Number 6 (Fall 1996)
Bloomfield notes: You were born in Chicago.
Barry Goldberg: I was born in Chicago in 1942.
Bn: How did you get involved in music?
BG: I started out playing piano. Actually drums was my first instrument. My mother is a pianist and singer. She used to be on the Yiddish stage in Chicago. She played all the parts that Molly Picon played in New York. She was a child actress. She's quite an accomplished barrelhouse piano player. So she taught me a little bit about it and I basically picked it up by ear.
Bn: How did you get turned on to blues music?
BG: I had listened to the blues, although I was more into rhythm-and-blues at the time, and rock-and-roll. But I also listened to Jam With Sam on the radio. He was the last station on the dial. He had a show at 12 o'clock midnight. Little Walter's "Blue Light" was the theme song. He'd say, "We're gonna go down to the basement now and turn on this blue light, sit down on this orange crate and just dig some blues." And I thought, "This is some amazing shit."
They were conjuring up the spirits. And I was just 14 or 15 years old listening to this show on the North Side in my building, which had an elevator man, and a guy polishing the brass everyday, and I'm listening to this shit on the radio. No one even knew I was listening to it. I had a little transistor radio. And I heard those weird and scary sounds. Things would be unleashed in the music and I could feel the excitement. I couldn't really tell -- it was wild and uncontrollable. It was very mystical. Those sounds -- Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, all those guys.
Bn: You went to high school with Mike.
BG: All during high school we had rival bands on the North Side. He had a really hot rock-and-roll band with a piano player. We were always competitive, playing for sweet sixteen parties and everything, and we would bump into each other. I remember his piano player, a guy named George Demus. I had to play the piano after he played it, and he used to put Vaseline on the keyboard so he could do his Jerry Lee Lewis thing.
We were both gaining reputations already. I played in the house band at a place called Teenland when I was 16. It was a club for teenagers. They didn't serve alcohol. The guitar player was Jimmy Guercio. He was 14.
I had to leave home actually, because I wasn't allowed to play rock-and-roll. So I left home and I slept in the basement of this nightclub, and finally the owners let me stay at their house. I really wanted to play. We backed up people that would come in, Johnny Tillotson, Ral Donner, people like that.
So I played around, and eventually I went back to school. And then both Michael and I were thrown out of our respective high schools, and we wound up at Central YMCA High School downtown. We would say "hello" and see each other in the hallways and talk about the music scene. He talked to me about the blues clubs. There were three hot guitar players on the North Side of Chicago, at 15 and 16 years old, and Michael was one of them.
I have one little story that probably no one knows about. Michael told me that when he was going to New Trier High School he used to play hooky a lot. He knew exactly what time the truant officer would call the house. And he knew he could pick up the phone before his parents did. So the phone rang, it was around 11 o'clock, and Michael was in his room, and he picks up the phone and they say, "Hello, Mr. Bloomfield?" and Michael says, "No, I'm sorry," so they say, "Is Michael there?" and Michael answers, "He's not but this is his pet rabbit and Michael told me to tell you that he really misses you and loves school but he just couldn't come today." And that would infuriate them even more. That's where Michael was at.
Bn: What happened after you left high school?
BG: At 18 I started playing on Rush Street, which is like the Bourbon Street of Chicago, y'know, nightclubs with red velvet. I'd play with a New York based band that came to Chicago and caused a sensation during the twist era. We were playing songs by James Brown and Joey D. and the Starlighters. They had come from The Peppermint Lounge in New York. They were called Robbie And The Troubadours.
Michael and Paul Butterfield would come down there, and all my friends from high school, and it was like a really big deal. Y'know it was a really plush club with Playboy bunny type waitresses. Quite the scene -- a Damon Runyon kind of thing. They were blown away by this whole scene. We'd have different color uniforms, and dye our hair different colors every night, and do Jackie Wilson songs, "Tossing And Turning," "Outasite," James Brown tunes, and it would blow Paul's mind, and Michael's mind, and they would come and sit in with us. And then we'd go out with the Playboy bunnies.
Mike was playing in the funky places in Old Town, in the blues clubs. And he was managing at the Fickle Pickle. He'd be the MC. He'd book all these far-out shows there. People like Big Joe Williams. Other people would be singing "Michael Row The Boat Ashore," and Mike would be introducing all these amazing guys to these college kids, and high school kids, and their dates. He'd also do some one-liners, like a Henny Youngman routine. He was quite the personality. He could run a show. He loved to do these things. And I thought it was phenomenal.
I remember once I had a gig in a topless nightclub. I brought Mike into the band. During the break he got me to go with him to a drugstore to buy two little squirt guns, and we would squirt the chicks in the boobs as they were dancing around, facing us. And they wouldn't know where it was coming from. And they would be driven crazy by this. Until one night we were caught and the Mafia chased us out of the club and into the street.
Finally, Michael said,"Man, this is not the scene you should be in." Although it was cool, he said, "You have to come down to Old Town with me." So we'd go down to the South Side and West Side. And eventually he won me over. I said, "Man, you're right." So I became a beatnik. I went from the continental suits on Rush Street to being this beatnik in Old Town. It changed my whole life. And I ended up playing with people like Steve Miller, Charlie Musselwhite and Harvey Mandel.
Bn: Do you still keep in touch with them?
BG: Oh yeah, Harvey and I played together a few years ago, at the Marin County Blues Festival, with Nick Gravenites singing and Harvey on guitar. We did it for Mark Naftalin, who puts on that show.
And Steve Miller -- I sat in with him a few years ago at the Pacific Amphitheater, in Costa Mesa; we did a couple of Freddy King things together. He called me up. It was the first time we'd seen each other in 30 years. He put something on his box set we did in the studio a long time ago as The Goldberg-Miller Blues Band.
Bn: Did you ever join Mike when he jammed at various blues clubs?
BG: The first time I think was when I was 17 or 18. He borrowed his mother's car, and we pulled up in front of this place on the West Side of Chicago. I think it was Sylvio's, or Pepper's, one of those places. And he said, "Just follow me." And I was thinking, "This guy is crazy."
We walked right into the club and Howlin' Wolf was playing. And he had a piano. He immediately recognized Michael. And a stir, like a hush, came over the crowd. This was a really bad-ass crowd. Really scary. I wasn't really scared though, because I had just come to play. We were really bold and cocky. I just followed Michael up there. Wolf sort of smiled and introduced us, and started playing "Killing Floor." And the people started going nuts. Wolf was really mean at first, and then he started smiling afterwards. That happened a lot. I really went crazy. I said, "This is amazing."
A lot of times I got to sit in with Muddy Waters. His piano player, Otis Spann, was my idol. And Otis, when he saw me, it was like a signal for him to take a break. Not because he thought I was good or anything; he just wanted to take a break.
The piano was always on the floor. The stage was above it. Muddy would be right on the stage and would be singing and in the middle of the song Otis would switch with me. And at first Muddy always scowled and then all of the sudden one time he smiled. He looked down at me and smiled. And that was the most beautiful thing -- I thought my time had come. And that was one of the greatest moments, to see that.
Bn: How did you guys get to know Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm?
BG: They would come to town periodically. Whoever was in town -- even Dylan -- would come and play the Bear, which was Albert Grossman's night club. Robbie and Levon would come to town, with their slim-jim ties, and would stop off at Michael's apartment.
Michael and Susan were the youngest couple I had ever met with their own apartment. I thought that was so cool. My wife and I are still really close to Susan. I've known her since she was 18. We have a great friendship.
So Robbie and Levon would stop by and we would all discuss what was going on. Michael would turn them on to some really cool blues 45s, and we'd discuss music and listen to records. That was the time when we'd just listen to records, and turn each other on to some sounds. That happened with Charlie Musselwhite, Harvey Mandel, Nick Gravenites, all those guys. We'd sit around playing records for each other -- listen to this one, listen to the reverb on this record, listen to this guy sing. I can remember listening to "Shake Your Moneymaker," the original Elmore James things, all the Otis Rush records that came out on Cobra and all that stuff. All that stuff was beautiful. And we'd listen to sounds, and try to -- not cop it, but do our version of it.
Bn: Have you been performing live lately?
BG: I have a great band. We play the House of Blues a lot. We do a lot of blues and a lot of R&B. I've got a great 25 year old singer from Kentucky, Melanie Herrold. She's sort of like a white Tina Turner; she's really cool. We're playing The Roxy later this month. We appear as Melanie Herrold And The Renegades. And I still write songs with Gerry Goffin. I'm back into playing again. I love it. I've got a B-3 organ and a Wurlitzer electric piano. I'm playing music I really love. The band is really cool. We even do a couple of gospel tunes. Sometimes we use a three piece gospel choir, on background vocals, three black singers who are amazing.
Bn: The album you recently produced, Blue Night, by Percy Sledge, was nominated for a Grammy and won the 1996 W. C. Handy Award for Soul-Blues Album of the Year.
BG: I really loved the way that album turned out. It's great. I also did an album with the Lemonheads. And I do a lot of TV and movies, scoring and things like that. And I had a song in the movie Forrest Gump, a song I wrote called "Got To Use My Imagination," by Gladys Knight And The Pips.
Bn: That song was also on a bootleg, recorded live at The Bottom Line in 1974 with you, Mike, Al Kooper, Roger Troy and George Rains.
BG: You're kidding, you have a copy of that? 'Cause I remember that was a great show. The audience really dug it. I thought it was a good show. Everything was pretty much on.
Bn: It's called More Live Adventures. A number of your LPs have been re-released on CD. Barry Goldberg Live is out on a number of labels.
BG: Well I'm not getting any royalties from that.
Bn: Two Jews Blues is out also. That's a great record.
BG: Thank you. Michael played his ass off on "Jimi The Fox." I know Hendrix really wigged out when he heard that. He really loved that and took it as a supreme compliment and told Michael and I both how much he loved it.
And there are things on "Blues For Barry And Michael" that are remarkable. Some of it is, I think, Michael's best playing, and I don't say that because it's with me. I think people should really be turned on to it because it originally came out on a small label without much promotion. We couldn't use Michael's name. That was supposed to be our joint album. But CBS wouldn't let us use his name.
Bn: Do you think the KGB LP will be re-released on CD?
BG: I hope not. It was a scam. It could've worked, but the right chemistry wasn't there.
Bn: What was the Electric Flag experience like?
BG: We had a pretty chaotic experience all the way around. The music was really worthwhile -- all the aggravation and the craziness and the preparation, how intense it was. I remember Monterey wasn't as bad as Michael thought it was, but he was such a perfectionist. He was so nervous and intense that it was hard to -- we weren't at our best that's for sure. That's when we debuted, at The Monterey Pop Festival.
We were certainly as good as or better than most of the groups that played there, aside from Otis Redding or Jimi Hendrix, I remember that. I remember that no other group had the soul and the concept that we had, with the horns and Buddy and Michael, all those elements, and Nick, it was amazing, and when it went into full-force like at our gigs at the Fillmore those were probably the greatest musical memories and moments of my life, my career, when that thing took off and the flag started waving, and the horn section was on and Buddy was wailing, nothing could have beaten that.
Bn: You backed up Bob Dylan when he played at The Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
BG: I got to play with Bob quite by accident. I had come out to play with Butterfield, because Michael and Paul had invited me to come and play with the band. I was their first keyboard player. I would sit in with them all the time.
When I got to Newport the producer, Paul Rothchild, was really obstinate and rude, and said, "Absolutely no organ." He didn't want that element, he just wanted the five pieces. Paul and Michael tried to talk to him but he was just really against it.
So I had nowhere to go. I was stuck there, a long way from Chicago. One night we were just sitting around and Bob showed up and said, "The keyboard player isn't here yet," and Michael said, "There's a great keyboard player here in Barry," and Bob said, "You want to come to the sound check?" and I said, "Sure," and that's how I got to do it, and it worked out great. And then we went on that night. Michael just went nuts, he just rammed it right down their throats. He loved those kind of things.
Bn: What did you think about Dylan's decision to go electric at the festival?
BG: I thought it was an amazingly brave and bold move. Before he played, there were fistfights between Alan Lomax and Albert Grossman, which was a really ugly scene. Albert really believed in this -- that we were gonna plug in no matter what. The time had come. I don't know if he was a visionary, but this was it. Butterfield and Dylan plugging in. And the old folk crowd, the old guard, was standing fast. They felt so threatened, that a new thing was happening -- out with the old and in with the new.
But it was more about a new frontier of music called folk-rock. And electric blues was happening. And so many people got turned on by it. But unfortunately the majority of the crowd there were die-hard folkies, who didn't want to accept this no matter what. And they wanted to make their presence known and make a statement.
So a lot of people booed, but I remember a lot of people cheering, too. It was probably 60 percent booing and 40 percent cheering. I don't remember everybody booing, I just remember Michael counting it off and saying, "Let's go!" and it was like POW!! -- we went into this whirlwind. Mike turned his amp up so loud, he turned it up to nine, just to infuriate people even more. Bob was like this warrior. We were all on this mission.
Bn: Full speed ahead.
BG: Exactly, and that's it. Don't look back, actually.
Bn: You still have a good friendship with Dylan.
BG: A very good friendship. I used him on a soundtrack. We did a version of "People Get Ready," for a movie called Flashback, with Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland. Bob sang that and I produced it. So we still talk a lot.
Bn: It seems like Dylan was quite an admirer of Mike.
BG: Oh God, yes. He thought he was the greatest guitar player of all.
Bn: Dave Marsh wrote that Michael played guitar on "Devil With A Blue Dress" by Mitch Ryder And The Detroit Wheels.
BG: He didn't. I played on those sessions. There was an album afterwards, What Now My Love. Bob Crewe needed a guitar player and we brought in Michael for that. He's on the songs recorded after "Devil With The Blue Dress" and "Sock It To Me."
I remember Bob Crewe was calling him Mikey. Crewe was a really flamboyant Loretta Young sorta producer, with flaming blonde hair, and he'd walk in with a scarf, and Michael and I were like beatniks or something, with torn jeans, and Crewe was always dressed to kill and he'd say, "There are my friends Mikey and Barry," and we were like the shabby ones.
Mike and I would always room together in New York, at the Albert Hotel. He would terrorize this little old Jewish lady there. She had the newsstand concession at the Albert Hotel. She had all the nice magazines -- Time, Newsweek, Life -- but she had Playboy magazine too, that was her only adult magazine. And every time Michael would come down to the lobby he'd look at her and say, "Smut peddler!" And she'd cringe up; he'd make her feel like a pornographer.
Bn: You and Mike did the Chicago Loop single, too.
BG: That was a top-thirty hit, "When She Needs Good Loving, She Comes To Me." Michael played slide guitar on that. I remember he was really excited when it made the charts.
Bn: That recently came out on CD on a hits package.
BG: That's amazing, that it's out on CD.
Bn: You played on Super Session.
BG: Michael brought me in on that. I just remember he said, "C'mon, let's have some fun," and I sat in. Not a big thing in my memory.
Bn: Why did he leave the session so abruptly?
BG: He hated LA. He couldn't stand being in LA any longer than he had to be.
Bn: He's buried in LA; isn't that ironic?
BG: Yeah I know, overlooking a freeway. I gave the eulogy at the funeral, at the family's request. That was the toughest moment of my whole life. Never ever equaled. Because I had to set the record straight then, in front of his family. I don't think his family, with the exception of his mother Dorothy and his brother Allen, quite understood the impact and the genius and the influence that this guy had over everything. I just wanted to let them know what a credit he was to his profession, and his religion as well.
Bn: Do you think they reached that understanding?
BG: I think that having said it, it got them to think a little bit. But it's just another world, to them, they can never grok the world of the musician, and rock-and-roll, and that whole thing. It's another realm of reality.
His mother was always very supportive of him. At one point Michael had stopped playing guitar and his mother was worried about him, and she went to see B.B. King at Mr. Kelley's, on Rush Street, and went backstage. And of course B.B. knew her. He loved Michael dearly. Because Michael had introduced B.B. to the white audience at The Fillmore. Mike told Bill Graham, "You've got to start booking these people." That's how the blues came to San Francisco, to this whole other audience. B.B. would do anything he could for Michael. I know he called Michael up after Dorothy spoke with him, and he told Michael, "Get that guitar back in your hands and start playing that thing. You're too good not to."
And Michael's brother Allen used to appear periodically at Michael's house in Mill Valley and it was always a good feeling. He was really supportive of Mike. And Dorothy was too. And she was so proud of Michael. And still is.
Bn: What about the friendship you and Mike had?
BG: We were like brothers. There was no one I would rather be around just for his way of communicating with the world, and how he brought everybody down to the common denominator as human beings. Anywhere we went Michael never took anything that seriously, and just set the record straight. No one was too pretentious or too weird or too cool or anything. I loved his intellectual capacity, his wit -- he was unbelievably funny. We would walk around for hours and hours and have adventures.
Wherever we went -- on the road, wherever it was -- I always felt safe with him. I don't like to fly in planes, and he would assure me -- his way was so assured, like, "Don't worry about it, I'm here, nothing will happen." And he would look at the people getting on the plane and say, "I can tell if they're winners and losers," and I believed him. And he never ever said they were losers. He'd say, "This plane is great. See all the little kids, and there are some nuns over there..." and I'd say, "Fine man, great, let's go."
And I would just love to hang out with him. And our playing was so inspirational. When he played it inspired me to the level where nothing has since, except maybe when I played with Hendrix. Those are the two most memorable musicians in my whole life. Hendrix and Michael, not necessarily in that order. Cause Michael did things that Hendrix couldn't, y'know, and vice-versa.
They shouldn't be compared. Michael's intense style and his shaking of the string -- when he went up into the higher registers, and was like a B.B., but like an electrified B.B., someone who was on a blues mission, I mean there was no one who could touch him. He did things to my brain that no one else would ever do. And I was happy to lay out the chords for him to play over. That was enough payment, just to hear that come back to me.
Bn: Any final memories of Michael?
BG: There was no one, except my wife and son, that I've loved more than Michael. I say a memorial prayer when the anniversary of his passing comes up. Not a day goes by when I don't think about him. He's still very much alive inside of me.
It was like family. It was like one. We hung out together, anything we did together -- he turned me on, I turned him on, to things, musical, food, whatever -- and finally he introduced me to my wife. She was an old friend of his. Would you like to speak with her?
Gail Goldberg: I met Michael when the Flag made their first tour to the East coast. I was in college in Philadelphia and I met Michael there, and we became instant buddies. I would go out and visit him. I got to see San Francisco in its heyday. We became great friends.
And when I came back from graduate school I called Michael because I was going to go on a trip to Mexico and I was going to visit him, and he was in New York, so I called him. And I met Barry. Of course I had heard Barry's music, but I was really a college student, and not exactly on the music scene. Michael said, "I gotta introduce you to my old great buddy, my best buddy Barry. I think you two will like each other." We were engaged in two weeks and married in six months.
So we both knew and loved Michael. Michael was the greatest. He was a beautiful soul. He was tormented but he really wanted the best things in life for people. Barry said it was the hardest thing he ever had to do in his life, to give Michael's eulogy. But also, we've really never been sad since his funeral. Because it was so shattering to see what happened to him, and realizing that it could be us -- in a sense he showed us that part of life too, that nothing is worth crying about if you have your health.
Bn: What do you think it was that in the end caused him to go downhill like that?
GG: Well, that's a hard question. I'm not so sure that end couldn't have come at any other time. It was an accident -- but I don't put a lot of credibility into the idea that he went down so quickly. Y'know, if you mess around with bad things, something bad's gonna happen. But he lived a good life. It was too short, that's all.
Big Joe Williams wrote and recorded a song describing the Chicago folk music club The Fickle Pickle, which was managed by Michael Bloomfield. Bloomfield often booked older acoustic blues musicians there and introduced them to a younger audience. The song, entitled "Pick A Pickle" is available on the Storyville release Blues Masters, Volume 2 by Big Joe Williams.
Bloomfield recalled his adventures on the road with Big Joe Williams in the short story "Me And Big Joe."
Two versions of the song "Kansas City" by Michael Bloomfield are available on CD. A studio version which originally appeared on the Guitar Player LP If You Love These Blues, Play 'Em As You Please, is on the Laserlight release The Root Of Blues, and also on the Skyranch release A True Soul Brother. A live version is on the Thunderbolt release Between A Hard Place And The Ground.
Bloomfield explained his approach to the song this way: "This version of 'Kansas City' is a fingerpicked ragtime version of a Jim Jackson song. Jim Jackson was an artist who lived in the '20s and recorded this song for Paramount in 1923. Countless 'Kansas City' songs have been derived from this original version, and it's a standard in the repertoire of country blues singers.
"I'm playing in a style I would call 'Travis Picking' after Merle Travis. It seems an anomaly to use a modern style for such an old song, but the method of syncopated contrapuntal fingerpicking is well suited to the song because the key of E has so many open strings. The chords are E, A, B, E. The thumb plays the bass that alternates between the tonic bass, the octave note, and the fifth note of the scale; at the same time the fingers play a contrapuntal melody line. It's a Gibson acoustic guitar. I'm not using fingerpicks or a thumbpick. I'm just playing with my hands."
For another version check out the Rounder release Live On Maxwell Street, by Robert Nighthawk. Included on the CD is an interview with Nighthawk conducted by Bloomfield. During the interview Nighthawk does two short versions of "Kansas City," one instrumental and one with lyrics.