Wayne Catania and Kieron Lafferty were financially strapped, and their career paths woefully uncertain, when they got called to audition for a Blues Brothers musical.
Knowing it might be their last chance to continue portraying the fictional bluesmen, they stuffed their black suits into a beat-up VW Jetta and hit the road.
“We got in the car and drove 500 miles to Chicago with coffee breath and sandwich crumbs on our clothes,” Lafferty said. “It was this or going back to playing in bars.”
When the grueling audition was over, the two Canadians — unable to afford a hotel stay — packed for their return to Toronto. But the people running the audition stopped them.
“They said, ‘You guys really are the Blues Brothers,’” Catania recalled.
“Somebody said, ‘They even smell like the Blues Brothers,’” Lafferty added.
And for the past decade, they’ve continued to perform as Jake and Elwood Blues, officially sanctioned by original Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd and Judy Belushi Pisano, widow of the other original Blues Brother, John Belushi. Their current show, “The Official Blues Brothers Revue,” arrives in Arroyo Grande next Friday in a performance that channels the duo’s 1979 tour.
The Blues Brothers began in the ’70s as a “Saturday Night Live” skit, featuring two white, sunglass-wearing Chicago bluesmen seemingly stuck in a time warp. A little more than a decade after Brit rockers had revived the blues, the genre had been shoved aside by the emergence of club-friendly disco. Yet, as the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park would prove in 1979, there was a backlash.
For those who cheered on the demolition’s premise (in a nutshell, “Disco sucks”), the Blues Brothers were more than a couple of funny actors in retro hats — they represented a noble stand against disco balls, bell-bottom pants and “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” And while rock music had turned to arenas and cocaine, the Blues Brothers’ backstory took place in smokey, urban juke joints, where 12-bar blues provided a foundation and Muddy Waters represented musical deity.
In that milieu, the Blues Brothers’ no-nonsense shtick was good for late-night laughs, yet the music they played — a mix of Chicago blues and Memphis soul — was no joke. Backed by an all-star band, the Blues Brothers went on to record real albums, their popularity peaking with the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers,” still seen as an ode to Chicago as much as it was to then-aging bluesmen like John Lee Hooker.
When the Blues Brothers were first gaining popularity, Catania was a drummer in a rock and blues band. Occasionally, people told him he looked like John Belushi.
“I remember going, ‘Who’s John Belushi?’ ” Catania said. “When you’re a musician, especially back then, you don’t watch TV shows; You’re working.”
Years later, he began to embrace the similarity, portraying Belushi’s Jake Blues while fellow Canadian Lafferty portrayed Aykroyd’s Elwood Blues. One night while they were performing in a “Legends in Concert” show in Sin City, a producer from the A&E network saw them and decided to feature them in a show titled “Lost in Las Vegas.”
The show gave them exposure, but it didn’t necessarily please the Blues Brothers estate, which let A&E know that it had violated a copyright. The legal maneuvering shut down future airings of that show — and seemed likely to shut down Catania and Lafferty, until they got a call from Victor Pisano, Judy Belushi Pisano’s husband, asking them to audition for a Blues Brothers musical.
The two rehearsed their lines during their eight-hour drive and nailed the audition.
“We just gave them Jake and Elwood,” Catania said.
Belushi’s widow embraced the two at the audition. But they didn’t meet Aykroyd until just before their first staging of “The Blues Brothers Revival.”
“About 20 minutes before the show, I heard this voice down the hallway: ‘Where’s that Elwood Blues?’” Lafferty said. “He was just a great guy.”
After the musical’s run, the two went on to do “The Blues Brothers Revue,” concerts that mimic the tour the Blues Brothers did, opening for Steve Martin, in 1979. Along the way, Belushi’s widow and Aykroyd would offer pointers while producing the show.
Aykroyd would not only talk about Elwood’s inspirations, he’d also offer more specific tips.
“He told me that Elwood wears short-sleeve shirts,” Lafferty said. “And to bind your knees when you go out there . . . It’s good to have your knees taped for some of the more wacky dances.”
Lafferty would develop a few of his own pointers — like his preparation for the song “Rubber Biscuit” during which Elwood quickly sings gibberish.
“It’s good to watch evangelist shows where people speak in tongues before I go on,” Lafferty said. “Because that’s very much like ‘Rubber Biscuit.’”
In the past decade, Paul Shaffer — who worked with the Blues Brothers and “Saturday Night Live” before teaming up with David Letterman — has served as their musical director. Meanwhile, they’ve met or performed with Blues Brothers band members Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Tom “Bones” Malone, “Blue” Lou Marini and Steve Cropper.
“It’s wonderful to be a sponge around these guys,” Catania said.
Meanwhile, the two have worked with Aykroyd and Belushi Pisano on a Blues Brothers TV show they’ve been shopping around.
“It seems that it takes a long time to get things going,” Catania said.
Catania didn’t want to talk too much about plots. But, he said, they have plenty of ideas.
“Living on the road as Jake and Elwood is a great story on its own,” he said.
IF YOU GO
The Official Blues Brothers Revue
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.