Paul Butteriield lived a tortured life, wracked by drugs and alcohol. But before he died at the age of 44, he and his blues band had revolutionized blues. Besides simply proving that white boys could play the blues with feeling and versatility, he expanded the music by incorporating an unheard of variety of outside influences, from ragas to jazz, into the blues he played. He ushered, in psychedelic rock music, helped invent blues-rock and set a standard for jamming that few groups have been able to meet since.
Paul Butterfield was born on December 17, 1942 to a middle-class family in the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Butterfield grew up listening to blues and jazz on records that belonged to his brother and father, and on all-night blues shows on the radio. In high school, he was an all-state track star and a talented classical flutist. He was offered a scholarship to Brown University but turned it down to attend the University of Chicago in Hyde Park.
Part of the U of C’s attraction lay in the fact that Hyde Park was surrounded on three sides by Chicago’s black South Side. As a teenager, Butterfield was drawn to the blues clubs in the black belt where the greats of Chicago blues were still performing regularly: Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Magic Sam, Otis Rush and others. He soon started playing blues guitar himself. While at U of C Butterfield met another young white blues fanatic, Elvin Bishop. “We gravitated together real quick,” Bishop recalled, “and started playing parties around the neighborhood, you know, just acoustic. He 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 become as good as he ever got in that six months.”
Butterfield’s main influences were Little Walter Jacobs, Muddy Waters and Otis Spann. He learned harp under fire, jamming in the clubs with his heroes. “I never practiced the harp in my life,” Butterfield once told Downbeat, “Never. I would just blow it. Muddy knows that I used to come down to him and play some nothing stuff but nobody ever said ‘Well, man, you’re not playing too well.’” In the same interview, however, Muddy Waters pointed out that even then Butterfield had something unique in both his harp playing and his singing.
Eventually Butterfield dropped out of college to devote himself full-time to music. His first break came when Big John’s, a Chicago blues bar, invited him and Bishop to play regularly. They accepted, and put together the Butterfield Blues Band, luring bass player Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay away from Howlin Wolf’s band with promise of more money. The band was one of the first racially mixed blues groups. In 1965, they brought Michael Bloomfield, who was also playing around Chicago at the time, in to play lead guitar. The group’s energy stunned the Chicago blues scene and it wasn’t long before they had a recording contract with Elektra Records. While they were making that first album, Mark Naftalin sat in on Hammond organ. His contribution—to eight of the album’s eleven cuts—was so impressive that he stayed in the group after the sessions were finished. The band was renamed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
That first album, simply titled, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, released in 1965, electrified the rock world. These songs were more than just covers of the old blues classics. They indicated a unique sensibility and pushed both blues and rock onto a new plain. Such was the impact of Butterfield’s band that it was the first electric group ever invited to play the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. After they finished their well-received set, they took part in one of the legendary performances in rock history: they joined Bob Dylan onstage and accompanied him in his first performance with electric instruments. The set shocked the folk purists in the crowd, calling forth catcalls and boos. According to Butterfield, Pete Seeger even tried to cut the band’s power cables backstage to force them to stop playing.
The second album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, 1966’s East-West, explored uncharted territory. Called
Born December 17, 1942, Chicago, IL. Married twice; two sons, Gabe and Lee. Died May 4, 1987, Los Angeles, CA.
Formed first Butterfield Blues band with Elvin bishop (guitar), Jerone Arnold (bass), and Sam Lay (drums), 1963; Mike Bloomfield and Mark Naftalin joined band in 1965; band renamed Paul Butterfield blues Band; played Newpport folk Festival, 1965; played Woodstock Music Festival, 1969; formed Better Days, 1972; toured with Rick Danko as butterfield-Danko Band, 1976; reformed his blues band, 1983.
the first psychedelic album, it introduced an eclectic mix of new elements to the blues, including jazz, country and even Indian music. The 13-minute title track was one of the first extended jams on a rock album, setting a trend in rock that would eventually become de rigueur in hard rock.
The Butterfield band began to change in the latter half of the 1960s. The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw was recorded without Mike Bloomfield, who had left to form the Electric Flag, and with a horn section (including the sax of David Sanborn). After the album’s release, as it began to move toward a more rhythm & blues sound, Naftalin left the group. The group played the Woodstock Festival in 1969 and, that same year, Butterfield reunited with Bloomfield and Muddy Waters to make the record Fathers and Sons.
Not long afterwards, Butterfield moved to a house in Woodstock and a long period of decline began for the musician. He disbanded the band to form a new group, Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, which recorded two relatively uninspired albums. For the rest of the 1970s, Butterfield performed only infrequently, mainly guesting on the records of other artists, making no records of his own. His appearance at the Band’s Last Waltz concert was a high point in a period otherwise dominated to increasingly severe alcohol and drug problems.
In 1980, his health took a turn for the worse. He collapsed while recording and was found to have a perforated intestine. Over the next few years he was operated on four times for diverticulitis and peritonitis. Around 1983, a fan of Butterfield’s, Ray Godfrey, heard about the bad shape Butterfield was in. An investment banker, Godfrey set out to organize a limited partnership that would raise money to fund the regeneration of Butterfield’s career. A manager was found, a band put together, and Butterfield returned to touring, often playing with as much intensity as he had ever showed onstage. In 1986 he recorded his last album, The Legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band Rides Again. The high point of his rejuvenated career was said to be his appearance at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert in 1987. He gave a moving speech to his old friend and mentor, Muddy Waters, who was being inducted into the Hall. He then led the assembled musicians in a spirited performance of “Dancin’ in the Streets.”
In late April, Butterfield’s chronic stomach and liver problems flared up again and he had to be admitted to a hospital in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Days later, on May, 4, 1987, he was found dead in his home in Los Angeles. Shortly before his death, he had filmed a TV special with guitarist B.B. King. King later eulogized Butterfield saying “Paul was a great harmonica player, right up there with Sonny Boy Williamson, Rice Miller and Little Walter Jacobs.” If Butterfield’s music could be uneven, it always remained intensely personal and hearfelt. “I can’t believe it when cats talk about music,” he once told Rolling Stone, “and it has nothing to do with the basic concept: to make you feel good, to give something to you… The only thing I think about music is that it should be honest.”
Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elektra, 1965.
East-West, Elektra, 1966.
The Ressurection of Pig boy Crabshaw, Elektra, 1967.
The Original Lost Elektra Sessions, Rhino, 1995.
East-West Live, Winner, 1996.
Erlewene, Michael, Vladimir Bogdana, Chris Woodstra, and Cub Koda. All Music Guide to the Blues, San Francisco; Freeman Books, 1996.
Downbeat, August 1987; September 1989.
Esquire, October 1987.
Rolling Stone, June 18, 1987