The Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full of Blues at 40
It was 40 years ago, in November 1978, when the Blues Brothers’ live debut album Briefcase Full of Blues was released by Atlantic Records. It began as a comedy skit on the venerable Saturday Night Live TV show, cast members John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd creating the characters of “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues, i.e. the Blues Brothers – two brothers from other mothers who found each other while doing time in a Catholic orphanage. Mentored by the institution’s janitor, they grew up on a steady diet of classic blues and R&B music from the 1940s and ‘50s.
This was the germ of an idea that the comedy duo would later flesh out into a full-fledged pop culture phenomenon. SNL cast members often hung out at Aykroyd’s Holland Tunnel Blues bar after taping the show, the club featuring a jukebox stocked by Aykroyd with his favorite 45s. It was here that Aykroyd introduced Belushi to the blues, which had somehow escaped the Chicago native, and he took to the music with his typical zeal. They began performing together with local blues bands during their downtime from the show and, when SNL house band leader Howard Shore dubbed them “The Blues Brothers,” something special had been created.
Belushi and Aykroyd first introduced the Blues Brothers in a 1976 SNL skit; dressed as giant bees, they performed a rockin’ version of the Slim Harpo classic “I’m A King Bee” while backed by “Howard Shore and his All-Bee Band.” Refining the bit, Belushi and Aykroyd dressed in their now-familiar black suit and tie with matching hats, a look they copped from Canada’s Downchild Blues Band, who Aykroyd had seen perform many times. As the skit became more popular, they thought about taking it up a notch, and a chance encounter between Belushi and bluesman Curtis Salgado (one of the finest soul-blues singers on the planet) convinced the comedian to make the Blues Brothers a full-fledged band.
In a Rolling Stone magazine cover story dated February 22, 1979 and written by Timothy White, John Belushi (speaking in character) talks about putting together the perfect band. “I was thinking about getting Delbert McClinton’s band,” says Jake, “and Roomful of Blues, too. When we first resurfaced, Elwood and I did a gig at the Lone Star Café in New York in June with Roomful of Blues.” Continuing, John/Jake says “but finally we just decided, fuck the cost and the damage it will do to people who aren’t asked, and let’s go for the best band we can get, piece by piece.”
Tenor saxophonist Tom “Bones” Malone was their first piece, the veteran musician a former Blood, Sweat & Tears band member and the music arranger for SNL. Keyboardist Paul “The Shiv” Shaffer and drummer Steve “Getdwa” Jordan (both from the SNL house band) were brought on board, and Shaffer subsequently recommended Memphis soul legends Steve “The Colonel” Cropper (guitar) and Donald “Duck” Dunn, both members of Booker T & the M.G.’s and part of the Stax Records house band that played behind artists like Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, and Sam & Dave. Belushi wanted a hardcore blues guitarist, so they enlisted Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who had played with Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry.
The Blues Brothers’ horn section was rounded out with the addition of sax players “Blue Lou” Marini (again, from SNL), Tom “Triple Scale” Scott (the L.A. Express bandleader), and the classically-trained trumpeter Alan “Mr. Fabulous” Rubin. Belushi would sing lead with Aykroyd on harmony vocals and harmonica. With the band thus formed, the Blues Brothers recorded their debut album, Briefcase Full of Blues, live at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles in September 1978. The album was rushed into record stores a couple months later to take advantage of the new season of Saturday Night Live, but it didn’t really need the hype. The band’s inspired mix of blues and soul covers struck a chord with listeners and the album subsequently topped the Billboard magazine Top 200 albums chart and was eventually certified Double Platinum™ for better than two million copies sold. It also yielded a Top 20 hit single with the Blues Brothers’ raucous take on the Sam & Dave Memphis soul gem “Soul Man.”
In the four decades since its release, however, Briefcase Full of Blues has been unfairly criticized for a myriad of reasons. One barb was that the band – mostly comprised of veteran soul and blues musicians – was somehow cheapening the music, or that the comedic duo of Belushi and Aykroyd was guilty of “cultural appropriation.” Writing in Rolling Stone, legendary rock critic Dave Marsh dismissed The Blues Brothers movie soundtrack as being based on “the ignorant assumption that black popular culture is some sort of joke.” (Full disclosure: Marsh is a colleague and longtime acquaintance. I wrote for his Rock & Rap Confidential newsletter and he contributed to the Kickstarter fundraiser for my 2012 book project, The Other Side of Nashville).
I suspect that music journalist Steven Hyden got closer to the truth with his 2012 retrospective on Briefcase Full of Blues, writing for The A.V. Club that “the Blues Brothers are an easy target, but the act’s value as a gateway for music that, in the late ’70s, had largely disappeared from pop culture with no guarantee of ever coming back can’t be denied. Even years later, the Blues Brothers were introducing kids to the greatness of vintage soul and R&B.” I agree with Hyden’s estimation and disagree strongly with Marsh’s dismissal of the band; the enormous commercial success of Briefcase Full of Blues helped launch a resurgence of interest in blues and soul music that continues to this day.
In a previously-unpublished segment of an interview with Nashville-based music journalist Steve Morley, the Blues Brothers’ Steve Cropper talks about the controversy. “We got a lot of flak and I got a lot of calls saying ‘what are you doing playing with these two comedians?’ And I said ‘well listen to the album. Because two things – Belushi is very good, a decent singer, he played in a rock ‘n’ roll band, played drums all his life since he was a teenager. And Aykroyd really is playing harmonica. They’re that good. Take it from a guy who’s very successful in this business. Those guys are talented; they do more than just act and read funny lines. They actually do play music.”
Continuing, Cropper says “we got accused of making fun of R&B, and all kinds of stuff. But we were doing the same thing that we were doing in high school, we’ve been doing this all our lives,” he says of the musicians that made up the Blues Brothers. “Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, everybody at Stax, Otis Redding…how much did we have to do to prove ourselves? We weren’t clowning around.” As for Belushi and Aykroyd, the duo’s love of blues and R&B music is apparent across the track list of Briefcase Full of Blues, which includes covers of songs by the Downchild Blues Band, Big Joe Turner, Otis Redding, King Floyd, Sam & Dave, and roadhouse bluesman Delbert McClinton. The duo’s passion for the music shines through every performance on Briefcase Full of Blues.
Briefcase Full of Blues jumps off with the band’s signature vamp, an instrumental theme derived from Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” An introduction by Elwood Blues explaining the evening’s entertainment to a loud audience precedes Jake’s rowdy take on Floyd Dixon’s 1955 R&B chart hit “Hey Bartender.” The raucous tune lends itself more to a honky-tonk setting, and country singer Johnny Lee did score a 1983 hit with the song, but here Belushi splits it down the middle with just a bit of twang to his voice. Junior Wells’ “Messin’ With the Kid” allows the band to open up and roar, Jake’s growling vocals matched by Elwood’s intense harmonica riffs while the horns blare and the rhythm section builds a deep groove for the performance. The Downchild Blues Band’s “Shot Gun Blues” benefits from the guitar interplay between Cropper and Murphy, with just a touch of horns, Belushi delivering his bluesiest, most anguished vocals on the LP.
King Floyd’s R&B gem “Groove Me” hits the mark musically, the band skanking to a slinky rhythm, but Jake’s faux reggae vocals fail horribly; he’d been better off shooting for a more soulful reading. The band’s cover of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” shimmies and shakes in all the right places, Cropper’s familiar guitar intro interrupted by brief hornplay before Jake’s inspired vocals kick in. It’s an engaging performance, which is why it hit #14 on the pop charts. The great Delbert McClinton’s “‘B’ Movie Box Car Blues” is provided a muscular arrangement with red-hot guitar licks and Jake’s rave-up vocals. Briefcase Full of Blues provides an altogether entertaining experience that led more than a few listeners to check out the original soul, blues, and R&B artists that inspired the recording.
The success of the Blues Brothers’ debut album led directly to the popular 1980 movie featuring the band. But The Blues Brothers almost didn’t happen when the studio balked at Belushi and Aykroyd using their actual band members in the film. In the aforementioned interview with Steve Morley, Cropper recalls that “the movie people – Universal – looked at him [Aykroyd] point blank and said ‘your band is not going to be in this movie’. And he said ‘then there won’t be any movie’. They said ‘we can teach actors how to hold instruments’…and he said ‘no, if my band is not in the movie…I know these guys, and I can teach them not necessarily how to act, but I can teach how to say their lines’.”
“We were limited, very few lines,” Cropper remembers. “I think that I was given nine in the script and wound up with about three in the movie. I don’t think that I was that bad, that’s just the way that it got edited. Dan Aykroyd actually went to bat for us, and he had Belushi backing him up. They [the studio] were desperate to do this movie because the album Briefcase Full of Blues had done so well for Atlantic.” The subsequent success of the movie – which brought in better than $115 worldwide at the box office – was partially-fueled by the performances of R&B and blues artists like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, and John Lee Hooker, who were all brought on board by Belushi and Aykroyd because they loved their music. In turn, all of these artists enjoyed career resurgences during the ‘80s in the wake of the film’s success.
In retrospect, the Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full of Blues holds up quite well at 40, the album offering a timeless recreation of classic American music delivered with no little heart and soul by John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and a talented group of musicians described as “one scary soul band as mean and righteous as a fist.”
Thanx and a tip o’ the hat to Steve Morley for the Steve Cropper quotes.