Born In Chicago Documents ’60s Revival

Disciples Of The Blues
Born In Chicago Documents ’60s Revival
Photo by Mike Shea, courtesy of Shout! Studios.

A new documentary on the blues revival of the late ’60s opens with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band performing live – not in a smoky nightclub, but at a fraternity dance. With Butterfield’s wailing harmonica and Mike Bloomfield contorting himself around his goldtop Les Paul, it’s hardly lacking intensity.

“It hits you right in the gut,” says the doc’s script writer, Joel Selvin of the rare footage from a 1967 ABC special on American music. “It drops everybody right into the middle of the movie.”

Being the opening track of the band’s debut album, the propulsive “Born In Chicago” was many listeners’ introduction to Butterfield – and blues music as a whole. Selvin speaks for many when he says, “It changed my life right then and there. Urban blues became incorporated into everybody’s vocabulary after that.”

Named for the song, director Bob Sarles’ film does a splendid job of encapsulating enough blues history in 18 minutes to give the viewer a decent grounding in the Chicago club scene; rare footage of guitarist Robert Nighthawk singing “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” at the Maxwell Street Market, along with stirring performances by Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Howlin’ Wolf. Archival or more-recent interviews of them, B.B. King, and drummer Sam Lay are brief, but demonstrate Sarles’ editing skill, honed making short bio pieces for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

As younger blacks were turning their backs on the blues, a coterie of whites in their 20s ventured into the all-black clubs – the focus of the film’s remaining hour. Guitarists Elvin Bishop, Steve Miller, and Harvey Mandel, harpists Charlie Musselwhite and Corky Siegel, keyboardists Barry Goldberg and Mark Naftalin, and Nick Gravenites, who wrote the song that gives the film its title, all went on to successful careers and are still active, with the exception of Bloomfield and Butterfield, both deceased.

If you’re thinking you’ve already seen Born In Chicago, you’re partly right. There’s some overlap with a concert film of the Chicago Blues Reunion band, directed by John Anderson, and Sarles’ previous documentary, Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloomfield. But the new assignment was to make a proper historical documentary.

“It didn’t quite work as a concert film, and it didn’t really work as a documentary,” Sarles feels. “None of the stories connected; it was very modular. With the producers’ approval and Joel’s influence, we jettisoned the concert other than a little coda at the end.”

The author of several music books and former music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle, Selvin put together an exhaustive narrative, which was the blueprint for Sarles, who allows, “When possible, it’s always better if you have musicians who’ve been interviewed that can tell the story firsthand.”

To that end, Carlos Santana, Bob Weir, Jorma Kaukonen, and promoter Bill Graham sing the praises of the disciples-turned-stars. Of Bloomfield, Bob Dylan declared, “He was just the best guitar player I ever heard” – and tapped the guitarist to play on “Like A Rolling Stone.”

There are colorful anecdotes of the new generation playing and hanging with their elders, like Little Smoky Smothers bribing Bishop with some ham hocks and greens to get his guitar part right. Mandel recounts seeing Buddy Guy stop traffic in the middle of the street, thanks to a 100-foot guitar cord.

“He had this energy for life,” Musselwhite says about Bloomfield. “He wanted just to consume it all.” And in the words of blues guitar genius Hubert Sumlin, “Wolf loved these guys, man.”

Of his editing philosophy, Sarles says, “Cut the fat and get as close to the bone as you can, keeping the story intact. Something that flows and doesn’t bump. Too much information takes you into tangents that take away from the story. You can’t be comprehensive; you can only be representative.”

“A lot of directors don’t trust the music to engage the audience adequately,” Selvin points out.”

Sarles isn’t one of them.

“I like to allow the music to play as long as I can, make the performances feel satisfying,” he stresses.

Guitar highlights include Bishop playing a lively shuffle on his red ES-345, Bloomfield debuting the Electric Flag at the Monterey Pop Festival, and Mandel weaving snaky lines on his Parker Fly Mojo.

As with blues-based Brits like the Stones and Animals, the enormous effect the players had was as much cultural as musical; B.B. King relates the story of his first concert at San Francisco’s hippie mecca, Fillmore Auditorium, tearing up after receiving a standing ovation the moment he walked on.

Today, Bloomfield, Butterfield, and Bishop are enshrined in the Blues Music Hall of Fame, where fellow inductee Musselwhite is a 33-time award winner.

In his acceptance speech when the Butterfield band was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, Bishop said, “We set an example that was badly needed in those days, that people of different races can work together and do good.”

This article originally appeared in VG’s November 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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