Photo courtesy of Elliott Landy
"Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues," by Jan Mark Wolkin & Bill Keenom
Available at Amazon.com
An Interview with Allen Bloomfield
Bloomfield, Michael Bloomfield's younger brother, grew up with Michael in
Chicago and Glencoe, IL, and Allen later worked with Al Kooper and then
lived with Michael in the 1970s in Mill Valley. In the mid-'70s, he joined
his father Harold Bloomfield's food service business as manager of the
company's warehouse on the Bowery in Manhattan. He eventually became the
Bloomfield Distribution Centers national sales manager.
twenty years in that business, Allen realized a life-long dream and
purchased the farm in northeastern Pennsylvania where he currently resides
with his family and keeps horses. He has been the conservator of the
Michael Bloomfield Estate since his brother's death in 1981.
following conversation with David Dann took place on February 19, 2008.
Well, we lived several places in
Chicago when we were young the last being at 424 Melrose. Michael was
about 12 years old when we left there for Glencoe. I was 10. We were very
happy on Melrose lots of friends and cool places to go. We were just a
block off the Gold Coast, Chicago's Lake Shore Drive where all the rich
folks lived. The other direction was rough-and-tumble working class, and
we went to Nettlehorse Public School just a block over. We loved that
school it was filled with all kinds of kids from all kinds of
backgrounds. Down the street was ABC Toyland, a fantastic store, and
another block over was the Clark Movie Theater. One of the highlights of
my youth was the start of the Christmas season at that theater they
would have an all-day show with like a hundred cartoons, and then they
would bring out a Duncan yo-yo champion resplendent in his embroidered
jacket and he would demonstrate all those fantastic tricks you'd see on
TV. Then the feature movie would start. Michael and I would sit together,
and he'd grab my hand, you know, to reassure me during the scary parts of
"War of the Worlds." It was just incredible!
On our excursions to the movies, we'd buy BBQ beef sandwiches and make Lime Rickeys in the vending machines in the lobby of the theater. One time, after we saw Tony Curtis in "Houdini," we were walking down Broadway to Melrose and there were these smudge pots out around a ditch with all this construction stuff lying around. Suddenly Michael says, "I'm Houdini! Bury me!" So we loaded him up with all this dirt and gravel and just walked away. When he didn't show up at home and it was getting dark, we went looking for him and there he still was, only now he was hollering, "You motherfuckers! Get me outta here!" Some Houdini he was still buried under all that stuff.
Another time I remember Michael elaborating on "Harvey" you know, the movie with Jimmy Stewart about a guy who has a six-foot-tall imaginary rabbit. The story goes that one day Michael was playing hooky and the school called to check on him. He answered the phone and told them he was very ill and could hardly speak. Then he said, "If you have any other questions, could you please speak to my rabbit? He would be very happy to answer them."
Those were indelible memories!
Oh, my parents wanted us to go to
better schools. My uncle had built a home in Glencoe, and my parents went
up there and found this huge house and that was that. Michael and I had
these fat-tired Schwinn bikes on Melrose. Within a week of getting to
Glencoe we had these skinny-tired English bikes I couldn't even reach
the pedals on mine! I had to have blocks put on them. We wrecked those
bikes in no time, we hated them so much. It was just a totally different
environment than in Chicago. Suddenly it mattered what you wore, who you
were. We went to Glencoe's Central Elementary first and then to New Trier
High School in Winnetka the Harvard of high schools. It was a total
college-prep scene. Michael was in sixth grade and I was in fourth when we
It was right around this time that
our cousin, Chucky Bloomfield, got a guitar and when we saw it we each
wanted one too. Chucky's was unlike any guitar we'd ever seen it was
similar to one of those National steel guitars, the kind Son House played.
It had a big hubcap-type resonator over the sound hole. No kid could
resist something like that. Michael wound up getting a conventional guitar
for himself, and my mom's beautician, a guy named Tony Carmen, gave him
He played all the time. I don't think he did it just to practice it was more like the way he entertained himself. Here he was, this somewhat heavy kid whose hair had suddenly gone kinky, a guy who walked like a duck, in a strange neighborhood, feeling like a real misfit. So the guitar became his solace. He reconstructed his persona with the sounds he could make, and with the sounds made by all the great musicians he was hearing and taking to be his own. He was into Bill Broonzy, Josh White, the Weavers and those people. And he found a group of friends just like himself misfits, rebels, guys who didn't quite fit in to the New Trier scene. They included Roy Ruby, a really sweet guy, and Fred Glaser.
Michael Bloomfield with his favorite grandmother, Ida, at his bar mitzvah in 1956. One of the gifts he received, a transistor radio, allowed him to listen to music from Chicago's south side and from down south music called "blues."
Photo courtesy of Allen Bloomfield
When Michael had his Bar Mitzvah,
it was a real blowout. Tons of gifts. He even got a periscope from a tank
from our cousin Haskell Wexler [later the film director who made "Medium
Cool"]. I was really envious, and Mike saw that and said, "Allie, take
whatever you want of this stuff." The one thing he got that later turned
out to be really important to him was a transistor radio. With that, he
started hearing all the amazing music coming out of the black
neighborhoods on Chicago's south side, and from stations down south. He
began to connect to the whole gestalt of black music.
To run the household in Glencoe, my
folks would hire a husband-and-wife couple as staff. The couple that
provided Mike with his first real connection to live black music was Mary
and Dewey. Mary was a long-time, personal friend of Josh White and she
arranged for Michael and a friend to see him perform at The Gate of Horn
in Chicago. She later introduced Mike to him. Roy Ruby also had a maid,
but she didn't live with the Rubys she had an apartment on the south
side. She was the one who carried Mike and Roy along with her to clubs she
It's important to mention here that
these people who took care of our house were the first African-Americans
that we were exposed to in an intimate, family setting. They became a
natural extension of who we were and a deep love was established without
judgment. They really were family.
Michael was in all accelerated
classes. They had a tracking system at New Trier and the smart,
college-bound kids got into the upper tracks. He was a voracious reader
he read every one of Frank Baum's "Wizard of Oz" books when he was a kid.
He devoured books literally. He'd eat the edges of the pages as he read.
The books would look like these expensive first editions when got through
with them with deckle-edged pages. I remember one time he got into a
heavy discussion about gerunds with my father, also a real intellect. And
Michael could hold his own with him no easy thing. He was articulate
with words as well as with music.
But in school, he was a disaster. Michael had an acid wit and a highly acerbic tongue. And he could really provoke! The teacher would ask, "What's Moby Dick?" and he say, "It's a disease," and pow! he would be booted.
New Trier put on a big show every year, a talent show called "Langiappe." Michael was scheduled to play with his band, and he was told, "No encore!" So, of course, he did an encore and that, along with many other offenses, got him kicked out. Irv Weingarten, the vice principal, had had enough.
Funny thing though. I didn't see
that show for some reason I don't remember why. But cousin Chucky did
and he said afterward, "That's what Michael's going to be doing," meaning
playing music. Right he was.
So after New Trier they sent
Michael to Cornwall Academy in Cornwall, Mass. Put him right in there with
all the other fuck-ups. It was definitely not the best place for him to
be. I believe that's where he first encountered drugs.
You know, Michael loved thrills, and I think that's why drugs attracted him. When we were kids we'd go every other summer to a dude ranch, like Bishop's Lodge in Santa Fe. We had this thing we'd do each of us would hyperventilate and then have another kid grab us around the chest and squeeze. You'd nearly pass out a cheap high! Mike loved that. And we'd go to Riverview, Chicago's big amusement park, and get on the Silver Streak rollercoaster. Michael would insist on sitting in the front car and he'd give the guy five tickets so we could ride the thing non-stop for five trips!
music in your family?
We really didn't have much music around the house. It was there we had a piano, and there were the usual pop records. My dad actually played pretty good piano when he sat down to it he'd do show tunes, stuff like that.
But the men in the family our
father and his father before him, our uncles they all lived and breathed
business. That was their music. And they were very good at it.
But Michael was completely the
opposite. He was no businessman. When he discovered black music and began
making his pilgrimages to see Odetta and Josh White, he got into that
music's total otherness. It was as different from the world we were living
in as you could get. Michael gave himself over to a deep exploration of
the blues, and by doing that created a separate identity for himself.
My father had been a boxer in his early days, and was a fine, fine athlete. He was a no-bullshit, physical kind of guy. Michael, on the other hand, had no aptitude for sports and was not at all athletic. That always irritated my father. But Michael did accomplish some remarkable physical things. Even though he was left-handed, he taught himself to play guitar right-handed. Why? Because everybody played guitar that way. He never got credit for that amazing accomplishment.
He also had fabulous endurance. My dad was very proud of the fact the Mike could swim and swim. He wasn't a particularly graceful swimmer, but he could go forever. And he could ride horses pretty well. He might be rocking from side to side, his shirt tails flapping, but he could stay on and keep the horse between his legs.
Dad also really liked Michael's
passion for food. We'd be at a restaurant and Michael would say, "I want
some oysters! Can I have oysters?" and Dad would reluctantly order him
some. He'd eat them all and then Mike'd say, "Can I have some more?" Our
father loved that about him.
Of course, Michael was always
trying to get Dad's approval, and he never really did. Dad could be very
physical with Michael when Michael provoked him. I don't think Mike ever
made it through one family meal without being sent away from the table.
They had good moments, though. I remember my father sitting in my parents'
big bedroom, and Michael was sitting across the way playing guitar. He'd
brought his amp in and was playing all these show tunes, like from the
"Hit Parade" just a kid playing for his pop. Dad knew that Michael had
real talent, and later even went to see him perform a few times.
By that time, Mike was
persona-non-grata at home, and I didn't really know much about what he
was up to. He was gone much of the time, and things weren't too good when
he was home, so I didn't really find out about that trip until later. I do
know that he was very defiant in those days and was trying hard to develop
a sense of self. He had a real impulsive side, and spending a good portion
of the summer bumming around Colorado seems like it must have come from
that aspect of his personality.
I also know that when he married
Susan [Smith] and came home to tell our parents, there was a huge blowout.
Dad really beat him up, and I remember Michael yelling. He would never
raise a hand to his father, but he shouted, "I'm outta here, you
motherfuckers!" Weird thing was, a month later my parents gave a huge
party for the newlyweds. That was the way it was Michael desperate for
approval and never really getting the real thing. Just the appearance of
That's the funny thing about my
brother. So many people found him so electrifying as a personality and as
a player. And he was a risky player and could really push the limits, but
it became harder and harder for him to deal with people's expectations. He
would really take it to heart if they were critical, and after a while he
just shunned the spotlight. Oh, he had an ego, and loved to be the center
of attention, but once people expected him be a certain way or to perform
at a certain level that was a real problem for him.
I don't really recall anything about him playing there, but I did see Mike perform with that Jerry Lee Lewis guy Hayden Thompson. I think I went with my cousin because I would have been too young to drive. The club was in Highwood, near the military base there. They were doing rock 'n' roll stuff you know, "Great Balls of Fire," tunes like that. It was kind of funny seeing my brother up there with a working band, but it really didn't really crystallize for me until I saw Michael a few years later with Paul Butterfield.
I was a freshman in college, and
they were at Big John's, with Elvin, Jerome Arnold and, I think, Billy
Davenport. It was amazing! I sat really close and was just knocked out by
Paul's playing. I had never seen or heard anything like what he was doing
with the harmonica. Mike was there too, a part of it, and he sounded
great, but it was seeing Butterfield play that got to me. The whole band
was amazingly woven together, loud and tight, right within the form. Later
on they stretched out a lot more, but then they were pure Chicago in their
I was so inspired, I started
playing harp myself. Just like a thousand other kids after seeing Paul.
Later I saw Michael with Butterfield in Detroit. I drove there with a friend from our dude ranch days who lived in the city. I remember them playing "East-West," the first time I'd ever heard that tune. Paul just strolled away from the stage and let the band go on and on.
Another time I was with Mike at a
club in Greenwich Village, and in walked Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
They got to talking with Michael he could talk to anybody and later he
said to me, "That Joanne Woodward is really something!" He was very
impressed with her. And Paul Newman? "What a putz."
I also was there at the first
Butterfield reunion [in 1971 at the Fenway Theater in Boston]. That was a
fantastic show. Norman Dayron did the sound and they had a scrim hanging
in front of the band with backlighting so all you could see were their
silhouettes. When the music started, the lights came up and the scrim was
raised it was fabulous!
Then I saw the Electric Flag open
for the Band at the Nassau Coliseum [probably on August 30, 1974]. That
was a tough gig. Buddy [Miles] started in with his schtick, "Everybody
clap your hands!," you know, that whole bit. The audience wasn't into it,
of course they were there to see the Band. Michael was just embarrassed
by all his showboating.
Al and Michael were doing this gig at a university in Chicago not a Super Session show, but something else and I got involved taking photos of the performance. I was into taking pictures at the time, so I got hired on as their photographer. The shots I got weren't all that great, but Kooper said to me, "Why don't you come work for my manager, Stanley Polley? He needs an assistant." So I went to New York and hooked up with Stanley. He was a remarkable character, the best in the business, and I learned an immense amount about the music industry from him. I worked for him for a total of 18 months.
One time, around 1971, I was given the opportunity to negotiate a deal with Columbia Records for a band called Southern Comfort. Michael, who was in Mill Valley at the time, asked me to pick up the bands demo at Albert Grossman's place because they were just sitting on it. Mike had endorsed them and the head of A&R at Columbia was hot to sign the band. I got introduced to Albert Grossman, who was managing them, and to Vinnie Fusco, Grossmans assistant. I go in and theres Albert sitting behind this huge desk, just like a king on a throne. Im in this low, tiny chair and hes looking down on me, a Ben Franklin look-alike character with little granny glasses. Very far from my picture of a businessman!
Mike called him Cumulus Nimbus. Just like Daddy, he would say.
So after a lot of haggling with
Grossman, I negotiated an unbelievable deal for Southern Comfort. They got
everything they wanted, made one record and totally bombed with the follow
Well, he worked with Norman Dayron
on his last recordings. Norman was really like a companion for Mike. Alan
[Kooper] provided real structure when they recorded together and that's
why he got the results he did. But Norman was like heroin for Mike he
made my brother feel comfortable. He is exceedingly bright and a very good
producer, but Norman had a fan's adulation for Michael. The two of them
were like schemers, cooking up ways to beat the music business at its own
game. As a result, their judgment sometimes wasn't the best.
And after a while Norman began
taking on many of Michael's mannerisms. The two of them looked very much
alike and eventually they began to sound alike! But, you know, I don't
believe anyone was as close to my brother as Norman was.
Well, I'm working on a screenplay about Michael for a British production company. Any possible movie is years and years away, but there is real interest.
The Michael Bloomfield box set that
has been in the works for a number of years now is kind of in limbo
because of a change of management at Sony/Legacy. We hope to have it back
on track before too long. It's not the greatest time to be putting out
expensive CD packages, what with downloading and file sharing, but
hopefully when it comes out it will include selections done for other
companies and a DVD. We'll see!
I'd like to end by saying that there is no person on earth that I'd rather hang with than Michael. If you took J.D. Salinger and added a pinch of Bukowski, a dash of Terry Southern and a sprinkle of Oscar Levant you would have an approximation of what he was like. A wit like Lenny Bruce and the persona of a gangster with a rose tattoo.
The best gift for the future? That
would be to preserve the memory of Michael as truly he was. Clearly, to
know him was to love him.
© 2008 David Dann, www.mikebloomfieldamericanmusic.com
Michael demonstrates his fire-breathing trick, a stunt he often performed while playing "East-West" with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1966.
Photo courtesy of