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Re-Wired: The Best Of John Belushi

Live from New York…..

John Belushi was an extremely talented actor who lived his life to the extreme and, in the end, he paid the ultimate price for it. On March 5th, 1982, Belushi was found dead of a drug overdose. It was one of the most tragic stories Hollywood ever produced.

Most people know John Belushi as one of the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players on “Saturday Night Live” or, as the repulsive and exceptionally charming Bluto in “Animal House.” He also had some memorable moments in “Continental Divide,” his first dramatic role, which was rather good, the Steven Spielberg comedy “1941” and the delightfully strange “Neighbors.”

But, the reason for this article isn’t about all that. The reason for this article is to expose, what I feel, is his strongest collection of work and a few items that are closely created to it…The Blues Brothers.

John Belushi, with long time friend and partner Dan Akyroyd, created something that is still alive and well today. They threw themselves into the characters of Jake and Elwood Blues so well that they weren’t actors anymore…they were Jake and Elwood. Two men who grew up in the Rock City Orphanage who found their calling thanks to a gray haired janitor named Curtis. It was this man, you see, who taught the brothers the blues.

For the most accurate re-telling of the history behind The Blues Brothers, the 60 minute “The Best Of The Blues Brothers” (UAV Entertainment) is the video to watch. Both Dan Akyroyd and Elwood Blues provide details on how the band came to be and how they continued up the ladder of success. Their story is told with honesty and respect and with some good visual clips of the band in action.

“Briefcase Full Of Blues” (1978, Atlantic Records) was really the album that got the ball rolling for The Blues Brothers. Within five days of its release, 50,000 copies were sold and Atlantic was so backed up with order, it had to go to other production plants to make copies. Eventually, the album sold somewhere around 2.8 million copies (a number that, more than likely, has increased over the years). This album featured the number one hit, “Soul Man.” The music on this release was as close to perfect as you could ever hope to get, which isn’t much of a suprise when you consider who was in the band. Musical director Paul Shaffer, guitarists Steve Cropper and Matt Murphy, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Steve Jordan. On top of that, the horn section featured Lou Marini, Alan Rubin, Tom Scott and Tom Malone. These nine musicians together with Jake and Elwood, created a wall of sound that captured an entire generation. This was no longer a “Saturday Night Live” act, this was a living, breathing, musical monster. That fact was certainly established when Bill Graham added The Blues Brothers to an event that included New Riders Of The Purple Sage, Jefferson Starship and The Grateful Dead.

“The Blues Brothers” (1980, Universal), which was directed by John Landis, has, through the years, become a classic. From the musical numbers to the car crashes, this film went to the extreme in every aspect. After “seeing the light” during a James Brown performance, the brothers, now on a “mission from God,” reform their old blues band to raise enough money to save the orphanage where they were raised, which is being sold to the board of education. It’s a wild ride and they’re dogged every step of the way, everybody wants a piece of The Blues Brothers, including a cop (John Candy), a Nazi (Henry Gibson), an ex-lover (Carrie Fisher), a country band, a club owner, an entire police force, the army and even a S.W.A.T. team.

The soundtrack to “The Blues Brothers” (1980, Atlantic Records) features some memorable performances by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles. But, the best material comes from The Blues Brothers themselves, “She Caught The Katy,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” and the unforgettable “Theme From Rawhide.”

1980 also saw the release of the second Blues Brothers album, “Made In America.” While still a good album, it doesn’t quite capture the excitement of their debut release. The album has some fine moments, including “Riot In Cell Block Number Nine,” “I Ain’t Got You,” “Going Back To Miami” and “Green Onions,” complete with a mid song rap from Elwood. The true highlight of this release is the Randy Newman song, “Guilty,” which Jake sings with a deep passion, pouring every bit of his heart and soul into his performance.

After two live albums and a movie soundtrack, “The Best Of The Blues Brothers” (1981, Atlantic Records) was released. The only reason for buying this album would be for the alternate versions of “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love,” “Rubber Biscut” and the previously unreleased “Expressway To Your Heart.”

The best way to experience the music of The Blues Brothers (if you’re a first time listener) is “The Definitive Collection” (1992, Atlantic Records). This twenty song release takes the best material from the four previous albums and rolls it into one exceptional release. The title of this release says it all, this is, in fact, “The Definitive Collection,” without a doubt.

In 1984, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward released his book on the life and death of John Belushi, “Wired.” Woodward told the story with brutal honesty. But, he didn’t paint a complete picture. 90% of the book is focused on the negative aspect of John Belushi’s life, which pretty much boils down to his drug use and the effects it had on him and the people around him. I don’t feel the book is an insult to John Belushi, but, it’s not his entire story. John’s wife, Judy Belushi, supposedly wrote a book and, from what I understand, that painted the complete picture. But, I can’t comment on that since I have yet to read it. In fact, it’s something I’m still trying to track down.

The real insult to John Belushi came in 1989 when Lion Screen Entertainment released “Wired,” the film version of Woodward’s book. The story is absurd, a deceased John Belushi (played by Michael Chiklis) gets a tour of his life by a Purto Rican cab driver ( Ray Sharkey) who happens to be a “guardian angel” that died from a drug overdose. Dan Akyroyd is played, rather badly, by Gary Groomes and Bob Woodward is played by the late J.T. Walsh in what is probably his worst film. The acting is amature and the script is absolute garbage. It’s like The National Enquirer trying to do a few Saturday Night Live skits and throwing them together to make a movie. This film is trash, plain and simple, and it should be avoided at all costs.

Redemption comes in the form of “Blues Brothers 2000” (1998, Universal). While the film is a lighter, carbon copy of the original with new characters, it does have an interesting concept. This film picks up 18 years after the original, Elwood gets out of prison only to discover that Jake and Curtis (played by the late Cab Calloway in the original) have passed away. Now that “God works in mysterious ways,” Elwood once again re-forms The Blues Brothers with new partner Mac (John Goodman) and an orphan (J. Evan Bonifant) and his somewhat of a step brother (Joe Morton) to compete at Queen Moussette’s (Erykah Badu) Battle Of The Bands. The highlight comes at the end of the movie when The Blues Brothers share the stage with The Louisiana Gator Boys, the only other band at the Battle Of The Bands. It’s a magic moment though, The Blues Brothers band (which is the same line up from the first film) on the same stage with B.B. King, Gary Bonds, Eric Clapton, Clarence Clemons, Bo Diddley, Isaac Hayes, Dr. John, Charlie Musselwhite, Billy Preston, Lou Rawls, Koko Taylor, Travis Tritt, Jimmie Vaughn and Steve Winwood (to name a few) performing “New Orleans.”

The soundtrack album (Universal Records) features a great collection of music, but, not enough Blues Brothers. “Looking For A Fox” with John Goodman on vocals is memorable. Other highlights include “John The Revelator” by Taj Maal, Sam Moore and Joe Morton, Aretha Franklin’s updated version of “Respect” and “634-5789” by Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, Jonny Lang and The Blues Brothers band.

The Blues Brothers “Live From The House Of Blues” is probably the best tribute to John Belushi’s memory that Dan Akyroyd has put together. With Jim Belushi (a.k.a. Brother Zee Blues) and The Blues Brothers, Akyroyd has created an album that captures the magic and spirit of the “Briefcase Full Of Blues” and “Made In America” albums. What made those two releases so special…they were both live albums, and that’s what we have here. A live album featuring The Blues Brothers and a host of guest musicians: Paul Shaffer, Sergei Varonov, Lonnie Brooks, Charlie Musselwhite, Jeff Baxter, Sam Moore, Eddie Floyd and Tommy McDonnell.

It’s no suprise that Jim Belushi is following in the steps of his brother with an album of his own. Jim Belushi And The Sacred Hearts “36-22-36” is a 12 song release that shows Jim taking The Blues Brothers sound in a slightly different direction. While the music of The Blues Brothers (on the original albums) was played to perfection, Jim takes a more laid back, straight forward approach, adding plenty of heart and soul to the music. His brother would be proud.

While there’s not a soul on earth who could ever replace John Belushi, I feel that Jim Belushi is the only man who is worthy enough to carry on (with Dan Akyroyd, of course) The Blues Brothers legend. So, it’s my sincere hope that there’s a third Blues Brothers movie, one that features Jim Belushi (who, sadly, wasn’t in “Blues Brothers 2000″ due to a schedule conflict) as Elwood’s partner in crime. I feel that Jim could bring to a new film what his brother brought to the original. Make the spirit of that first movie come alive once again. There’s still a story that needs to be told.

It’s nineteen years later and John Belushi is still alive and well. He lives through his work and, as long as there are people in this world who respect and admire his work, he will never be forgotten…he will never die.

And to quote the words of Joliet Jake Blues…”I suggest you buy as many blues albums as you can!”