Back to the roots
The House of Blues has the distinction of being the only multi-million-dollar restaurant-concert club chain inspired by a Saturday Night Live act and a hit movie. (That movie, of course, would be The Blues Brothers.) Aykroyd and John Belushi first put the Blues Brothers together in the 1970s. Aykroyd was the harmonica-playing Elwood Blues; Belushi was the singer, "Joliet" Jake Blues. They made their SNL debut in 1976. These guys dressed like dangerous blues cats — or caricatures thereof — and were first and foremost comics and actors. But they could also play, and they loved the music.
They hired a crack band of blues stalwarts to back them on their first album, Briefcase Full of Blues. It went to number one and was nominated for a Grammy. John Landis's movie, The Blues Brothers, came out in 1980 and grossed more than $115 million. Says Aykroyd: "I can flash back right now and close my eyes and drive the Bluesmobile and see John. It was quite moving and a good picture." The second movie, Blues Brothers 2000, with Jim Belushi — Zee Blues — taking over his late brother's role, did not fare quite as well.
Asked about the Blues Brothers of today, Aykroyd spins into high gear: "We are coming to town with the Blues Brothers Formal Classic Revue. We wear the uniforms, we do the classic music — American classics from the American classic songbooks — and we do them in the old Stax/Volt style. I can go anywhere in the world with this Revue and everyone's happy. There's 12 of us in the band, the two dancing refrigerators, me and Brother Zee, or Zurashaida — it means 'Almighty God is my rock.' "
The original House of Blues opened in 1992 and closed in 2003. It was situated smack dab in the middle of Harvard Square, on Winthrop Street, in an actual converted house. (It's where Tommy Doyle's Irish Pub & Restaurant is now.) "The spiritual and ethical foundation was having a blues bar," says Aykroyd, "a juke joint, rooted in the culture of the movie."
Upstairs, there was a narrow, 150-capacity club, with plaques of blues icons on the faux-old-wood walls. Downstairs, there was a Cajun-style restaurant. It was made to look like a Southern juke joint. There was a Gospel Brunch (that is, Cajun brunch with live gospel music) on Sundays. The new HoB restaurant will be similar — some of the plaques are already up — with the Gospel Brunch likely to begin late spring.
The old club hosted many blues acts, but not exclusively so. J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf says the club's booker, the late Teo Leyasmeyer, "kept this House of Blues unique from the other Houses of Blues and brought in the blues greats: Junior Wells, Little Milton, John Lee Hooker, Pinetop Perkins, Buddy Guy, James Cotton. I sat in with a lot of people. Van Morrison, myself, and Junior Wells played there with one of the blues bands around Boston."
The original House of Blues "was a brief high point in the history of Boston rock and roots music," says Ted Drozdowski, a Phoenix contributor (and former Phoenix music editor) and singer-guitarist of the blues-based Scissormen. "Teo had the taste and artist-relations savvy to bring in the last of a great generation of roots performers, from Charles Brown to Jimmy Smith to Otis Rush to R.L. Burnside to Junior Kimbrough — all gone now or retired from performing — so they could be heard in an intimate setting. . . . That amazing era for roots music in Boston is long past."