The new House of Blues recently opened in Dallas with an inaugural performance from the Blues Brothers themselves, and our own blues guru Roger Gatchet was on hand to witness the event. He also had the opportunity to speak Dan Aykroyd as the two traded a love for the Blues and discussed the Blues Brothers’ beginnings and future, as well as Aykroyd’s infamous bootlegging career in Chicago. You can also tune into Roger “Smokehouse Brown” Gatchet’s blues show, “Blues at Sunrise,” every Wednesday morning from 7-9am on KVRX 91.7.
Still On A Mission from God
by Roger Gatchet
AS: Mr. Aykroyd, thanks so much speaking with us.
DA: Certainly, thank you.
AS: I was wondering, if you didn’t mind, if I could begin with a little confession.
DA: Sure enough. I’m opening the grill now, and I’m adjusting my Roman collar and my halo.
AS: Excellent. Back in 1996 I was a freshman starting at Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo, California, right there on the Central Coast. And just a couple doors down from me in the dorms, some friends of mine had a poster of The Blues Brothers, that classic movie poster with Jake and Elwood sitting, you know . . .
DA: . . . yes, near the bridge with the coal in the back, on the Blues Mobile.
AS: Yea, sitting on the Blues Mobile. And I had never seen the film before, so I asked them about it, and they said it was a classic and I had to check it out. So they had an old VHS copy and let me borrow it, and I went out and watched it the same day. I just fell in love with the film and I fell in love with the music. At that point in my life, the most I had heard from the blues genre was maybe [B. B. King's] “The Thrill is Gone” or a Stevie Ray Vaughan tune on the radio; I didn’t know much about it. But that one particular scene that you filmed at that mythic place in Chicago, on Maxwell Street.
DA: Yes, which is gone now.
AS: I know, it’s so sad. That one scene, with John Lee Hooker doing “Boom Boom.”
DA: And Big Walter Horton, who was supposed to have been Little Walter’s instructor, he’s the old guy playing harp. And Pinetop Perkins!
AS: Yea, that was great. That scene just blew me away, and it still to this day puts a shiver up and down my spine. And I went out the next day and I bought two CDs, I bought the soundtrack to The Blues Brothers.
DA: That’s a great record.
AS: Oh, a great record. And I bought a greatest hits compilation of John Lee Hooker’s stuff that had “Boom Boom” on it. That was my introduction to the blues.
DA: [imitating John Lee Hooker in a deep, baritone voice] Mmmm hmmmm. I’m a b-b-b-bluuuuueees man. J-J-J-J-John Lee Hooker, Big John. He was 99 years old, and he’s playing the House of Blues in Anaheim. Ninety-nine years old and he just knocked ‘em right back to the wall, man. He was so great.
AS: Oh he’s incredible. I feel very fortunate, I had the chance to see him perform once.
DA: He was the warmest, sweetest guy too. He was always with the best musicians, and people would go into voodoo-like trances when he used to play extended thirty-five, forty minute boogie sets. Just rockin’. I saw him live many times.
AS: Yeah, I got to see him a couple years before he passed. John Hammond opened for him, a great performer also.
DA: Of course, and one of the great blues archivists of our time, as his father was.
AS: You know The Blues Brothers, if it wasn’t for that film, that film really, honestly changed my life. It introduced me to the blues. I started playing harmonica shortly thereafter, listening to your live cuts. You introduced me to Charlie Musselwhite.
DA: A master.
AS: A master contemporary player, I mean all the greats. You know, I just went back and sought out the original artists who did the songs that you and Jake and the great Blues Brothers Band recorded. Here I am today, a blues fan, and it was all because of The Blues Brothers.
DA: Oh, well I’m very happy to hear that. That makes the mission all that much more worthwhile when I hear stories like that.
AS: Can you tell us a little bit about how you first got into blues music?
DA: Certainly. I will say one thing first. There would be no Blues Brothers at all if it weren’t for two gentlemen: Steve Cropper and [Donald] Duck Dunn. Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn were Otis Redding’s guitar players, they were the backbone of the Stax Music Record movement in the 60s, they were in Booker T & the MG’s, they backed up Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and many, many other artists. And it was their, not only their sound and their skill and their playing, but also their approval of what we were doing at the time that really made the band. So every time I talk about the Blues Brothers now, I gotta thank Steve and Duck.
But as far as my origins, I grew up in Ottawa, Canada. Ottawa Ontario, which is the capital of that great peace-loving and wonderful nation. We have two thousand troops in Afghanistan, we fight alongside our United States brothers and sisters, and Canada is of course America’s most vibrant trading and cultural partner and an ally and brother in arms, and in many other causes, environmental and otherwise. So I grew up there, in this capital city. My parents used to work for the government, and I went to elementary school, high school, and the university in the city. And there was a place on Sussex Drive (Sussex Drive is where the Prime Minister’s house is, right below Parliament Hill), and there was a little club there called Le Hibou, which in French means “the owl.” And it was run by a gentleman named Harvey Glack, and he brought every, and I mean every blues star that you or I would ever have wanted to have seen through Ottawa in the late 50s, well I guess more late 60s sort of, in around the Newport jazz rediscovery. I was going to Le Hibou and hearing James Cotton, Otis Spann, Pinetop Perkins, and Muddy Waters. I actually jammed behind Muddy Waters. S. P. Leary left the drum kit one night, and Muddy said “anybody out there play drums? I don’t have a drummer.” And I walked on stage and we started, I don’t know, Little Red Rooster, something. He said “keep that beat going, you make Muddy feel good.”
And I heard Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett). Many, many times I saw Howlin’ Wolf. And of course Buddy Guy, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. So I was exposed to all of these players, playing there as part of this scene to service the academic community in Ottawa, a very well-educated community. Had I lived in a different town I don’t think that this would have happened, because it was just the confluence of educated government workers, and then also all the colleges in the area, Ottawa University, Carlton, and all the schools—these people were interested in blues culture.
Then I had a short wave radio and I got all the black radio stations from Detroit and Boston, and New York, and I used to listen to the blues stations there. And there was this juke box way up the Gattnell, which is the Gatnell River running north of Ottawa there. This guy had this bar, and he had a juke box in there in. And I used to hitchhike up the highway just to listen to this juke box. We rented a farm house there, and I used to hitchhike the fifteen miles in just to sit outside on a Friday night and listen to the juke box, which had all of the soul hits and the Stax hits.
And then I think my real epiphany, as you had, was when I saw Sam and Dave live at Expo ‘67, which was the world’s fair. I came back and I said this is the music I want to know about. And then ironically, never did I realize that I would actually be friends with Sam, have him play in my clubs, and actually have Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn in my band. So it was very satisfying. At this point I can look back and say that I’ve really played with the greats, and gave the preps, like a re-exposure that they might not have had.
AS: I’ve heard that you used to run a little speakeasy in Canada, a little after hours club.
DA: I’ve always been a bootlegger. Now the House of Blues is my first and only really legitimate enterprise purveying spirits. You know I was always a publican. It more grew out of having to have a place to go when we were working in Toronto. We’d have to have a place to go afterwards, because we’d be all wound up from the [Second City] show. The show would end at 11:30, midnight, and we’d do a set, then we were out of there by one in the morning. And of course we were charged up, full of adrenaline, you know. This was John Candy, Gilda Radner, myself, Brian Murray, Joe Flaherty, Gene Levy, all the great improv performers of the time. So I opened up with my two partners in a storefront on Queen Street, 505 Queen Street East. I opened up the speakeasy there, and we had people come from all over, all walks of life. Street car drivers, dancers, waiters and waitresses, cops off-duty. Buck a beer, two bucks a shot, and great music and great times. It enabled me and my partners to basically live free. I bought a motorcycle, a car, and I had all this cash all around, and I had a great life. That’s why I was reluctant to move to New York when John Belushi came up to recruit for National Lampoon Radio Hour. I [told him] I got it too good up here, John. I got a radio commercial business with Dave Thomas, I got a speakeasy here, I got a kid’s TV show that I’m on, I got Second City, I mean I’m making more money than the Prime Minister of Canada, I’m not goin’ anywhere. And we were sitting in the bar that night listening to the Downchild Blues Band, and he said “what’s this? Wow this is cool, blues.”
And I said yea, you’re from Chicago you should know all about blues. And he said “well I do, but really I’m a Grand Funk and a Led Zeppelin and a heavy metal fan. I said well of course, you realize and know that all of this comes from blues. He says “yea, I just like crunch guitar and heavy metal.” I said well you instruct me about that and I’ll instruct you about the blues. Howard Shore was drinking there that night with Paul Shaffer, and Shore said “yea, you guys should start a group and call yourself the Blues Brothers.”
Well, bing! We looked at each other, and then from that time on John went away, and eventually we were hired for Saturday Night Live, and in between then, and when we first did the act—before warming up the audience on Saturday Night Live, before King Bee, before anything on the show, we performed with Willie Nelson at the Lonestar Cafe. And Willie said “I’ll be your backup band!” And we wore the suits, the briefcase, the whole thing. And between then, when I first met John, and that night, he had researched blues music and he knew all about the great blues artists. He bought hundreds of blues records. When it came time to pick the songs for Briefcase Full of Blues [Atlantic Records, 1978], we sat there and just listened to hundreds and hundreds of songs, and we put together a record that had a Chicago-Memphis fusion to it. And so the first record was really, I guess, based on John’s research more than anything else.
AS: Wow. That’s actually one of the first LP’s I ever purchased. I understand that it’s one of the best-selling blues albums of all time, is that accurate?
DA: I think it is the best selling, if you don’t count Clapton and maybe some of the latter British bands—The Stones, which I consider a blues band. We sold three and a half million records, and that was pretty amazing. And I attribute it partially to the culture at the time; it was just at the end of disco, people were tired of disco. New wave was just about coming on, but it hadn’t caught on, and the punk movement was just beginning. And we just slipped in there under the door, or over the transom if you want, with the “Soul Man” cover. And that went to number one and basically established the band. And here I find myself next week going to Dallas, Texas to open the House of Blues, which of course comes out of the Blues Brothers ethic and the Blues Brothers culture, you know. These blues palaces that John [Belushi] would have loved. He never even saw one of them but he would have loved to have been there. So I’m playing with his blood brother [Jim Belushi, aka Brother Zee Blues]. We do the Blues Brothers Formal Classic Revue, which is treating some of the old songs, doing some new songs, but presenting it as we did when John and I were doing it.
And the band goes on; like a law firm with a deceased partner we are still thriving. In fact we have a very busy concert schedule coming up, and now we have eleven nightclubs, we’re part of Live Nation Incorporated, and who knew that night sitting in the speakeasy in Toronto, talking with John, that today at 54 years old I would still be performing and playing this gift of music that I love. It’s such an honor to sing from the African-American songbook and recognize African-American contributions to world culture, and to be able to associate with great artists like Sam and Dave. I’ve got Matt Murphy coming in to play, and also Wanda King, Freddie [King's] daughter. That’s for the May 12th opening in Dallas.
AS: Oh that’s great, so Matt Murphy’s going to be there? That’s excellent. It’s amazing how the Blues Brothers has become this integral part of American culture. You’ve done so many different things and accomplished so much. What is one of your proudest moments?
DA: Well, just being able to call James Brown and Aretha Franklin friends, and to have James Brown thank us in every show for helping him. Now he way, way over-credits us with his revival, because his own talent took him there. I think people were just ready to get his energy back. But to have him recognize that the Blues Brothers may have had a hand in bringing him back to a new audience, that’s very, very gratifying, very satisfying. And just to know him as a friend, he was a great friend of mine. I played with him, did three movies with him, and played with him on stage numerous times. Went to his home town, went to his birthday parties, you know, always loved JB man. I miss him a lot.
AS: You also host the House of Blues Radio Hour.
DA: Yes, in the persona of Elwood. We’re going into our fourteenth year.
AS: Fourteen years now. How did you get started doing this?
DA: Mainly what happened is we said we should have a companion to the opening of the clubs. So we went to one of the great producers, Ben Manila out of San Francisco, and we put together the House of Blues Radio Hour. We started with fifty stations, and I think we’re up to two hundred-plus stations around the country. And of course, as your mission is, mine (and Elwood’s too) is to make sure that the records are played and heard when they come out, that the people know where and how to buy them, and that the people know where the artists are playing, and how to be with the artists at the venue, and go and see the artist. We want to sell out these concerts for the artists, we want them to sell records, and we want them to keep their career going.
AS: What was the last blues concert you went to?
DA: It was when I was in Chicago, I just dropped in on Kingston Mines and Wise Fool’s, and the B.L.U.E.S (on Halsted) Club. They’re my favorite clubs in Chicago. I just walked in and saw who was playing there, I think it was Earl King. That’s one of the great towns, one of the great places. It’s not every town that you can just walk off the street and hear diamond-cutting guitar and great blues, but Chicago has it. You know New York doesn’t have a blues club except B. B. King’s. It used to have a couple, but you can’t walk in and hear blues in New York, it’s just crazy.
AS: And of course you recorded at the grand opening of the House of Blues in Chicago with the original Blues Brothers Band, Brother Zee, and just a whole slew of guest artists. That was actually where I first heard Charlie Musselwhite, with his live cut of “Blues Why Do You Worry Me?”
DA: Oh he’s so great. He’s not only an amazing writer, guitar player, and harmonica player, but he’s also a great archivist. He really understands the music, he’s just a great producer. He’s one of those guys, I say if you hear the name Musselwhite, even if you haven’t heard his music, get out there on Amazon and get a couple of his records and you’ll be a fan for life.
AS: What’s in store for the Blues Brothers in the future?
D: Well, we have an active touring schedule with the blood brother, Brother Zee, who like his Albanian alpha-male older brother just knows how to move to the music, dance and sing. You know these Illinois alpha-males of Albanian descent, somehow they got it, you know?! So he’s great in the show, and we go out on tour as the Classic Revue extensively. We’re doing casinos, corporate events, charities. And then we’ve got the [House of Blues] clubs to roll out. We’ve got Houston coming out next, and we’re looking actively in New York City and Europe. So the next five years are gonna be pretty much about the music for me, which is just fine [laughs].
AS: Thank you so much for all that you do to support the blues.
DA: It means a lot to have the younger generation like you recognizing that this is absolutely vital roots in our culture, and that these artists, both emerging and the veterans, have to be recognized and properly compensated. And the way you do that is to go see their shows and buy their records. And you know if you can get that word out—we’ve succeeded in the mission if we can punch through to this next generation.
AS: Thank you so much for speaking with us, it’s been a real honor talking to you.
DA: Oh, well thank you! I’m glad to hear there’s another blues show out there that’s getting the message out.