What does an open mic website blogger do when every open mic in Sacramento has been indefinitely suspended due to the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020?  

Like most of you, Kimberley and I have been watching a little more   — well okay, maybe a lot more TV.  But to our surprise we have found some very entertaining movies and series. One movie in particular worth mentioning is based on the birth of the Chicago blues scene, titled “Cadillac Records”.

As described by Wikipedia:

“Cadillac Records is a 2008 American biographical drama film written and directed by Darnell Martin. The film explores the musical era from the early 1940s to the late 1960s, chronicling the life of the influential Chicago-based record-company executive Leonard Chess, and a few of the musicians who recorded for Chess Records.

The film stars Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Columbus Short as Little Walter, Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf, and Beyoncé as Etta James. The film was released in North America on December 5, 2008 by TriStar Pictures.”

This movie is a testament to Beyoncé Knowles’  talent as an executive producer, in addition to her singing and acting skills.

As a white male baby boomer from a lower-middle, working class upbringing who came of age during the mid-60s, my first taste of the blues was initially from two groups that were literally located an ocean apart. 

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, formed in Chicago, led by vocalist and highly respected blues harp player Paul Butterfield, was one of the first integrated bands of the day, but was still fronted by several young white musicians who essentially took the music of Chicago’s black blues artists, amped up the volume, and in doing so created a crossover to a whole new, but mostly young and white, audience.

Butterfield’s band put a loud, electronically-enhanced edge on music which for years had been labeled “race music” by D.J.s. But many of the black artists whose music inspired the music of Butterfield’s band were excluded from the new fame and money that followed the crossover. These were the years of widespread recording industry fraud, radio station payola, and general corrupt management, where the musicians, white or black, most often found themselves begging for scraps, all the while wondering what in the hell had happened to all the money they had made.

Michael Bloomfield, a white, 22-year-old Jewish kid from a wealthy Chicago family, was the band’s lead guitarist, and was already passing on his virtuoso musical knowledge to an also-young Elvin Bishop, another Butterfield band member who held the rhythm guitar role. The band’s members quickly developed a reputation as up-and-comers in the Chicago blues community, despite some of them having come from relatively privileged backgrounds which really didn’t fit the traditional life experiences of the original African American bluesmen.  Unfortunately, Bloomfield adopted the blues lifestyle only too well, and was found dead in his car one morning in San Francisco, the presumed victim of a drug overdose at the age of 37.

Sacramento historical note:  in 1967 the combined impact of freely-available LSD and an exploding sexual liberation movement combined and led to a developing “psychdelic” music scene that unfolded in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District and came to be known as the “Summer of Love”. In the years to follow the west coast saw a proliferation of rock bands playing live venues everywhere, it seemed. Some were free concerts; others required inexpensive admission to concert halls in which people often sat on a cement floor, or in a standing-room-only situation. Not long after, Mike Bloomfield quit the Butterfield band to make the move to San Francisco.  He wanted to be a part of this new west coast music scene.

By the summer of 1969 the City of Sacramento had grown weary of trying to enforce a “no-cruising” ban on K St., which until then had been a paved thoroughfare like any other major downtown street. The City Council’s solution? To close the downtown portion of K St. and turn it into a blocks-long pedestrian shopping mecca. This approach involved the installation of a collective monstrosity of cement sculptures, many of which featured small pools or running water. The water pumps soon broke down, never to be repaired, and the cruising almost immediately just re-routed itself in a one-way circle: L St. to 5th St., right on 5th, right on J, then right on 15th and back to L.  And to the city’s everlasting disappointment, the K St. shopping mall concept was almost a complete bust due to the city’s perpetual inability to make families safe in shopping there.

After leaving the Butterfield band, Bloomfield founded a new band in 1967, featuring a powerhouse drummer, Buddy Miles, and a horn section, a new band innovation at that time. He called his new band The Electric Flag. But by the following summer he had quit the band over artistic differences with Buddy Miles, who had become the band’s de facto leader as the now frequently-unreliable Bloomfield was sliding into chronic alcohol and drug use. A year later, in 1969, as part of the K St. Mall’s grand opening festivities, “Buddy Miles and Friends” was contracted to provide a free concert from an elevated stage assembled at 5th & K.

After Miles’ introduction he introduced his “friends”. Walking out to play with Miles was Mike Bloomfield, then 26, and several other top blues musicians of the era who had also made the move to the San Francisco bay area, including vocalist Nick Gravenites, keyboardist Barry Goldberg, and bassist Harvey Brooks. In 1967 they had played “Wine” at the Monterey Pop Festival and blown away the audience.  Two years later I watched, awe-struck, as Gravenites belted out the song with the Miles & Friends group and Bloomfield tore it with a quick-paced, signature guitar solo during their playing of the song here on K St. that summer afternoon.  It was one of the best performances I’d ever see.

The other group that caught my ear was John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, whose vinyl LP featuring blistering guitar playing by Eric Clapton was released in 1966.  Mayall is regarded as the “Father of the British Blues”, but many Americans don’t realize that he was influenced early on and ultimately became a bluesman only after having fallen under the spell of the original American blues players.  He had no formal musical education but taught himself to play piano, guitar, and harmonica.  Mayall’s work reflected much of the same musical influences as did the Butterfield Blues Band — including the artists in this movie — but the Butterfield players heard their blues idols playing live in the clubs of Chicago, while Mayall had to deconstruct the music that had been recorded by those same Chicago blues artists and shipped to Great Britain on vinyl LPs.

The years when the blues exploded across America were exhilarating for so many musicians. Cadillac Records brought back vivid memories of the raw excitement and sheer love of playing that accompanied the music.

Kurt Michaels
Kurt Michaels

Kurt Michaels has lived in the Sacramento region for most of his adult life and these days is semi-retired from the band grind. His greatest regular weekly enjoyment is hanging out with his Tuesday Open Mic musician friends at Kupro’s Craft House on 21st St. in Midtown.