The Birth of the Blues Brothers: How Dan Aykroyd & John Belushi Started Introducing a New Generation to the Blues

What were the Blues Broth­ers? A com­e­dy sketch? A par­o­dy act? A real band? A celebri­ty soul artist trib­ute? All of the above, yes. The musi­cal-comedic duo of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi turned a ludi­crous begin­ning in bum­ble bee cos­tumes — not dark suits, fedo­ras, and Ray-Bans — into a musi­cal act that “exposed a gen­er­a­tion to the bril­liance of blues and soul leg­ends like John Lee Hook­er and Aretha Franklin,” as Dar­ren Weale writes at Loud­er­sound.

That’s quite an accom­plish­ment for a cou­ple of improv come­di­ans on a fledg­ling late-night com­e­dy show that did not seem, in its first year, like it would stick around long. It was dur­ing that anar­chic peri­od when the Killer Bees became recur­ring char­ac­ters on the show, appear­ing 11 times (despite the stu­dio note, “Cut the bees,” which Lorne Michaels point­ed­ly ignored).

The bees were the first incar­na­tion of the Blues Broth­ers, two years before their actu­al debut in Sea­son 4. (See a lat­er appear­ance from that sea­son, intro­duced by Gar­rett Mor­ris, just above).

A Jan­u­ary 17, 1976 appear­ance of the bees fea­tured “Howard Shore and his All Bee Band,” con­sist­ing of “Aykroyd on the har­mon­i­ca and Belushi on vocals belt­ing out a blues clas­sic very much in the style of the future Elwood and ‘Joli­et’ Jake Blues,” notes They had the begin­nings of an act, but the look and the per­sonas would come lat­er, “dur­ing the hia­tus between SNL sea­sons two and three” in 1977, while Belushi filmed Ani­mal House in Eugene, Ore­gon and fell under the spell of local blues­man Cur­tis Sal­ga­do, future har­mon­i­ca play­er for Robert Cray.

Sal­ga­do “sure turned John on to blues music,” says Aykroyd. “He steeped him in blues cul­ture.” Sal­ga­do him­self describes how Belushi won him over on their first meet­ing: “I’m pack­ing up my harps, try­ing to break free, when he says, ‘I’m going to have Ray Charles on the show.’ ” Sal­ga­do also gave Belushi a les­son in play­ing it straight, even when he played the blues for laughs. When the com­ic per­formed the song “Hey Bar­tender” to a packed house one night, in char­ac­ter as Joe Cock­er, his men­tor gave him a post-show dress­ing down.

“He asks me, ‘What did you think?’”
“I say, ‘John, it’s Joe Cock­er.’”
‘Yes, I do Joe on Sat­ur­day Night Live.’
“I punch his chest and say, ‘You need to do this from here [point­ing at his heart] and be your­self.’ After that he didn’t mim­ic any more. He was him­self.”

Tak­ing the look of Jake and Elwood from Sal­ga­do, but devel­op­ing the char­ac­ter as his swag­ger­ing self, Belushi “came back from Ore­gon with a lust for the blues,” his wid­ow, Judith, recalls. “He had tapes in his pock­ets and went to clubs.” (See the duo play “Hey Bar­tender” at the Uni­ver­sal Amphithe­ater in 1978, below.)

The name was the brain­child of SNL musi­cal direc­tor Howard Shore (who would go on to write the Lord of the Rings film scores), who hap­pened to be present when the two con­ceived the char­ac­ters at a bar. Their 1978 debut — made over the protests of Lorne Michaels (who did­n’t get it) — made them instant stars.

Paul Shaf­fer spun their ori­gin sto­ry in his intro­duc­tion, “claim­ing that they had been dis­cov­ered in 1969 by the fic­tion­al ‘Mar­shall Check­er,” writes Men­tal Floss. He went on:

Today they are no longer an authen­tic blues act, but have man­aged to become a viable com­mer­cial prod­uct. So now, let’s join “Joli­et” Jake and his silent broth­er Elwood — the Blues Broth­ers.

With that, the nev­er-authen­tic blues act did, indeed, become a viable com­mer­cial prod­uct. “Things start­ed to move quick­ly,” Weale writes. “Record exec­u­tive Michael Klenfn­er took John and Dan to see Ahmet Ertegün at Atlantic Records. He signed the Blues Broth­ers up.” They were a real act, and two years lat­er, real movie stars with the release of John Lan­dis’ The Blues Broth­ers, a film that ful­ly deliv­ered on the duo’s com­ic promis­es, while glee­ful­ly giv­ing the spot­light away to its huge cast of soul and blues leg­ends

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Aretha Franklin’s Pitch-Per­fect Per­for­mance in The Blues Broth­ers, the Film That Rein­vig­o­rat­ed Her Career (1980)

Sat­ur­day Night Live’s Very First Sketch: Watch John Belushi Launch SNL in Octo­ber, 1975

The Night John Belushi Cart­wheeled Onstage Dur­ing a Grate­ful Dead Show & Sang “U.S. Blues” with the Band (1980)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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