March 5, 1982 – John Belushi (The Blues Brothers) was born January 24th 1949 in Chicago, Illinois. Belushi’s mother, Agnes Demetri (Samaras), was the daughter of Albanian immigrants, and his father, Adam Anastos Belushi, was an Albanian immigrant from Qytezë. Born in Humboldt Park, a neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, Illinois, John was raised in Wheaton, a suburb west of Chicago, along with his three siblings: younger brothers Billy and Jim, and sister Marian. Belushi was raised in the Albanian Orthodox Church and attended Wheaton Central High School, where he met his future wife, Judith Jacklin.
In 1973, Belushi and Judith Jacklin moved together to New York where Belushi worked for National Lampoon magazine’s The National Lampoon Radio Hour, a half-hour syndicated comedy program where he was a writer, director and actor. During a trip to Toronto to check the local Second City cast in 1974, he met Dan Aykroyd. Jacklin became an associate producer for the show, and she and Belushi were married on December 31, 1976.
Belushi became an original cast member of the new television show Saturday Night Live (SNL) in 1975. His characters at SNL included belligerent Samurai Futaba. With Aykroyd, Belushi created the characters Jake and Elwood Blues, also known as The Blues Brothers.
The band made its debut as the musical guest on the April 22, 1978, episode of Saturday Night Live. The band then began to take on a life beyond the confines of the television screen, releasing an album, Briefcase Full of Blues, in 1978, and then having a Hollywood film, The Blues Brothers, created around its characters in 1980.
Although better known as a comedian/ actor, notable for his work on Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon’s Animal House, it is as a “Joliet” Jake Blues (named after Joliet Prison) of the Blues Brothers that he caught instant stardom. Belushi and Aykroyd, in character as lead vocalist and harmonica player/backing vocalist “Elwood” Blues (named after the Elwood Ordnance Plant, which made TNT and grenades during World War II), the Blues Brothers R&B Review became a sensation.
During his tenure at SNL, Belushi was heavily using drugs and alcohol which affected his performance and caused SNL to fire him (and promptly re-hire him) a number of times.
Following the success of The Blues Brothers on the show, Belushi and Aykroyd, with the help of pianist-arranger Paul Shaffer, started assembling a collection of studio talents to form a proper band. These included SNL band members, saxophonist “Blue” Lou Marini and trombonist-saxophonist Tom Malone, who had previously played in Blood, Sweat & Tears. At Shaffer’s suggestion, guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, the powerhouse combo from Booker T and the M.G.’s and subsequently almost every hit out of Memphis’s Stax Records during the 1960s, were signed as well. In 1978 The Blues Brothers released their debut album, Briefcase Full of Blues with Atlantic Records. The album reached #1 on the Billboard 200 and went double platinum. Two singles were released, “Rubber Biscuit”, which reached number 37 on the Billboard Hot 100 and “Soul Man,” which reached number 14.
The Blues Brothers became a Grammy Award-nominated American blues and soul revivalist band.
Other than the titular “Blues Brothers” and a handful of characters, all musicians performed under their real names. The full band for the 1980 film included:
- “Joliet” Jake E. Blues (John Belushi) – lead vocals
- Elwood J. Blues (Dan Aykroyd) – harmonica, backing vocals
- Steve “The Colonel” Cropper – lead and rhythm guitar (of Booker T & the M.G.’s)
- Matt “Guitar” Murphy – lead and rhythm guitar (Howlin’ Wolf, other artists)
- Donald “Duck” Dunn – bass guitar (of Booker T & the M.G.’s)
- Murphy “Murph” Dunne – keyboards (brought in for the film due to Paul Shaffer’s commitment to perform with Gilda Radner in Gilda Live!, toured with the band in the summer of 1980)
- Willie “Too Big” Hall – drums, percussion (formerly of the Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes‘ band)
- Tom “Bones” Malone – trombone, trumpet, saxophone (Saturday Night Live Band and formerly Blood, Sweat & Tears)
- “Blue” Lou Marini – saxophone (SNL Band and formerly Blood, Sweat & Tears)
- Alan “Mr. Fabulous” Rubin – trumpet (SNL Band)
- Steve “Getdwa” Jordan – drums, percussion (SNL Band) (does not appear in movie)
- Birch “Crimson Slide” Johnson – trombone (does not appear in movie)
- Paul “The Shiv” Shaffer – keyboards, arranger (does not appear in first movie, but appeared in the 1998 sequel, Blues Brothers 2000)
- Tom “Triple Scale” Scott – saxophone (L.A. Express) (does not appear in movie)
At various times, the following have also been part of the act:
The genesis of the Blues Brothers was a January 17, 1976, Saturday Night Live sketch. In it, “Howard Shore and his All-Bee Band” play the Slim Harpo song “I’m a King Bee”, with Belushi singing and Aykroyd playing harmonica, dressed in the bee costumes they wore for the “Killer Bees” sketch.
Following tapings of SNL, it was popular among cast members and the weekly hosts to attend Aykroyd’s Holland Tunnel Blues bar, which he had rented not long after joining the cast. Aykroyd and Belushi filled a jukebox with songs from many different artists such as Sam and Dave and punk band The Viletones. Belushi bought an amplifier and they kept some musical instruments there for anyone who wanted to jam. It was here that Aykroyd and Ron Gwynne collaborated on and developed the original story idea which Dan then turned into the initial story draft of the Blues Brothers movie, better known as the “tome” because it contained so many pages.
It was also at the bar that Aykroyd introduced Belushi to the blues. An interest soon became a fascination and it was not long before the two began singing with local blues bands. Jokingly, SNL band leader Howard Shore suggested they call themselves “The Blues Brothers”. In a 1988 interview in the Chicago Sun-Times, Aykroyd said the Blues Brothers act borrowed their “duo thing and dancing” from Sam & Dave and others, “but the hats came from John Lee Hooker. The suits came from the concept that when you were a jazz player in the 40’s, 50’s 60’s, to look straight, you had to wear a suit.”
The band was also modeled in part on Aykroyd’s experience with the Downchild Blues Band, one of the first professional blues bands in Canada, with whom Aykroyd continues to play on occasion.[a] Aykroyd first encountered the band in the early 1970s, at or around the time of his attendance at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada and where his initial interest in the blues developed through attending and occasionally performing at Ottawa’s Le Hibou Coffee House. Aykroyd has said of this time:
So I grew up (in Ottawa), 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 Glatt, 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, Carleton, and all the schools—these people were interested in blues culture.
The Toronto-based Downchild Blues Band, co-founded in 1969 by two brothers, Donnie and Richard “Hock” Walsh, served as an inspiration for the two Blues Brothers characters. Aykroyd initially modeled Elwood Blues in part on Donnie Walsh, a harmonica player and guitarist, while John Belushi’s Jake Blues character was modeled in part on Hock Walsh, Downchild’s lead singer. In their first album as the Blues Brothers, Briefcase Full of Blues (1978), Aykroyd and Belushi featured three well-known Downchild songs closely associated with Hock Walsh’s vocal style: “I’ve Got Everything I Need (Almost)”, written by Donnie Walsh, “Shot Gun Blues”, co-written by Donnie and Hock Walsh, and “Flip, Flop and Fly”, co-written and originally popularized by Big Joe Turner. All three songs were contained in Downchild’s second album, Straight Up (1973), with “Flip, Flop and Fly” becoming the band’s most successful single, in 1974.
Belushi’s budding interest in the blues solidified in October 1977 when he was in Eugene, Oregon, filming National Lampoon’s Animal House. He went to a local hotel to hear 25-year-old blues singer/harmonica player Curtis Salgado. After the show, Belushi and Salgado talked about the blues for hours. Belushi found Salgado’s enthusiasm infectious. In an interview at the time with the Eugene Register-Guard, he said:
I was growing sick of rock and roll, it was starting to bore me … and I hated disco, so I needed some place to go. I hadn’t heard much blues before. It felt good.
Salgado lent him some albums by Floyd Dixon, Charles Brown, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and others. Belushi was hooked.
Belushi began to appear with Salgado on stage, singing the Floyd Dixon song “Hey, Bartender” on a few occasions, and using Salgado’s humorous alternate lyrics to “I Don’t Know”:
I said Woman, you going to walk a mile for a Camel
Or are you going to make like Mr. Chesterfield and satisfy?
She said that all depends on what you’re packing
Regular or king-size
Then she pulled out my Jim Beam, and to her surprise
It was every bit as hard as my Canadian Club
These lyrics were used again for the band’s debut performance on SNL. This took place on the episode of April 22, 1978 (hosted by Steve Martin), where, in the cold open, Don Kirshner (played by Paul Shaffer) describes how Marshall Checkers of Checkers Records called him on a hot new blues act, and how with the help of “Neshui Wexler and Jerry Ertegun” (a play on the names of record industry executives Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun), they were no longer regarded as an authentic blues band, but “a viable commercial product.”
Briefcase Full of Blues reached #1 on the Billboard 200 went double platinum. It sold 3.5 million copies worldwide, and is among the highest-selling blues albums of all time.
Belushi, technically, did not have a great voice; he compensated for this by throwing his heart and his soul into his singing, from which approach the power of the blues is said to come.
With the film came the soundtrack album, which was the band’s first studio album. “Gimme Some Lovin’” was a Top 40 hit and the band toured to promote the film, which led to a third album (and second live album), Made in America, recorded at the Universal Amphitheatre in 1980. The track “Who’s Making Love” peaked at No. 39. It was the last recording the band would make with Belushi’s Jake Blues.
At the time of his death, music had become more of a byline for Belushi, who was pursuing several movie projects.
Belushi died on the morning of March 5, 1982 in Hollywood, California at the Chateau Marmont, after being injected with, and accidentally overdosing on, a mixture of cocaine and heroin (a “speedball”) at the age of 33.