Note – This is a re-blog. I first published this a few years back when it was making the rounds of the film festival circuit. I just noticed today that you can now rent it. I saw it here just for one place.
This post has two titles because while it’s about the Butterfield band, it also incorporates info from an excellent documentary called Horn from the Heart about Butterfield that I saw at a theater last night. Read on – there’s a lot of history here.
“It’s such a personal instrument. It’s really like a horn from the heart.” – Paul Butterfield
“I ain’t bragging on us, but I didn’t see anybody that was better. And we happened to be black and white.” – Sam Lay
Paul Butterfield was – like his signature song – born in Chicago. But unlike the song, not in 1941 but in 1942. Butterfield grew up in a South Side neighborhood called Hyde Park which for years was a white enclave which gradually became integrated. Many whites fled; Butter’s family stayed.
According to Paul’s older brother Peter, their parents were fairly cultured and exposed them to music and the arts which they readily absorbed. Paul actually studied classical flute with a guy from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But when he heard the blues, well, classical music’s loss was the blues’ gain.
Butterfield met a guy named Nick Gravenites (Grav-uh-NIGHT-eez), who was an accomplished blues singer/songwriter/musician. (Nick wrote “Born In Chicago.”) Gravenites turned him on to some stuff and they started visiting South Side blues clubs wherein they would be (literally) the only white guys. (Massive balls there folks.)
Oklahoma-raised guitarist Elvin Bishop* interviewed in the movie, says he was new in town when he saw a guy playing guitar on the street. According to him, “Butterfield was playing more guitar than harp when I first met him. But in about six months he became serious about the harp, and he seemed to get about as good as he got in that six months. He was just a natural genius. (To this day, you can buy a Butterfield Master Class in playing harp on Amazon – ME). This was in 1960 or 1961. By this time Butter had been hanging out in the ghetto for a couple of years, and he was part of the scene and getting accepted.”
According to his brother Peter: “He listened to records and went places, but he also spent an awful lot of time, by himself, playing [harmonica]. He’d play outdoors. There’s a place called the Point in Hyde Park, a promontory of land that sticks out into Lake Michigan, and I can remember him out there for hours playing. He was just playing all the time … It was a very solitary effort. It was all internal like he had a particular sound he wanted to get and he just worked to get it.”
And so now when Paul would visit those blues clubs, they might initially laugh at this white boy who wanted to play the blues. (Almost unheard of back then.) But when they heard him play, they were blown away. His sound was hot and cool, tight and warm, natural as the heat from the sun.
Bishop, Butterfield, and Gravenites wound up getting a regular gig at a local club. With two guitars and a harp, they needed a hot rhythm section to make it happen. And so Butterfield nabbed a couple of the best – Sam Lay on drums and Jerome Arnold on bass. (Amazingly, both still with us.) He didn’t just find these guys on the street. He pilfered them from Howlin’ Wolf’s band. Sam Lay explains it in terms we can all understand: “Wolf was paying us 7 dollars a night, Butterfield paid us 20.”
And so now you had the phenomenon not only of white dudes playing the blues but also of a totally integrated band! in the early ’60’s. In America, where we couldn’t get our civil rights shit together for over 200 years. And even now. (The beautiful thing about musicians is that they do not give a flying fuck about color. In the movie, Sam Lay basically said he doesn’t care if a guy has a pink stripe down his back, as long as he’s got chops.)
During their club engagements, the band got to know ace guitarist Mike Bloomfield. As good as Bishop was, Bloomfield was better. They got Mike to join them and this ensemble – along with keyboardist Mark Naftalin – became the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
Their manager got them a gig at the now-legendary 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Now bear in mind this was a folk festival – acoustic instruments were the order of the day. Folkies liked blues but basically, only country blues and they were notoriously purist. So it’s unclear to me how Butterfield and crew even got past the gatekeepers.
Singer Maria Muldaur, there with her then-husband folkie Geoff said, “Most of the other acts had been original acoustic blues guys and some guys from our generation. And then out came the Butterfield Blues Band. Most of us had never heard anything like it. I’d listened to R&B radio growing up in New York, and I’d heard a bit of electric blues before, but I’d never heard such electrifying electric blues.
The band just sizzled. They burned. They crunched. They just set us all on fire. There’s a picture of me in Baby Let Me Follow You Down that shows me just flipping out! The music was so danceable. Butter was just burnin’. It just took all the music we loved so many notches higher on an energy level.”
On the second day of the festival, they were introduced by noted musicologist Alan Lomax who I’ve written about previously. Lomax was probably the purist’s purist and his introduction of the band was dismissive. Geoff Muldaur said:
“What did work well was the workshop with the Butterfield Blues Band. That was astounding. Alan Lomax came out and introduced the Butterfield band as a group that was purely imitative, asking ‘would we put up with it anyway?’ or something to that effect.
It was a very offensive introduction, to the band and to all of us. And Butterfield came out and just blew everybody’s socks off. I’ve got pictures of all of us — Von Schmidt, Maria — and our faces were just lit up. I’d never heard Chicago blues with so much drive. We were just totally flipped out.”
Bob Dylan‘s manager Albert Grossman – who had only just agreed to manage them – was so pissed off he went after Lomax and got into a fistfight with him! In fact, according to several eyewitnesses interviewed in the movie they were literally rolling around in the dirt grappling with each other!
It gets even better. Per Wikipedia: Bob Dylan had been irritated by Lomax’ condescending remarks. Dylan’s attitude was, “Well, fuck them if they think they can keep electricity out of here, I’ll do it. On a whim, he said he wanted to play electric.” And so he pulled in Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper who he already knew from working with them on “Like a Rolling Stone,” and then grabbed Sam Lay, Jerome Arnold and keyboardist Barry Goldberg.
And if Lomax was dismissive before, on seeing Dylan and crew one imagines he must have been fucking apoplectic. This is the famous show where (supposedly) Pete Seeger tried to cut the power with an axe and Dylan was booed. There was some booing but according to participants, it wasn’t overwhelming. But that misses the point that, well, who boos Bob Dylan?
Anyway, the album The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was released in late 1965. Now bear in mind that there was nothing that screamed Top 40 about this. And while it sold respectably it largely fell into the demimonde inhabited by Bluesbreakers** and Yardbirds albums – sold largely to blues fans of all stripes. But it’s a great one. Here’s “Born in Chicago.”
This album was a real door opener and along with those British albums, really helped make blues a late-Sixties phenomenon. This not only infused life into the music that rock bands were playing but it also helped introduce black blues artists to a larger, white audience. (And to their credit, the British blues bands went out of their way to make sure their inspirations got their due. The Rolling Stones once refused to play the music show Shindig unless they let Howlin’ Wolf appear.)
The Butterfield band’s notoriety increased and they moved out of the small Chicago clubs into venues like the Fillmores. Not only did the band have a powerful sound but Butterfield was a great singing and playing frontman. (And according to more than one woman in the movie – including Bonnie Raitt – “very cute.”)
Here’s another tasty number from that album, “Blues With a Feeling,”
This post could become super lengthy if I detail Butterfield’s entire career. Suffice it to say that he (and the band) did not rest on their laurels but continued to expand their sound, moving into long-form jazzy sounds on their album East-West. Over time the band changed – Bloomfield departed, sax player David Sanborn joined.
The Butterfield Band played at not only Monterey Pop but also Woodstock. Their performance did not make it to the movie and they had only one song on the original soundtrack (three on later reissues.) The Butterfield Blues band disbanded in 1971, Butter moved to Woodstock and then formed a band called Better Days.
Better Days is a back-to-the-roots album with some horns. Here on “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” Geoff Muldaur is singing and that’s Amos Garrett on guitar. (Garrett would go on to play a renowned solo on Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis.”)
Butterfield had met the guys from The Band some years prior. (And there is a funny story in Robbie Robertson’s autobiography about them “liberating” Butter’s pot stash.) So he hung out with those guys and toured at times with both Levon Helm and Rick Danko. Butterfield was in attendance at The Band’s Last Waltz backing up not only them but his hero and mentor, Muddy Waters.
The Last Waltz was held in 1976, released in 1978. In 1981, Mike Bloomfield was found dead in his car, “seated behind the wheel of his Mercedes, with all four doors locked. The only details (from unnamed sources) relate that Bloomfield died at a San Francisco party (one assumes he OD’ed -ME) and was driven to another location in the city by two men who were present at the party.”
By the late ’80’s, Butter was by now a family man and well out of the mainstream, blues not being quite as popular as it used to be. (Stevie Ray Vaughan notwithstanding.) But, in the tradition of so many blues and jazz players, he had picked up a nasty drug habit. He contracted peritonitis and used a variety of painkillers including heroin to deal with it.
“On May 4, 1987, at age 44, Paul Butterfield died at his apartment in the North Hollywood district of Los Angeles. An autopsy by the county coroner concluded that he was the victim of an accidental drug overdose, with “significant levels of morphine (heroin).”
Butterfield and Bloomfield are long gone but their legacy – and that of the Butterfield band – remains as some of the finest blues players of their generation, white or black. In 2006, Paul Butterfield was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Butterfield and the early members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band were inducted (by Peter Wolf) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
The last word goes to AllMusic: “It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of the doors Butterfield opened: before he came to prominence, white American musicians treated the blues with cautious respect, afraid of coming off as inauthentic. Not only did Butterfield clear the way for white musicians to build upon blues tradition (instead of merely replicating it), but his storming sound was a major catalyst in bringing electric Chicago blues to white audiences who’d previously considered acoustic Delta blues the only really genuine article.”
Sources: Wikipedia: Horn From the Heart; articles on Newport Folk Festival.
*In 1976, Elvin Bishop released a pretty big hit called “Fooled Around And Fell In Love,” sung by Mickey Thomas who went on to join Jefferson Starship.
**In England in November 1966, Butterfield recorded several songs with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, who had recently finished the album A Hard Road. Butterfield and Mayall contributed vocals, and Butterfield’s Chicago-style blues harp was featured. Four songs were released in the UK on a 45-rpm EP, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Paul Butterfield, in January 1967.