Keeping The Blues Alive

Blues Highlights: John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd bring the blues to SNL

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In April of 1978, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi debuted two characters on Saturday Night Live . Called “The Blues Brothers”, these blues musicians and aficionados actually got their start in an earlier episode of SNL. “Howard Shore and his All-Bee Band”, as they were then known, covered the Slim Harpo song “I’m a King Bee” in the now-legendary sketch from January 17, 1976. With Belushi on vocals and Aykroyd playing the harmonica, the humor was definitely there, but what was more amazing was the obvious musical talent of the two cast members. Soon after, Aykroyd and Belushi began fleshing out the back story for the two characters, and with Aykroyd introducing his co-writer to a multitude of different blues artists in the jukebox at the local bar/cast member hangout, where they soon began hosting weekly jams, the seeds had been sowed in what would become one of the most memorable duos in the shows history.

The musical influences for the band dug deep into blues history, with Aykroyd having a strong appreciation for the music that he encountered while he was attending college in Canada. The Downchild Blues Band, one of the first professional blues bands in Canada, was a group that Aykroyd frequently went to see perform in Ottawa, and it served as one of the main influences for how the Blues Brothers would look and sound. The coffee house where he would watch them play also booked legendary acts like James Cotton, Otis Spann, Pinetop Perkins, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells, and Buddy Guy. Aykroyd credits the vibrant local music scene and the community’s appreciation for blues culture with having established his fascination with the blues.

It was SNL bandleader Howard Shore who coined the name “The Blues Brothers”. Once that moniker was thrown out there, the two friends knew they had their band’s name. Belushi and Aykroyd chose the names Jake “Joliet” Blues and Elwood Blues as the names for their fictional characters. For the official debut of the sketch featuring the newly formed band, they chose to cover the Sam and Dave classic, “Soul Man”. Future late night TV bandleader and pianist Paul Shaffer helped Belushi and Aykroyd arrange the band, recruiting SNL band members Lou Marini and Tom Malone on saxophone and trombone, respectively. Guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald Dunn from Booker T. and The M.G.’s were brought in at the behest of Shaffer. Trumpeter and Julliard alum Alan Rubin, and Matt “Guitar” Murphy rounded out the roster. Belushi’s look was borrowed from blues great John Lee Hooker, who would later appear in a famous scene in The Blues Brother movie, with his trademark Ray-Ban sunglasses and soul patch. Aykroyd’s choice to come out on stage with his briefcase handcuffed to him, with his harmonica inside, remains one of my personal favorite aspects of the sketch.

For the official debut of the sketch featuring the newly formed band, they chose to cover the Sam and Dave classic, “Soul Man”. The cover was included on their debut album, “Briefcase Full of Blues”.

By Evan Crocker for Keeping The Blues Alive

Photo: Universal Pictures; Courtesy Of Everett Collection

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