ON February 15, 1981, Michael Bloomfield's body was discovered in a parked car on a San Francisco side street. The 37-year-old Jewish blues guitar player, one of the most influential of the 1960s, was dead of a drug overdose. The body lay, unrecognized, in the morgue for days.
In his heyday, Bloomfield, who would have turned 70 this year and is the subject of a new documentary, Sweet Blues, was the king guitarist of American blues, emulated by Eric Clapton, Jim Hendrix and Jerry Garcia, idolized by Carlos Santana and lauded by Bob Dylan, who once called him "the best guitarist I ever heard." In June 1965, Dylan recruited him for the famously shambolic sessions that produced Like A Rolling Stone--arguably the greatest rock song of all time--and he played with the folk singer during his controversial electric set at the Newport Folk Festival later that year. After helping Dylan pioneer his folk-rock sound, Bloomfield cut two highly influential albums with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the country's first predominantly white electric blues group, including the explosive East-West in 1966, which would inspire the psychedelic sound burgeoning on the West Coast.
In the mid-1960s, snappy pop songs such as the Beatles' 1963 hit, I Want to Hold Your Hand, were in vogue, and Bloomfield helped usher in a new way of thinking about lead guitar work. "He had this unabashed, fearless virtuosity," says Bob Sarles, the director of Sweet Blues. "Every time he took a lead, it was like jumping off a cliff into the unknown." Lanky with a tall shock of dark curly hair, Bloomfield attacked his instrument with a vicious temerity uncommon for blues guitarists, and his string bending was unseen and unheard at the time. For Bloomfield, who also dabbled in folk blues, country and jazz, the guitar was his vehicle for "pure expression," he told Rolling Stone in 1968. "Without a guitar, I'm a poet with no hands."
Born in 1943, Bloomfield grew up in Chicago's suburbs, the son of a wealthy restaurant supply manufacturer. A largely indifferent student with a proclivity for bad behavior, he rebelled against his father's wish for him to join the family business. Instead, he gravitated to Chicago's gritty South Side, where he spent his teenage years hanging out in traditionally black clubs, learning firsthand from legendary bluesmen such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Across the Atlantic, Clapton, Keith Richards and other British guitarists who would soon...