-Bone to Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Blake. Bloomer even provides spoken narrative between the songs, which, despite its academic slant, is a rare treat today, as Bloomfield has been sorely missed since his death in 1981 at age 38.
And, even though he’s “doing” everyone but himself, you can see how those elements were the building blocks for his own eventual style. In the process he somehow avoids the sort of mimicry that marred Clapton’s From The Cradle, where he, too, did everyone but Eric Clapton; plus, Bloomfield wrote many of the songs – like a “new” B.B. King song from the early ’50s.
An entire second album, Bloomfield/Harris, consisting of mostly acoustic duets with guitarist Woody Harris, is included in the package, making this an unbeatable bargain. Recorded in 1979, the album found Bloomfield in fine form, and he and Harris had a great musical rapport. The program is all gospel instrumentals, so it’s ironic that it’s now paired with If You Love These Blues, which closes with “The Altar Song.” Hearing Bloomfield thank about 50 musicians, heroes and contemporaries, over the gospel melody is even more moving today than it was then, and the duets with Harris on songs like “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” are the perfect coda.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.