Final Days and Past Glories

The and times of blues legend Michael Bloomfield

Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield perform with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at Chet Helms' Tribal Stomp at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California on October 1st, 1978. Credit: Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty

Michael Bloomfield, the rich Jewish kid from Chicago who demonstrated to a generation of electric guitarists that white men can really play the blues, was found dead in his car in San Francisco at eleven o'clock Sunday morning, February 15th. He was thirty-seven.

Bloomfield was slumped in the passenger seat of his beige 1971 Mercury, which was parked on a residential street in the Forest Hills section of the city; all four doors were locked. The official cause of death has not been determined, but the presence of an empty Valium bottle in the pocket of his coat, which was lying on the back seat, spurred speculation that Bloomfield—who had been known to use heroin in the past—had died of a drug overdose. However, two of Bloomfield's closest associates doubted he had taken his own life.

"I can tell you, just from recent talks, that he wasn't the kind of guy who was ready to check out on Valium," said Denny Bruce, president of the Takoma Records label, for which Bloomfield recorded four albums over the past several years. According to Bruce, the guitarist had been drawing a good response both here and in Europe with his one-man show. He had two new albums due out March 1st — Cruisin' for a Bruisin,' on Takoma, and Living in the Fast Lane, on the independent Waterhouse label — and he was, Bruce said, "in very, very good spirits."

Norman Dayron, Bloomfield's producer, agreed. Michael had a new girlfriend, he was lifting weights and was "in great shape." Dayron last saw Bloomfield on Friday, February 13th, when the two of them, together with guitarist Stefan Grossman, attended a party. Bloomfield was cracking jokes and drinking champagne, said Dayron, and the only odd note of the evening occurred when somebody put on Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo." Bloomfield, who once recorded the tune, played the track over and over. Dayron later drove Bloomfield back to his house in Mill Valley, and they made plans to see a show the following night. "See you tomorrow," Bloomfield said as he got out of the car. But Dayron never heard from him.

"I don't think anyone really knows what Michael did on Saturday night," said a close friend who asked not to be identified. "What I'm afraid happened was that he may have ended up somewhere where they were into skin-popping or chipping, and he got something that might've been real good or real bad and started having convulsions. And instead of helping him, the people he was with just put him in his car and drove him to this neighborhood and left him."

In the beginning, Bloomfield seemed to have everything going for him. His father, a designer of restaurant equipment, had established a $2.5 million trust fund for his son, which allowed him to pursue music full time. Elvin Bishop recalled first meeting Bloomfield in a Chicago pawnshop around 1961, where Bishop — an aspiring guitarist fresh from Oklahoma—was shopping for a used instrument. "I didn't know much about guitars or playing them," Elvin said. "I was just in the burning-desire stage. I was checking out a couple of guitars and playing a few pitiful licks on diem. Finally, I got one I halfway liked. There was this real hyper, fast-talking kid behind the counter. He was kind of rude and snotty. He looked down his nose at me, picked up this guitar, reeled off some real fast shit, and I just couldn't believe it. It was Michael—his uncle owned the pawnshop."

Bishop and Bloomfield stayed in touch, and eventually they both wound up in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band—Bloomfield's arrival relegating Bishop, the group's original lead guitarist, to the rhythm-guitar slot. "I didn't like it worth a shit," said Bishop amiably. "But I was square as a pool table and twice as green. We had a chance to make a record, and I wasn't really seasoned. Butter did a smart thing."

Paul Butterfield had realized, when he first saw Bloomfield playing with a Top Forty band in a Chicago club in 1964, that Bloomfield was an extraordinary instrumentalist. "He was a really, really beautiful guitar player," Butterfield recalled. "He had a lot of energy, and he had a good reputation in Chicago. He wasn't into drugs at all then. He was very straight when he was with me."

Butterfield's assessment of Bloomfield's gifts was confirmed on the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album, released in 1965, and on Bob Dylan's celebrated Highway 61 LP, released the same year. Bloomfield's blistering leads and slashing slide guitar were unprecedented for a young white player. His fame was further fueled by the arrival of East-West, the Butterfield Band's second LP, whose long, jamlike title track was a blueprint for countless acid-rock guitar solos that followed.

In 1967, though, Bloomfield left the Butterfield group to found the short-lived Electric Flag, a horn-oriented group that also included drummer Buddy Miles and Chicago singer/songwriter Nick Gravenites. Next came the 1968 Super Session album with Al Kooper and Stephen Stills. But Bloomfield, who loved music, hated the trappings of rock stardom. His solo albums, beginning with It's Not Killing Me, didn't sell well, and he reached his recording nadir on such LPs as Triumvirate (which teamed him with Dr. John and singer John Paul Hammond) and the self-titled debut album by KGB (a band that included keyboardist Barry Goldberg, drummer Carmine Appice and bassist Ric Grech).

All along, Bloomfield had been plagued by insomnia, which kept him off the road and from which he found relief only through sedatives. He also had a mild form of arthritis in his hands. But according to friends, he still had the old instrumental fire whenever he chose to flash it. Two weeks before his death, for example, he sat in with the Sir Douglas Quintet at the Catalyst, a club in Santa Cruz, California. "We just plugged him in," said Doug Sahm. "He said, 'Let's play some blues,' and man, he got up that night and played more damn blues—I mean, he sounded like the old Michael. I couldn't believe it. He had just seen Dylan a month or two before that, so we went up and did 'Just like Tom Thumb's Blues' and some of those tunes he actually recorded with Bob. We got out there and blew it away. I was really impressed. And I think the people who saw that show saw something that time and money will never replace."

Country Joe McDonald, producer Bill Graham and Bloomfield's ex-wife, Susan, were among those who attended him funeral, a Hebrew service conducted at San Francisco's Sinai Memorial Chapel on February 18th. Bloomfield's body was flown to Los Angeles the next day for a second and final service prior to burial on February 20th. "I don't know what happened to him," said Paul Butterfield "I just know I'll miss him."