The Band Behind The Blues Brothers
John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s act as “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues was always split between comedy and music. On the one (tattooed) hand, the origin of the brothers was based in a 1976 SNL performance in which the two comedians dressed up in bee costumes to perform Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee.” On the other hand, Aykroyd’s long-running interest in blues and R&B was fanatical, bordering on obsessive – not to mention contagious. His passion rubbed off on his buddy, who began buying blues LPs by the armload.
SNL music director Howard Shore suggested that Belushi and Aykroyd call themselves the Blues Brothers, who made their formal debut on the sketch show on April 22, 1978, backed by the program’s band. But when the fellas planned to take the show on the road that summer, they wanted to play with a band that was even more grounded in blues and soul.
It was SNL band keyboardist Paul Shaffer who suggested keeping some members of the late-night show’s band while bringing in players who had undeniable credentials as blues, jazz and R&B musicians. Shaffer came up with the names (Steve Cropper, Matt Murphy, Donald “Duck” Dunn…) and Belushi called them on the phone, turning on the charm to lure them into the band.
So, in the summer of ’78, the fully formed Blues Brothers band didn’t just bring the house down when opening for Steve Martin at the Universal Amphitheatre in California, they recorded an album, Briefcase Full of Blues, that topped the charts and featured hit singles upon release in November. Belushi, Aykroyd and the band (which had some personnel shifts) filmed the iconic Blues Brothers movie the next year, followed by more performances and recordings.
The band outlived Belushi, who died as a result of his drug habit in 1982, and have continued to reunite, perform and record (in various incarnations) during the decades since his death – most notably, perhaps, for the Blues Brothers 2000 sequel released in 1998. Although the band has replaced and added members over the years, this list focuses on the core musicians who were in the group when Belushi was around. In fact, more than a few of them have John to thank for their nicknames – a hallmark of any Blues Brother.
Paul “The Shiv” Shaffer
The 'SNL' keyboardist didn’t merely suggest members for the Blues Brothers band. As the group’s musical director, he arranged the blues and soul covers to strike the right balance between the collective’s New York-based horn section and its Memphis/Chicago-based guitarists and bassist. Yet, for all his work putting the band together in 1978, Shaffer didn’t get to be in the John Landis-directed film because Belushi didn’t like that he was splitting his creative efforts between the Blues Brothers and Gilda Radner’s Broadway show. His role was filled by actor-musician Murphy Dunne in the movie. But, the Canadian musician returned to the fold for 1980’s 'Made in America' live album.
After Belushi died, Shaffer became the musical director (and de facto sidekick) on both of David Letterman’s late-night talk shows, with his house band backing a who’s who of music stars from James Brown to Pete Townshend to Bruce Springsteen. For decades, Shaffer’s Letterman groups (known as the World’s Most Dangerous Band and/or the CBS Orchestra -- and containing a couple Blues Brothers alumni) also were the house band at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. All the while, Shaffer has done studio work, recording with the likes of Ronnie Spector, Chicago, Paul Rodgers and Robert Plant’s Honeydrippers. Although Shaffer missed out on the first 'Blues Brothers,' he was able to appear in the 1998 sequel -- but as Marco and a member of the Louisiana Gator Boys, not a black-suited Blues Brother. However, during the film’s “Funky Nassau” sequence, he does ask Murph if he can cut in, which allows Shaffer to take his original spot in the band he helped create.
Tom “Bones” Malone
Malone and Shaffer have been a musical team for many years, including time shared in the 'SNL' band and Letterman’s CBS Orchestra. The trombone player (hence the nickname) also played saxophone and trumpet with the Blues Brothers and was responsible for many of the band’s horn arrangements, both live and in the studio. It’s not clear if he held the same role in Murph and the MagicTones. Predating his SNL and Blues Brothers work, Malone played in big bands and worked with Blood, Sweat and Tears. In the ’70s, he teamed up with the Band for an album and tour, then played at 'The Last Waltz.' He’s been an in-demand session musician for his entire career, working with artists that range from his Blues Brothers movie castmates Aretha Franklin and B.B. King to jazz legends Miles Davis and Buddy Rich to pop singers Tina Turner and Carly Simon to rockers Meat Loaf and Lou Reed.
Lou “Blue Lou” Marini
Like Malone and Jordan, Marini was a New York-based sideman who was brought aboard the 'SNL' band in the NBC show’s early days. In addition to his saxophone playing with the Blues Brothers on 'SNL' and afterwards, Marini famously stepped out of a sarcophagus to play a solo during Steve Martin’s “King Tut.” Actually, that musical sketch was performed on the same night that Aykroyd and Belushi made their TV debut as the Blues Brothers. Before all that, Marini was a member of Blood, Sweat and Tears and played on jazz sessions, as well as Lou Reed and Frank Zappa albums that were recorded in New York. Around the same time that he was Christened “Blue Lou” by Aykroyd, Marini (along with 'SNL' bandmates Malone and Alan Rubin and future Blues Brothers players Steve Cropper and “Duck” Dunn) was part of Levon Helm’s short-lived follow-up to the Band, the RCO All-Stars. After becoming a Blues Brother -- appearing in both films and on every audio release -- the saxophonist’s high-profile work only increased, playing tenor sax on Aerosmith’s “Chiquita” and contributing to the horn section on records by Meat Loaf, B.B. King, the J. Geils Band and (his former Soul Food Cafe boss) Aretha Franklin. Since 2000, Marini has continued to reunite with his Brothers in blues while also appearing on albums by Steely Dan and James Taylor. He’s since become a jazz bandleader himself, releasing a run of solo albums, including 2004’s 'Lou’s Blues,' which included “Song for John.”
Alan “Mr. Fabulous” Rubin
According to his bandmates, Rubin got his Blues Brothers nickname from Belushi because of his brash, but humorous, sense of entitlement. The trumpet player certainly could back up the attitude, having been accepted to New York’s Juilliard School of Music when he was 17 (he quit before graduation to play lead with Robert Goulet’s band). He eventually made his way to the 'SNL' band and then joined the Blues Brothers. In any supergroup, there are bound to be disagreements and it seems that the Blues Brothers’ most significant clash was between Rubin (with his “East Coast” attitude) and Steve Cropper (and his Southern notion of manners). Alan’s cocky personality might have been too much for the Colonel sometimes, but it sparkled on screen. As the (former) maître d’ at the hoity-toity Chez Paul, Rubin is one of the better-acting band members in The Blues Brothers. In a band stocked with incredible musical resumes, Rubin’s is truly fabulous. Seemingly, he could play every genre of music, having served as a session man for classical, jazz, rock, blues, R&B and pop recordings, not to mention soundtrack work and live performances. Rubin was the trumpet player on Paul Simon’s smash “You Can Call Me Al” and backed Frank Sinatra. He trumpet work spanned the Rolling Stones, the 'Footloose' soundtrack and Duke Ellington. Rubin continued to record and perform with his fellow Blues Brothers until his death in 2011 from lung cancer. He was 68.
Steve “The Colonel” Cropper
Mr. Fabulous might claim the most varied resume in the Blues Brothers band, but none of the members is more important to the history of popular music than Steve Cropper. The man who Belushi nicknamed “The Colonel” was landing hit singles before “Joliet Jake” was a teenager. Cropper is a triple threat -- an influential guitar player, a solid songwriter and a smart producer. As a member of Booker T. and the M.G.’s, he backed just about all of the soul greats who recorded at Stax Records in the ’60s -- including Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, and Sam and Dave. He co-wrote Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood” and Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” Sam and Dave call him out by name (“Play it, Steve,” an aside Belushi would perpetuate) in “Soul Man.” Collaborating with those singers and playing in the M.G.’s, Cropper was one of the architects of the Memphis soul sound. After leaving Stax, Steve discovered that his playing and producing were revered by rockers who loved his work on those R&B classics. Because the Beatles were huge Stax fans, he ended up playing on Ringo Starr and John Lennon solo records. He produced the Jeff Beck Group and John Prine, and recorded with Rod Stewart, Levon Helm, Leon Russell and Big Star. And that was all before joining the Blues Brothers -- which must have taken more than a little convincing. But Paul Shaffer knew that a big part of Aykroyd and Belushi’s act was tied not just to the blues, but to the dynamic R&B interplay of duos such as Sam and Dave, so why not at least try to get one of the guys who backed them? It turned out that the band was able to lure more than one of the guys. Cropper came along with M.G.’s bassist “Duck” Dunn to help form the original backing group. When Steve Jordan couldn’t do the movie, it’s no wonder that Cropper and Dunn brought former Stax drummer Willie Hall (and latter-day M.G.) into the fold. Since the Blues Brothers’ heyday, Cropper has remained active in the music industry, delivering solo albums, playing live (on his own, and backing superstars) and producing artists who hail from multiple genres. And he still joins the remaining, original Brothers for concerts and albums.
Donald “Duck” Dunn
Unlike Cropper, “Duck” Dunn wasn’t a founding member of Booker T. and the M.G.’s -- that’s not his bass playing on the original version of “Green Onions,” for instance. But he joined soon enough (1964) to help define Stax Records’ indelible groove -- that is his bass playing on Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love,” Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” and Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” which would later serve as the Blues Brothers’ intro tune. As one of the most respected and influential bass players in music history, Dunn parlayed his Stax work into becoming an all-star session bassist -- backing Elvis Presley, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and many more. His nickname, “Duck,” predates his time with the Blues Brothers (his father gave it to him while watching cartoons with his young son), but between “Duck” Dunn and Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Belushi and Aykroyd felt that everyone in the band should get a colourful nickname. Duck’s name might have been colourful, but the pipe-smoking bassist’s presence was reserved and his sense of humour was very droll. As such, he was only too pleased to deliver the line in 'The Blues Brothers': “We had a band powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline.” After the Brothers’ original run, Dunn continued to work as a recording musician and live performer, often reuniting with either his Booker T. and the M.G.’s bandmates (such as at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction) or with his Blues Brothers brethren (on tour, on record and on film). Either way, he was most-often working in tandem with Cropper in a musical partnership that went back nearly five decades, and a friendship that dated to their Memphis childhood. Dunn went out the way he lived. He died in 2012 after a show in Tokyo, part of a tour with his old buddy Cropper. The legendary bassist was 70.
Matt “Guitar” Murphy
If Cropper and Dunn were there to help the Blues Brothers tip their black fedoras to the legacy of Stax Records, Matt “Guitar” Murphy was brought aboard to electrify the group’s take on Chicago blues. Born in Mississippi, the Blues Hall of Fame member moved to Chicago before he was 20 and began playing his namesake instrument with Howlin’ Wolf not long after. Murphy recorded and performed with titans of the blues, R&B and rock ’n’ roll. His credits from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s speak to his blazing talent: Little Junior Parker, Ike Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Memphis Slim, Chuck Berry, Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon, Etta James, Buddy Guy, James Cotton. When the man joined the Blues Brothers in 1978, Aykroyd and Belushi got the real deal. They surely knew they were working with an amazing player capable of stinging solos, but the comedians probably didn’t realize that they also had hired a man with enough presence to hold his own in scenes with Aretha Franklin. The fictionalized version of Matt “Guitar” Murphy is the on-again/off again love interest for the less-than-understanding Queen of Soul in both Blues Brothers movies. Having collaborated with legends and earned a new profile with the Blues Brothers, Murphy finally began a solo career in the ’90s, releasing four blues albums -- some of them featuring the Blues Brothers horn section. After a long career, Murphy died as the result of a heart attack in 2018. He was 88.
Murphy “Murph” Dunne
With one Murphy and a Dunn already in the Blues Brothers band by ’79, why not add Murphy Dunne? When Paul Shaffer wasn’t able to be in the 1980 film, the group brought on the Chicago native who was both an actor and a musician. With his years on 'SNL,' Shaffer had proven he could handle comedy as well as keyboards (which wasn’t the case for every band member, although they all do OK in 'The Blues Brothers'). Dunne had done the same elsewhere, with projects that blended music and comedy such as the Conception Corporation and Lenny and the Squigtones (featuring Michael McKean and David L. Lander from 'Laverne and Shirley,' along with a pre-'Spinal Tap' Christopher Guest on guitar). Plus, unlike many of his bandmates, “Murph” had acted in movies before 'The Blues Brothers,' including Mel Brooks’ 'High Anxiety,' 'Oh, God!' and 'Tunnel Vision' (featuring fellow 'Blues Brothers' actor John Candy). Dunne stayed in the band for the post-movie tour (sharing keyboard duties with Shaffer) and appeared on the 'Made in America' live LP, but hasn’t been part of as many of the post-Belushi reunions (save for 'Blues Brothers 2000'). But the one-time leader of the MagicTones hasn’t been hanging out at the Armada Room, he’s been acting in Hollywood. From the ’80s through the present, Dunne has guested on a number of hit TV shows, including 'Simon & Simon,' 'Murphy Brown,' 'Night Court,' 'Frasier' and 'Mad About You.' He’s most recently been seen on 'Justified,' 'Pretty Little Liars' and 'Baskets.'
Willie “Too Big” Hall
Like “Murph,” Willie Hall joined the Blues Brothers for the 1980 feature film, becoming the band’s drummer after Steve Jordan opted to tour Japan. And Hall wasn’t new to filling in. On 1977’s Booker T. and the M.G.’s reunion record, 'Universal Language,' he became the band’s drummer after founding percussionist Al Jackson Jr. had been murdered in 1975. Recommended by M.G.’s bandmates Cropper and Dunn, Hall was an obvious choice for an act so heavily indebted to the Stax Records sound. He had drummed for the label from the late ’60s until the late ’70s, backing artists including Johnnie Taylor, Rufus Thomas and the Staple Singers. But his most notable collaborator was Isaac Hayes and Hall’s biggest claim to fame was having drummed on the “Theme from 'Shaft'.” But Hall isn’t strictly an R&B drummer. He’s toured and recorded with artists that span rock (Bonnie Raitt, Roger McGuinn), disco (KC and the Sunshine Band) and country (Earl Scruggs, Billy Joe Shaver). In more recent years, the Memphis native has worked with soul revivalists the Bo-Keys and contributed to 2008’s 'Soul Men' soundtrack, with his late pal Hayes.