True Blue: The Band Behind the Blues Brothers
John Belushi didn’t have the best singing voice, but he had a spellbinding charisma that couldn't be faked. Dan Aykroyd wasn’t a world-class musician, but his love for the blues was beyond genuine. Yet the biggest reason the Blues Brothers weren’t (only) a joke was due to the amount of musical talent that backed the Saturday Night Live comedians. Today we are shining a spotlight on the band behind the Blues Brothers.
Belushi and Aykroyd’s act as “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues was always split between comedy and music. On the one (tattooed) hand, the origin of the brothers was based in a 1976 SNL performance in which the two comedians dressed up in bee costumes to perform Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee.” On the other hand, Aykroyd’s long-running interest in blues and R&B was fanatical, bordering on obsessive -- not to mention contagious. His passion rubbed off on his buddy, who began buying blues LPs by the armload.
SNL music director Howard Shore suggested that Belushi and Aykroyd call themselves the Blues Brothers, who made their formal debut on the sketch show on April 22, 1978, backed by the program’s band. But when the fellas planned to take the show on the road that summer, they wanted to play with a band that was even more grounded in blues and soul.
It was SNL band keyboardist Paul Shaffer who suggested keeping some members of the late-night show’s band while bringing in players who had undeniable credentials as blues, jazz and R&B musicians. Shaffer came up with the names (Steve Cropper, Matt Murphy, Donald “Duck” Dunn…) and Belushi called them on the phone, turning on the charm to lure them into the band.
So, in the summer of ’78, the fully formed Blues Brothers band didn’t just bring the house down when opening for Steve Martin at the Universal Amphitheatre in California, they recorded an album, Briefcase Full of Blues, that topped the charts and featured hit singles upon release in November. Belushi, Aykroyd and the band (which had some personnel shifts) filmed the iconic Blues Brothers movie the next year, followed by more performances and recordings.
The band outlived Belushi, who died as a result of his drug habit in 1982, and have continued to reunite, perform and record (in various incarnations) during the decades since his death -- most notably, perhaps, for the Blues Brothers 2000 sequel released in 1998. Although the band has replaced and added members over the years, this list focuses on the core musicians who were in the group when Belushi was around. In fact, more than a few of them have John to thank for their nicknames -- a hallmark of any Blues Brother.