Remembering John Belushi – and the Night He Opened for The Grateful Dead

by Steve Spohn
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Belushi1973It was 35 years ago (this week) that America lost one of its greatest talents ever. Although his career was cut tragically short at the age of 33, John Belushi’s achievements are unmatched and universally treasured.

The wild-eyed master entertainer – who died on March 5, 1982 – had the extraordinary distinction of simultaneously laying claim to a blockbuster movie, Animal House; a #1 album, Briefcase Full Of Blues; and the top-rated late-night TV show, Saturday Night Live. Not bad for a crazy kid from the Chicago suburbs.

Belushi’s towering comedic talent often overshadows his love of music and the unique contributions he made to that world. Most of us remember John’s side-splitting impression of Joe Cocker performing “With A Little Help From My Friends.” It’s another riveting and genuinely hilarious effort from a man that could do it all.

Pre-SNL, Belushi covered another Joe Cocker song, “Lonely At The Bottom,” for The National Lampoon Lemmings Roadshow in 1973. John works alongside Paul Jacobs who plays the role of the legendary pianist, Leon Russell.

BriefcaseFullofBluesIn April of 1978, with the help of Dan “Elwood” Aykroyd, Belushi debuted The Blues Brothers on Saturday Night Live. The crowd went nuts. In November of ’78, The Blues Brothers released their debut album, Briefcase Full Of Blues, featuring covers of blues and soul songs. The LP reached #1 on the Billboard 200 and eventually went double platinum. Hits from the album include “Soul Man” (#14) and “Rubber Biscuit” (#37).

On New Year’s Eve of 1978, The Blues Brothers opened for The Grateful Dead at the epic final show at Winterland. Check out rare footage of Belushi, Aykroyd and the rest of the band bringing down the house on that very special evening in 1978. Here’s the emcee introducing The Blues Brothers:

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Winterland Ballroom. Well, they tell us this is the last concert on the last night at Winterland. … So while we still can, let us let the blues ring out in this fine, fine concert hall, and welcome from Rock Island, Illinois, the blues band of Joliet and Elwood Blues, The Blues Brothers.

Here are some of the video highlights (with time stamps): Hey Bartender (0:01:49), Rubber Biscuit (0:11:30), Soul Man (0:30:50), Jailhouse Rock (0:43:42).

Following the raucous Blues Brothers performance, The Grateful Dead would take the stage to deliver one of the band’s most celebrated shows of all time.

A tombstone marking Belushi’s original burial location is adorned with a skull and crossbones that reads, “I may be gone but Rock and Roll lives on.” Rest in peace, brother John, and thanks for all the great memories – and the huge laughs.

Steve Spohn is a former Saturday Night Live and Nickelodeon Television executive. Growing up near Princeton, NJ, led to a musical addiction, with WMMR in Philly and WNEW in NYC providing the daily dose. When not attending or planning to attend Bruce Springsteen concerts, he's plugging away as a screenwriter in Beverly Hills. Reach Steve at