His role as producer of The Blues Brothers soundtrack left Bob Tischler in charge of recording some of the best musicians of the 20th century, while managing conflicting shooting schedules and coping with the day-to-day effects of John Belushi's prodigious cocaine habit.
A comedy, a musical, a buddy movie; The Blues Brothers is all of these things, while also providing audiences with the opportunity to see James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Steve Cropper and assorted other soul, blues and R&B legends not only perform, but also act opposite the likes of John Candy, Carrie Fisher and the two main stars, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. More than three decades after its release, it is regarded as a cult classic, while the soundtrack album captures some memorable performances. Among them are Aretha's dynamite rendition of 'Think', James Brown's equally dynamic 'The Old Landmark', Ray Charles's 'Shake A Tail Feather', Cab Calloway's 'Minnie The Moocher' and timeless covers of Taj Mahal's 'She Caught The Katy', the Spencer Davis Group's 'Gimme Some Lovin'' and Solomon Burke's 'Everybody Needs Somebody To Love' by Messrs Belushi and Aykroyd alongside their own all-star band.
After they met in 1973, Ottawa-raised Aykroyd turned Chicago-raised, hard-rock-oriented Belushi onto R&B, soul and, more specifically, the blues music associated with Memphis and Belushi's native Windy City. Aykroyd was in love with the blues and, by the time he and Belushi joined the original cast of Saturday Night Live in 1975, the two men shared this obsession, jamming and listening to blues records at Aykroyd's Holland Tunnel Blues bar, where he also wrote the story that later would evolve into the Blues Brothers movie. In the meantime, it led to the pair developing their alter egos: the laid-back, harmonica-playing Elwood (Aykroyd) and in-your-face, singing ex-con 'Joliet' Jake (Belushi), attired in their black hep-cat suits and skinny ties along with John Lee Hooker-type fedora hats and wrap-around Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses — a couple of wide boys performing their music while routinely breaking the law.
"John Belushi was so good to me, not only in terms of my career, but also as a close friend,” says Bob Tischler, who produced and engineered all four Blues Brothers albums that were released prior to Belushi's death from an overdose in 1982. "Although he was a maniac to a lot of people, I have nothing but great memories of him.”
Starting out as an assistant engineer at the Floyd Peterson New York studio during the early 1970s, Tischler learned the ropes working on radio spots, TV ads and trailers for the major movie companies. Recording a radio spot for the Joe Cocker concert tour film, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, he hired then-unknown actor/writer/director/composer/musician Christopher Guest to provide one of the voices. The two subsequently became friends and began recording comedy demos just for fun. Then, when Guest was working on National Lampoon's 1972 Radio Dinner album, he ensured that Tischler got the call to record and produce it with Lampoon magazine contributors Tony Hendra and Michael O'Donoghue, before Tischler collaborated with O'Donoghue to create and produce the National Lampoon Radio Hour.
"All of the people who ended up on Saturday Night Live — Chris Guest, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi — were involved with the National Lampoon Radio Hour,” Bob Tischler says. "Even though they were all so talented, nobody made much money doing that show. It was basically like recording an album once a week. We'd rush to get it out and no one even listened to it beforehand from a supervising point of view. Still, it was a lot of fun and very, very special, so we just did it for the love of doing it.
"Back in 1973, John Belushi had joined National Lampoon to perform in the Lemmings stage show with Chris Guest and Chevy Chase. Now, after working on the National Lampoon Radio Hour, Belushi and I became really good friends and did a lot of things together in the studio. Which is why, when it came time for him and Aykroyd to appear on stage as the Blues Brothers, he approached me to produce and engineer the album.”
Belushi and Aykroyd first appeared in an SNL musical comedy skit in January 1976, performing Slim Harpo's 'I'm A King Bee'. Then, in April 1978, three months before Belushi became an international star portraying Bluto, the greedy slob in Animal House, he and Aykroyd made their proper Blues Brothers debut on SNL, performing Floyd Dixon's 'Hey, Bartender'. This led to a nine-night engagement supporting comedian Steve Martin at LA's Universal Amphitheatre, built around the storyline of Jake and Elwood reuniting their band for the 'mission from God', trying to raise $5000 to save the Catholic orphanage in which they were raised by a blues-playing janitor.
The Blues Brothers wasn't just about the two frontmen's manic Sam & Dave-inspired dancing, though; it all hinged on the backing band — and it was quite a band. Headed by Saturday Night Live bandleader and keyboardist Paul Shaffer, it also included legendary Stax guitarist Steve Cropper, his bass-playing sidekick Donald 'Duck' Dunn, guitarist Matt Murphy, drummer Steve Jordan and a horn section comprising Alan Rubin, Lou Marini and Tom Maloney from the SNL band, together with Tom Scott. The Blues Brothers' Show Band and Revue signed with Atlantic Records and recorded a live album. Titled Briefcase Full Of Blues, in reference to the harmonica that Aykroyd grandly pulled out of a case every night when he and Belushi walked onstage, this was culled from the Amphitheatre shows, but went to number one on the Billboard 200, achieved double-platinum status, and spawned Top 40 hits via covers of Sam & Dave's 'Soul Man' and the Chips' 'Rubber Biscuit'.
"Nobody originally thought it was going to be such a commercial success,” Bob Tischler recalls. "Again, John and Danny did it for the fun of doing it, but even with Steve Martin as the headliner, most of the crowd was there to see the Blues Brothers. We recorded all nine nights and the big engineering task for me was editing the best parts together. In very few cases did we use an entire take. Instead, if the rhythm was the same, we could edit a lot of takes together. There was virtually no overdubbing.
"As a vocalist, John obviously was not Otis Redding, but he could perform. He was more of a performer than a vocalist, and there was more soul and fun in his voice than ability, but he could still sing and the audience could really feel it. I don't think we replaced any vocals whatsoever. The only thing we did, for reasons of censorship, was have him change the line in 'Soul Man' where he sang 'give me dope' to 'give me soap' for the radio.”
The Briefcase Full Of Blues album paved the way for the Blues Brothers film, helmed by Animal House director John Landis. Initially given a six-month shooting schedule and a $17.5 million budget, the production hit an immediate snag in terms of the script by Dan Aykroyd, who had penned SNL skits but never written (or read) a screenplay before. Starting from scratch, it took time — and plenty of it — for him to get up to speed inside a bungalow on the Universal Pictures lot. Then, after he finally submitted the first draft, its free-verse style required extensive rewrites by John Landis just two months before the start of shooting. Meanwhile, John Belushi's intake of LSD, Quaaludes, amphetamines and mescaline were outstripped only by his appetite for the coke that fuelled his party lifestyle as well as his stage and screen persona.
Filming commenced in Chicago in July 1979 and — thanks to Belushi's enthusiasm for cocaine — it quickly fell behind schedule. Not that this was the only reason for the spiralling budget that was simultaneously being inflated by the movie's elaborate musical production numbers and costly destruction-related action sequences. But it was the most aggravating, with everyone from fellow cast members to bodyguard Smokey Wendell being instructed to keep the drugs away from Belushi and Belushi away from the drugs.
"Cocaine was everywhere,” Tischler confirms. "The trouble with John was, people would just hand it to him. Even in New York, he would try to fool Smokey and the drugs would get to him. I remember, during a mix session for 'Gimme Some Lovin'' at the Record Plant, John and Smokey were in the studio, the playback was really loud, and when I looked around I saw Smokey wrestling a pack of cocaine away from John that had been handed to him by someone in the elevator. It's unfortunate because he was one of the best friends I ever had. A great guy and incredibly talented, but he had a problem.”
Meanwhile, there was another hitch when arranger/keyboardist Paul Shaffer and drummer Steve Jordan both withdrew from the band that played in the movie. Officially this was because they had to fulfil other work obligations in New York, but according to Bob Tischler, "they weren't getting a good enough deal... Willie Hall replaced Steve and he was good. But, given how amazing Steve is, it was harder to get the right drum sound. Steve's sound was so distinctive. If you listen to the Briefcase Full Of Blues album, his footwork is just incredible, and it's hard to replace somebody like that.
"Still, Willie Hall had previously played with 'Duck' Dunn and Steve Cropper, and they were the ones who suggested getting him in place of Steve Jordan. In the case of the keyboards, however, you see Murphy Dunne in the movie; an actor who Belushi knew from The Second City [improvisational comedy venue] in Chicago. He could play the piano, but not well enough to be in the band, so his tracks were recorded by several professional pianists. The main one was Larry Willis, while the others were Bill Payne, John Springer, John Hason, Terry Fryer and Richard T Bear who, I believe, played on 'Jailhouse Rock'.”
The latter track, played over the film's end credits with 'Everybody Needs Somebody To Love', included vocal contributions by James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.
"We were recording at the same time as the movie was being filmed, so everybody was in one place,” Tischler continues. "I moved to Chicago for the summer and everybody else did, too. The studio we used there was Bill Putnam's Universal Recording — which had nothing to do with Universal Pictures — and the likes of Aretha and Ray Charles all came to record there. It was a case of having two of the greats in the studio and there was really no producing for me to do. All I had to do was watch what was going on and put it down on tape because they kind of produced themselves. They were amazing musicians. Both of them played keyboards as part of the band; Ray played a Wurlitzer electric piano using brail music sheets and Aretha played grand piano supported by her own backup singers.
"The live area at Universal had a big booth, so we had the horn players in there playing at the same time as everyone else, individually miked with probably Sennheiser 441s. We did everything at once, with baffles around the drums and some of the other instruments, and someone — usually John Belushi — laying down a guide vocal that would subsequently be replaced.
"I remember the control room being equipped with a Neve board. At a time when I don't think a lot of people were doing this, I decided to record on two Ampex 24-track machines that were sync'ed together with SMPTE code. So many tracks had to be done, 24 just wasn't enough; I didn't want to start bouncing tracks around, and this setup also really helped in terms of playback. For instance, 'Everybody Needs Somebody To Love' and Cab Calloway's 'Minnie The Moocher' were filmed at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles, and we were able to play back those tracks while recording the audience singing along with hanging mics as well as shotgun mics facing them from the stage. Everything ended up in sync, so the SMPTE code really worked out and I was extremely happy because I had been nervous about what might happen.
"Being that the guys were shooting the movie at the same time, we had to grab them when we could,” recalls Tischler. "Sometimes the shooting schedule would conflict with our schedule when we were supposed to record the vocals, so we'd have to be flexible. That was the main difficulty we experienced. Anyway, they did come in and everything went fine, with Dan Aykroyd once again demonstrating that he was also a very good harmonica player.” Tischler spent four years as head writer and producer of Saturday Night Live between 1981 and 1985. He left the music business behind following the Best Of The Blues Brothers compilation album and has since produced and written for TV series such as What's Alan Watching?, Something So Right and Boy Meets World.
Released on the 20th June, 1980, the Blues Brothers film that came in $10 million over budget ended up grossing $115 million worldwide.
"John and Danny were a great team,” Tischler concludes. "They really loved each other and that was evident in everything they did.” .
Track: 'Everybody Needs Somebody To Love'
Label: Atlantic Released: 1980 Producer: Bob Tischler Engineer: Bob Tischler Studios: Universal Recording (Chicago), Record Plant (New York)
Not all of the Blues Brothers songs were tracked at Universal Recording in Chicago. James Brown's rendition of 'The Old Landmark' was recorded live on a Universal Studios sound stage on the West Coast during filming of the holy roller church scene featuring him as Rev Cleophus James. Overdubs were then done at a studio in New York City because his vocals weren't up to par.
"The filming dictated what was going on,” Bob Tischler explains, "and it was also a difficult recording, with the Reverend James Cleveland Choir and additional vocals by Chaka Khan. What with all of the dancing going on in that scene, it wasn't easy to get a clean vocal. And James Brown also wasn't a traditional musician when it came to lip sync'ing. He never did the same thing twice.”
The biggest chart hit from the film soundtrack — and of The Blues Brothers' career — was 'Gimme Some Lovin'', which climbed to number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100. Unlike all of the other songs on the album, this was recorded at the Record Plant in LA.
"A bunch of other musicians were brought in for that track,” recalls Tischler. "Steven Bishop came in and helped us with the vocals, Bill Payne was the keyboardist, and then, like all of the other tracks, it was mixed at the Record Plant in New York.
"Meanwhile, one cut that's in the movie that wasn't on the album was 'Boom Boom', with John Lee Hooker, Pinetop Perkins and various other blues musicians playing outdoors on Chicago's Maxwell Street. We recorded that live on the spot without overdubs and it was pretty straightforward. They just did what they did and we captured it while extras and members of the public watched what was going on. The filming of that movie was a big event for Chicago, and while it's always more difficult trying to work in an uncontrolled environment, there was more to shooting that scene than recording it. So, it took longer than usual for me.”
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