35 Years Ago: James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles Star in ‘The Blues Brothers’
The success of The Blues Brothers, the film comedy that opened on June 20, 1980, helped re-energize the careers of three giants of soul and R&B: Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Ray Charles. Many critics hailed their musical performances as the best parts of the movie, which featured former Saturday Night Live stars John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues.
Set in Chicago, the Brothers learn that the Catholic orphanage in which they were raised may close because it cannot pay a $5,000 property tax bill. The home’s no-nonsense nun insists that if Jake and Elwood raise the money, it must be done honestly.
Searching for inspiration, the Brothers go to the Triple Rock Baptist Church, where Rev. Cleophus James (Brown) delivers a rousing sermon followed by a performance of the gospel standard “The Old Landmark.” Belushi’s Jake turns somersaults down the aisle when he “sees the light.” Jake and Elwood resolve to reunite the scattered members of the Blues Brothers band and perform a benefit concert. Along the journey they meet Franklin and Charles as well as jazz singer Cab Calloway and bluesman John Lee Hooker.
In his autobiography James Brown: The Godfather of Soul, Brown recalls that he had reservations before he read the screenplay written by Aykroyd and the film’s director John Landis.
“It was a long time before I looked at it because I was afraid of the way it might portray Afro-Americans. Once I read it, I could see it was going to bring back the blues and R&B performers that people had tried to put on the shelf.
“From the time they started putting the script together they wanted me to play the role of the gospel-singing preacher. I memorized my sermon and lines on the airplane while flying out to California. On the lot at Universal they’d built a church that was a replica of a real church in Chicago.
“My sequence, with all the dancing and with John somersaulting down the aisle, took about three days to shoot because it was so detailed. It’s funny: With all the gospel I’d sung in my life, I’d never heard of the song they picked for me to sing, but it was a genuine old gospel number. Danny found a recording of it from the thirties that was done at a tempo as fast as the one we used in the movie.”
"James Brown was a consummate professional, a businessman with incredible managerial skills," Aykroyd told the Tampa Bay Times. “He was hilarious, contradictory. I remember James on the Blues Brothers set saying: 'Sometimes I smoke, but no one can know about it because I'm a reverend!' He was a funny man."
Watch Aretha Franklin Perform "Think"
Jake and Elwood soon arrive at the Soul Food Café to convince bluesman Matt “Guitar” Murphy, as himself, to quit flipping burgers and rejoin the band. Murphy agrees but has to reckon with his wife, played by Franklin. The Queen of Soul, dressed in a waitress uniform, roars through a choreographed version of her 1968 hit “Think.”
Murphy ignores the song’s advice, takes off his apron and leaves with the Brothers. Franklin’s reaction is priceless. She looks straight into the camera, shrugs and with one word says it all: “S---!”
“The Blues Brothers was something I enjoyed making tremendously,” Franklin recalled in Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul. “It was my debut in film. The only thing I really didn’t like about it was the hours. I had to get up at seven o’clock in the morning to get ready to be on the set. But once you got there, and once you started rolling, then everything fell into place. I had a lot of fun with Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd — great guys — big sense of humor, and very, very professional and astute. So I had a good time. It makes everything so much easier when you’re having fun and you’re enjoying what you’re doing.”
Watch Ray Charles Perform "Shake a Tail Feather"
With the band assembled, the next stop is Ray’s Music Exchange for instruments. Charles plays its blind proprietor, though his disability hardly slows him down. When a boy attempts to shoplift a guitar, Charles whips out a gun and pumps two shots into the wall, narrowly missing the young thief.
To demonstrate an electric piano, The Genius of Soul launches into “Shake a Tail Feather,” the R&B classic first recorded in 1963 by the Five Du-Tones. Charles rocks the house with a performance that turns the surrounding Chicago streets into a dance party.
Aykroyd, remaining in character, interviewed Charles for the book Elwood’s Blues.
“Now, you were such a big part of the Blues Brothers movie and I don’t think people realize that you gave me and Jake such a hand in helping us with our vocal styles, helping us learn how to sing,” said Aykroyd as Elwood.
“Oh, come on now,” Charles replied. “The truth of the matter is that I was the one that got all the help, believe me. Talk about being out of my league — I know nothing about movies; I was really out of place. You guys guided me and made me feel really at home. I had a marvelous time.”
The Blues Brothers became a cult favorite and earned $115 million at the box office. The film was so successful that eighteen years later a sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, was released with Franklin and Brown reprising their roles.
In an interview with the film website HeyUGuys, Landis described the steps it took to immortalize these performances on film.
“You have to remember that in 1979 when we made the movie, rhythm and blues was basically over, and the number one music in the world was Abba, the Bee Gees and disco, so when people ask, how did you get the likes of Aretha Franklin and James Brown, it was easy. We just called them and said, ‘Wanna job?’
“One of the things I’m most proud of in the film is the music reflected Danny and John’s passion for those sounds and they did something unique, which is they exploited their own celebrity to basically shine a light on these great American performers.
“To give you an idea of how outré it was at the time, Universal Studios and Decca Records refused to release a soundtrack album! They said no one would buy the music from the film. Atlantic Records, which was a so-called ‘race label,’ took on the soundtrack album, but even the label boss, who I ended up having a big fight with, would not put John Lee Hooker on the album. His exact words were he’s too old and too black. About four years later when John picked up his first platinum album, the first call I made was to Atlantic’s boss, who picked up and said immediately, ‘I know — you told me so!’
“It was a strange time for those artists, but I’m really thrilled the movie succeeded. If you talk to any of the surviving musicians from the film, they would tell you the movie really brought it all back with a vengeance.”
“It boosted my career as well as that of Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, and Aretha Franklin,” Brown said in the book Say It Loud! “I think The Blues Brothers is a classic movie like Gone With the Wind, and I’m glad I was a part of it.”
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