Sunday, October 26, 2014

Michael Bloomfield's Guitars

The Gibson Musical Instrument Corporation owes a debt of thanks to several great guitarists; Peter Green, Eric Clapton and Michael Bloomfield come to mind. It is my opinion that these these fellows brought back popularity to the Les Paul guitar, in an era where most guitarists were playing a Fender Stratocaster, Telecaster, or a Gibson ES-335.

Hendrix showed us what a guy could do with a Stratocaster and created a whole new way of playing, but it was Bloomfield and others brought the Les Paul guitar to our attention once again.

Bloomfield was born into a wealthy Jewish-American family on the north side of Chicago. His parents thought he was destined to go into the family business, but when he discovered The Blues, that changed everything. Bloomfield spent much of his youth hanging out in the South Side’s Blues clubs.

He even sat in, playing guitar behind some Black Blues men that would become iconic; Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachell, and Little Brother Montgomery.

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield
The young guitarist's talent "was instantly obvious to his mentors," wrote Al Kooper, Bloomfield's later collaborator and close friend, in a 2001 article. "They knew this was not just another white boy; this was someone who truly understood what the blues were all about."

Among his early supporters were B. B. King, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and Buddy Guy. Bloomfield used to say, 'It's a natural. Black people suffer externally in this country. Jewish people suffer internally. The suffering's the mutual fulcrum for the blues.”

Michael Bloomfield regarded the guitar as a tool of expression. Despite the fact that he is probably best known for using a Gibson flame top Les Paul, the instrument he was using probably was not on his mind. It was a means to an end.

He did not take particularly good care of his guitars, despite their value. He would take his Les Paul or Telecaster to a gig without putting it in a case. He took the bus to jobs, holding his guitar with the cable dangling on the floor.

It is said that he often would pick up whatever guitar he found in a recording studio and use it on a session. Knobs were sometimes missing on his guitars; the binding disappeared; cracks were repaired with electrical tape. Much of the time, these defects were eventually repaired, but sometimes not repaired professionally.

Bloomfield began playing guitar at the early age of 12 using an inexpensive Harmony acoustic. His inspiration sprung from the fact that his cousin, Charles who owned a resonator guitar.

Gibson Fretless Wonder Les Paul Custom
He learned the basics from his mother’s hairdresser, who sidelined as a guitar instructor. Tony Carmen owned a black Les Paul, Fretless Wonder, guitar that he occasionally let young Michael play.

Around 1956 or ’57, Michael Bloomfield acquired an electric guitar. This probably came from his grandfather’s pawn shop, known as Uncle Max’, a business where Bloomfield occasionally worked at on weekends. Bloomfield used this to play in a teen age garage band. He was still young and living in the family’s North Shore home. At age 15 Bloomfield acquired a Gibson ES175 archtop which he used in a school talent show.

Gibson GA-20
He also had a Gibson GA-20 amplifier. During this show he was reprimanded by the school’s dean for playing rock and roll. However in a few short years Michael Bloomfield had already graduated to playing the Blues. He would bring his guitar and amp to Southside Blues clubs and sit in with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sunnyland Slim and others.

He also got together with local guys and played some college parties. As I often mention, during the early 1960’s The Folk Movement sprang up, at first in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and it seemed to branch out to most all college campuses. One of the first was the University of Chicago. This organization put on a major Folk Festival that attracted major acts from around the country.

Part of the Folk Movement was its recognition of the Blues as an authentic American folk art. Therefore classic Blues players became a big part of the festival. This caught the attention of Michael Bloomfield. He set aside his electric guitar and concentrated on acoustic picking techniques and delta style blues. To this end, Bloomfield set aside his electric guitars and acquired a Martin D-28. Around this time Bloomfield participated in some recording session with local Blues players and occasionally went to Greenwich Village to play.

He did not pick up the electric guitar again until 1964. This was in 1964 when Michael Bloomfield traveled to New York City and made a cold call on record producer, John Hammond Sr. Bloomfield had sent some of the recordings he had made and through some connections Hammond agreed to listen to him.

But Hammond wanted to hear Bloomfield play…in a band. John Hammond Jr. was scheduled to record what would become the first Blues LP done by a white artist. So Hammond Jr. asked Bloomfield if he would play on the recording on the Vanguard label. It was here that Bloomfield met some yet-to-be famous players that influenced him throughout his life.

This included Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson and Ronnie Hawkins. These guys were working as Hammond’s back up group. Bloomfield was somewhat intimidated by Robertson’s skill as a player. So Bloomfield opted to play piano on this session.

But it was this event that gave Michael Bloomfield the impetus to start playing electric guitar again.

He went back to Chicago and purchased a 1956 Fender Duosonic, which he played through a white Fender Bassman head and cabinet. He also played it through an Epiphone Futura amp that had four 10” speakers, in the style of the 1950’s Tweed Fender Bassman amplifiers.

Again, he sent a current recording of his music to John Hammond Sr. who immediately signed him to a contract. At this point, Bloomfied realized he need a decent guitar and he bought a new 1964 Fender Telecaster. He couldn’t afford a case, so he just bought the guitar. He would go on to own three Telecasters.

He brought this guitar and a small Ampeg Guitar amplifier and used it on his second demo for Hammond Sr. He also used this rig when he played clubs with John Hammond Jr.

Paul Butterfield was playing some sessions about this time and Bloomfield was asked to play some slide guitar. He may have used the studio’s Hagstrom guitar for these sessions. By 1965 Michael Bloomfield had gone back to Chicago.

He had met Bob Dylan in New York back in the Folk days and at this point Bloomfield had a good reputation.

He received a call from Dylan asking him to come and help create a new sound; Folk Rock. Bloomfield packed up his Telecaster and caught a bus to Dylan’s Woodstock New York home, where he rehearsed songs for what would become the LP Highway 61 Revisited.

It was here that he would wind up with Dylan, Al Kooper and some studio musicians who were working on this album.

In fact Dylan liked him so much, he invited Bloomfield to be in his band permanently. Bloomfield declined.

For the sessions he used his Telecaster through an Ampeg Gemini I amplifier, which was the studio’s property. He may have also used Dylan’s black Fender Stratocaster. It is also rumored that Bloomfield played lead guitar on a couple of cuts of the first LP for Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.

Guild Thunderbird Amp
Now Albert Grossman managed a number of music acts including Bob Dylan and Paul Butterfield. It was Grossman who arranged for Michael Bloomfield to be the lead guitarist for Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band.

Epiphone Futura
For this venue, Bloomfield played through the Epiphone Futura amplifier and a 1963 Guild Thunderbird amp. He must have liked the sound, because he continued to use the Guild amp on the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s first recording.

It was at this same concerts final night that Bloomfield joined Al Kooper and others to back up Bob Dylan. This was the controversial concert that drew the ire of the Newport Folk community and the concert that would go down in history.

After the Newport concert, Bloomfield was given the permanent position as lead guitarist for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. He continued to use the Telecaster and the Epiphone Futurama amplifier.

He may have briefly used a Vox Super Beatle. This was about the time frame when Vox was really giving these amplifiers a push trying to get all popular players to use them. Eventually Michael acquired new Fender amplifiers.

He had a Twin Reverb and a Super Reverb and frequently hooked up both in performance.

While playing with Butterfield in 1965, Bloomfield acquired a 1956 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop guitar. Many of his mentors had been playing similar guitars. Bloomfield traded his Telecaster to an acquaintance for the Les Paul. The guitar was not in great shape when Bloomfied got it as the jack plate was held on with tape. Bloomfield used this guitar and a second Telecaster that he owned on the next Butterfield recording; East-West.

He played both through a Gibson Falcon amplifier. But the rigorous schedule of the Butterfield Blues Band caught up with Michael and he resigned in early 1967 to form his own group; The Electric Flag. 

Soon after forming his band he traveled to Los Angeles to begin recording sessions for his bands album. By this time the Les Paul Goldtop may have been in even worse condition. Bloomfield used another Gibson guitar for recordings, which was a Gibson Byrdland.

He thought this was the guitar that Wes Montgomery used. It is likely that Bloomfield did not own this instrument. By the spring of that year, Bloomfield was looking for a new instrument.

He had seen Eric Clapton playing a Les Paul Standard the previous year when the Butterfield Band toured England.

He was taken with Clapton’s sound on the John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers LP. Clapton had used a Les Paul Standard, a guitar that Gibson quit making in 1960 due to poor sales. Though guitar aficionados may argue the point, the only difference from it and the Goldtop, was this guitar’s sunburst finish. John Sebastian of the Loving Spoonful owned one and left it at the Elektra Recording studio.

Bloomfield was able to go to Elektra and unbeknownst to Sebastian, test it out. He decided that he needed a Gibson Les Paul Standard. During his travels he made a stop-over in Detroit and continued to look for a sunburst Les Paul Standard.

Dan Erlewine with L.P.
He met Dan Erlewine, who was a guitarist at the time. Erlewine owned a sunburst Les Paul Standard and Bloomfield really wanted that guitar. Erlewine refused to sell it. Eventually Dan sweetened the deal by offering his Goldtop Les Paul and $100 USD. Erlewine sold him the guitar.

By now, Bloomfield was in San Francisco. Erlewine, who is now a world renowned guitar technician, realized he had installed the Grover tuners on the Les Paul upside down.

Bloomfields Les Paul
He replaced them with the original Kluson machines and shipped the guitar in a package that included the Grover tuners and instructions on how to have them properly installed. It was this guitar that Bloomfield used with The Electric Flag.

In 1967 it was featured on a rendition of “Wine” and captured on film. Bloomfield continued to play his ’59 sunburst Les Paul for the next seven years. It was featured on The Electric Flag’s first album, A Long Time Comin’ and in his lengendary jam with Al Kooper known as Super Session.

This album sprung from Kooper and Bloomfield's collaboration with The Moby Grape, on their LP, Wow/Grape Jam. Super Session included Steven Stills. Bloomfied gets credit for being on the album, but truth be told, he played on one, maybe two cuts and without word, he left town. This is why they recuited Stephen Stills.

In 1969 Bloomfield released his first solo work, "It's Not Killing Me." He also assisted Janis Joplin put together the Kosmic Blues Band and played the guitar solo on her recording, "One Good Man." In 1969 he released another LP, "Live At Bill Graham's Fillmore West" which featured some guests including former Flag bandmates and Taj Mahal.

Shortly after this, Bloomfield quit playing. No one is certain why, but we can guess his heroin addiction may have played into this decision.

Around 1971 Michael Bloomfield acquired a Gibson SG. He was using a Fender Twin Reverb or Super Reverb. Occasionally he used his old white Fender Bassman. He also plugged into a big Acoustic amplifier. Acoustic, like Vox, was pushing their amps as alternatives to Marshalls and seemed to provide them to artists for the exposure.

By 1972 Bloomfield was back to using his Telecaster. Sometime in 1973, his friend’s daughter painted it, so from here on out it was known as The Blue Telecaster.

So what about the prized Les Paul Standard? A story that ran in 2011 in Vintage Guitar magazine which states that Bloomfield was to play a five day run at a Vancouver club called The Cave. Bloomfield played a few shows, left a terse note and left town. The owner kept the guitar, since he felt Bloomfield had stiffed him.

Shortly afterward the club's owner sold the '59 Les Paul to a Canadian guitarist for less than a thousand dollars. This guitarist kept it until 1980 when he sold it to a Canadian collector. It was eventually sold to an unnamed collector in the United States. Now no one is certain what happened or the identity of the U.S. collector.

All we know is Bloomfield made no effort to retrieve the guitar. Ironically soon after this Bloomfield also lost The Blue Telecaster. I am guessing part of the problem stemmed from Bloomfield's addiction to heroin.

In the mid 1970’s Bloomfield acquired a Gibson ES-355, similar to B.B. King’s Lucille. He used it on recording sessions and gigs.

He also purchased a mid 1970’s Fender Stratocaster and used that extensively from 1975 on. Bloomfield was unhappy with the guitars colour, so he repainted it black using spray paint. Bloomfield used this through 1977.

He also acquired a Gibson Marauder that Gibson gave to him. He used it on just a few performances. Shortly after this Gibson contracted with Bloomfied to endorse Epiphone guitars. In exchange for Gibson advertisements he was given the Marauder and a 1976 Gibson Les Paul Custom. Bloomfield did not care for the Custom and rarely played it on gigs.

From 1979 on Michael Bloomfield quit playing electric guitars and instead acquired some old parlor guitars, banjos, mandolins and an old Kay archtop. He played on some small label recordings.

At gigs he would use an old Veggerby western acoustic guitar that was custom made by luthier Ove Veggerby.

Although these guitars were acoustic, Bloomfield electrified them and played them through a vintage Fender tweed amplifier.

He teamed up with his friend Woody Harris and played guitar and piano; usually traditional Blues and Ragtime, but sometimes playing Gospel songs.

Bloomfield died in 1981. He was found by San Francisco police in his car, a tragic victim of a drug overdose, dead at only 38 years old. At that time many of his instruments went missing. We know that Carlos Santana purchased the Les Paul Custom. The black Stratocaster that Bloomfield had painted was sold to a collector through a music shop.
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