Thursday, March 29, 2007

Blues Brothers' impact noted

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When the Blues Brothers appeared on Saturday Night Live for the first time on April 22, 1978, it was a perfect union of music and comedy. You remember the fedora hats and Ray Ban sunglasses borrowed from John Lee Hooker. If you looked closer you saw the trademark narrow black ties, white socks and Timex digital watches.

Television stars John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had used their comedic skills to transform themselves into colorful characters named Jake and Elwood. The Blues Brothers musical sketches proved so popular, they were made a regular segment of the show.

Then the public demanded, and received, an actual Blues Brothers record album just six months later, on Nov. 28, 1978. "Briefcase Full of Blues" featured Belushi's vocals, Aykroyd's harmonica-playing and a dream line-up of rhythm and blues musicians: Paul Shaffer, Steve Cropper, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Donald "Duck" Dunn, Steve Jordan, Lou Marini, Alan Rubin, Tom Scott and Tom Malone."Soul Man," a cover of the Sam & Dave tune, became a smash hit.

The product had to be hot, right? You bet. With well-chosen cover songs and inspired performances, it went straight to number one on the charts. But it also started a bit of debate. Were the Blues Brothers just a long-running comedy bit to profit from a beloved American music style, or did the blues in general benefit from increased exposure the group's massive popularity brought?

When the Blues Brothers appear at the Island Resort and Casino on April 13 and 14, the sold-out audience will see a version of the band with Belushi's brother James, in the role of Zee Blues (a small pun, perhaps, but a crucial component of the band, nevertheless).

James, who stars in the sit-com "According to Jim," has blues credentials of his own. Back in 1998, he cut a disc on the House of Blues label with the Sacred Hearts. A great album, it sold poorly, and is hard to find today. Undeterred, Belushi took the band to the Harris casino four years later where he staged a pair of spot-on shows, proving emphatically he could play the blues, performing Paul Butterfield's "Born in Chicago" and other classics. Then, in 2003 he cut an album with Aykroyd entitled "Have Love Will Travel," giving further evidence of his blues abilities.

Aykroyd, meanwhile, has become a serious proponent of blues music. With his friend Isaac Tigrett, Aykroyd founded the House of Blues in 1992. The chain of restaurants and music venues feature live music, often blues, and southern cuisine to match. Represented in many major American cities, the House of Blues was sold to a company called Live Nation in 2006.

The busy Aykroyd is also heard on many FM stations as host of the nationally-syndicated House of Blues Radio Hour, in his persona as Elwood Blues. Broadcast Sundays by WIMK in Iron Mountain, the program promotes talented blues performers who otherwise wouldn't receive national consideration. This radio exposure is welcomed by the blues community, which is relatively small. Major record labels rarely sign blues artists because their CD's usually sell in the thousands, not millions of copies.

Aykroyd and the late John Belushi brought renewed attention to the blues in 1978, while there have been several other significant revivals since then. The Fabulous Thunderbirds, starring Kim Wilson and Jimmie Vaughan burst out of Texas in 1979 and Stevie Ray Vaughan followed five years later. A two-disc Robert Johnson box set, containing his entire recorded output, took the music world by storm in 1990 with primitive, yet fascinating tracks laid down more than 50 years ago.

But those genre-saving flourishes have come and gone. While the likes of B. B. King, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray don't have trouble filling venues and selling discs, they are exceptions. Thousands of blues artists and dozens of independent record labels struggle to persevere and promote a musical genre which is culturally significant to the United States and widely recognized around the world.

Take KoKo Taylor, the Queen of the Blues, for example. Her last album of new material, the Grammy-nominated "Royal Blue," has sold an average of just 100 copies a week nationally since its release in 2000.

When the Blues Brothers take the stage at Harris next month, they may very well perform Taylor's biggest hit, "Wang Dang Doodle." Not everyone in the crowd will recognize the significance of the song or even consider themselves blues fans.

Without a doubt, Aykroyd, Belushi and their band have earned their blues chops. You can be sure they'll put on a terrific show and it's sure to be plenty of fun.

Plus, with every song they play, the Blues Brothers offer a lesson in blues, soul and rhythm & blues. If even a few audience members are intrigued enough to check out the genesis of the songs they hear, everyone will benefit.

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