In the introduction to The Mansion on the Hill (1997), baby boomer author Fred Goodman relates a story from his youth about how you sized up a new friend musically, back in the 60s. First you checked them out on the popular radio bands (Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, etc.), then the more esoteric album-oriented artists (e.g., Dylan, the San Francisco bands). The last yardstick he offers up is that “anyone who was into the blues pre-John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers was an intellectual.”
By Goodman’s standards, the Astoria scene I grew up in was a goddamn graduate school. By the time Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (Mayall’s first album) came out in the summer of 1966, we were already listening to classic Chicago blues sides from the late 50s and early 60s, as well as contemporary releases by the likes of BB King and Junior Wells. My favorite was Junior’s Hoodoo Man Blues, which featured Buddy Guy on guitar. I bought that one as soon as I saw it in the record bins.
We listened to these albums incessantly, often singing along and mimicking the vocal inflections of our favorite bluesmen. Some of us were beginning to play guitar, but we couldn’t play like this. Didn’t know the right notes or how to put them together. It didn’t matter. We emulated the blues attitude, the esprit de corps of these blues guys, at least as we imagined it. Teenagers from western Queens, mainly white and Jewish, as tough Black streetwise musicians from the South Side.
How did this happen? How did a bunch of kids raised on AM radio turn into urban blues aficiandos? Let’s start with a couple of environmental factors. A good number of our parents hired black women as housekeepers and maids. They all liked to listen to music while they worked. So we were exposed to R&B radio, specifically WWRL and WLIB, when we came home from school. Sam Cooke, Mary Wells, early Otis Redding. The fatback drums and sludgy grooves of the blues mixed with church singing.
Then there were those early Rolling Stones albums. Those records included covers of classic songs by Slim Harpo, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed. Of course, we didn’t know who these people were. We just loved the sound.
Our more conscious musicological route to the blues went through Bob Dylan. The sequence went something like this. Bob “goes electric” at Newport in the summer of 1965. Word was that the music was fantastic, even though the folkie crowd booed him. We somehow heard his backing musicians were from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, whoever they were. Right before school started in the fall, Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited was released. I remember going to Sam Goody’s in Manhattan the day it came out and purchasing the mono LP for $1.77. Mind blowing electric music led by Michael Bloomfield, Butterfield’s lead guitarist.
Butterfield’s first album came out in October. Several of us bought it immediately. The album cover was compelling. First of all, the band was multi-racial. You didn’t see that in those days. And these were some tough-looking guys. The top photo has the five of them looking casual, standing in front of a funky store with the words “incense” and “herbs” visible on the awning. Some are looking into the camera, some aren’t. Two are wearing shades. Drummer Sam Lay is in the middle, dressed in blue jeans and a sleeveless white t-shirt.
Then there was that kinetic bottom photo. Four of them on the bandstand, playing (Bloomfield is not pictured). A brown and orange hue. Slightly out of focus. Butterfield blowing into his blues harp. Elvin Bishop leaning over his red Gibson guitar. You can feel the club. Late night. Hot.
Then there was the music. We’d never heard anything like this. Bloomfield’s solos were longer and more fiery than on Highway 61. Butterfield’s harmonica sound was otherworldly, so much more powerful than Dylan’s. The rhythmic force of the band was like a runaway freight train that started from the opening phrases and never let up for the entire album.
And what were these songs? Their lyrics and emotionality portrayed a gritty life that was unimagineable to us. Hard lovin’, early dyin’, forlorn yet unbowed. These weren’t the kid songs that were played on the radio. This music was mature. The real deal. Being into the blues was cool.
We looked into the song writers listed on the label and the musicians named in the liner notes. We went to record stores in search of other albums with tunes by Elmore James, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf. And discovered Chess Records. We bought every Chess album we could find.
In the spring of ’66, a few of us went to Greeenwich Village and saw Howlin’ Wolf live. I didn’t make that trip. I looked way too young to sneak into the club. But after hearing the energized description of the music from my friends, I felt like I was there.
Blues wasn’t just music. It was life. We knew that, but it was difficult to give expression to it. Hey, we were fourteen, fifteen years old, living in a non-descript ethnic white neighborhood in New York City. We had to get to a real blues neighborhood.
I actually did. In the summer of ’66, my family took a cross-country trip. Five weeks on the road, coast to coast. We visited a slew of college campuses, so I could decide where I wanted to go to school. But I already knew. I ended up applying to only one college. The University of Chicago. Located on the South Side.
I was already playing lead blues guitar for a year when I arrived there as a freshman in September 1968. I fancied myself the next Elvin Bishop. Word was that Elvin had met Paul Butterfield when they were both students at UC. My “next Elvin” dreams were soon dashed when I heard some of the other student guitar players. Many of them already had extensive experience in bands and could play rings around me.
Still, I was representing Astoria in the blues capital of the world. It was a big deal back home. Rumors of my exploits sprung up. One had me playing in Little Brother Montgomery’s band. I hadn’t even heard of the piano player at the time.
During my two-year stint at UC, I got to hear some great live blues. Butterfield was still the house band on campus, despite the fact that they were now a national act playing the rock rooms that were springing up in major cities across the country. Magic Sam was a regular. He had a quirky guitar technique that was similar to mine. I’d stand up close and watch his fingers while he played, trying to pick up some licks. Caught a set by a pick up band led by piano legend Otis Spann in which a ten-year-old Michael Jackson and his brothers sat in and sang a few numbers. This was four months before the first Jackson 5 single hit the charts.
I left college to start playing in bands myself in March 1971. By that time, the Astoria music scene was onto other things. The Grateful Dead. Downtown loft jazz. But it had all started with the blues.