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December 15, 2007
John Belushi, Soul Man The Blues Brothers were a pretty powerful phenomenon for a couple of years, but inherently suspect from the beginning. The genesis was that Chevy Chase had a gig at the White House doing his Gerald Ford impression for the president himself. As an excuse for Dan Akroyd and John Belushi to tag along, they were cast as Secret Service agents. The suits and the Ray Bans from that became the basis for Jake and Elwood Blues, building on an old sketch about blues playing bees back on Saturday Night Live.
Then they started taking it quite seriously. They recorded an album live at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. Animal House that summer of 1978 was making Belushi the man of the hour, making for exceptionally enthusiastic audiences as they opened for a week of Steve Martin comedy shows. The Briefcase Full of Blues album came from those dates, and spawned two full fledged Top 40 singles, "Soul Man" and "Rubber Biscuit."
Anything SNL or especially Belushi related being hotter than the proverbial two peckered goat, the SNL audience ate up a November live performance of "Soul Man" a few weeks before the album was released. It eventually went double platinum in the states. And of course it spawned a famous 1980 movie now widely recognized as a classic in which these recidivist criminals found themselves on a self-declared "mission from God."
I've always absolutely loved the Briefcase Full of Blues album, but even so racially insensitive a cad as myself can appreciate how the whole Blues Brothers phenomenon could be taken badly, particularly by black folk. I mean, who do these guys think they are? These white comedians are literally turning the blues into a joke for a comedy show, yet also casting themselves as purveyors of the form. Looking at some of these images from their November 1978 SNL performance of "Soul Man," you could not entirely unreasonably take Dan Akroyd's geek dance moves in particular as mockery. These white interlopers made big hits and big bucks on a lark making a joke of the suffering of folks like Robert Johnson. They surely made a lot more money playing "Sweet Home Chicago" than he ever made for writing it. I've certainly heard black folks say worse similar things about Elvis, with far less justification.
But then these questions of authenticity can be a bit tricky. John Belushi was from Chicago, whereas Robert Johnson never saw the place. Beyond that, they would describe their act as a tribute to the blues. They made a big point of promoting classic blues and r&b acts, pimping classic blues to their young white fans. They certainly could claim credit for turning millions of disco era kids onto the root music. How many young folk have gotten their introduction to Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin from the Blues Brothers movie?
But I'll go well beyond defending them against charges of cultural imperialism and argue for them as outstanding blues artists. Studio recordings of the group couldn't recapture that live moment of their beginning, and Belushi got himself dead before they had much chance to develop musically. But there's a real, visceral sense of moment in those SNL appearances, the movie, and especially that first album. After long years of listening to that album and the original source material, "Soul Man" sure sounds like it meant more to Akroyd and Belushi than it did even to Sam and Dave.
Of course, their artistic success was in no small portion due to their crack band - which was mostly just the Saturday Night Live house band. But famously, that house band included some of the same badasses that had played on some of the original r&b classics. This was as good a r&b band as anyone ever had, give or take maybe James Brown, the Rolling Stones and one or two others. Steve Cropper in particular certainly stands out. But credit must also be given to Paul Shaffer for the tight arrangements he engineered.
Beyond the band though, Belushi and Akroyd really did throw their heart and soul into the mix. Comedy was their medium, but that too was an expression of their souls. Akroyd's aggressive geek dancing expressed his general spiritual hunger really effectively, actually, if you want to look at it that way. Plus, he can blow some pretty fair harmonica. Also, you could consider some of their affectations as subtle self-deprecating laments of their own whiteness.
Mostly though, the ultimate success for the whole act hung on John Belushi's performance as a singer. John Belushi really was an excellent soul singer. I don't know that he was particularly gifted with that exceptional an instrument. He's not going to make you forget about Jackie Wilson. But he really meant it when he sang, and that totally comes through. A number of those performances on the Briefcase album sure sound as if the songs somehow meant more to Belushi than to the original artists.
And it wasn't all cutesy fun. Understandably, the goofy novelty of "Rubber Biscuit" was their other main hit single. But Belushi was a troubled man, and he expressed his inner soul more directly as Jake E. Blues than he ever did as John Belushi. His overdose death in 1982 was essentially a suicide. He really meant it when he was singing the "Shotgun Blues" and contemplating the possibility that he might just "take a shotgun, and disconnect my brain." Ultimately, John Belushi truly had the blues in his soul more than a lot of people who happened to be poorer or blacker.