Have harmonica, will rock. That could have been Paul Butterfield’s slogan. Blues is at the root of rock and roll, but Butterfield’s commitment to the two genres benefited both equally.
The Chicago native, born in 1942, was in the right city for the blues. He started on classical flute, studying with a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But the blues harmonica fascinated him. He once said of it, “It’s such a personal instrument. It’s really like a horn from the heart.” Horn from the Heart is the title of a 2017 documentary about this man, whose life has previously not been well documented.
As a young man he slid himself into the Chicago blues scene, along with songwriter Nick Gravenites, listening to and jamming with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, who seem to have welcomed the enthusiastic teen into their fold. Butterfield tried college, at his parents’ insistence, but music had a stronger pull. He dropped out and focused on finding gigs. In 1963 he got his chance: he could play four nights a week at a blues club called Big John’s, but they wouldn’t take a solo act. So, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was born.
Both the band and its audience were interracial, a rarity at the time. Elektra Records noticed the group’s energy and appeal to young listeners and offered a deal on the condition that Butterfield add guitarist Mike Bloomfield to his lineup, making original member Elvin Bishop the rhythm guitar player. Butterfield’s bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay used to work with Howlin’ Wolf.
Their debut Elektra album, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, came out in 1965. It was not an easy birth. The label’s founder and house producer, Paul Rothchild, was repeatedly disappointed in the band’s sessions. (You can hear some of the rejected tracks on a CD called The Original Lost Elektra Sessions.) Eventually, with Bloomfield promoted to lead guitar and organist Mark Naftalin added to the group, they found their magic. “Born in Chicago” is the album’s signature track, but there’s more to explore here. On a song Butterfield wrote with Bishop, “Our Love Is Drifting,” the aching counterpoint between Butterfield’s vocal and Bloomfield’s guitar illustrates the deep understanding of the blues these guys had.
Lay developed health problems and had to leave the band, so for the next album they found a new drummer, Billy Davenport. He had more experience in jazz than blues, translating into a more diffuse drum sound that focuses on cymbal-brush. Another change was in Bishop’s role: he now got to play lead guitar on some songs.
What really matters, though, is the ensemble as a whole. You can hear in their cover of Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Running” the tightness and energy of their performance. There’s also an edge of psychedelia from the distortion employed in Paul Rothchild’s sound production. The mixed-genre influence helped their second album, East-West (1966), sell much better than their first. It’s practically a training manual in how to play blues rock.
The band kept developing. Bloomfield left, making Bishop the permanent lead guitarist. Going for an R&B sound, the 1967 album The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw includes a horn section. Saxophonists David Sanborn and Gene Dinwiddie played backup and solos on 1968’s In My Own Dream, and there were two more personnel changes in the band: Bugsy Maugh played bass (and sang several of his own songs for the album) and jazzman Philip Wilson played drums.
But the record couldn’t find its audience. The mixing of genres was now more than the fickle public could take. Blues rock had been taken over by the British Invasion and players like Eric Clapton and John Mayall, making Butterfield’s band sound too gritty. Too Black. That was the audience’s loss, of course, since the band was in peak form, even without Bloomfield’s hot guitar licks. Here’s Maugh doing lead vocals on his “Get Yourself Together,” from In My Own Dream.
After playing a set at Woodstock (which, unfortunately, didn’t make it into the movie, although you can dig up most of the tracks on various CD retrospectives), the band settled in to make their fifth album, Keep on Moving, in 1969. At this point, Butterfield himself was the only remaining original member. He stayed true to the trajectory of the previous couple of albums, allowing the jazz and R&B influences to flourish despite the dwindling market for those sounds. Dinwiddie’s role expanded to include keyboard, guitars, and some songwriting; Buzz Feiten shares guitar duties as well as covering organ.
Things were winding down for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Their last hurrah was Sometimes I Just Feel Like Smilin’, a heavily soul-flavored album, from 1971. “Trainman” is a Dinwiddie original.
It took just over a year for Butterfield to build a new band, which he called Paul Butterfield’s Better Days. They made two albums, both in 1973. While R&B was still in the mix, the jazz influence had subsided, replaced by a roots-music focus that celebrated a wide range of blues subgenres.
There’s also a touch of country, as on “Done a Lot of Wrong Things” from the Better Days album. That sound would have been hard to imagine in the Butterfield Blues Band years, but Butterfield takes to it naturally, helped by a team of multi-instrumentalists and singers that includes Geoff Muldaur, Amos Garrett, and Ronnie Barron.
When Better Days proved to be short-lived, Butterfield turned his attention to a solo career, putting out albums every few years.
His first solo effort, Put It in Your Ear (1976), employs a wide range of styles. Some of the songs, like the Bobby Charles number “Here I Go Again,” use country and soft jazz elements in their arrangements. On the other hand, there’s the uptempo cover of Henry Glover’s “Watch ʼEm Tell a Lie,” which shows off Butterfield’s rhythm skills on the harmonica as well as his gift for vibrant solos. The weakest aspect of this record is the overproduction of the drum sound (four different players are listed), which ends up taking over in an unforgiving, almost robotic way.
After North South in 1981, Butterfield’s final album was The Legendary Paul Butterfield Rides Again. It was released in 1986, less than a year before his death from a drug overdose in 1987 at only 44 years old. His voice is weak – besides his drug problems, he had been suffering for several years from intestinal inflammation that required multiple surgeries – but the old Paul Butterfield spirit is still there.
By welcoming him posthumously into both the Blues Hall of Fame (2006) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2016), America has appropriately acknowledged the importance of that musical spirit.
Header image courtesy of Wikipedia/Rtsanderson.