Electric Flag - Biography
Keyboardist Barry Goldberg recalls in If You Love These Blues, an oral biography of Michael Bloomfield, that sometime in 1967 he was working with the guitarist at a Mitch Ryder session in New York when Bloomfield proposed a new group: “…Mike said to me, ‘Will you help me get a band together? I want an American music band – everything in American music from Stax to Phil Spector to Motown.’ And, of course, blues. He wanted to cover the whole spectrum of American music. I thought it was a great concept.”
Designed to be genre-blind and conceived as “An American Music Band,” The Electric Flag never quite lived up to its lofty ambitions. But, for an instant during the Summer of Love, the San Francisco-bred group looked and sounded prophetic. Big and brazen, and covering all the musical bases from blues and soul to jazz and psychedelia, the Flag took the first steps on a road that would be more profitably trod by Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago.
At the time he floated the notion of a new group to his friend Goldberg, Mike Bloomfield was among the most celebrated electric guitarists in America. The product of a wealthy Jewish family in Chicago, he became infatuated with the blues as a teen, and began haunting the clubs on the city’s South Side, learning from the masters and sitting in with black blues bands when such a practice was not only rare, but dangerous.
Another like-minded aficionado, the white harmonica player Paul Butterfield, recruited Bloomfield as the lead guitarist for his eponymous blues band. His quicksilver playing animated the first two Paul Butterfield Blues Band albums. In his breakthrough year of 1965, he also attracted the attention of Bob Dylan, who used him on the session for his hit single “Like a Rolling Stone” and at his first electric concert appearance at the ’65 Newport Folk Festival. By ’67, Bloomfield was a star in his own right, and was chafing under Butterfield’s autocratic leadership; he left the band to make room for the harp player’s other guitarist, Elvin Bishop.
The nucleus of Bloomfield’s new band came together in Mill Valley, across the bay from San Francisco, and was drawn from close friends. Goldberg was a fellow Chicagoan and blues fanatic; he had also backed Dylan at Newport. Vocalist Nick “the Greek” Gravenites was another familiar from the Chicago club scene. The core of the band was completed when Gravenites and Bloomfield saw drummer Buddy Miles in soul singer Wilson Pickett’s band; they convinced the hefty, powerful skinman to join by plying him with Oreo cookies and visions of beautiful San Francisco girls.
The noted New York studio bassist Harvey Brooks (who had worked with Bloomfield on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited) and a full horn section – then a rarity in rock – rounded out the line-up. The group took its name from a gizmo – an American flag that fluttered when it was plugged into the wall -- owned by Gravenites’ friend Ron Polte, manager of Quicksilver Messenger Service.
Managed by Albert Grossman, who also handled Dylan, The Electric Flag hit the ground running. The band almost immediately set about working on soundtrack music for The Trip, a low-budget Roger Corman exploitation film about LSD written by actor Jack Nicholson. At the same time, they were writing and rehearsing material they would debut at their first appearance, at the Monterey International Pop Festival, the first rock mega-festival of the epoch. They bowed before a crowd estimated at 50,000 – their biggest audience ever -- on the afternoon of June 17, 1967.
Bloomfield later expressed dissatisfaction with his band’s Monterey performance, and, while they were filmed for D.A. Pennebaker’s 1968 documentary Monterey Pop, they were left on the cutting room floor. Nonetheless, their unprecedented fusion sound aroused the crowd and sparked a bidding war between Columbia Records and Atlantic Records. Though Bloomfield was leaning toward the old-school R&B independent Atlantic and its executive-producer Jerry Wexler, the Flag wound up on Columbia, where Grossman enjoyed close ties.
It took the band nearly a year to complete its first album, A Long Time Comin’ (1968). It unveiled a band with a lot to offer; its highlights included a fearsome cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” the rumbling, horn-dominated “Groovin’ is Easy,” and the blues-infused “Texas,” which featured Miles’ vocal bow. Bloomfield displayed his customary brilliance and fluidity on several tracks, and the group’s disparate stylistic elements jelled neatly. It’s a minor classic of its era.
However, The Electric Flag was practically on the rocks the day the album was released, and was quickly a victim of its unstable chemistry. Several members of the band were addicted to heroin, and Bloomfield, who previously eschewed hard drugs, had gotten hooked himself. Goldberg, alarmed by the influx of junk in the band, had left by the time the LP reached stores. And Miles’ extroverted showmanship sparked a rift with the serious-minded guitarist. So, in the spring of ’68, Mike Bloomfield quit the band he had founded a year before.
The group soldiered on with The Electric Flag (1969), a mélange of tepid soul clichés dominated by Miles’ singing; it rose no higher than No. 76 on the national album charts. Robbed of its artistic direction and crippled by dope, they dissolved soon thereafter.
There was a last hurrah of sorts in 1974, when Bloomfield and Goldberg convinced Gravenites and Miles to reconvene for a one-off reunion album for Atlantic Records, helmed by none other than Jerry Wexler. The veteran producer later admitted candidly, “It was really a disaster.” The legendary producer-engineer Tom Dowd walked off the project after nearly coming to blows with Miles, and Wexler found it nearly impossible to get Bloomfield, whose playing was impaired by long-term drug abuse, to record any coherent solos. The Band Kept Playing (1974) was good for a paycheck, but it failed to hit even the lowest reaches of the charts. Bloomfield himself referred to it as “the debacle of debacles.”
The Electric Flag came and went in the twinkling of an eye, but the group’s reputation has retained some luster, thanks to the credentials of its key players and the still-vital sound of its debut album. More importantly, it was one of the very first outfits to show the potential that lay in the melding of disparate American musical strains.