Ask a serious music lover what started him/her on a life filled with the particular sounds that move, soothe, excite, incite him/her, and you are likely to hear about an exact moment in life when a new kind of music reached his/her ears for the first time. It might be the sound of a cello playing Bach's Suites For Cello; it might be the mellow sound of a saxophone played by Lester Young or Johnny Hodges, or the keening sound of a sitar, the wail of Bulgarian Baba, or the gentle sighing of a Dobro guitar. Whatever the particular sound the experience is always one of hearing a voice so distinctive and compelling it seems to be meant exclusively for the listener. You feel that this voice is speaking just to you in a language of the soul. Once you hear that voice speaking to you, you are never the same again.
I remember such a moment with stark clarity. It was a Sunday evening in the winter of 1965/1966. I was driving on the Connecticut Turnpike, returning to Yale University where I was in graduate school. A song with a sound unlike any I had ever heard came on my car radio and put me in a kind of trance. The song was "Born In Chicago," and the sound was an amplified harmonica. The next day I went to the record store and bought the album, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. For months it never left my turntable and as the needle wore out the grooves on the record, it etched a copy in my brain. Driving to a party in southern New Hampshire during spring vacation I heard an announcement on the radio that Butterfield was appearing at the Unicorn Coffee House on Boylston Street in Boston. I turned the car around and headed south. Within an hour I was sitting in the Unicorn hearing that sound live. The effect on me is hard to express, but one detail may give the flavor. So strong was the sound that I could feel the vibrations coming up through the table into my elbows. I pressed my elbows down tight and turned my palms up, roughly in the Islamic attitude of prayer, not an incongruous gesture, considering my state of mind. My God, I thought, I can feel the music in the bones of my hands. During the break I went to the edge of the stage and looked at the harmonicas sitting on an amplifier. They were the ordinary, dime-store variety. Ten little holes, no buttons, no wires. Whatever it takes, I thought to myself, I've got to learn to make that sound myself.
I believe this experience was typical of a kind of revelation that brought blues music into the lives of white, middle class Americans. Many white blues musicians of my generation have told me variations of this story, how once they heard the Butterfield Band, things were never the same inside their heads.
Given my experience and my views it was inevitable that I should want to write a book about the Butterfield Band. But after a successful, ten-year struggle to find a publisher for my biography of B.B. King I decided I would not write another book without first signing a publishing contract. What follows here is a book proposal I wrote in the hope I could find a publisher to underwrite the project. I had a very savvy agent to shop it, one who had sold a musical biography written by a friend of mine for a sum closer to seven figures than to six. The responses he got from publishers convinced me I will not write this book. Alas, a book about a forgotten band that rewrites the cultural history of our time was, at best, a very long shot, commercially speaking. Still there is hope such a book will yet appear. A series of articles in Blues Access by Tom Ellis III is telling the story of Paul Butterfield and his bands in considerable detail. [No. 23, Fall, 1995; No. 25, Spring, 1996; No. 27, Fall, 1996; No. 29, Spring, 1997.] The last installment will appear soon. A book is in the works. I wish him well. Very well! Carpe diem, Tom.
Blues With A Feeling A Biography of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band Charles Sawyer Winter, 1994
Yet Butterfield, the musical pioneer, has been all but completely forgotten. History can be worse than unfair, but my own feeling of debt to Butterfield, whom I knew only slightly in a personal sense, made this piece of history a personal matter. In the spring and summer of 1993 my convictions about this lost piece of cultural history forged themselves into a plan for a book. I realized with a kind of shining clarity that the story of how this music moved from the chit'lin' circuit to the mainstream is one of the great stories of our time, and that I am in a unique position to tell it. I have felt this author's conviction once before and the result was the critically acclaimed biography of B. B. King, The Arrival Of B. B. King (Doubleday, 1978 hbk; Da Capo, 1980 pbk).
The key event that triggered the plan for a book was a visit to the toney new blues club in Harvard Square, The House of Blues, the one sponsored by "Blues Brother" Dan Ackroyd and Isaac Tigrett, founder of the Hard Rock Cafe chain. The very existence of this place signifies the new cachet of blues music. I gazed at the ceiling where looking down on the patrons was a pantheon of blues greats in plaster relief. Each larger than life portrait is plain white plaster. Only the gentle shadows cast by the side lighting give the figures their shape. They're all there: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins, Albert King, Son House, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells. More than one hundred portraits, each easily recognizable. It is a kind of Sistine Chapel of pop culture. But wait. Where is Butterfield? Where is the man who illuminated the shadows where these players had lingered, the man whose success gave them access to the stages of Jordan and Carnegie Halls. Where is he? Were it not for him this house might not be here. Twenty-five years ago the crowds lined up along Palmer Street at the entrance to Club 47, out onto Brattle Street, around the bend into Harvard Square, a bare two blocks from this "temple", to learn from Butterfield what "urban blues" really meant. This temple is his temple, yet he is missing.
To understand the transformation of blues music in our society, consider how it has been used to market other products. Go back forty years to Memphis where Riley King, former Mississippi Delta sharecropper, was on his way to becoming B.B. King, world-reknowned blues singer and guitarist, the man widely acknowledged as the greatest blues musician of our time. Before he was B.B., the Blues Boy of Beale Street, he was known briefly as "The Pepticon Boy". This was during the time when King hosted a daily music program on Memphis radio station WDIA. The sponsor was Pepticon, a health tonic, competitor to Hadacol, which sponsored a program on KWEM, broadcasting from West Helena, Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River. Pepticon had King on 'DIA; Hadacol had Sonny Boy Williamson on 'WEM. [Sonny Boy was actually Rice Miller, a blues singer and harmonica player, whose appearance under a name reknowned down through the Delta and up into Tennessee, and Arkansas, was a deliberate ruse of the station owners. By the time listeners got wise his popularity was so well established that he became Sonny Boy Williamson II.] Here is the point: as a marketing device blues music was seen as good for nothing more than selling diluted grain alcohol, laced with herbs and caramel coloring, to blacks too poor to afford decent housing, if they'd had access to it, yet able to scrape together the price of a bottle of pep tonic to soothe their depression or a can of lye to straighten their hair.
In contrast, today, between innings of the World Series, you may see a Levi's commercial, with all its mass marketing imagery; long lens shots of sleek young couples crossing big city boulevards or bounding down beaches beside roiling surf; tight shots of strong, youthful, male hands -- unsullied by hard physical labor -- with their thumbs hooked into belt loops, pulling faded blue denims over powerful thighs. The music heard under the pitchman's smooth voice is "Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters, the very same musician whose identity was virtually a secret in the years when Mick Jagger and Van Morrison were singing his songs and even imitating the Mississippi twang in his voice. So here is the latest edition of what Madison Avenue believes will get the juices flowing in its market, orchestrated to the unmistakable sound of Muddy wailing "I'm a man./A nat'chal born man". There's another sound there, too. A Mississippi saxophone. James Cotton's harmonica. Twenty five years ago that sound was as alien to the mass audience as the sound of Balkan bagpipes. But this is Middle America in the 1990's where blues music can induce millions to believe that buying this sponsor's product will make them mannish, make them way cool.
The migration of blues, which is the heart and soul of all the music America claims as its own, from the world of Pepticon to the Land of Levi's, from the ghetto of Hadacol to the suburbs of Bud Lite, makes one of the great American stories of our time. I gave a brief account of the story in The Arrival Of B.B. King . What was missing from that sketch was a full account of the role played by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
The Butterfield Band was exceptional in many ways but none so much as the fact that it was the first integrated blues band. The white members of the band came from middle class families. Had they not fallen in love with this music they probably would have become professionals like their fathers. Instead, they gave themselves to the power of a music that had been hidden away in a part of America where few whites ever ventured. The black members of the band had known little else besides a life of ghetto bars and rural roadhouses, places where you could get shot just for standing in the wrong spot at the wrong time.
Paul Butterfield grew up in Chicago. In high school he played classical flute and starred on the track team. Through the influence of an older brother and with the urging of a chum, Nick Gravenites, Butterfield set out to find the music he had heard on the black radio stations in Chicago. This music could be heard live only on the South and West Sides in bars where the only white faces belonged to policemen. Somehow Butterfield and Gravenites made that musical culture their own. They learned all its varieties, from the hard-edged slide guitar of Elmore James to the smooth big band sound of Bobby Blue Bland. One particular blues musician captured Butterfield's imagination, Marion Walter Jacobs, known as "Little Walter". Little Walter created a new blues instrument, the amplified harmonica. A cheap instrument, invented in Germany in the 19th century, the harmonica was designed, not mainly for playing melody, but, rather, to play chords. Harmonica was not new to blues music, but its voice in the hands of Little Walter, blowing it through a cheap microphone plugged into a guitar amplifier, was brand new. The sound of vibrating brass reeds, moving a column of air that reached down into a man's innards, driving a crystal microphone in the confines of a small, air-tight accoustic space, this sound was a new voice, raw and primal, and Butterfield took it for his own. More precisely, in his own words, "the instrument chose me". He sang, too, with a strong, chesty tone and a delivery full of authority.
Elvin Bishop was the original guitarist in the Butterfield Band. Bishop came to Chicago from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to study physics at the Univeristy of Chicago on a Merit Scholarship. This award marked him as among the two or three hundred most talented high school students in the country. Bishop's stay at the University was extremely short, indeed, undoubtedly one of the shortest among his Merit peers. He left his studies to play the blues with Butterfield.
When they got a steady gig at Big John's club, Bishop and Butterfield persuaded the rhythm section of Howlin' Wolf's band to join them. Sam Lay played drums with weight-lifters' arms and a relentless, staccatto rhythm, coupled with a powerful right foot on bass drum. He was handsome, with a great processed pompadour and a deep voice that supplemented Butterfield's on certain tunes like Muddy Waters' signature song "Got My Mojo Workin'". Though one would never suspect it to look at him, his health was fragile, perhaps aggravated by a bullet wound he had suffered some years before. Illness caused him to leave the band before the sessions for the second album.
The other half of the rhythm section was Jerome Arnold, younger brother of a blues singer/harmonica-player of wide repute, Billy Boy Arnold. Jerome was quiet and unassuming; a conservative dresser given to double knits and loafers, in contrast to Sam Lay, who liked outrageous shoes and dazzling colors. As the harmonic half of the rhythm section he played the bass like a bricklayer lays bricks, in heavy, solid lines. Together Lay, Arnold and Bishop provided an unshakable, rhythmic and harmonic foundation for the Butterfield's brilliant solos.
In 1964 Elektra Records producer Paul Rothchild heard Butterfield and recognized the potential. He wanted to record the band, but he wanted Butterfield to add another guitarist, Mike Bloomfield. Bishop, the regular guitarist, had met Bloomfield before on one of his outings to neighborhood pawn shops in search of a guitar. Bishop was strumming a guitar in one pawn shop when a fast-talking kid standing behind the counter took the guitar from him and ripped of a dazzling blues arpeggio. It was Bloomfield, tending the store for his pawn brokeruncle. Bishop voiced no objection to adding Bloomfield to the band. It was Bloomfield who had to be convinced he could stand next to Butterfield on the bandstand without looking diminished. "He was bad, man," Bloomfield later said about Butterfield in a recorded interview. "That cat was bad. It took all the persuading to get me to join."
Michael Bloomfield was heir to a fortune his father made as a manufacturer of restaurant furniture. At age 21 he became the beneficiary of a $2 million trust. He was set for life, free to pursue his passion: blues guitar. As the foil to Butterfield's harp playing he become the leader of a generation of guitar heros that included Jimmi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Duane Allan, and Alvin Lee. Bloomfield had the frantic energy of a 10-year old boy, right to the end when he died in his mid-30's. When the press idolized him he was quick to tell them that he was a mere imitator of the master, B.B. King.
The seminal event that launched the Butterfield Band on the way to stardom was the Newport Folk Festival of 1965. Folk music had made its own journey in the previous decade, from the coffee house to the pop charts, led by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. No longer was it the special province of left wing intellectuals. There was still the old folk mafia and its most famous don, Pete Seeger, but the younger musicians had taken the genre to primetime air play on the new medium of FM radio. Now it was music that could make culture heros and win Grammys. Newport had become a kind of summit for the practitioners from both generations and now there was a new excitement that invested this annual rite. That year, 1965, the festival featured an afternoon session devoted to blues. A distinguished procession of old blues masters played to a worshipful crowd, who were thrilled just to see these historic figures of American music. At the session's end the M.C.introduced the Butterfield Band, who stood waiting in front of a wall of amplifiers.
The very sight of all this gear was an offense to many present. Folk music appealed to the romantic notion of the common man, the dignified peasant, the itinerant minstrel. Woody Guthrie was the patron saint of this school. According to his legend Woody was the voice of the people, defying the powers that be who would take from the poor all that was rightfully theirs -- the land, their simple dignity. Blues music was to them the music of sharecroppers exploited by rich white landowners, fieldhands who picked cotton all day in the burning sun, and none typified the blues quite so much as Mississippi John Hurt, the gentle, soft-spoken singer with parchment skin and sad eyes, who had entertained the crowd earlier in the day. A close second was Son House, the brooding, scrawny singer whose delivery made him seem possessed; eyes rolled back in his head, fingers choking the neck of his guitar. Now here came a high-wattage, racially mixed band of urbanites headed by a sullen-looking white man.
The applause that followed the introduction was polite at best, but the audience reaction was quick once Butterfield, hands cupping his harp and microphone, began to play. The instrument, this small novelty item whose notes would not even comprise a complete scale, sounded like a primitive voice originating somewhere down in his gut. He had all the authority of Little Walter and a melodic sensibility more nearly like the classic tenor men of jazz. In his mouth it moaned and quavered like the human voice at its most primal. Answering his phrases was Bloomfield's guitar, playing long sustained notes followed by brilliant cascading figures; intricate, frantic and so dazzling. The rhythm section -- the handkerchief-head on drums, the preppy black man on bass, the Merit Scholar from Tulsa on rhythm guitar -- laid down the foundation. And all the while Butterfield sang, not of failed crops and lost love, but of life in the urban jungle.
I was born in Chicago In 19 and 41. Well, my father told me Son, you had better get a gun. (Nick Gravenites)
That night another event occured which shook the musical world. At the time it eclipsed the sensation of Butterfield's debut, but in the longer run it was, perhaps, the lesser of the two. This was the debut of "folk rock", the first day Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar in public. A kind of low-grade pandemonium broke out. Some people jeered, others cheered. Backstage, Pete Seeger was livid. What Dylan was doing was a repudiation of all they had worked for. Folk music was not for hip-swiveling pretty boys to make their millions by grinding their hips and curling surly lips. It was not adolescent, it was serious, high-minded; it was not to protest the sexual morals of the older generation, it was to protest the social injustice of the system. It was holy, not profane. It was not rock and roll, it was folk music. Yet here was Dylan, leader of the younger generation of folk musicians, volunteer in the civil rights movement, singer of such sturdy hymns as "The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind", standing on the stage of the Newport Folk Festival, Fender Stratocaster slung around his neck, bellowing about "Maggie's Farm". He had to be stopped. According to witnesses, Seeger grabbed a fire ax and prepared to chop the cable to the sound system. Cooler heads prevailed.
Dylan's electric band that evening was made up of Butterfield's sidemen, and as a result, in the hagiography of American superstars the Butterfield Band is accorded the status of a footnote on a footnote, sidemen at the birth of folk rock. Now, the proper place of folk rock in the history of pop culture is not my concern. Perhaps it ranks as a phase in the diversification of musical tastes and as a chapter in the illustrious career of Bob Dylan, nee Zimmerman. In my view the importance of this day as the birth of folk rock pales beside the significance of what the day meant for blues and the collective American consciousness. This was where the blues began a headlong rush from the ghetto market of Pepticon and Hadocol to the mass market of Levi jeans and Timberline shoes. It was Paul Butterfield who slit the membrane between the two cultures, the membrane, semi-permeable though it was, which had kept Mainstream America from meeting the most important component of our nation's musical culture. Through that opening came a flood of artists who had never played before a mass audience, among them B. B. King.
B. B.'s debut with the new audience came a few years later, in 1968, at Bill Graham's Filmore West. Arriving at the address written on the contract, B.B. was sure a mistake had been made. Everything was wrong. It was the wrong part of town, the wrong kind of building, and all the faces in the crowd waiting outside were white. He sent his road manager inside to ask if it really was B.B. King they expected. There was no mistake. All this was for him. When the moment came to take the stage he heard the voice of Mike Bloomfield on the house PA announcing him as "the greatest living blues guitarist, the King Of The Blues, Mr. B... B... King". He stepped from the wings and was met with a standing ovation. Two years before his name was known to only a few thousand white Americans outside the South. Now he was treated as an object of veneration on his first-ever outing in the mainstream. It was Bloomfield and Butterfield, more than any others, who made this happen.
Within a few months of Newport, as the first album took off, Butterfield and his band became a sensation. Concerts sold out in hours. Club dates saw lines for blocks. It's hard to say which of the two, Bloomfield or Butterfield, was more popular. Bloomfield was idolized as no rock guitarist had been before. A measure of his popularity and influence on those who were learning to play blues guitar was the effect he could have on the market for vintage guitars. There was, and still is, a national network of dealers, serious collectors and musicians who buy, sell and trade the classic original guitars of rock, jazz and, starting with Bloomfield, blues. When Bloomfield would be seen playing a Gibson, Les Paul, curly maple model, the price for such originals would jump tenfold, nationwide; if he switched to the black model of the same guitar, its value would go up ten fold.
However dramatic was the appearance at Newport the key to Butterfield's impact was the first album on Electra, titled, simply "The Paul Butterfield Blues Band." On his first attempt producer Paul Rothchild recorded enough material to make a very decent album. But he knew something was missing. The power of the sound was just not there. Next, he recorded them live, over a series of New York club dates. The result had more spontaneity, but he knew he hadn't captured the particular quality that laid their audiences out cold. He resolved to try the studio again.
Returning to the studio they acquired a new band member, keyboardist Mark Naftalin. Naftalin had been a regular on the scene in Chicago when Butterfield played more spontaneous jam sessions than regular bookings. By his own account Naftalin, son of a Minneapolis academic and politician who served four terms as mayor, had known since the age of ten that there was only one thing in the world he wanted to be and that was a blues piano player. During his student days in Chicago he jammed with Butterfield and Bishop many times. At one hangout there was an upright piano just off the small stage. When Butterfield was on the bandstand Naftalin would take up the spot at the keyboard and play, often unheard for lack of amplification, never quite acknowledged as part of the band, never quite sure if Butterfield approved of his playing or even noticed him.
After graduation in 1964 Naftalin moved to New York City to get a year of conservatory training in the foundation of music theory. On the eve of the new studio session Naftalin ran into one of the Butterfield band members on the streets of New York and learned about the coming session. Would he like to come down to the studio, he was asked. He had no reason to think he was being invited to make musical history, but he needed no prodding to turn up for the first session. Bishop was late. Rothchild told Naftalin to sit at the Hammond B-3 and told the engineer to put the organ into Bishop's channel, number four of four. Whenever Elvin might show up, he and Naftalin could share number four. With tape rolling they began an instrumental warm up. They were winging it, cold. Just playing in a groove. It was an up-tempo, jazzy groove. First, Butterfield, then Bloomfield, took solos, followed by Naftalin. Then they traded licks, two-measures each. It was just over four minutes long. They named it "Thank You, Mr. Poobah" and it became the third cut on the A side of the album.
What must it have been like for Rothchild in the control room that day? Did he know at once that he was getting the elusive quality he'd been missing from the earlier efforts? The result of these sessions was an album that effected our musical history in much the same way as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band changed the musical scene, making it forever after different. Three Butterfield Blues Band albums on Elektra followed, but none compared in influence to the first. Since its release in 1965 The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (Elektra EKS-7294) has remained in print without interruption.
Initially, I thought the book might be a biography of Paul Butterfield, but Mark Naftalin changed my mind. I asked him about Butterfield the man, and Butterfield the story. Was Butterfield a character worth writing a book about? Did he have a life whose story was worth telling? Before letting him answer I told him about my own crushing disappointment upon meeting Butterfield and spending an afternoon with him beside the pool at a Howard Johnson Motel, north of Boston. I came away from three hours in the presence of the master feeling utterly empty. How could someone who had so profoundly moved me have so little to say to me in person, I wondered then, and told Naftalin now. "I'm glad you put it to me that way," he began, "so I won't feel bad for saying that I had much the same experience over a longer period of time." [An approximate quote taken from recollection.] According to him, Butterfield was an unerring musician. "In all the times I heard him play, man, I never heard him blow a false note. Almost on a nightly basis, he would blow me away, sometimes with a single note, played with just the right feeling. Yet for all the time I spent with him I could never feel I got inside the man. Now, as a musician, Bloomfield was the exact opposite. He would go right off the rails, regularly, but he was so brilliant, so quick, that, before you could notice, he would be onto something else, something dazzling; it didn't matter how wrong he'd been just a moment ago. But Paul never went wrong. "
So, if it's not a biography of Butterfield, what kind of book is it? Naftalin cautioned me that it would be difficult to separate the unique impact of the Butterfield Band from the effect of the times. Indeed, the success of the band had much to do with the nature of the times. The musical climate made possible things that couldn't have happened just a few years before. Musicians were crossing barriers that had previously been inviolable. Does this make the book a history of the time? Certainly not. The musicians of the Butterfield Band came together independent of the times; it's rather the other way around: they had a strong hand in making the times. What's more, it would be a mistake to turn the book into a polemic, that is, an attempt to prove that Butterfield launched urban blues on its odyssey from Pepticon to Levi's. No, this book is to be the biography of a band. If I just tell the story of the band, who they were, how they came together, what they did together, and, briefly, what became of them, I will give the readers something of value.
I am convinced that this book represents a unique opportunity to tell a story of great importance to our cultural history, one that will engage and enlighten readers, and one which I am uniquely qualified to write. My conviction in the importance and vitality of this story is just as strong as the conviction which lay behind my ten year pursuit of B.B. King's life story. That conviction carried me past seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the form of indifferent publishers; past the efforts of editors determined to remake my book to fit their preconceptions; past these obstacles to the realization of a finished book which won critical praise including Book Of The Year award from Leonard Feather, LA Times' music critic, and the commercial success of three hardback printings and paperback editions in four countries.
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