Friday, March 30, 2007

I Met Someone Who Really Knew Belushi...

My Honors English this semester, a bunch of students I love, are finding out way too much about me.Something about the dynamic of the class makes things keep leaking out. They probably don’t believe half of what I’m telling them, but actually, it’s all been true, and it’s been bringing back memories to me. Like somehow yesterday I got into talking about how I taught John Belushi about the blues.

Which I actually did. It began with my friend Aardvark, who is no longer with us. Aardvark was a very good friend, if not in every respect a completely good person. Actually, he was drug dealer, though not when I first knew him. That developed over time, and I assume that was his connection to Belushi.

An aside: Acquaintances always used to ask me what Aardvark’s real name was; and, since I knew him better, I actually knew his real name. My answer was always, “If I tell you, then you will no longer have the pleasure of knowing someone whom you know only as ‘Aardvark.’”

The exceptions to this rule were his succession of beautiful and wealthy girlfriends, who always called him “Rick.” On reflection, I could understand this. It’s hard to imagine calling out, in the heat of passion, “Oh, Aardvark…Oh, Aardvark…”

But back to Belushi. This was in my New York City days, in the late 70s. Aardvark called me in the middle of the night and said, “I’ve got John Belushi with me, and we need to teach him about the blues. Bring your records and come on over.”

I had, at the time (they’re still safe, but now with my brother) one of the world’s great collections of rhythm and blues 45’s from the 1950s. I packed them into a suitcase, and headed over to Belushi’s. I brought my girl friend at the time, who was newly arrived from the Midwest, and thrilled at the prospect (remember the Waitresses’ song of a few years later – “I know someone who really met Belushi/I fixed the toilet so it doesn't always run”?), but the occasion, for her, turned out to be less than thrilling. Belushi told her, “Here, you can sit in the living room and watch some tapes of my old shows, while we go in the back and talk about music.” I felt guilty for going along with it, and I feel guilty to this day. Carla, if you should run across this, I apologize.

But Aardvark and Belushi and I spent the next couple of hours listening to Muddy Waters, and Magic Sam, and Lightning Hopkins, and the Clovers. Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had just done the Blues Brothers sketch for the first time on Saturday Night Live, and the response to it had been phenomenal. People wanted more Blues Brothers. An album. More SNL performances. And eventually, a movie, but that would come later. But he didn’t really know anything about the blues. He’d never listened to the blues particularly, and if he was going to be doing an album…

And we spent all of the next day with Belushi in the Colony Record Store in Times Square, building him a basic blues collection.

Obviously, he was a quick study. I mentioned to a jazz musician friend that Belushi had just heard the blues for the first time last week, and now he was going to make a record. The musician said, “Well, sometimes that’s all it takes.”

Songs I know I brought to Belushi’s attention were “Rubber Biscuit,” originally by the Chips, “Flip, Flop and Fly,” originally by Joe Turner, and “Riot in Cell Block #9,” originally by the Coasters.

That’s pretty much the whole story, except that I had to call him every night for about a year before he finally got around to giving my records back.

Oh, and one other phone call -- this time from him to me, and characteristically for those days and this cast of characters, late at night. They were getting close to ready to make the record, and did I know any good blues musicians. I named a few. There was a pause at the other end of the line.

“Aren’t they all……………black?”

“Well, yeah…blues and all, you know how it is…”

“Do you know any white blues musicians? I’m a little afraid of black people…”

Well, if he was, he got over it. They had some of the greatest white blues musicians around on that first album, like Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, and some great black musicians too, like Matt “Guitar”Murphy. And some of the greatest blues people of all time in the movie. Thinking about it in later years, I wonder if maybe he just meant that when it came to the blues, he was intimidated by the black blues greats.

No need, John. You made your own strange contribution to the blues, and to American culture. And I hope your old evil spirit caught a Greyhound Bus and rode.

And to my old friend Larry the Fluff, if you’re reading this…you were one of the white musicians I recommended to John.


J. Newberry said...

What a great story, Tad. Thanks for posting this.

You not only met a famous dude, you taught said famous dude about some of the best music ever recorded.

Fart guy said...

Now, wait. I was under the impression that Belushi learned of the blues during his Chicago days. I know he was doing his Joe Cocker impression since like 1971 and it's tough to believe he nailed Cocker so well while being ignorant of where Cocker was getting it from.

While living in Chicago?

Plus, weren't a lot of members of the Blues Brothers Band --- including MGs Donald "Duck" Dunn and Steve Cropper --- in the Saturday Night Live house band already?

Tad Richards said...

You would have thought so. And all of this surprised me too, at the time. But apparently in his Chicago days, he was just a rock and roller -- and a contemporary rock and roller, at that. He hadn't listened to older doo-wop, like The Chips.

I don't really understand the late night phone call either, and looking back, I could ask myself, too, whether it really could have happened. But it did.

The Cocker impression was brilliant, but Cocker was such a distinctive stylist. I wouldn't think Belushi would have needed to be an authority on Kurosawa to have done the Samurai bits, either.