When Dan Aykroyd returns to hometown Ottawa Thursday to celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Blues Brothers movie, he will be reminiscing about the influence of the nation’s capital on his most enduring box-office hit.

Aykroyd, better known to moviegoers and radio listeners as Elwood Blues, brother of Jake Blues (John Belushi), recapped the Ottawa connections in the first few minutes of a wide-ranging and frequently funny phone interview. At the top of the list was Le Hibou, the legendary coffeehouse that helped shape his musical tastes.

“Of course, we all have to thank Le Hibou for the exposure to the blues,” said the 63-year-old actor, writer and musician, listing shows by Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee as some of the most memorable.

“It wasn’t a moneymaker. They were bringing in top talent and charging nothing for it, and letting everybody in. It was a magnaminous time. I benefited so much from that experience,” he said.

Aykroyd even played drums with Waters one night when the blues legend’s regular drummer, S.P. Leary, was late getting to the Hibou stage. Muddy asked if there was a drummer in the house, and Aykroyd volunteered.

“‘Keep that beat goin’, you make Muddy feel good,’” Aykroyd growled, recalling Muddy’s reaction. The moment in the spotlight ended when Leary returned to the kit and demanded the sticks.

Also drawn from his experiences growing up in Ottawa and in the film were the massive air-raid siren atop the Bluesmobile and the Palace Hotel ballroom that houses the final dance scene.

The ballroom was patterned after Aylmer’s Chaudiere Club, echoing its glory days as a swanky dance hall, while the siren was inspired by the one installed at Our Lady of Annunciation, where Aykroyd attended elementary school in Hull.  “It went in because of the Cold War,” Aykroyd said. “The siren was huge and it was right in the schoolyard.”

Another big musical influence was Toronto’s Downchild Blues Band. Their music was playing in a bar on Queen Street (Toronto) the night he met his blues-brother-to be, the late actor-comedian John Belushi. Although Belushi preferred metal and punk, Aykroyd pointed out that it all came from the blues.

“Then he started listening to the voice. It was Hock (Walsh, Downchild’s original singer) and it was powerful music. (Musical director) Howard Shore was there and he said, ‘Yeah, you guys should start a band and call it the Blues Brothers.’ The next time I saw John was in New York City. He had 300 blues records and he was picking songs for the first record and we didn’t even have a band yet,” recalled Aykroyd.

In New York City, Aykroyd and Belushi were part of the original cast of Saturday Night Live, and used the band idea in a sketch. Then they recorded the first Blues Brothers album, Briefcase Full of Blues, which came out in 1978, topped the charts and went on to sell 3.5 million albums.

Belushi left SNL the same year to make National Lampoon’s Animal House, with film director John Landis, who would also direct Blues Brothers. They wanted Aykroyd to join them, but he had no desire to leave SNL producer Lorne Michaels scrambling.

“I remember going to Lorne, it was late at night and the decision was hanging. I came in and said, ‘Boss, I’m staying.’ Lorne is very succinct and brief. He said, ‘Thank you’ but it was loaded with emotion and love and gratitude. It was a good outcome in the end because I had time then to really work on the Blues Brothers script and build it into something that Landis could make a movie out of.”

The movie follows the antics of Jake and Elwood as they embark on a road trip to get their old band back together in an effort to raise $5,000 to save the orphanage they grew up in from closing. Mostly filmed in Chicago, it’s full of spectacular car chases involving the Bluesmobile, and spectacular musical performances by John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles.

“It was wild when we were shooting because we were working nights and we owned the city,” Aykroyd says. “I had my own Chicago police car to drive around. We bought 70 of them. We made it look like we wrecked 500 but we only bought 70 and they were already wrecks.”

It was also a creatively fulfilling experience for Aykroyd because he not only wrote the script but he also acted, sang, played harmonica, danced and did some stunt driving.

As for the notion that it was a cocaine-fueled bender, Aykroyd describes the drug as a “currency of the time” in the Hollywood creative community. “But really, what happened was they would do a little to stay up at night. It was like an extra coffee. I was never into it myself. We didn’t do it when we were working. It was at the blues bar afterwards.”

Aykroyd’s favourite scene is the church number, The Old Landmark. Preacher James Brown is raising his voice to the Lord and the entire congregation is dancing. “I walked out of there and was high for days,” Aykroyd said. “If y’all like country or rock ‘n roll or blues or whatever, well, this is where it’s from. It’s from the Southern, African-American Baptist church. Here’s what the world owes this culture: all this music and fun and humour. There it is all in that scene right there.”

The movie’s enduring appeal has had a huge impact on Aykroyd’s own life. There have been eight albums, a movie sequel and a radio show, the Bluesmobile, in which Aykroyd gets to play Elwood and champion the blues. The Blues Brothers are still in demand for gigs, too, with Jim Belushi filling in for John. Plus, there’s a merchandising company and the House of Blues chain of restaurants.

When he looks back, Aykroyd is satisfied.

“I realize now, at this age, 63, being a father and husband, and provider to many, I don’t live just for myself anymore,” he said. “I’ve had the greatest parties, I’ve had the greatest Harley rides, I’ve smoked and drank with the best of them. I’ve had the greatest pleasures that can be known. Now I have my magnificent wife and family, and I need nothing more than to know that I am here to provide and support those that I love and that love me. That’s a good thing to come to.”

Dan Aykroyd is guest of honour at the opening gala of the first St. Lawrence International Film Festival

When & where: Oct. 22, Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau

6 p.m. Red carpet

7 p.m. The Blues Brothers screening, with reception and Q&A

9 p.m. Downchild Blues Band, with guest appearance by Elwood Blues

Tickets: Start at $100, available at stlawrencefilm.com. Proceeds benefit RCMP Foundation.


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