If you’re any younger than I am, this may be hard to understand — but there was a time when going to college kinda meant living a life apart from television culture. Cable in individual dorm rooms wasn’t yet a thing, so even if you had a TV, you could only pick up the local broadcast channels, and probably not all of them. Many dorm lounges and common areas had small TVs mounted up on the wall somewhere, so if you wanted to watch something, it was usually a communal experience. My idea of relaxation when I got home from classes was a few rounds of pinball in the dorm lounge, but there was also a group that gathered there every day to watch “Dance Fever” together.
That type of communal watching isn’t something I remember partaking in more than once — and that once was the first time I ever became aware of The Blues Brothers. In the second-floor lounge of Day Hall, on a (no doubt cold) November night, I was with a bunch of other students gathered beneath a 19” black and white TV mounted high up on the wall to watch a fuzzy broadcast of Saturday Night Live.
Out come the musical guests, and they’re like nothing I’ve seen before — two honkies dressed like Hasidic diamond merchants, one might say — and after a baffling bit of business with handcuffs and a briefcase, a side cartwheel, and what looks like an opening moment of silence, they launch into an unbelievably frenetic version of “Soul Man.” The stage presence verges on comical, but earnest — they’re dancing like they mean it, but don’t quite know how. The band is incredibly sharp — this is no joke act. Or is it? I remember coming away from it wondering, “Who ARE those guys?” I know that if you look at it now, anyone with even a passing knowledge of SNL would recognize Ackroyd and Belushi — and at that point, I had way more than passing knowledge. But on a fuzzy TV, possibly with a fuzzy brain, this 18-year-old was confused. But even if I recognized the front men — what about that huge band?
I later learned that that wasn’t even their first appearance — they had been on the show in April 1978, on an episode hosted by Steve Martin that featured the performance of “King Tut” and “Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber.” And, honestly, I know I saw that episode in real time. But apparently the Blues Brothers made no impression on me at the time, and if I caught on to who they were in April, I had certainly forgotten by November.
What they were, to me, was exciting. In a world saturated in disco and some truly horrible rock (Styx, Journey, Foreigner, AC/DC, to name just a few examples), here was something real, rootsy, and energetic. Except, of course, they weren’t real, because they were led by a couple of comedians (even if one of them, Belushi, came from a solid musical comedy background, having established himself in National Lampoon’s “Lemmings”). But they were real, because the musicians — I mean, just start with Steve “The Colonel” Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn. Those two were at the absolute core of most Stax/Volt records – Booker T. Jones and Otis Redding and Sam & Dave and Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas and everything else fantastic that came out of there. Plus the experienced members of the SNL house band, plus Matt “Guitar” Murphy. I mean, this was an all-star band, with a full range of horns, and a bluesy rhythm section. At a time when everything was guitars/bass/drums or synthesized disco beats, holy cow did these guys blow things up.
Not only that, but they were a band that didn’t even do studio recordings. Briefcase Full of Blues, released in 1978, is live, as was their follow-up.
I probably bought this around the time they blew my mind, having learned who they were and how deep the band’s talents were.