Elwood Blues is still on a mission from God.
Dan Aykroyd may have his hands full these days pitching his Crystal Head Vodka brand and advising the House of Blues franchise he co-founded, but the 66-year-old comic legend still finds time to slip into the dark suit and sunglasses and spread the gospel of Taj Mahal and Otis Redding.
With the Blues Brothers, also featuring Jim Belushi, scheduled to spend New Year’s Eve at Treasure Island Casino in Red Wing, Aykroyd took time to chat by phone about his never-ending campaign to keep his favorite musical genre alive, as well as his favorite current “Saturday Night Live” cast member and what ticked him off about the “Ghostbusters” reboot.
Q: During your time on “Saturday Night Live” you shared an apartment with Minnesota’s Tom Davis, Al Franken’s onetime comedy partner. What was he like as a roommate?
A: Well, he was also my writing partner until the day he died [in 2012]. My daughter was actually with him when he passed away. A wonderful guy. We came up with the Coneheads together. One of my favorite things we did was the “Dr. Deacon’s Haunch Crack Powder” commercial, with me as Sam Elliott. (Aykroyd broke into a pitch-perfect impression of the actor.)
As a roommate, Tom was fastidious; he was never there. At parties, he always left too early. He never wanted to overstay his welcome.
Q: Do you have a favorite among the current “SNL” cast members?
A: Leslie Jones. The force of her delivery and her boldness is so great. She’s got the acting chops, as well. I’m also a huge fan of Kate McKinnon. Those ladies did a great job in “Ghostbusters,” which I produced. I was just mad that the movie cost so much. That happens in this business. I’m not mad anymore.
Q: When you and John Belushi came up with the Blues Brothers, it seemed like you were determined to introduce the blues to a younger generation. Is that still the case?
A: Well, yes. Whenever we perform, I tell the audiences that we are always singing from the African-American songbook and that the music of Bobby Bland, Willie Dixon and others developed into hip-hop, country and rock ’n’ roll. I really encourage families to bring their kids to our Treasure Island show.
For a long time, I also had a blues radio show, but last year the syndicator said they were going towards a country-sports format. Something like that. That’s too bad. I mean, XM is doing as good a job as they can, but they never play the breadth of material I did.
Q: What do you think the Blues Brothers did for the genre?
A: You’ve got to remember that the album “Briefcase Full of Blues” came out (in 1978) when there was a real vacuum in American music. Disco was over and punk was just starting. We filled the crevice. Donald “Duck” Dunn [bassist for the Blues Brothers and Booker T & the MGs] said we weren’t just going to sell records with the blues. He insisted that we had to put an R&B song on there, so we recorded “Soul Man.” He was right. The album went to No. 1. We had the kind of numbers that would make Rihanna turn her head.
Q: The 1980 movie also recognized legends like Ray Charles, James Brown and Aretha Franklin who might have been a little underappreciated at the time. The scene with Aretha singing “Think” in a diner was played a lot after she passed away. What do you remember about it?
A: She was a little concerned about the waitress costume, but our designer took it in and she looked great. The fluidity of her moves in those flat slippers was fantastic. Aretha was a big supporter of what John and I were doing, honoring the veterans, but she also knew what she and Ray and James were bringing to the movie and, oh, by the way, you’re helping us with our careers.
Q: Do you think of John when you’re performing?
A: All the time. We dedicate each show to him. Jimmy has acquitted himself really well. We’ve been doing it together since 1997. He’s Albanian royalty. He hops around pretty good. I’ve got to struggle to keep up with him.
Q: Are there younger comedians today you’d like to see pick up the cause to support the blues?
A: I think it’s got to come more from the music side, like the house-music and hip-hop world. There are a lot of great bands working to keep it alive. The Milk Carton Kids are friends. Nate Rateliff and the Night Sweats are great. But those guys always have to be on the road these days because radio doesn’t play them enough. Even Bonnie Raitt is probably right now on a bus somewhere. You’ve got some great musicians in the Twin Cities area, like the Lamont Cranston Band. I’m a big fan of their lead singer, Pat Hayes. His version of “Born in Chicago” is great. I’m hoping he can come jam with us at Treasure Island. I’ve just got to find him.
Q: There may be a blues presence in the Twin Cities, but there’s isn’t a House of Blues club. Any plans to change that?
A: Right now, the focus is on Nashville. But Toronto wants one. Paris wants one. Moscow. I’ll see what I can do about bumping Minneapolis to the top.