What were the Blues Brothers? A comedy sketch? A parody act? A real band? A celebrity soul artist tribute? All of the above, yes. The musical-comedic duo of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi turned a ludicrous beginning in bumble bee costumes — not dark suits, fedoras, and Ray-Bans — into a musical act that “exposed a generation to the brilliance of blues and soul legends like John Lee Hooker and Aretha Franklin,” as Darren Weale writes at Loudersound.
That’s quite an accomplishment for a couple of improv comedians on a fledgling late-night comedy show that did not seem, in its first year, like it would stick around long. It was during that anarchic period when the Killer Bees became recurring characters on the show, appearing 11 times (despite the studio note, “Cut the bees,” which Lorne Michaels pointedly ignored).
The bees were the first incarnation of the Blues Brothers, two years before their actual debut in Season 4. (See a later appearance from that season, introduced by Garrett Morris, just above).
A January 17, 1976 appearance of the bees featured “Howard Shore and his All Bee Band,” consisting of “Aykroyd on the harmonica and Belushi on vocals belting out a blues classic very much in the style of the future Elwood and ‘Joliet’ Jake Blues,” notes History.com. They had the beginnings of an act, but the look and the personas would come later, “during the hiatus between SNL seasons two and three” in 1977, while Belushi filmed Animal House in Eugene, Oregon and fell under the spell of local bluesman Curtis Salgado, future harmonica player for Robert Cray.
Salgado “sure turned John on to blues music,” says Aykroyd. “He steeped him in blues culture.” Salgado himself describes how Belushi won him over on their first meeting: “I’m packing up my harps, trying to break free, when he says, ‘I’m going to have Ray Charles on the show.’” Salgado also gave Belushi a lesson in playing it straight, even when he played the blues for laughs. When the comic performed the song “Hey Bartender” to a packed house one night, in character as Joe Cocker, his mentor gave him a post-show dressing down.
“He asks me, ‘What did you think?’”
“I say, ‘John, it’s Joe Cocker.’”
‘Yes, I do Joe on Saturday Night Live.’
“I punch his chest and say, ‘You need to do this from here [pointing at his heart] and be yourself.’ After that he didn’t mimic any more. He was himself.”
Taking the look of Jake and Elwood from Salgado, but developing the character as his swaggering self, Belushi “came back from Oregon with a lust for the blues,” his widow, Judith, recalls. “He had tapes in his pockets and went to clubs.” (See the duo play “Hey Bartender” at the Universal Amphitheater in 1978, below.)
The name was the brainchild of SNL musical director Howard Shore (who would go on to write the Lord of the Rings film scores), who happened to be present when the two conceived the characters at a bar. Their 1978 debut — made over the protests of Lorne Michaels (who didn’t get it) — made them instant stars.
Paul Shaffer spun their origin story in his introduction, “claiming that they had been discovered in 1969 by the fictional ‘Marshall Checker,” writes Mental Floss. He went on:
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.
With that, the never-authentic blues act did, indeed, become a viable commercial product. “Things started to move quickly,” Weale writes. “Record executive Michael Klenfner took John and Dan to see Ahmet Ertegün at Atlantic Records. He signed the Blues Brothers up.” They were a real act, and two years later, real movie stars with the release of John Landis’ The Blues Brothers, a film that fully delivered on the duo’s comic promises, while gleefully giving the spotlight away to its huge cast of soul and blues legends