A silver-spoon teen who loved sneaking into Chicago’s southside blues clubs, Michael Bloomfield reveled in absorbing all he could from the many legendary players he saw perform in the city’s famed joints.
The de facto lessons served Bloomfield well as he went on to contribute to the works of many famed performers while forging his own path in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and The Electric Flag. Today, he is one of history’s most noted blues guitarists.
Though known to have used (some would say “neglected”) numerous guitars in his career, three of the most noted are a Fender Telecaster he acquired in 1964, a ’54 Gibson Les Paul goldtop he played in The Butterfield Blues Band and its 1966 recording, East-West, and, the ’59 Gibson Les Paul Standard that became his mainstay in The Electric Flag.
After recording three acoustic-blues demos for Columbia A&R man John Hammond in 1964 (the tracks open Disc 1 of the 2014 box-set From His Head to His Heart to His Hands), Bloomfield whimsically returned to electric blues while working with Charlie Musselwhite (for a complete recap, see Dan Forte’s “Michael Bloomfield: Igniting the Blues” in the May ’14 issue of VG). He soon after acquired a ’63 Fender Telecaster and used it to record The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, as well as when Bob Dylan recruited him for the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone” in mid June of ’65. It was also there when the Butterfield Band and Dylan played the Newport Folk Festival the next month, and, finally, to do Highway 61 Revisited (author Michael Gray, in his 2006 book The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, argues the album was the flashpoint of the ’60s musical/cultural revolution when it was released August 30 of that year). At Newport, Dylan famously conjured the wrath of many in attendance when he grabbed a Fender Stratocaster and took the stage backed by members of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, all of whom were also “plugged in.”
John Peden, a vintage-instrument enthusiast and professional photographer (who regularly contributes to VG), was a 20-ish New Yorker who was at Newport that day. He argues that while many attendees may well have wanted to hear only acoustic-driven music, tastes were changing.
“Dylan was the crown prince of the folkies,” Peden said. “But, in March of ’65, he released Bringing It All Back Home, which featured electric instruments on half of the songs. By July of that year, the Beatles had reinvigorated pop music, and folkies were starting to look seriously at electric guitars and amps when they went to get strings for their D-28s, J-45s, and long-neck Vegas. The Loving Spoonful released ‘Do You Believe In Magic?,’ John Hammond was doing covers of Chuck Berry and Bo Didley along with his Robert Johnson covers, and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was on AM radio.
“When people talk about how Bob Dylan was booed that day, they don’t often mention that the Chambers Brothers and the Butterfield band performed as full electric bands, but were unknown to the majority of attendees, who had come to see Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez and, of course, Dylan. The Butterfield band played like they did at every club on Chicago’s south side while Dylan was backstage, dressed in full Carnaby Street drag – Wayfarers and polka-dot shirt.
“The crowd at the concert that night was anxious to see their favorites, but had little interest in acts like The Moving Star Hall Singers. Midway through, Dylan jumped onstage in a black leather jacket, orange shirt, Beatle boots, and a Stratocaster so new it was painful to look at… except that it was so cool. Some of Butterfield’s guys were in his pickup band, including Bloomfield with the Tele, who, to put it simply, was loud. Not just ‘Nobody knew how to mix sound for a rock band’ loud, but ‘Blowing down the gates of heaven’ loud. Dylan led the band through three songs – ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ and ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’ – with imperious attitude, snarling and spitting his vocals, inviting scorn. There was no soothing ‘Blowing in The Wind’ or ‘Don’t Think Twice.’ Instead, the tunes went by in a crush of volume and scrambled lyrics. People went nuts. The band disappeared from the stage, then emcee Peter Yarrow implored Dylan to return solo with an acoustic guitar borrowed backstage, which he did, performing ‘Mr. Tamborine Man’ and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.’ He was in the audience’s faces the entire time, challenging them to dig deeper, not take the easy path. Personally, I thought it was great.”
But, were they booing the electrified songs?
“I’d say baying was more like it. They wanted more or they wanted something else. Or, they simply didn’t want to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the future.”
Sometime between Newport and November of ’65, Bloomfield – a disciple of electric blues and Les Paul players like Freddie King, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters – traded the Tele to guitarist John Nuese for a ’54 Les Paul goldtop. Nuese, a studio musician and member of the International Submarine Band (alongside Gram Parsons, with whom he created the footings of the country-rock genre), played chicken-pickin’ country music in the Bakersfield style, so the move to a Telecaster made sense. He was also a lefty who played guitars upside-down but kept them strung “righty.” To make the Tele better suit his needs, he made several modifications – the less-obvious being holes drilled to reposition its strap buttons, while the more glaring involved his use of a jigsaw to create a second treble-bout cutaway to accommodate his reach up the fretboard.
After Nuese passed away in 2012, the Telecaster was bequeathed (along with his ’48 Martin D-28) to longtime friend Lans Christian, who recently contacted renowned repair expert/VG columnist Dan Erlewine, seeking advice on restoration.
The Tele could not have landed in more-qualified – or appropriate – hands. As a young musician growing up in Michigan, Erlewine experienced a chain of circumstances that put him in Bloomfield’s realm.
“I first saw Mike in the fall of ’64, when he played in Ann Arbor with his Rhythm & Blues Band,” he recalled. “I had just begun to discover the blues, and I remember he used the Tele that night.”
A year later – in November of ’65 – Erlewine and his band, The Prime Movers, went to see the Butterfield band at the Chessmate Lounge in nearby Detroit. Bloomfield was still playing the Tele, but…
“When they came back a month later to play at The Living End, he was using a ’54 Les Paul,” said Erlewine, who approached Bloomfield after the show. The two struck up a friendship, and in the months that followed, the Prime Movers made it a point to watch the Butterfield band at every opportunity. The last of those gigs fell on a Saturday night in December, 1966, and the following day, the Movers threw a belated birthday party for Butterfield at the club, which wasn’t open to the public on Sundays. After the bands’ girlfriends presented Butterfield with a four-foot cake shaped and decorated like a Hohner harmonica, Erlewine and the Movers performed for the Butterfield Band.
“We played their songs for them!” Erlewine laughed. “Bloomfield loved that I was copying his licks, but eventually, he jumped onstage. I handed him my ’59 Les Paul Standard and he worked it over. After the jam, he really, really wanted that guitar – he may have asked to trade for his goldtop right then and there. But, after hearing him play it, I wasn’t ready to give it up.”
A few months later, Bloomfield left the Butterfield band and moved to California’s Bay Area, intent on forming a band to play “American music.” He recruited keyboardist Barry Goldberg, drummer Buddy Miles, vocalist Nick Gravenites, bassist Harvey Brooks, and called the group The Electric Flag.
That May, Bloomfield called Erlewine in Ann Arbor and begged for the ’59. Appreciating the sincerity of his new guitar hero, Erlewine did the deal.
“He sent the goldtop and $125, and I sent the ’Burst out to him,” Erlewine said. “I remember the green Railway Express truck driving away.”
Midway through that summer, Bloomfield invited the Prime Movers to the Bay Area, and offered to get them gigs.
“We lived in the Flag’s practice room for weeks before the Summer of Love got to us and we headed back to Michigan,” Erlewine laughed. “Mike was true to his word, though – he got us a gig opening for Cream at the Fillmore. It was an amazing show, and ranks with some huge music-related moments in my life.”
The Telecaster, meanwhile, faded from the spotlight along with Nuese; the International Submarine Band recorded just one album before Parsons left to join the Byrds. The guitar only recently resurfaced.
“Mr. Christian knew I’d been friends with Bloomfield and the story of how he and I swapped guitars,” Erlewine said. “He’s also a Vintage Guitar reader and said he trusted my opinion on whether he should have the guitar restored. In my head, the immediate answer was, ‘No. Leave it as it is,’ but I coyly told him, ‘Gee… I’d have to see it to know.’ When he said, ‘Okay, I’ll send it to you,’ I couldn’t believe my luck!”
While the guitar was in Erlewine’s possession, Christian asked him to give its setup a good once-over. Erlewine agreed. “But, the truth is, I would’ve paid him to let me give it a tune-up (laughs).”
The Tele arrived at Erlewine’s shop in a flimsy old Elektra case lined with orange crushed velvet.
“When I opened it, the guitar just seemed to pulsate,” he said. “It was like being in a church, it was such a powerful feeling. For a while I just looked at it… didn’t even pick it up.”
Special thanks to Edward Grazda, Thomas Tierney and Toby Silver at Sony Music, and Jonathan Hyams at Getty for their help in researching photos.
Dan Digs In!
Erlewine and the Long-Lost Tele of a Friend
A certifiably giddy Dan Erlewine was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn his tools to a guitar that had once belonged to legendary blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield. Here’s an insider’s look at its insides.
1) Nuese had applied dot fret markers in black lacquer along the treble side of the neck. Smoothed by years of play, a thin overcoat of lacquer that covers the dots is almost invisible.
2) Nuese did a lot of experimenting with strap button location.
3) The neck-plate serial number (L11155), stamp on the neck heel, and the stamp at the bottom of the bridge-pickup cavity all indicate 1963. Variations of a few months (note the August date on the neck versus October on the body) were common on Fender instruments of the era.
4) The neck shim is a piece of hard grey fiber that may or may not be original. The wood remaining where John Nuese sawed the cutaway is thin but strong – evidence of careful woodworking.
5) The neck has two strange marks, perhaps made by staples; one on the fretboard between the nut and first fret, the other on the side of the neck heel, near the body. The frets have been replaced with period-correct fretwork. “My hunch is it’s on the second set of frets,” said Dan Erlewine.
6) The guitar retains its original toggle pickup selector, but it’s wired with 1-meg pots with date codes from 1966. This mod increases a guitar’s treble response. However G.E. Smith, a vintage guitar expert and great admirer of Bloomfield, inspected the guitar and believes the plate and all of the electronics were switched out. The neck pickup measured 6.92k; the bridge was 5.95k.
7) After consulting with pickup expert/builder Lindy Fralin, Erlewine believes the pickups were replaced with some from ’68, based on the type and color of the wires. Also, the pole pieces of the bridge pickup are sharp-edged; in ’63, they would have been smooth.
8) A sheet-metal nibbler was probably used to make for easy height adjustment of the neck pickup.
G.E.’s QT With the Bloomfield Tele
Because guitars like this surface once in a lifetime, John Peden took up the task of documenting the ’63 Telecaster, including photographing, recording, and shooting video featuring the guitar in the very capable hands of Mike Bloomfield disciple G.E. Smith.
With Peden’s son, Taylor, assisting on second camera, the two met June 7 at Peden Studio NYC and spent a few hours getting to know the guitar while discussing Bloomfield and his music.
“There are very few people who were alive in the United States in the late ’60s who haven’t heard this guitar,” said Smith. “It was on Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ That’s powerful stuff.
“In the summer of ’65, I remember…listening to that song playing out of the speaker at the [public] swimming pool, thinking, ‘I don’t know what that is but it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.’ It was this guitar… I can’t think of a more important instrument, for what was played on it.”
This article originally appeared in VG October 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.