Blues Brothers return to Joliet Prison

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Jim Belushi (left) and Dan Aykroyd perform Sweet Home Chicago at the inaugural Blues Brothers Con in Joliet. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)
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Inaugural Blues Brothers Con brings Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi to perform for sold-out crowd

By Carrie Steinweg

JOLIET, Ill. (September 6, 2022) – If you’re from the Chicago area, chances are you’ve seen or at least heard of the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers. With an all-star cast of actors, vocalists, and musicians, the film was a spin-off of two characters, Jake and Elwood Blues, created for a Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit in 1978.

Blues Brothers plot summary

Two brothers, Jake and Elwood Blues, were raised in an orphanage in Calumet City and influenced by a blues-playing janitor. They formed a musical group that was disbanded when Jake ended up in prison for attempting to rob a gas station to pay the band members. Upon Jake’s release, Elwood picks him from a Joliet prison, and they revisit the orphanage to discover it will soon close and be taken over by the Chicago Board of Education if its outstanding taxes aren’t paid. The brothers set out on “a mission from God” to put the band back together in an attempt to raise the $5,000 needed to pay the property taxes to keep the orphanage open.

The duo works to reconnect the band with many comical, destructive twists and turns — and a whole lot of classic blues tunes weaving it all together.

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Blues Brothers
Ticket holders enter the east prison gate, or sally port, of the Old Joliet Prison at Blues Brothers Con 2022. An early shot of the Blues Brothers movie was filmed here where John Belushi’s character “Joliet” Jake Blues is released from prison. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

An epic movie

Although it’s been over four decades since its release, The Blues Brothers continues to capture new audiences and has become a cult classic. The movie centered on Elwood and Jake Blues, played by Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi, but the long list of additional stars who made cameos or played pivotal characters was part of what made the movie so successful and beloved.

The movie was based in Chicago and its suburbs. Several scenes were even filmed in the area — from the opening scene at the Joliet Correctional Center, to the police chase scene that left a trail of destruction through Dixie Square Shopping Mall in Harvey, to the bridge-jumping scene over the 95th Street Bridge on Chicago’s southeast side, to the Lower Wacker Drive police chase that concluded at Daley Plaza.

One hundred and four cars were destroyed in making the movie, the most ever in any movie at that point. It was large-scale in every way, coming in at about $10 million over budget, but grossing over $115 million at the box office — even more internationally than domestically.

It produced a number of unforgettable movie quotes, from “We’re on a mission from God” to “We’ve got both kinds of music — country and western” to “It’s 106 miles to Chicago. We’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses…. Hit it.”

Continuing to captivate

The black-suited duo that was introduced on Saturday Night Live singing “Hey, Bartender!” became an instant hit. The following year, plans were underway to create a musical film about the two troubled, blues-loving brothers from Calumet City and their string of mischievous shenanigans that were done all in the name of charity — getting the band back together so that they could save the orphanage where they were raised and where they were introduced to the blues.

That story of underprivileged underdogs continues to resonate with audiences, but it’s the music as much as the story that keeps people watching and draws the interest of new generations.

Aykroyd, when asked why people seem to love the movie so much, replied, “No doubt it’s the music. It’s the songs. It’s the great writers who wrote those songs, and also, just the power of the music and the power of the stars that were in the movie.”

Dan Aykroyd performs onstage at Blues Brothers Con. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

The movie featured the music of legendary artists of the blues and soul genres — Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Johnny Lee Hooker. Cameos and small roles from such names as Carrie Fisher, Frank Oz, Twiggy, Steven Spielberg, Steve Lawrence, Kathleen Freeman, John Candy, and others helped solidify the film as a classic. Aykroyd has said that the real star of the movie is the city of Chicago. He considered the movie a tribute to the Windy City. And one other starring role was given to a California Highway Patrol car — or 13 to be exact — that played the part of a retired 1974 Mount Prospect Police Car known as “The Bluesmobile.”

Blues Brothers Con — Getting the Band Back Together

Years in the making, the inaugural Blues Brothers Con — a collaboration between Judy Belushi Pisano, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, and the Joliet Area Historical Museum — was held last month at the Old Joliet Prison. The highlight was a performance from the Blues Brothers band on Friday, August 19. The show included three original band members — Dan Aykroyd singing lead vocals and playing harmonica; Tom “Bones” Malone on trombone, and Steve “The Colonel” Cropper on guitar. All three appeared in the 1980 film and in the follow-up movie, Blues Brothers 2000, released in 1998. John Belushi died in 1982, and his brother — actor and performer Jim Belushi — stood in for the show, performing lead vocals and harmonica as “Brother Zee” with Aykroyd.

Cropper was excited to be taking the stage with the other original band members. “It’s great to be back,” he said. Later that evening he’d reprise the epic “Soul Man” guitar solo that appeared on SNL in 1978.

Cropper credited Malone with his initiation into the Blues Brothers Band. Malone was an arranger on SNL and suggested to Belushi that Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn be part of the band.

When Cropper joined the band and was asked why he was playing with a couple of comedians, he said it was because they actually played and it wasn’t all an act. He recalled a visit to Belushi’s house when he examined his collection of blues records and said it was “the best collection of blues I’d ever seen.”

Malone was the third band member who had appeared in the movie to be on stage that night. He was also one of three people who originally pitched the idea of a Blues Brothers skit to SNL creator Lorne Michaels. (The other two were Aykryod and Belushi.) He relayed how the skit was originally rejected twice and only exists because of a serendipitous timing issue during the show that season.

“I was at the first meeting with Danny and John at Saturday Night Live,” Malone recalled. “The second week we rehearsed with the band, did it for Lorne Michaels, and Lorne says, ‘Frankly, I don’t see anything funny about the Blues Brothers.’”

“After read-through the third week at 3:15 on Wednesday, Lorne says, ‘The show’s three minutes short, what are we going to do?’ And John and Danny jump in and say ‘Lorne, the Blues Brothers!’ So, Lorne says, ‘Well, we have nothing worthwhile to put in those three minutes, you guys might as well make fools of yourselves.’ He put us on the show — and I guess the rest is history.”

Honoring a movie, the music, and a movement

Those prison gates that opened in the beginning of the movie after “Joliet” Jake was released from the Joliet Correctional Center (originally called the Illinois State Penitentiary and now know as the Old Joliet Prison) were opened again as crowds made their way through the sally port and onto the prison grounds. In recent years the 16-acre prison has seen extensive restoration and is now operated by the Joliet Area Historical Museum. The museum offers tours of the prison, giving an overview of its history, and acknowledging the movie that put it on the map.

“We’re bringing some love, music, enlightenment, and joy to this spot that, you know, harbored a lot of pain and sorrow,” said Belushi.

The creation of the Blues Brothers was meant to highlight the blues in a time when disco was taking over. It succeeded in creating a resurgence in blues culture and helped in re-igniting careers of earlier blues hit-makers.

“It is now more important than ever that we recognize, venerate, and celebrate the positive impact African-American culture and blues music have contributed to the world,” said Aykroyd. “This is what the Blues Brothers were all about, and Blues Brothers Con carries on that mission with dedication and commitment.”

Blues Music at Blues Brothers Con 2020

Toronzo Cannon suspends his guitar from a piece of barbed wire along the fence outside of the Old Joliet Prison in the Solitary Confinement Recreation Yard during Blues Brothers Con 2022. Cannon and his band, Toronzo Cannon and The Chicago Way were one of the opening acts for the Blues Brothers Band on August 19. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

Day One of Blues Brothers Con kicked off with a performance by Al Spears & The Hurricane Project, followed by a performance by Chicago native Toronzo Cannon and The Chicago Way. The band’s drummer, Pookie Styx, felt honored to be part of the musical lineup. “I think this is incredible. To be playing here inside this yard is something special. I’m glad to part of it,” said Styx, a Chicago native who has played with such big names in blues as Koko Taylor, Jimi Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Sugar Blue. “I remember all the scenes in the movie. I’m a big fan of the movie and the music,” he said.

Prior to the Blues Brothers taking the stage was a performance by Curtis Salgado, whom John Belushi met in 1977 while filming the movie Animal House in Oregon. Salgado was at the time a 25-year-old blues singer and harmonica player at a local lounge. Belushi was impressed and intrigued, and that meeting inspired the creation of one the Blues Brothers characters. In honor of Salgado, Cab Calaway’s character in the movie (the blues-singing janitor at the orphanage) was named Curtis.

Caption: Pookie Styx, drummer for the blues band Toronzo Cannon and The Chicago Way recalls scenes from the Blues Brothers movie backstage at the Old Joliet Prison during Blues Brothers Con 2022. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

The two-day festival included a line-up of blues bands, food vendors, artists, and a Maxwell Street-type market. Those who purchased VIP tickets could hang out in the Crystal Head VIP Lounge, sponsored by Aykroyd’s vodka brand.

The Fans

The fans who made their way into the prison yard had a number of ways of showing their affection for the blues-loving siblings — from attire to tattoos and more. Rob Goesel of North Aurora and his uncle Mike Drazkowski of Rochester, New York, bought tickets immediately when seeing the event promoted online. “I grew up in Chicago and came back for this. I’ve been a Blues Brothers fan since I was 10 years old,” said Drazkowski, whose right arm had a number of Chicago-themed tattoos, including an image of Jake and Elwood. Goesel had the same image shaved into the back of his head. His younger sister Becky did the work. An ultrasound technician with an artistic flair for hair design, she carves images into Goesel’s hairline for the concerts he attends.

blues brothers
Rob Goesel of North Aurora had an image of the Blues Brothers shaved into his head by his sister, Becky, for the Blues Brothers Con 2022 at Old Joliet Prison. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

Canadian brothers Graham and Steve Birtles were in the country from Toronto for a quick 24 hours to see fellow Canadian Aykroyd take the stage with Belushi. They wore black hats and sunglasses, but opted for short-sleeved tuxedo t-shirts in lieu of full black suits. Scrolled across their knuckles were “Jake” and “Elwood,” just like the characters in the movie.

Brothers Graham and Steve Birtles of Toronto, Canada flew in for 24 hours to see Belushi and Aykroyd on stage together. Their hands say, “Jake” and Elwood,” a nod to the original Blues Brother movie. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

“We’re big fans and always enjoyed the movie and the music. It’s classic,” said Steve Birtles. “And I’m a big fan of Aykroyd from SNL and the movies — not just Blues Brothers, but Ghostbusters, The Great Outdoors, Tommy Boy. He’s a good Canadian lad, so we had to come down and support him.” Birtles said he considers Blues Brothers one of the best films ever made, but he called Jaws the top movie of all time.

Bill Lyman and his son, Knox, of Elgin, Illinois dressed as a young Elwood and adult Elwood Blues for Blues Brothers Con 2022 held at the Old Joliet Prison held August 19 and 20. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

Father-son duo Bill and Knox Lyman from Elgin wore black suits, ties, hats, and sunglasses – with Knox, as a young Elwood, carrying a black briefcase.

From Valparaiso, Michael and Christa Essany and their daughters Gianna and Isabella had the opportunity to meet Aykroyd before the show. The family are huge fans of another of his hit movies, Ghostbusters, and they’ve made some fan films that can be viewed on YouTube. The family was one of the event sponsors for the Soul Food Café.

“I’ve never seen so many happy people inside of a prison before. The vibe here in Joliet is abundantly positive,” said Michael. “I guess the Blues Brothers can still do the impossible these days – bring people together.”

Frank Babayan of California made his way to Joliet clad in a full black suit, hat, sunglasses, briefcase with attached handcuffs, and an original key to one of the prison cells. Backstage he introduced a couple of military veterans to guitarist Steve Cropper. He also relayed to them what the Blues Brothers did for the music world at a time when disco was on top.

For one night only

Aykroyd and Belushi arrived via Bluesmoblie for this single performance at the site where the movie was filmed 42 years ago. They opened the show with “Sweet Home Chicago.” The prison yard filled in gradually throughout the day, but by showtime at 9:30, there was a full house at the sold-out event. Belushi jumped down from the stage and made his way into the crowd during the show and brought several audience members up on stage. Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi stepped up to the microphone with a framed Certificate of Error, excusing the fictional St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage of its tax obligations since as a religious institution, it would be tax exempt.

The show included a number of blues classics as well as some that had appeared on the Blues Brothers album, on SNL, or in the movie, including “Hey Bartender!”, “Soul Man,” “Rubber Biscuit,” “She Caught the Katy,” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.”

Plans are for Blues Brothers Con to be an annual event at the 16-acre community-restored prison. “Since the museum began operations in 2018, the Old Joliet Prison has become a pilgrimage site for Blues Brothers fans from around the world,” said Greg Peerbolte, CEO of the Joliet Area Historical Museum. “We are honored to work with Dan Aykroyd, Judith Belushi Pisano, and the Belushi family to preserve the cultural contributions of one of the greatest films ever made.”

Information on prison tours is available at jolietprison.org.

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Carrie Steinweg is a freelance writer, photographer, author, and food and travel blogger who has lived in Lansing for 27 years. She most enjoys writing about food, people, history, and baseball. Her favorite Lansing Journal articles that she has written are: "Lan Oak Lanes attracts film crew," "Why Millennials are choosing Lansing," "Curtis Granderson returns home to give back," "The Cubs, the World Series, fandom, and family," and "Lansing's One Trick Pony Brewery: a craft beer oasis."