It’s a matter of art imitating art, but that doesn’t seem to faze Brad Henshaw.
The growly-voiced British-born singer has spent a good part of the last 20 years onstage playing the role of Jake Blues, a fictional character created by the late comic John Belushi as part of his Blues Brothers routine with fellow Saturday Night Live accomplice Dan Aykroyd.
“Who wouldn’t want to have an alternative character in their life, an alias where they can pretend to be somebody else and affords you the opportunity to wear a fedora and sunglasses? It’s a great thing to be able to do,” said the easy-going Henshaw in a recent phone call from London.
Henshaw is the driving force behind Blues Brothers Approved, a traveling musical revue officially sanctioned by Aykroyd and Judy Belushi that recreates the bigband sound and the comic relief that the original ensemble embodied.
The Blues Brothers, launched as a skit on famed American hipster comedy show in the late 1970s, evolved into a life of its own, as front men Belushi and Aykroyd developed their characters of Jake and Elwood Blues into movie and live performance icons in an homage to the soul and R&B greats of the 1960s.
Belushi and Aykroyd recruited authentic musical greats like Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn and Matt Guitar Murphy to boost their street cred, and their onstage antics and black suited-sunglassed image did the rest. The Blues Brothers died with Belushi’s 1981 death (the less said about subsequent movies and music with substitutes like John Goodman and Belushi’s younger brother Jim the better). Even though they were a tribute band themselves, an industry of Blues Brothers offshoots has populated the musical and theatrical landscape ever since.
Henshaw debuted in his role of Jake Blues in the West End of London 20 years ago, predating the wave of music-based theatrical tribute extravaganzas like Mama Mia and We Will Rock You.
“It was a strange process that got me there,” said Henshaw with a laugh. “I had already been a rock and soul singer for many years and had just finished a tour in the UK when someone suggested that since I had no work, I should go audition for the role of Jake in this Blues Brothers show that was going to open.”
“I had to travel seven times to London from Birmingham, where I was living at the time, and they put me through the treadmill.
I went to the producer, David Pugh, who went on to a very successful career, and told him, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore, I’m fairly broke.’ David told me, ‘don’t worry, you have the job and we’ll pay you back all your travel expenses.’ Ten weeks later, I was appearing in the West End.”
Henshaw has spent the past two decades juggling his Blues Brothers stage time with an ongoing musical career as himself – that has included fronting a goodtime rock & roll band The Road Kings, and currently involves a collaboration with songwriting great Jimmy Webb, in which they present updated versions of some of Webb’s classics like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Galveston.”
But it’s the Blues Brothers that Henshaw keeps coming back to, not only because it’s a steady paycheck, but because audiences are still clamoring for the sparkling boogie, the sharp suits and the trademark cartwheels.
The show features Blues Brothers reconstituted standards as well as songs from the film like “Rawhide” and “Stand By Your Man” and even some of Belushi’s pre-Blues Brothers musical highlights like his dead-on Joe Cocker impersonation on “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
“The show is best described as a hybrid between a concert and a theatrical show,” said Henshaw. “There’s no real story to it, but remember that long before the Blues Brothers movie, Belushi and Aykroyd took their SNL act on the road as a band and finished their triumphant tour at the Hollywood Bowl.”
“We’re looking back on that period of time and honoring what they created and achieved.”
The rather awkward name of the revue – Blues Brothers Approved – is the result of Henshaw breaking away from the original production, revising the show and reintroducing it in 2005.
“The original show was endorsed by Aykroyd and Judy Belushi (John’s widow), and when we went back on the road, we managed to get a residency in Chicago, of all places. I met them there and asked if I could reinstate the official endorsement tag for the show and they gave me the green light,” he said. “They both know the pedigree of the show and have told me that they love the production.”
Replete with horn section, female backup singers and fellow ‘Blues’-man Chris Chandler in the harmonica-blowing Aykroyd role, Blues Brother Approved makes its Israel debut on December 19 at the Romema Arena in Haifa and on December 20 and 21 at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center.
Henshaw promises an authentic art-imitating- art experience, if such a thing is possible.
“I’d like to think that there’s a little John Belushi inside of me,” he said. “I was told by Judy Belushi that she sees some of his qualities in me and I think I bring a bit of John onstage with me.”
“I can also throw a cartwheel or two – they might not be perfect but they’re certainly half decent.”
Israeli audiences will be able to decide for themselves next week.