November 25, 2020

A Brief History of the Elwood Blues Revue, Part II: Back on the Proverbial Big Stage

One day as a teenager in the eighties, I picked up a 7-inch vinyl single with the 1988 version of the Wilson Pickett classic “Land of 1,000 Dances” by the Elwood Blues Revue featuring Wilson Pickett. I took it home and put it on and was spellbound by the A-side, a dance remix of the recut version of the song. For a while I played it pretty much incessantly in the family den of my home, on one of those compact stereo systems with a turntable, cassette player and AM-FM tuner collapsed into a single unit. I wouldn’t have described it like this at the time, but a fictional band recontextualized in an eighties pop music setting, with synthesizers, drum machines, etc., is exactly the kind of thing that turns my crank.

I eventually tired of the record, I suppose. Years and years went by and it only occasionally crossed my mind. But a few weeks ago something jogged my memory of it and, just like that, I was down an Elwood Blues Revue rabbit hole. And I’m glad for it. I had never really given much thought to the broader context of the single’s release. Now that I have, though, the appearance of this strange little record one summer during my teenage years makes a little more sense.

The 1980s R&B and Soul Revival

A bit of background before I continue. Thanks in part to Baby Boomers’ growing nostalgia for the sixties, classic R&B and soul had been making a comeback over the course of the decade. In 1983, Motown Records re-staked its claim on the public consciousness with Motown 25 and the generation-defining soundtrack to the movie The Big Chill. The mid-eighties witnessed a resurgence in the careers of several R&B and soul legends—beginning with Tina Turner in 1984 and continuing with Aretha Franklin and James Brown—each with an updated sound for the eighties. Pop culture’s fascination with these and other pioneers of their respective forms was further bolstered by the launch of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Franklin and Brown were among the early inductees, as was R&B icon Ray Charles. All three, of course, had appeared in the Blues Brothers movie.

Sam Moore also got in on the R&B and soul revival game. In late 1986, not long before he climbed onstage with the Blues Brothers band in Dallas, he paired up with underground music icon Lou Reed for a re-recording of the Sam & Dave classic “Soul Man,” for the soundtrack to the movie of the same name. (The movie itself is a master class in eighties WTF. If you don’t know it, you owe it to yourself to at least go read about it.)  A video for the odd-couple single got a bit of a workout on MTV, thanks in part to an entirely random collection of celebrity cameos, while the song reached No. 30 on the UK singles chart.

The eighties R&B and soul reawakening reached a strange and probably logical conclusion in 1987 and 1988. In early 1987, HBO aired a mockumentary / concert video featuring Moonlighting star Bruce Willis as fictional blues singer Bruno Radolini. The Return of Bruno spawned both a Top 20 album and a Top 10 single, a nearly sizzling cover of the Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself.” The same year saw the rise of the animated group the California Raisins. Beginning with a 1986 TV commercial featuring claymation raisins singing the Marvin Gaye classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the distinctly eighties California Raisins phenomenon eventually grew to encompass four albums, a Top 100 single, two TV specials, a Saturday morning cartoon and even a computer game for the Commodore 64.

Enter Elwood

Such was the scene when the Elwood Blues Revue returned to the proverbial big stage in the spring and summer of 1988: first at a daylong concert at Madison Square Garden celebrating the 40th anniversary of Atlantic Records and then on the soundtrack to the movie The Great Outdoors, a (very) broad comedy starring Dan Aykroyd and John Candy. Given the R&B and soul revival then in full swing, and given the enduring appeal and cool-kid cred of the Blues Brothers movie, Aykroyd and the band might have expected an enthusiastic, even ecstatic response to their return. But alas, it wasn’t to be. Instead of thunderous applause, the Elwood Blues Revue was greeted mostly with confusion and indifference. So what went wrong?

The Atlantic Records appearance  started off well enough. The house band for the show was a mashup of the Blues Brothers band—Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn and the horn section—and Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band from Late Night with David Letterman. but then Aykroyd, in character as Elwood, joined soul legends Moore and Wilson Pickett onstage during the concert, dancing and occasionally singing along to a string of classics. The performances were fun and even a bit infectious, but something was missing. Without Belushi and the interplay between him and Aykroyd, what once seemed a clever and hip homage now came across as little more than an ingratiating schtick.

The schtick-iness certainly didn’t escape the attention of observers at the time. In a Boston Globe review of the event, writer Jim Sullivan described the Elwood Blues Revue act as something of a mixed blessing: It draws attention to legendary soul and R&B artists whose careers could likely use a boost, he wrote, “but it also puts the focus on show-biz celebrity and Aykroyd’s ham-it-up, hokey character. Is soul so desperate it needs this baggage?”

Next was the The Great Outdoors soundtrack. Released by Atlantic, the soundtrack served as a sort of backdoor reunion album for the Blues Brothers band: Half of its ten cuts were attributed to the Elwood Blues Revue, and two of these featured the group assembled for the Atlantic anniversary show, with guest vocalists Pickett (“Land of 1,000 Dances’) and Moore (“Hot Fun in the Summertime”). The remix of “Land of 1,000 Dances” that I played incessantly as a teenager appeared on the album. The remaining two Elwood Blues cuts were, respectively, a collaboration with saxophonist Tom Scott, an original member of the Blues Brothers band, and a team-up with Aykroyd’s younger brother Peter.

It was an intriguing idea—essentially a concept album with Elwood Blues and friends singing songs about summer and the great outdoors—and with better execution it might have amounted to something. But alas, it didn’t. Atlantic decided not to promote the album and single and probably no one other than me ever bought a copy of either. In the end, neither managed to claw its way onto the Billboard charts.

Career Tips From Dried Fruit

All of this puts me in the uncomfortable position of thinking the Elwood Blues Revue might have fared better had they looked to Bruce Willis’ alter ego or the California Raisins for inspiration and advice. The Return of Bruno spent 29 weeks on the Billboard 200 album chart, reaching No. 14. Two of the four California Raisins releases cracked the top 200, while Christmas With the California Raisins placed No. 27 on the Christmas album chart. So they—whoever was behind them, anyway—were clearly doing something right.

Can you imagine if the Elwood Blues Revue had commissioned a prime-time mockumentary like The Return of Bruno or the California Raisins’ Emmy-nominated Meet the Raisins! special? I’m thinking a cross between the original Blues Brothers movie and This Is Spinal Tap. Or if the music had had a bit more of an eighties sheen? Say what you will about the California Raisins, the music is at least fun to listen to. Can you say the same about The Great Outdoors?

The band wasn’t yet down for the count, though. Even as the Atlantic Records concert and the Great Outdoors soundtrack were baffling audiences and leaving them cold, respectively, plans were under way for a summer tour with the Elwood Blues Revue and Moore and other R&B and soul legends. Backstage at the Atlantic Records show, Moore gushed about the possibility of hitting the road with the band and a handful of his contemporaries. “They’re all in good shape,” he said. “So let’s get back to work.”

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