From my Road Tales series – Rocky Rhodes:
The day I jammed with the greatest blues guitarist of all time.
We got to the club at 1030am. Mother’s was just laying out brunch to several hundred. Our band dove into the buffet like it was their grandmother’s kitchen. I warmed up the Hammond and sang to Laura, “I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer.” She joined me for the second line. It was just the two of us warming up. We both instinctively wrapped back to the first verse, “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel. Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel. Yeah, we’re goin’ to the Road House gonna have ourselves a real… good time.” By the end of the verse there were five other musicians playing with us. The jam began at 10:42am and wouldn’t end until 5 the next morning.
Early on, a sax cat shared a few Codeine tablets with me. All pain went away in short order and my fingers began to float. Soon, I was playing shit I didn’t even know I could play. Suddenly, my fingers danced on the keys like there was a spirit playing through me.
By noon, the club was nearly full of blues disciples. The club was their church, their temple, the place where they worshipped and celebrated life. About 12:45 pm a frizzy haired cat strode toward the stage carrying a beat up guitar case. People clapped for him as he walked by. He shook hands with a few folks. From the falling apart case he pulled a black Les Paul Custom guitar even more beat than the case. We continued to play while this cat plugged in and got situated. As a lead break approached in “War Pigs” the cat smiled at us, “I’ve got this,” whereupon he took over the song with blazing licks and a pure biting tone that cut right to the heart of mankind. My jaw fell slack. I started playing organ in rhythm to the cat. He morphed the song into a slow, wicked version of Born In Chicago. The crowd went nuts. The cat nodded to Rob that it was time for him to take a ride. Rob stood up admirably though nowhere near as inventive as our guest. The cat took back over lead duties and Rob emitted a visible and audible sigh of relief.
I leaned toward Rob, “Who the fuck is this guy?” I had no idea who he was except that he was the best fucking guitar player I’d ever seen for the second time in two weeks – only this cat was at another level above Nugent. This cat really played the blues, man. I could feel centuries of pain and anguish pour from his guitar. “Who in the fuck is this guy?”
“You don’t know him? You really don’t know who he is?” Rob could be such a smartass. I wouldn’t have been asking if I knew. “That is Mike Bloomfield formerly of…”
“Paul Butterfield Blues Band,” I said in unison with Rob. “Holy fuck, the cat is great.” And I was onstage playing with him. Then, Mike turned to me and nodded for me to solo. I froze for a moment, not knowing “whether to shit or go blind” as my dad used to say. Sink or swim time again, Armond! I managed to whip together some stock riffs while toggling the Leslie from slow to fast to slow all while trying to look confident and cool.
Mike nodded and hollered, “Yeah,” before ripping into another amazing set of solos. Somehow, he worked us into Hootchie Cootchie Man allowing me to channel Goldie McJohn from Steppenwolf, which fit perfectly with what Bloomfield was playing at that moment. He jumped from song to song without pause betwixt. At some point I realized that I was learning at an alarming rate. My mind was instantly translating the notes he played on guitar to the Hammond keys. Or, was it that Mike was transmitting the notes mentally to me – spirit to spirit?
Two hours into Bloomfield’s jam I had become twice as good a Hammond player as I was when I strutted into the club that morning. But, the lesson was far from over. Mike transitioned into a slower tempo focused around an A Minor chord. I pulled drawbars in and out while holding a C Major 7 chord. That made Mike smile and groove out even more. He built volume and receded. He built intensity and backed off. He was playing the audience and they adoringly applauded each dramatic turn. He was telling them a story with his guitar with roars and whispers, sobs and elations.
So this is what it feels like to play with the best, I thought. Laura waved at me from the bar signaling that she wanted to come up. Not now, honey, I’m in the middle of something. Just then, Bloomfield started picking the notes to House of the Rising Sun. I adjusted the drawbars and added more reverb to the organ to achieve the effect that I’d been working on for the previous 5 years since opening for The Animals. Mike dug it. Rob jumped out and played a demonic lead break ahead of Bloomfield, which was a ballsy move to say the least. But, Mike dug it, dug what Rob was playing, and did all he could to support Rob’s ride.
“There is… a house… in New Orleans,” Laura growled. She had dashed from bar to stage in a few gazelle leaps when she recognized the song. “They call the Rising Sun. It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl. And, God, I know I am one.” From there on the lyric were all her writing. She told the story of the infamous house from the prostitute’s point of view. Brilliant! She turned to me and I launched into the Alan Price solo that I knew so very well, except that afternoon I injected more New Orleans into it than ever before – after which Rob and Mike Bloomfield launched into dueling, harmonized solos.
Finally, after 3 hours, Mike stopped playing to wipe his brow and hands, take a sip of water, and shake hands with other musicians on the packed stage.
I detected an opportune moment to kick into Laura’s original tune on the Rhodes piano. I rocked back and forth on the bass notes patiently waiting for others to join me, which they soon did. Bloomfield jumped in with totally off the wall passages that energized the powerful song even more. Laura sang the song for all that she was worth. She realized the opportunity standing next to her and embraced it fully. We jammed on the song for nearly 45 minutes, the song was that great to jam to. At the end of the song Mike said, “Hot.”
“Her tune, daddy-o,” I informed him. Laura proudly nodded her head to Bloomfield. Right there she made the connection that would prove my prediction true. (The song would become an International hit less than 2 years later.)
Liquor kept appearing on my organ. I drank from random glasses as the day progressed. I smoked from joints as they were passed my way, gobbled pills that I recognized, and made out with Laura at several points, but seldom did a single hand leave the Hammond keys and never both. I was determined not leave my organ before Bloomfield left the stage. I had too much to learn, to feel.
I brought us into a Doors’ mode at one point singing Love Me Two Times to a hot blond in the front row as her two envious girlfriends looked on. Again, Mike took the song way beyond what it had been. By then, he had been playing for 9 hours and I couldn’t recall him repeating a phrase or run. There was always some nuance, some subtle, but powerful inflection that he changed to turn the passage around making it fresh.
This event approached my discovery that I could pee standing up as one of those incredibly transformational moments that come so rarely in a lifetime. Laura took Roadhouse Blues from me as Bloomfield redefined the song on guitar. The guy was just so phenomenally, incredibly, massively fucking great. I couldn’t believe I was really there.
Mike gave me hints throughout the night, some orally, some with body actions, and several times he pulled on my drawbars leading me to new sonic possibilities of the Hammond Organ that I hadn’t imagined or stumbled upon. How had I not discovered those settings? Maybe it was what Bloomfield played on top of it that made the mixture so infectious or perhaps Laura Miles’s deep soulful profound lyrics that made the difference. The result was spectacular.
I sang, “Do you see me on top of the world? Do you see me spinning ‘round and ‘round? Do you see me on top of the word? Do you see me spinning ‘round and ‘round? I’ve got no more worries, baby, no troubles to stain our scene.” Where the fuck those pedestrian lyrics came from I don’t know but I sang them for every verse of one song until Laura joined in with me. We sang that one verse at random times. Eventually, the crowd started singing the words with us. Suddenly, the anatomy of a hit song became clear: if the crowd sings it with you it will be a hit. This song was stupid enough to be a hit. At that moment I was on top of the world. I was playing with the greatest blues guitarist on the planet and holding my own, even scoring big occasionally. There is no other feeling like it. It is better than sex.
Getting bolder, I launched us all into Allan Toussaint’s Get Out of My Life, Woman. While I remembered the hard-edged, gritty rock feel from the Butterfield rendition, I brought the song back to its roots, back to the streets of New Orleans. Everybody dug the swampy feel, way different vibe than anything we’d played all day. Bloomfield was all over that feel like he was born a Cajun. I showed off a few barrelhouse maneuvers on Rhodes that I’d picked up from Professor Longhair. During a piano solo I switched gears into Fess’ Me Big Chief with Mike doubling my keyboard part with guitar at the start then launching into the stratosphere. He shaped the mood from smooth, second line backjumpin’ to gritty blues to carnival party. We bounced through a medley of Longhair standards: Junko Partner, Come See the Mardi Gras, and, of course, Tipitina. I felt a great connection between Laura, Mike, and I. Man, would I love to be in a band with these two.
During a lull between songs Mike said to me, “You’ve got a real New Orleans feel to your playing, very percussive, funky, a lot like Doctor John.”
“I grew up in New Orleans. I learned to play there.” Wait, did I just hear him say that? Did he just compare me to Doctor John. “Thank you. Mac and I stole licks from the same Crewe.”
“Let’s try this song I’ve been working on for a few years – D-minor to G forever and G to A on infrequent choruses. Give it that funky New Orleans feel.”
After a few bars of his guitar rhythm I caught the beat and held the chords while looking for the appropriate drawbar settings on the Hammond. (008800045, percussion tabs all up). The two chords provided a funky platform for exploration. Mike soloed for a few minutes, threw it over to me, then to a sax guy, and a blues harp, and took it back. We were about 10 minutes into the song when Mike spoke into to Laura Miles’ ear causing her to nod, feel the groove, and start singing. The words sounded somewhat familiar.
“When I look out my window… many sights to see. And when I look in my window… So many different people to be. That it’s strange. You’ve got to pick up every stitch.”
That’s when it hit me. We had been playing Season of the Witch for the past quarter-hour. This wasn’t Donavon’s song anymore. It now belonged to Mike Bloomfield… and to me to a small extent. We jammed on the song for at least an hour, maybe two. Dozens of musicians crossed the stage, stopping long enough to solo for a few bars with the great man.
Michael Bloomfield was the real deal. He laid his soul bare for all to see and hear, pain and joy, jubilation and heartache. I learned more from Mike that day than I knew up until then. My Hammond prowess grew exponentially over the 11 hours that I was privileged to share that stage with a true legend.