Born: December 17, 1942 in Chicago IL
Died: May 4, 1987 in Los Angeles CA
Paul Butterfield was the first blues harp player of distinction, an influential artist and bandleader who would bring the blues sound of his hometown to the world. The ground-breaking, multi-racial Paul Butterfield Blues Band would introduce Chicago blues music to a white audience, influencing a generation of young musicians to pick up a harmonica or guitar and pursue a career in the blues.
Born In Chicago
Born and raised in Chicago, Butterfield originally studied classical flute as a teenager. He fell in love with the sound of blues harp, though, and taught himself to play the harmonica. Butterfield had such natural talent on the instrument that he was sitting in with the city's blues royalty, artists like Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam, when he was a mere sixteen years old. Haunting the city's blues clubs with his friend Nick Gravenites, a singer and guitarist in his own right, Butterfield became a familiar face on the Chicago club scene.
Butterfield met guitarist Elvin Bishop when they were both students at the University of Illinois in Chicago during the early 1960s. Both aspired to make a career of music, and to this end they began playing together. They worked their way around Chicago's South Side blues clubs, sitting in whenever possible, and although they were the only white musicians on the scene, they were accepted by the older artists for their talent, energy, and enthusiasm for the music.
Paul Butterfield Blues Band
In 1963, Butterfield and Bishop were offered a gig as the house band at the North Side club Big John's. Recruiting bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay from Howlin' Wolf's band, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was formed. The city's first multi-racial blues quartet quickly made a name for itself through their hard-driving live performances, and they soon came to the attention of producer Paul Rothchild. With the addition of guitarist Michael Bloomfield, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was signed to Elektra Records.
Several sessions were recorded for the band's debut album, although everything but a rockin' version of old friend Nick Gravenites' "Born In Chicago" - included on Folksong '65, an Elektra compilation album - would later be scrapped. The song, which would become one of Butterfield's signature tunes, created a buzz around the band and they went back into the studio during the summer of 1965, with new member Mark Naftalin on keyboards, to record their eponymous debut LP.
The Newport Folk Festival
Before the late-1965 release of their debut album, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band performed at the Newport Folk Festival. Their set so impressed headliner Bob Dylan that he recruited the band, sans Butterfield, to back him during his infamous electric set at the festival. The release of the band's debut hit the rock world like a ton of TNT, exposing many new fans to their first taste of the Chicago blues sound, and introducing the white audience to the band's influences like Little Walter and Muddy Waters. The album has since become considered a classic of the genre.
Before Butterfield and the band could follow-up on the success of their debut album, Sam Lay accidently shot himself in the leg and had to leave the band, to be replaced by jazz-trained drummer Billy Davenport. The addition of Davenport would help feed the band's musical ambitions. East-West, their sophomore effort, would be released in 1966 as the Butterfield Blues Band. The album's lengthy title track featured a near-perfect melding of blues, jazz, rock, psychedelia, and Eastern raga, while the rest of the songs would make the statement that this was a band not to be constrained by blues traditions.
Woodstock & Beyond
Although East-West would be met with nearly universal critical acclaim, it would sell only modestly, and Bloomfield would leave the band in 1967 to form Electric Flag with Gravenites. Bishop would move into the guitar spotlight for The Resurrection of Pigboy Crenshaw, Butterfield taking the band into a more R&B influenced direction with the new rhythm section of bassist Bugsy Maugh, drummer Phil Wilson, and a horn section that included David Sanborn. They would play the legendary Monterey International Pop Festival during 1967.
The band released its fourth album, In My Own Dream, the following year, after which both Bishop and Naftalin would leave, Bishop to launch a lengthy and successful solo career. With its "salad days" behind them, it was a far different Paul Butterfield Blues Band that would perform at Woodstock than that which appeared at Newport a few years previous. A fifth album, Keep On Moving, would be released in 1969, and Butterfield would perform on the all-star Muddy Waters' compilation Fathers and Sons. After one more studio album and a live recording, Butterfield broke up the band in 1970.
Living in the laid-back musician's enclave of Woodstock, New York Butterfield would put together a new band called Better Days with guitarist Amos Garrett, folk duo Geoff and Maria Muldaur, and various other musicians, including Bay area legend Merl Saunders. The loose-knit band would release two albums - 1972's Better Days and 1973's It All Comes Back - neither of which sold well. In 1975, Butterfield would play behind his old friend Muddy Waters on the blues great's The Woodstock Album, the last title released by Chess Records.
Butterfield would make his proper solo debut in 1976, releasing the lackluster Put It In Your Ear. The blues harp master would keep busy with session work through the end of the 1970s, and toured with the Band's Levon Helm and his RCO All Stars. Butterfield's second solo album, 1981's North-South, was plagued by period production and the overuse of synthesizers, and he would release his last album, The Legendary Paul Butterfield Rides Again, in 1986. Butterfield would die in May 1987 at the age of 45, suffering a heart attack that was probably brought on by years of drug and alcohol abuse.
Recommended Albums: The classic self-titled first album is the only place to start, and you can follow that with the ambitious, magnificent East-West, a great showcase for both Butterfield's harp and Bloomfield's guitar. An Anthology: The Elektra Years, provides a taste of the band's 1960's work from across the years.
Paul Butterfield - Select Discography
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- The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (Elektra Records, 1965)
- East-West (Elektra Records, 1966)
- The Resurrection of Pigboy Crenshaw (Elektra Records, 1967)
- In My Own Dream (Elektra Records, 1968)
- Keep On Moving (Elektra Records, 1969)
- Live (Elektra Records, 1970)
- Paul Butterfield's Better Days (Bearsville Records, 1973)
- The Legendary Paul Butterfield Rides Again (Amherst Records, 1986)
- An Anthology: The Elektra Years (Elektra Records, 1997)