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The event that sparked The Blues Brothers


Dan Aykroyd was a blues hound. A scrawny kid from Ottawa, Aykroyd found a connection in the styles of James Cotton, Otis Spann, Pinetop Perkins, and Muddy Waters while visiting the coffee house called Le Hibou that welcomed a number of American bluesmen to the great white north. By the time he had dropped out of school and pursued life as an actor, Aykroyd had also picked up the harmonica.

Not long after, Aykroyd landed a job as one of the Not Ready for Primetime Players on a new show called Saturday Night Live in 1975. With his advance from the network, Aykroyd rented out the Holland Tunnel bar on Hudson Street, about three miles from 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The venue became the site of many SNL after-parties, with Aykroyd acting as a bartender and filling a jukebox with everything from old school rock and roll to punk. But the majority of the music was classic blues or soul from the likes of Sam & Dave, a favourite of Aykroyd’s.

John Belushi, Aykroyd’s friend and co-star, had begun to grow tired of the rock and roll scene that he favoured during the early ’60s. Although he revelled in his Joe Cocker impersonation on the show, regular rock and roll was no longer interesting to Belushi. It was at one of the after-parties that Aykroyd played a selection of blues for Belushi, who immediately gravitated to the hard-scrabble stories and emotional rough edges of the style.

Shortly after, Aykroyd and Belushi decided to pair the ‘Killer Bees’ characters that they had been playing on the show with a logical and comedic soundtrack: Slim Harpo’s ‘I’m a Killer Bee’. Belushi sang, and Aykroyd played the harp in what is the same set up that would later be adapted for the Blues Brothers. Due to their shared obsession, SNL band leader Howard Shore jokingly referred to the two as ‘The Blues Brothers’, and what had been a series of offhand remarks and references began to take shape as a real entity.

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Aykroyd borrowed elements from some of his favourite acts: the dancing that the duo undertook was inspired by Sam & Dave, while the hats and sunglasses were borrowed from John Lee Hooker as he and Belushi began accumulating songs from artists like Delbert McClinton, Junior Wells, and the Downchild Blues Band, with whom Aykroyd occasionally sit in.

The instigation of a real band came when Steve Martin was set to host a season three episode of the show on April 22, 1978. No musical guest was booked that night, so Aykroyd and Belushi were asked to put on their ‘Blues Brothers’ revue. With the help of house pianist Paul Shaffer, Aykroyd and Belushi were able to assemble a Murderer’s Row of legendary musicians, including Stax/M.G.’s musicians Steve Cropper and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, Howlin Wolf guitarist Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy, former Blood, Sweat, and Tears horn players ‘Blue’ Lou Marini and Tom ‘Bones’ Malone, and future Rolling Stones timekeeper Steve Jordan on drums.

From here, all the pieces were in place. With the positive reception of their performances, The Blues Brothers were invited to perform as a legitimate live act for the likes of Steve Martin and the Grateful Dead. At the same time, Aykroyd began fleshing out the central characters of Jake and Elwood Blues, compiling them into a script that would eventually become The Blues Brothers.