In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full Of Blues, which went to No. 1 on Feb. 3, 1979, where it stayed for one week.
In 1980, Aretha Franklin’s career was at its lowest ebb. As late-’60s and early-’70s soul gave way to disco and a new generation of pop stars, Franklin’s declining fortunes on the charts threatened to resign her to permanent has-been status. It seems inconceivable now, as she’s rightfully considered a living legend, a national treasure, and Our Best Living American Pop Singer. But by the end of the ’70s, Franklin’s fan base had eroded so badly that she couldn’t even get a record deal. After 1979’s La Diva failed to remake her image as a disco starlet, Franklin’s long-time label Atlantic—the place where she entered her prime as the defining female singer of her generation with 1967’s I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You—allowed her contract to expire. That same year, her father, C.L. Franklin was shot during an armed robbery of his home, and subsequently spent the next five years in a coma, prompting his daughter to leave L.A. and return home to Detroit. Franklin’s career seemed similarly incapacitated as the new decade dawned.
Given her lack of marquee value, Franklin was especially fortunate to be invited to participate in one of 1980’s biggest movies, the $32 million comedy-action-musical The Blues Brothers. Franklin wasn’t the only soul-music luminary from a bygone era invited to participate in the film—James Brown and Ray Charles also were granted their highest-profile gigs in years, along with even older blues and jazz stars like John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway. But Franklin ended up stealing the show from all of them, turning in a show-stopping performance of “Think”—from 1968’s Aretha Now, which was out of print when The Blues Brothers was released—and incredibly, reviving her career in the process. Clive Davis signed Franklin to Arista Records in the film’s wake, and with 1982’s Jump To It, she returned to the top of the R&B albums chart, setting the stage for a successful decade that shored up her legacy once and for all.
If nothing else, the rehab job on Franklin’s career facilitated by “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues justifies the unlikely popularity of The Blues Brothers in the late ’70s—and many, many years afterward. As anyone who’s been in the vicinity of an Indian gaming casino or county fair in the last couple of decades will tell you, John Belushi’s death has done nothing to stem a tide of portly white guys from donning shades, hats, and black suits and singing “Sweet Home Chicago” for gently rocking audiences consisting mainly of other portly white guys.
And that’s just the Blues Brothers knock-offs: The official Blues Brothers Show Band And Revue has toured for years, with and without Dan “Elwood” Aykroyd; there are also sanctioned tribute acts that perform at the Universal Studio theme parks in Florida and California. And don’t forget about 1998’s Blues Brothers 2000 (actually, go back to forgetting it), the 2004 musical The Blues Brothers Revival, and the House Of Blues Radio Hour show that Aykroyd hosts as Elwood.
If white-boy blues is the dorkiest of rock ’n’ roll subgenres—and I say that as someone with affection for the form—then the Blues Brothers are like Screech, always popping up in new contexts and looking a little more exaggerated and haggard after each new re-emergence. What’s incredible is that Aykroyd has been a successful proprietor of blues shtick for about as long now as Muddy Waters’ career as a recording artist (starting with Alan Lomax’s early-’40s field recordings): The Blues Brothers’ double-platinum debut, Briefcase Full Of Blues, was released in 1978. I don’t know that Aykroyd can be accurately described as “grizzled,” but when it comes to bluesmen of the ersatz variety, he’s daddy rolling stone.
I say that with a measure of respect. The Blues Brothers are an easy target, but the act’s value as a gateway for music that, in the late ’70s, had largely disappeared from pop culture with no guarantee of ever coming back can’t be denied. Even years later, the Blues Brothers were introducing kids to the greatness of vintage soul and R&B. I can’t be the only one who first heard “Soul Man,” not from Sam & Dave, but via the impassioned bar-band rendition from Briefcase Full Of Blues. When I finally did hear Sam & Dave, I quickly set the Blues Brothers aside. But that doesn’t nullify their role in my musical education, or that of millions of other listeners.
Aykroyd’s blues scholarship dates back to his pre-Saturday Night Live days, when he was a student at Carleton University in his hometown of Ottawa. Aykroyd was a regular at a local club called Le Hibou, where he saw a dream lineup of all-time blues greats that included Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and Otis Spann. (Aykroyd later claimed that he even jammed with Waters one night, accompanying him on drums.) Aykroyd also was a fan of the Downchild Blues Band, a Toronto group founded by brothers Donnie and Hock Walsh, known as Canada’s top blues outfit. The Walsh brothers were an early inspiration for Jake and Elwood Blues, with Aykroyd modeling his character on the harmonica-slinging Donnie.
Several years later, when Aykroyd was in the thick of his fame on SNL, he opened a small blues bar in New York City as a place to hold after-show parties. At his side was frequent onstage partner Belushi, and the blues bar soon became a hotspot for various celebrities and musicians at the height of SNL’s ’70s popularity. It was at the blues bar that Aykroyd started dreaming up the mythology of the Blues Brothers, and since there were instruments, amps, and plenty of musicians in the house, jam sessions naturally started taking place.
From the beginning, the Blues Brothers were a strangely muddled beast. Aykroyd and Belushi loved music and were committed record collectors, but they were comic actors, not singers or musicians. When the Blues Brothers debuted on SNL in April 1978, they couldn’t really be taken seriously as a musical act. But they also weren’t doing a comedy routine, like Belushi’s celebrated impersonation of Joe Cocker. If the idea of these guys singing Floyd Dixon’s “Hey, Bartender” was supposed to be ridiculous, it wasn’t quite ridiculous enough to register as a full-on joke.
Further complicating the perception of the Blues Brothers was the excellent backing band that Aykroyd and Belushi formed with the help of pianist and arranger Paul Shaffer. Somehow, these goofballs convinced genuine ace musicians to play with them, most notably guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, who played on the original version of “Soul Man” as well as other classics by Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, and the rest of Stax’s ’60s roster as members of the label’s house band, Booker T. And The MGs.
Listening to Briefcase Full Of Blues, which was recorded on September 9, 1978 during a live appearance opening for Steve Martin at Los Angeles’ Universal Amphitheatre, the comic pretense for the Blues Brothers is all but nonexistent. Briefcase is a straight-up, no-bullshit, surprisingly credible soul/blues-rock record. Much of the credit for that goes to the band, which along with Cropper and Dunn features ringers like former Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Bar-Kays drummer Willie “Too Big” Hall, and future Keith Richards drummer Steve Jordan. But Belushi and Aykroyd are just as committed to putting the songs over with genuine showmanship and zero irony.
As a singer, Belushi was a brilliant comic. But his lack of singing ability was tempered by his humility and enthusiasm for the material. On Briefcase, Belushi and Aykroyd are always quick to point out, like scholarly disc jockeys, where each song originates, and they repeatedly encourage the audience to check out those artists. (“I suggest you buy as many blues albums as you can,” Belushi memorably says at one point.) They also introduce (and sometimes re-introduce) the musicians throughout the album; at the end of “Soul Man,” which went to No. 14 on the singles chart, Belushi gives a shout-out to Cropper and Dunn, whose names even some committed ’60s soul fans might not have known at the time.
In spite of the album’s rampant boosterism for black music, the Blues Brothers were accused by some critics as being a racist minstrel show. This view was forwarded by Dave Marsh’s review of the Blues Brothers soundtrack in Rolling Stone, which dismissed the idea that the group was “doing some kind of public service… by turning legions of youngsters on to the original soul classics” because the Blues Brothers traded on “the ignorant assumption that black popular culture is some sort of joke.”
But who was the one making ignorant assumptions here? At no point during Briefcase Full Of Blues is there a sense that Aykroyd and Belushi are belittling the music or patronizing the original artists. To the contrary, it feels like a celebration by two extremely earnest fans, with all the joy and occasional awkwardness that implies. Briefcase Full Of Blues isn’t a great record, but it’s certainly a sincere one. Marsh isn’t wrong when he tells readers to seek out Aretha Now instead of a Blues Brothers record. But he wouldn’t have been talking about the former if it weren’t for the latter.
Coming up: Metallica’s St. Anger