One day during the mid-1965 sessions for Bob Dylan's electric turning point, Highway 61 Revisited, some of the studio musicians were having dinner. Guitarist Michael Bloomfield – a brash young virtuoso from Chicago who also played in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band – asked the others, "Are you going to be in a band Bob forms to play this music? If you get the chance, you should." He quickly added, "I'm not."
"I thought, 'That's hilarious,'" recalls organist Al Kooper, one of the sidemen at that meal. "Michael said he loved being in a blues band, and nothing could unseat him from that." Kooper did tour briefly with Dylan after the album was done. "I was 90 percent ambition, 10 percent talent," he admits, laughing. Bloomfield was "the reverse – 90 percent talent, 10 percent ambition."
The result: Almost 50 years later, Bloomfield – the subject of a new multi-disc anthology produced by Kooper, From His Head to His Heart to His Hands, released by Columbia/Legacy – is rock's greatest forgotten guitar hero. From 1965 to 1968, he was nothing less than the future of the blues, charging the primal forms and raw truths of his idols – B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf – with cutting-treble tone, breakneck improvising and incisive, melodic articulation on a machine-gun series of classic records: Dylan's epochal single "Like a Rolling Stone" and the Highway 61 LP; the Butterfield band's '65 debut album and '66 raga-blues thriller, East-West; and the 1968 Top 20 hit Super Session, a dynamic jamming collaboration with Kooper. In 1966, Eric Clapton, on the verge of his own stardom, called Bloomfield "music on two legs."
But in the Seventies, as Clapton ascended to sold-out arenas, Bloomfield slipped into twilight in San Francisco, working with low-profile bands and making small-label records while wrestling with chronic insomnia and heroin. On February 15th, 1981, three months after reuniting with Dylan onstage, an appearance that is a previously unissued highlight of From His Head, Bloomfield was found in a car, dead of an overdose. He was 37.
"A lot of people don't know who he is," says Kooper, one of Bloomfield's closest friends. "That's why I did the set," which includes a DVD of a frank, moving documentary, Sweet Blues, directed by Bob Sarles. "It's an instructional, pleasant way to hear someone who did something marvelously."
In a 2009 Rolling Stone interview, Dylan remembered Bloomfield as "the guy that I always miss. . . . He had so much soul. And he knew all the styles." From His Head opens with proof: tracks from Bloomfield's early-1964 audition for Dylan's original producer, John Hammond, a display of roots, speed and tonal grip that draws from country and rockabilly as much as Robert Johnson.
"Michael was organic – he played directly from his heart into an amp," says keyboard player Barry Goldberg, who met the guitarist in high school in Chicago and was in Bloomfield's psychedelic-R&B big band the Electric Flag. "When he shook a string, it was like Otis Rush. He had the intensity in his soul. He didn't need anything else."
The first disc in From His Head shows Bloomfield's prowess in full revolutionary-blues bloom: his blazing sidekick flourishes in an outtake of Highway 61's "Tombstone Blues"; the fiery, modal ascension in his soloing in "East-West"; the slow-blues web of ache and shriek in "Texas," from the Electric Flag's 1968 LP A Long Time Comin'. "Expression, pure expression," Bloomfield replied when asked about his passion for the guitar in a 1968 RS interview. "Without a guitar, I'm like a poet with no hands." He was only 24.
"He put tremendous force into what he was doing," says pianist Mark Naftalin, who played with Bloomfield in the Butterfield band, then on many post-'68 gigs and sessions. "But that's not the same as ambition. He turned away from possibilities of success ritually."
The classic example is Super Session, Bloomfield's only hit record under his own name. Tracks from that album, outtakes and associated live material – arguably some of his most sublime, furiously poetic soloing on record – comprise From His Head's second CD. Guitarist Jimmy Vivino, the bandleader on Conan and a lifelong Bloomfield disciple, cites the gleaming tangle of vocal-like phrasing and diamond-hard melodic certainty in "Albert's Shuffle," the opener on Super Session, as the peak. "The intro and first chorus are breathtaking," he raves. "And it's just a Les Paul Sunburst into a Super Reverb amp with that Bloomfield tone – no bass, volume all the way up. And you control it from the guitar."
But Bloomfield is on only one side of the original LP. He quit the sessions after one night of recording, leaving Kooper a note: "Alan, couldn't sleep. Went home." Kooper finished the album with Stephen Stills. "You know what it was in retrospect? Michael wasn't properly challenged by anyone," Kooper says now. "Even I didn't want to take that position. I'd rather be his friend."
Bloomfield "was charismatic – people wanted to be around him, touch the hem of his garment," says Electric Flag singer Nick Gravenites, another lifelong friend from Chicago. "He liked the attention. But he didn't like idolatry. He was looking for a happy medium of people who liked good music and enjoyed listening to him."
Michael Bernard Bloomfield was born on July 28th, 1943, in Chicago, on the wrong side of the blues. His father, Harold, ran Bloomfield Industries, a successful restaurant-supply firm. The older of two sons, Michael rebelled against school, discipline and his family's wealth, seeking solace and purpose in the music coming from the city's black neighborhoods on the South and West sides.
A grandfather, Max, owned a pawnshop, and Bloomfield got his first guitar there. Born left-handed, he forced himself to play the other way around. "That's how strong-willed he was," says Goldberg. "When he loved something so much, he just did it."
Hanging out at the pawnshop, Bloomfield also "got a certain empathy, for people on the skids, on the down and out, looking for $5," Gravenites says. "He got to know that kind of life."
By the early Sixties, Bloomfield was a major part of Chicago's blues scene. Adept on piano and acoustic as well as electric guitar, he recorded as a sideman with Sleepy John Estes and Big Joe Williams and jammed at black night spots with Waters and Wolf before joining singer-harpist Butterfield's band in early 1965. "Muddy called him his son," Gravenites says of Bloomfield. "Muddy knew. He didn't call him his partner or buddy. Believe me, that's important. It tells you something – that it has nothing to do with show business. It has to do with soul."
Bloomfield also impressed Dylan when they first met at a local folk club, in 1963, an encounter that led to Dylan's phone call in '65 asking Bloomfield to record with him in New York. Kooper, who played organ on "Like a Rolling Stone," actually showed up for that session expecting to play guitar. Then Bloomfield "walked in, sat down next to me, said hello and started warming up," Kooper says. "I'd never heard anybody that good, much less somebody my age. I put my guitar in the case and slipped it under the chair. He got rid of me in five minutes."
A stubborn fallacy in Bloomfield's legacy is that his gifts declined with his fame, as he became more reclusive and entangled with heroin, which he used in part to relieve the insomnia. In the 1969-and-on tracks on From His Head, the playing and settings are less flashy but more earthy, closer to the Delta blues, soul and gospel he loved. Vivino recalls a Seventies gig in New York where Bloomfield "sat down with an acoustic guitar and played back-porch music all night. He wasn't throwing licks. He played the way he felt."
Goldberg believes Bloomfield ultimately resigned himself to his downward spiral. "His brain was on fire – that's what made him such a great guitar player," Goldberg says. "The fact that he couldn't shut it off – he wanted that peace so badly he took the chance" with drugs. "But he left his mark."
Still, in that 2009 interview, Dylan wondered what might have been. "I think he'd still be around," he said of Bloomfield, "if he stayed with me."
This story is from the January 30th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.