BOZO Big Read: Remembering Bluesman Paul Butterfield 30 Years On
30 years ago today bluesman Paul Butterfield past away following a drug-related heart failure. Butterfield grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park, an island in the Southside ghetto that was a liberal melting pot of of poor whites, blacks and Puerto Ricans and somewhere his brother Peter described as having “a lot of music around.”
Coming from a culturally tuned family, Butterfield was exposed to both jazz and classical music from an early age – studying with the first-chair flautist of the Chicago Symphony by the time he reached high school. Forced to turn down a running scholarship to Brown University following a knee injury that hobbled any hopes of a career on the track, he put his full efforts into his music, immediately taking up guitar and harmonica and setting off a course of events that would change the blues scene forever.
Later on, Butterfield enrolled at the University of Illinois where he spent more time attending blues clubs then class. Here is where he met Nick Gravenites, who he toured various campuses with for a while. At the same time Elvin Bishop had arrived at the university on a scholarship and was exploring the various blues venues himself. He soon bumped into a porch-residing beer-drinking Butterfield, and before long they began to play acoustic gigs together.
Butterfield and Bishop began playing the blues circuit alongside blues legends like Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Howlin' Wolf, Junior Wells, Little Walter, and Muddy Waters. The duo were accepted thanks to their obvious ability and respect for the music, and were vouched for strongly by Muddy Waters who would later on become a close friend.
But it wasn't until in 1963 when Butterfield agreed to bring his non-existent band to play at Big John’s, a club located on Chicago's White North Side, that things really started cookin’. Searching for more members, Butterfield and Bishop cheekily pinched Sam Lay (drums) and Jerome Arnold (bass) from Howlin’ Wolf’s band (after six years of service). The four were all roughly the same age, were by this point hardened Chicago blues veterans and critically well received.
When the time came to make an album, the group decided to enlist a lead guitarist. Elektra producer Paul Rothchild (of the Doors fame) had been called to Chicago to see the quartet play. Whilst there, Rothchild also witnessed Big John’s regular Michael Bloomfield playing and convinced Butterfield to let him join the band. Bloomfield initially wasn't a fan of Butterfield’s overbearing style, (in fact many described Butterfield as a bit of a bastard when you first met him) but after jamming for a while, by the Summer of 1965 they were ready to start working on an album.
During recordings the band acquired another member – Mark Naftalin, a music student, who was sitting in on the recording experimenting with the Hammond organ for the first time in his life. The sound resonated with what the group was pushing towards and eight out of the album’s eleven tracks were recorded in this first session. Afterwards, Naftalin was invited to join the band on the road.
It's safe to say that when the Paul Butterfield Blues band were signed to Elektra in 1965, blues music and white music culture were transformed forever. Audiences and musicians up until that point were used to hearing blues imitated but never innovated. The group’s debut (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band) turned that on its head. This was an album charged by racially-mixed heavy-hitting blues, and marked a moment in musical history where artists no longer had to only play tributes to Black music, but just had to play it. Blues was democratised, modern, and more popular than ever.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s debut album would serve as a litmus test for the direction blues music would evolve. They’re second album, East-West would fan the fires of the rapidly emerging psychedelic rock scene with its Eastern influence and extended solos – courtesy of Bloomfield’s influence. Sadly, the band’s third album The Butterfield Blues Band; The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw (1967) was the group’s last contact with its pure blues roots. Bloomfield left before recording and Naftalin not long afterwards. Later Butterfield work in general falls short of the standards set early on in his career, with many believing it reflected his own personal transformation over time – from self-centred dictator shouting orders at his bandmates (ala Howlin’ Wolf) to a more democratic style of leadership that allowed his later bands more musical freedom (more Muddy Waters).
In any case, even today Butterfield is known as one of the only White harmonica players to have his own style. Like most Chicago-style harmonica players, he played (left handedly) the instrument like a trumpet – single notes, concise, intense. He was described by Muddy Waters as the second best harp player around (after Little Walter), and heralded as one of the greatest musicians of his time. Head of racially-mixed band that made the first real movements into opening up the blues scene to White America, Butterfield should be remembered as a cornerstone musician for how we understand music today.