September 21, 2020

A Brief History of the Elwood Blues Revue, Part III: Elwood Finds His Way Home

When I first jotted down the title “A Brief History of the Elwood Blues Revue,” I honestly thought it was going to be just that: brief. Here we are, though, some 4,400 words later. (See Part I, Part II, my discussion of other fictional artists in the late eighties R&B and soul music revival, and Part III below.) When I first started down this rabbit hole, all I knew of the Elwood Blues Revue was its appearance on the Great Outdoors soundtrack. I never would have guessed there was so much more to the story.

Coca Cola Presents

The Elwood Blues Revue faced a decision in the summer of 1988: Do they continue on as a working band or does the Revue remain something of a lark for Aykroyd, an ensemble he can bring together every now and then when an opportunity arises to resurrect his alter ego?

The answer, as it happened, was ‘Both.’

Shortly after the release of the Great Outdoors movie and soundtrack in June of that year, the band hopped across the Atlantic for a tour of Europe, including a stop at the celebrated Montreux Jazz Festival in July. As promised, Moore took the stage with the group every night. Aykroyd, however, sat this one out. Thus, for the first time, the Blues Brothers’ backing band stepped out on their own as a unit. Their decision to do so made perfect sense: All were working musicians whose greatest exposure over the previous decade had been as members of the Blues Brothers. Why not take advantage of the name recognition this afforded them, especially as the band was as good as it was?

Hitting the road on their own also led to a semantic distinction that would help to make sense of the group’s activities over the next several years. “When the guys go out on the road, they’re the Blues Brothers Band,” Aykroyd explained in a 1992 interview with the Boston Globe. “And when they join me, they’re the Elwood Blues Revue.”

In any event, Aykroyd probably had little time to spare that summer. He starred in no fewer than four movies in 1988—including The Great Outdoors—which surely kept him busy. And as early as February, he was hard at work planning a worldwide benefit event to raise both money for and awareness of the issues of hunger and homelessness.

Broadcast in September from the one-time Spartacus set at Universal Studios in Hollywood, “Coca Cola Presents: Live at the Hard Rock”  featured musical performances by the likes of John Mellencamp and Paul Simon (together, in a fascinating if entirely unexpected set) interspersed with goofy comedy bits by Aykroyd, John Candy and others, all dressed in ancient Roman attire (it’s hard to explain). The Elwood Blues Revue, with Aykroyd and Moore and special guest Booker T. Jones on keyboards, closed the show. “It will just be a sample of what the Elwood Blues Review [sic] could give the world if we could get some bookings,” Aykroyd said in advance of the event, with tongue presumably in cheek.

Further studio work, it seems, was also in the offing. According to a profile of the group’s Matt “Guitar” Murphy in a May 1988 issue of The World of Coos Bay, Ore., the band along with Aykroyd were in talks to record in the fall. There’s no evidence, though, that these sessions ever came to pass.

The Rise of the Blues Brothers Band

The Blues Brothers backing band came into its own over the next couple of years. In 1989, the group performed at the Montreux Jazz festival for the second year in a row. Memphis soul legend Eddie Floyd and Larry Thurston, lead singer with Murphy’s early eighties band, joined on vocals. Aykroyd did not appear. Moore, an important presence on all of the Elwood Blues Revue’s and Blues Brothers Band’s previous outings, was nowhere to be found.

What happened? Moore later told the Indianapolis News’ Mike Redmond that he and the band had fallen out over a disagreement about his signature song. “The leader, Tom Malone, told me that ‘Soul Man’ was theirs and I would have to do my music the way they wanted it done. That’s when I got upset—when they told me that ‘Soul Man’ belonged to them.” This especially stung, Moore said, because two of the members of the band, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, had played on the original Sam & Dave version of the song yet didn’t come to his defense. “They were on the side of the Blues Brothers,” he continued. “It hurt me. It hurt. Not so much Duck, but Cropper was on the side of the Blues Brothers Band.”

The Montreux show was documented on the summer 1990 album The Blues Brothers Band Live in Montreux. A home video release of the performance followed in December. While the few critics who reviewed the record generally welcomed its release, neither it nor the Germany-only single, “Sweet Home Chicago,” made its way onto the charts.

Germany only? Turns out the Blues Brothers Band had quite the following in Europe. Cropper elaborated in a March interview with the Courier-Post of South Jersey, done while he was touring with the Dave Edmunds Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue. “The movie is still really big in Europe,” he said. “The kids come dressed as Jake and Elwood. They know Jake doesn’t exist anymore and that Elwood won’t be there, but they don’t seem to mind.” He added that the band was planning another tour of the continent later in the year. “It’s the original members, the same six guys who were in the movie. We just go out with various keyboard players and drummers. And we usually have Larry Thurston with us.”

An Elwood Blues Identity Crisis

The next couple of years saw further studio work from both the Elwood Blues Revue and the Blues Brothers Band. Notably, though, the resulting recordings showed little overlap in terms of personnel and had even less in common musically.

February 1991 gave us the soundtrack to the movie Nothing But Trouble, with a song attributed to the Elwood Blues Revue. “Atlantic City (Is a Party Town)” was another collaboration between Aykroyd and his brother Peter, essentially a novelty track with drum machines, goofy vocals and no discernible R&B or soul music influence; none of the members of the Blues Brothers Band participated in the recording.

In summer 1992, the Blues Brothers Band released Red, White, & Blues, the first full-length studio album by any incarnation of the Blues Brothers and their first release to be comprised largely of new original material. Aykroyd made a couple of guest appearances on the album, including a surprisingly cynical spoken-word bit on the title track. Thurston handled most of the vocals otherwise; Eddie Floyd sang on two of his own songs, “Big Bird” and “Never Found a Girl” while keyboardist Leon Pendarvis joined Aykroyd on “Red, White, & Blues.” Critical reaction to the release was mixed. The album failed to chart.

The stark contrast between the two projects shined a light on a problem that had been bubbling under the surface ever since Aykroyd picked up the harmonica and porkpie hat again in 1986, a kind of Elwood Blues identity crisis. Was he actually re-inhabiting the Elwood Blues persona and using it to advance one of the original goals of the Blues Brothers act: to introduce new generations of music fans to the classic sound of sixties R&B and soul? Or was it all just a lark, a character and a costume he could trot out when he had some new business venture he wanted to promote? (The Elwood Blues Revue’s highest-profile gig during this period was an odd, ramshackle halftime show at the 1991 season opener of the Toronto Argonauts, a Canadian Football League team co-owned by fellow Canadian comic and Great Outdoors co-star John Candy.) Or—most likely—was it a little bit of each?

Elwood Comes Home

Finally, in late 1992, Aykroyd’s commitment both to the idea of the Blues Brothers and to the Elwood character itself came back into focus. November saw the launch of the House of Blues in Cambridge, Mass., a club Aykroyd opened with Hard Rock Café founder Isaac Tigrett. The first in a series of franchises, the House of Blues would be a live music venue but also a museum, a store, essentially a home for musicians and fans. “We want it to be a recognized, formal headquarters for blues lovers,” Aykroyd told Steve Morse of the Boston Globe in the leadup to the launch.

The Blues Brothers would become an integral part of the House of Blues brand. The club’s logo was a stylized image of Jake and Elwood Blues that had appeared on concert posters in the Blues Brothers movie. “Isaac Tigrett got a flash that this could be a real good logo for representing the whole lifestyle,” Aykroyd told Morse. And in the coming years, the Blues Brothers would reconvene for the launches of other clubs in the franchise.

On opening night of the inaugural Cambridge location, the House of Blues threw a five-hour bash with a range of artists playing the full spectrum of blues styles, styles from the Mississippi Delta to New Orleans to Chicago. The party ended with an R&B and soul set featuring the Blues Brothers Band along with Aykroyd and a host of guests: Charlie Musselwhite, Carla Thomas, Paul Rodgers, Joe Walsh, and more. Eddie Floyd sang a brief set with the band but also joined Aykroyd on “Soul Man,” filling in for the departed John Belushi as Aykroyd’s singing and dancing foil, evoking, if only for a moment, the original image of the Blues Brothers as a blues-wailing, hot-stepping duo. Ending well after midnight, the show was an event worthy of the mission of the club and the legacy of the artists that inspired it. The Globelater described it as an “historic salute to American roots music.”

For Blues Brothers fans, the good news just kept coming. Also in November, news broke that Aykroyd and John Landis, co-writer and director of the original Blues Brothers movie, would soon start writing a script for a sequel. Reportedly, in the movie, Elwood would escape from prison and start a new R&B and soul music revue, possibly including Jim Belushi. Aykroyd didn’t yet know whether it would be a feature film, a cable special or a movie of the week, but one thing was certain, he said: there would be a sequel.

Elwood Blues, it seems, had finally found his way home. “It took me a while to get to this point, obviously, after John passed away,” he told the New York Times’ Ian Spelling in 1998, in an interview marking the release of the sequel, now titled Blues Brothers 2000. “I thought the act was over, but because of my (Hard Rock Café and House of Blues) restaurants, I began playing the songs again under the Elwood Blues Revue banner. I finally felt right writing a new chapter in Elwood’s life.”

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