Turnin' It Loose With...dan Aykroyd
05/16/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
Sitting tall on his blue, stroked FLH police motorcycle, Dan Aykroyd—and his wife, Donna Dixon—leads a pack of 20-plus cigar-chomping bikers on April 30 to the back door of the House of Blues, his new nightclub on West Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard. From the outside, the funky, Delta-style barn—covered with metal siding imported directly from the crossroads in Clarksdale, Miss., where, legend has it, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil and helped give birth to the blues—promises all the danger and high-voltage excitement of an old-time juke joint. Inside, the fire marshals are already throwing people out. All of which makes this the perfect setting for an appearance by Aykroyd's alter ego, Elwood Blues.
For Aykroyd, 41, dressed in his trademark black gabardine suit, black fedora and black shades, Elwood is not so much a movie character as a channel for his lifelong passion. "Heaven to me is percussion and bass, a screaming guitar and a burbling Hammond B-3 organ," he says. "It's a soup I love being immersed in."
Tonight, at the club's official opening, a benefit for the Magic Johnson Foundation, it's more like the whole Hollywood enchilada. Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Robert De Niro are among the celebs who have crammed in, waiting for Aykroyd to re-create the mayhem he and John Belushi started 18 years ago on Saturday Night Live, then parlayed into a hit movie and five LPs.
"I by no means rank myself up with the people who really know how-to play," says Aykroyd in his punchy, motorcycle-cop voice. "I was a comedian-actor who had an act and then wrote a movie in which I had to be a musician. However, once assigned the part, I loved it."
It didn't take much. As a kid growing up in Ottawa, Dan fell in love listening to the blues and R&B on the radio, especially the wild Chicago sound. On a visit to Expo '67 in Montreal, he saw Sam and Dave live and was "blown away" by what he calls "the most exciting, vibrant, intoxicating music I'd ever heard." His interest peaked one night when he lucked into jamming with Muddy Waters. "His drummer didn't come back after a break," Aykroyd recalls. "I hopped up, and he said, 'Keep that beat going, boy. You make Muddy feel good.' Let me tell you, I was high for months."
Aykroyd taught himself to play the harmonica when he was 17, working as a surveyor in Canada's Northwest Territories. But he didn't perform publicly until he joined Toronto's Second City troupe, where, he says, "I sang the blues on subjects like bus transfers." He also operated an after-hours speakeasy, Club 505—the place he took Belushi the day they met in 1973. "All night John asked, "What's that music?' " Dan remembers. "We were playing some Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett and John Lee Hooker. I said, 'John, except for local bands keeping this alive, this is ancient music' He couldn't believe it. Basically that night he said we should form a band."
Aykroyd is the last member of the Blues Brothers band, which includes Paul Shaffer and Stax sound innovators Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, to arrive backstage. He's also the loudest. "Here we go!" he shouts, slipping on his shades. "Band onstage! Band onstage!" Moments later, Shaffer introduces him as "the most famous son of Calumet City, Illinois, and the one and only man keeping the blues alive." Suddenly, Aykroyd's wing tips lake flight, and he transforms into Elwood.
"I think the thrust of the Blues Brothers' popularity is their coolness," Aykroyd says. "A little on the shady side, they aren't materialistic. Their whole pursuit is to play and sing their music at any cost."
To start, Elwood calls Jim Belushi, "the actual blood brother of Jake," onstage, and they deliver a three-alarm version of "Sweet Home, Chicago." It's a nice tribute to the other Belushi, Jake himself, who died of a drug overdose only blocks away. "This music drove John into a frenzy of cartwheels and splits," says Aykroyd. "I miss him all the time."
For the next hour, Elwood sings and blows his mouth harp—or dances on the sidelines while blues legends John Lee Hooker and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown lake over. "I hear Duck's bass hooked into a groove, then turn around and see Cropper on guitar, and it kicks me into a dancing gear," Aykroyd says. "It winds me up so tight, I can't stop myself." By the end of Cropper's R&B staple "634-5789," Elwood looks as if he's taken a shower in his suit. During a break, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, glances at Aykroyd's waistline and tells him, "Hey, man, you ought to dance harder or get it on with Jenny Craig."
Unfazed, Aykroyd keeps charging till 2 a.m., when he, Brown, Magic, Bruce Springsteen and virtually every celeb still standing close the joint with a spirited rendition of "Get On Up." "I love what happens during a show," he says. "You feel yourself gel to a certain level, then another and another, and finally you're rocketing up through the cumulus."
Aykroyd doesn't get that feeling when he's acting, and that's why he says he may quit after his next film, Getting Away With Murder. "I've done it; I've got nothing to prove," he says disgustedly. "I'm finished with having people of lesser talent constantly second-guess me and think they can write better than me."
Instead, he plans to help House of Blues founder Isaac Tigrett expand the business (now also in New Orleans and Boston) to other cities. Aykroyd has other schemes as well, including talk of his own record label. "I'm ready for a lateral shift," he. says. "It'll be like a return to the days when I ran a speakeasy. I can live like a 1930s gangster again."