Whether from the legendary 1980 film or subsequent reboots, the Blues Brothers of “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues are instantly identifiable in their black suits, cool shades, and Johnny Lee Hooker-inspired hats.
But for audiences of a certain age, that moment when John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd first took the Saturday Night Live stage in that iconic ensemble was electrifying. The laughs were there, but the laughter was not at the performance itself as most SNL sketches would be. It was at the joy that was coming off the screen.
Unlike many other musical sketches on the show — most notably Belushi’s memorable turn as Joe Cocker — the Blues Brothers were an act of love, an exercise in sheer musical joy. And that happiness made the duo more than a one-off skit. It became a musical supergroup, an act worthy of opening for the Grateful Dead.
Their 1978 album Briefcase Full of Blues and the later film were just the beginning, one that had much promise until the untimely death of Belushi in 1982. For many years afterward, there were a series of guest artists who tryied to fill the impossible-to-fill shoes of Belushi — most notably his brother Jim and actor John Goodman — and there was even another film in 2000.
But it took a different pair of actors and their uncanny likenesses to the original actors to bring the Blues Brothers to life again.
New duo for a new century
“I was a musician from the time I was a young teenager,” said Wayne Catania, who plays Jake Blues in the concert that visits the Honeywell Center next week. “Originally I was a drummer and played in lots of bands over the years. Everywhere I went people would say, ‘You know, you look a lot like John Belushi.’”
Eventually someone gave him a cassette tape of Briefcase Full of Blues. He loved what he heard.
Catania later toured with John Stuart’s Legends in Concert, a tribute to dearly departed musical acts. With Catania in the role of Jake and Kieron Lafferty as Elwood, the new Blues Brothers took Las Vegas by storm. They also made an impression on both Ackroyd and Belushi’s widow Judith Jacklin Belushi, who saw the show and asked them to be part of a Blues Brothers revival.
“That was 15, maybe 18 years ago that Judy and Dan saw that show, and that’s what led to this show we’re still doing,” Catania said. “Paul Shaffer came on board as the musical director, and he was the one who actually put the band together for John and Dan, so he knew the whole texture of the sounds and put together a great band for us.
“It’s important to us to have those details and those incredible musicians. I’m just so happy and proud to perform as Jake in this show.”
Traveling the blue globe
So far they’ve traveled the world to great response, demonstrating the longevity of the Blues Brothers popularity more than 40 after it first debuted, and not just in the United States but also in New Zealand, Australia and all throughout North America. The show’s music is contagious, but there is much more to the show as fans of the Brothers well know.
“It’s a physical show and a demanding show,” Catania said. “It’s important to get the essence of those characters, how they view the world and how the music moves them, and we get a lot of those details from Judy and Dan. They’ve helped me understand what makes my character tick, and that’s important in putting the show together.”
In addition to the touring stage show, there are several other projects in play. Catania and Lafferty have worked with Judith Belushi and SNL writer Anne Beatts on a possible television show.
“We’ve been working on that now for a while, and it’s been a great learning experience,” Catania said. “It’s not just what we do on stage but looking at Jake’s life in a new light. I’ve spent the last 20 years pretty much living that life.
“There are so many things going on for the Blues Brothers right now. Dan and Jim still go out and perform as Elwood and Jake, and they’ve even come on stage with us a few times. There’s a possible animation project, a Broadway play of the movie, and the A&E movie. There are no release dates for those yet. But the Blues Brothers are also going to have their own brand of coffee soon.”
Living the life of blues
Catania and Lafferty have developed a tremendous rapport in their Blues Brothers roles, not surprisingly since they’ve filled the roles together almost five times as long as Belushi and Ackroyd had the chance to.
Catania says the response of the audience is what keeps him coming back to this remarkable opportunity to do what would seem unthinkable — filling the shiny black shoes of Belushi’s Jake Blues.
“There are so many pictures of us on Facebook that people recognize us now,” Catania said. “Thanks to videos of us online and the popularity of the songs, we have kids as young as five years old singing along with the lyrics to these songs. There’s a magic to it that always impresses me. It’s exciting to witness it, much less be part of it. There’s a magic in it, and I’m just thrilled to be part of it.”