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On This Day In Music… April 22, 1978: The Blues Brothers Make Their Television Debut

What began as a comedy act would open the eyes and ears of a young, predominately white audience to some of music's all-time greats.

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On April 22, 1978, Saturday Night Live bandleader Paul Shaffer introduced an act he claimed to have discovered in 1969, describing them as, “a blues act that had been playing in a small, funky club on Chicago’s South Side.”

He continued: “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."

There then followed the debut TV performance of what would become the most successful blues revue act of all time. Comedians Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi may have been Saturday Night Live regulars, but they did not play the Blues Brothers as a parody: decked out in black suits, fedora hats and Ray Ban shades, they launched into a blistering cover of Floyd Dixon’s 1955 song “Hey Bartender”. While Belushi sang, Ackroyd danced, before busting out a killer harmonica solo.

(The original clip is unavailable, but the Blues Brothers would return to SNL in November. Watch below.)

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Later in the episode the band returned to the stage for an encore, playing Willie Mabon and His Combo’s 1952 song “I Don’t Know”. It’s highly unlikely that the young, mostly white, hipsters in the SNL audience – or even those watching at home – would have been familiar with either song… but it didn’t matter. So enthusiastic, sincere and committed was Ackroyd and Belushi’s performance, that they couldn’t help but be swept along by it.

The Blues Brothers would make the comedians superstars – but it would also introduce a generation of white kids to the blues, and open up a whole new audience for legends like John Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway and Robert Johnson. The Blues Brothers’ debut album, Briefcase Full of Blues, released seven months after their television debut, would sell over three million copies, reach No. 1 on the Billboard chart, and spawn two U.S. top 40 singles. The 1980 movie The Blues Brothers would go on to gross over $115 million worldwide.

And the secret of the Blues Brothers’ success? Perhaps ironically, it was because Ackroyd and Belushi did not play it for laughs.

The act’s origins were definitely comedic, however. Two years earlier, the pair had appeared together on the show dressed in bee suits, with Belushi singing Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”. Although undoubtedly funny, it was hardly authentic… but did inspire Ackroyd – an ardent fan of the blues – to pitch his idea for the Blues Brothers to Belushi.

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Belushi himself had become turned on to the blues while filming Animal House in Oregon in 1977, where he fell in with Curtis Salgado, harmonica player and leader of local band The Nighthawks. He later told Crawdaddy: “I couldn't stop playing the stuff! I bought hundreds of records and singles ... I walked around playing that sh-t all the time. And then I knew Danny [Ackroyd] had played the harp in Canada, and I always could sing, so we created the Blues Brothers.”

If they were going to do it, Ackroyd insisted, they would do it sincerely. The comedy bee costumes were ditched in favor of a classic dark suited look, and the band were made up of serious, and seasoned, blues musicians. As well as a horn section including SNL bandmembers Lou Marini and Tom “Bones” Malone, there were Booker T & the MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, as well as Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who had played with Howlin’ Wolf and Memphis Slim.

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Tom “Bones” Malone described how the band initially acted as a warm-up act before the cameras rolled.

“I made an arrangement for The Blues Brothers of the song ‘Rocket 88’ and we rehearsed it with the Saturday Night Live Band,” he told Classic Rock. “We developed the characters and their steps, but we didn’t get on the show. Instead, we were asked to warm up the studio audience. Their reaction was reasonably good.

“The next week we thought, let’s do ‘Hey Bartender’. Again, we didn’t get on the show. Lorne Michaels, the show’s producer, said he didn’t see anything funny in The Blues Brothers. The next week we did nothing. The week after, he said, ‘The show is three minutes short, what can we do?’ John suggested The Blues Brothers. Lorne said, ‘You may as well make fools of yourselves, but if the show goes over time I’ll cut your part.’ We did it and had an amazing reaction, with cards and calls from the TV audience.”

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After their April 22 appearance, things moved fast. Atlantic Records signed the Blues Brothers and on November 28, Briefcase Full of Blues was released, four days after another uproarious appearance on Saturday Night Live. It sold a million copies in its first week – an astonishing feat in itself, but all the more so when one considers that the track listing included songs by the likes of Floyd Dixon, Big Joe Turner and Willie Mabon – artists who were at that time all-but unknown outside the blues community.

The Blues Brothers movie duly followed in 1980, in which the comedic talents of Ackroyd and Belushi were given free rein alongside a plethora of musical guest stars including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway. The soundtrack album would sell another million copies, peaking at No. 18 in the chart.

If the idea of two white comedians performing blues songs may have threatened to descend into parody, cultural appropriation, or even insult, the sheer joy and obvious love of the genre that Ackroyd and Belushi put into the Blues Brothers shone through above all else… and in doing so, opened the eyes and ears of a young, predominately white audience to some of music’s all-time greats.


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