Back in 1978 when the Blues Brothers gathered to record what would become their smash 'Briefcase Full of Blues', it was still uncertain whether they were being serious or not. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were comedians by trade, so the question was warranted.
But the tough backing group they assembled helped them along: Steve Cropper and Donald 'Duck' Dunn from Booker T. and the M.G's; Matt 'Guitar' Murphy, former Howlin' Wolf sideman; Willie 'Too Big' Hall of the Bay-Keys; and Steve Jordan, who later worked with Keith Richards among others.
"The Blues Brothers came off as a genuine article because we had Cropper and Dunn and Matt Murphy – those three magnificent Memphis guitar players. Murphy played with James Cotton, and Duck and Steve played on all those Stax/Volt records. That combination was a powerhouse that was not to be duplicated, a Chicago/Memphis fusion band. That’s what the Blues Brothers was and that’s what really made it work. They added legitimacy to our enterprise," Aykroyd said.
Belushi and Aykroyd took the whole thing very seriously themselves though: "In the early days, a lot of the press reported that John and Dan were making fun of the music. Duck and I read that and said: 'What? We couldn't make fun of our music.' We had to do some interviews and let them know how serious they were. Dan studied hard to learn how to play harmonica. John had been a rock and roll drummer long before he became famous as comedian. It ended up being one the best collections of blues musicians I've ever seen," said Steve Cropper.
There was no irony in the final product, 'Briefcase Full of Blues', which gained millions of album sales (Belushi and Aykroys pitched in an additional $50,000 personally when the label advance failed to cover recording costs.)
"We had to keep this music alive, to educate a younger generation on this music. Soul and blues and jazz, those are the greatest staples that the American people have invented. But there's more to it than that. Eddie Floyd [who continued as a touring member of the Blues Brothers Band for decades] and [the late Stax drummer] Al Jackson, they told me a long time ago: It is also about entertaining people. You are not going to be interesting to people just standing up there. They can hear that on the radio. You've got to get them swinging and swaying with you," argued Cropper.
Aykroyd was the one who first discovered American blues, and introduced Belushi to it. "It changed my life. As a white kid from the suburbs you just didn't go into neighborhoods where blues was. I didn't like disco, and I was getting tired of rock. I mean, how many Rod Stewart albums can you buy?" the late Belushi once said.
So, he and Aykroyd initially began working up a set of gritty songs associated with Junior Wells, Big Joe Turner and the Downchild Blues Band. Of course, history tells us that the Blues Brothers rose to quick fame singing something far more rambunctious. That's where the Stax guys come in.
"In the rehearsals in New York, I came in late. Duck grabbed me and he said: 'We're cutting a lot of good stuff here, rehearsing a lot of good stuff, but it's all kind of blues stuff — nothing commercial.' He said: 'You need to go in there and talk to these guys.' I said: 'OK, give me a chance to see what's going on.'" Cropper continued.
"I looked and John and I said: 'Have you guys ever thought of doing something that you guys could, like, dance to?' And he said: 'Like what?'. And I said: 'Like Sam and Dave. They had great records, but they were known as dancers. They could really get the house going.'"
The band began playing 'Soul Man' "and they started dancing and clowning around and all that. Everybody was laughing and having a big time."
This led to out-of-nowhere double-platinum sales for the album, with two hit singles in 'Soul Man' and 'Rubber Biscuit', earlier recorded by the Chips.
Belushi unfortunately died of an accidental overdose a couple of years later, so Aykroyd continued alongside Belushi's brother Jim and John Goodman. They went on to release more than a dozen albums, including compliations and live sets.
Atlantic, the label that released 'Briefcase Full of Blues', first suggested that the Blues Brothers contact legacy artists like Floyd Dixon, Cropper, Isaac Hayes and Donnie Walsh from the Downchild Blues Band with an offer of 50 percent of the publishing royalties.
"John and I refused, which was pretty unusual at the time. We've had no share in any of the songwriting royalties on the eight records. We have a little for the mechanical royalties, the voice work, but that's a pittance since Steve Jobs and Apple ratcheted down the value of music and it's all digital. All the publishing royalties went to the original artists. We could have owned a part, but we did not grab a share of it. That's not right," said Aykroyd.