Dressed in Killer Bee costumes, John Belushi and Dan Akroyd performed Slim Harpo's classic blues song, "I'm A King Bee" to the delight of Saturday Night Live audiences. The genesis of the Blues Brothers can be traced back to this moment in January of 1976. Shortly after joining the cast of SNL, Akroyd rented the Holland Tunnel Blues Bar, which quickly became the hangout of SNL's guests, cast, and crew members. With a jukebox stocked with blues songs and musical equipment available for anyone in the mood to jam, it was here that the Blues Brothers concept was born. SNL's music arranger, Paul Shaffer was enlisted to assist Belushi and Akroyd at assembling their own band. SNL band members, Lou Marini and Tom Malone, both horn section vets of Blood, Sweat & Tears, were immediately enlisted, as was SNL drummer, Steve Jordan. Steve Cropper and Donald Dunn, the guitar and bass powerhouse behind Booker T & The MGs and a long list of hits from Memphis' Stax Records label, were also brought on board at Shaffer's suggestion. Juilliard-trained Alan Rubin was brought in on trumpet and Matt Murphy, a veteran blues guitarist, who had played with Howlin Wolf, James Cotton, and other legends, was also brought into the fold. Bar-Kays' drummer Willie Hall, a close friend of Cropper and Dunn, was also enlisted, as was pianist Murphy Dunne. Once this stellar assemblage of musicians was outfitted with black suits and Ray-Ban sunglasses, the classic Blues Brothers stylistic image was in place.
The group's repertoire was firmly based on R&B, blues, and soul classics, but with a distinct rock sound that appealed to younger audiences. One of Belushi and Akroyd's primary models was the Toronto based Downchild Blues Band, co-founded by brothers Donnie and Richard Walsh. The group specialized in a high spirited, bar-band-esque style of jump-band and Chicago-style blues, which the Blues Brothers would also pursue, adding several of Donnie Walsh's songs to their repertoire and adopting their arrangements on several others. With a horn section that excelled at the clean, jazz-influenced sound of New York City and the rest of the band reflecting the grittier blues of Chicago and the soul sounds of Memphis, Paul Shaffer began developing additional song arrangements to beef up their repertoire. With all these musical resources at their disposal, Belushi and Akroyd synthesized these elements into their own distinctive style, toning down their comedic flare and maintaining a strong reverence for the music. Quite different from the prevailing disco-oriented, vocal-dominated music of 1977/78, the Blues Brothers were a breath of fresh air amidst the formulaic music so popular at the time. The added television exposure on Saturday Night Live soon turned the Joliet and Jake Blues stage characters into pop culture icons of the day and even led to a full-length feature film deal. While opening for comedian Steve Martin at the Universal Amphitheatre in 1978, the Blues Brothers recorded their debut album, Briefcase Full Of The Blues. This live recording, which captured the raw energy of the group far better than any studio recording could have done, proved to be a very wise decision, as the album shot up to #1 and spawned two Top 40 hits, with covers of the Isaac Hayes/Dave Porter penned "Soul Man" and the Chips' "Rubber Biscuit."
Recorded several months later, when the Blues Brothers opened for the Grateful Dead on the monumental closing night of Winterland, this recording captures a full unedited performance of the group at their prime. With the help of Belushi and Akroyd's rapidly growing fame and an extremely receptive audience, this may be the most exciting performance they ever did. Although it is obvious that they take this music seriously, Belushi and Akroyd's innate comedic abilities at engaging an audience, balance their sincere reverence for the music with a boatload of fun.
Book-ended by a driving "Can't Turn You Loose," which serves as both intro and outro to this set, the Blues Brothers serve up nearly an hour of hot R&B and blues numbers at a rapid fire pace that never lets up. In additions to older classics like Willie Dixon's "Hey Bartender," "Soul Man," (made famous by Sam & Dave) and "Jailhouse Rock" the group add more esoteric fare, like King Floyd's irresistible "Groove Me" and "Delbert McLinton's "B Movie Box Car Blues." They also pay big homage to the Downchild Blues Band, by copping their arrangements of "Messin' With The Kid," "Rubber Biscuit," and "Flip, Flop Fly" in addition to playing two of that group's originals, "(I Got Everything I Need) Almost" and "Shotgun Blues," both written by Donnie Walsh. The combination of New Years Eve festivities, an historic event and the popularity of SNL among the Dead-head audience, combine to create a sizzling performance that will long be remembered as one of the most entertaining openers ever at a Grateful Dead concert.