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Paul Butterfield

+ {Paul Butterfield Blues Band} + {Paul Butterfield’s Better Days}

In almost the same way that JOHN MAYALL had been a white boy catalyst for the development of blues music in Britain, PAUL BUTTERFIELD was America’s leading light in the transition of the genre. Together with his Blues Band, BUTTERFIELD held an advantage over MAYALL, in that he was able to sit in and play with all the true greats, including HOWLIN’ WOLF, MUDDY WATERS and LITTLE WALTER; the latter even took on the role of mentor for the talented young harmonica man. Paul didn’t quite have the greatest voice in the world (his friend MIKE BLOOMFIELD had a similar obstacle), but he was a formidable harpist, strictly following in the footsteps of JAMES COTTON, BIG WALTER HORTON and SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON. Paul was arguably the first white man to play blues with the same passion as the great black pioneers; and in time that was never in doubt.
Born Paul Vaughn Butterfield, December 17, 1942, Chicago, Illinois, his first band was a quartet consisting of ex-HOWLIN’ WOLF rhythm section: Sammy Lay on drums and bassist Jerome Arnold (brother of harpist BILLY BOY ARNOLD), guitarist Elvin Bishop, and Paul himself. By the time he’d signed to Elektra Records (after being discovered by producer Paul Rothchild), the band had swelled to a quintet with the notable inclusion of lead guitarist and rising star Mike Bloomfield. That same year, 1965, on manager Albert Grossman’s recommendation, the five supported DYLAN at the Newport Folk Festival; BUTTERFIELD and Co gained the infamous distinction of being the band who helped in the bard’s musical heresy of going electric.
the PAUL BUTTERFIELD BLUES band {*8} – as stylised – was released in October ’65, and from the first bars of Nick Gravenites’ `Born In Chicago’, it was clear that they knew exactly what they were doing. Only a few tracks had been home-grown (highlight: `Thank You Mr. Poobah’ penned by Paul, Mike and 6th member Mark Naftalin), so sourcing staple songs from ELMORE JAMES (`Shake Your Money Maker’), MUDDY WATERS (`I Got My Mojo Working’; with Lay on vocals), WILLIE DIXON (`Mellow Down Easy’), LITTLE WALTER (`Blues With A Feeling’ and `Last Night’), and JUNIOR PARKER (`Mystery Train’), it all possessed a déjà vu YARDBIRDS motif.
On the Top 75 sophomore set, EAST-WEST (1966) {*9}, Sam was ill and was duly replaced by Billy Davenport; the record also saw the upgrade to full-time member of organist Naftalin. The BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND – as they were now billed – went beyond the strict realms of the blues by utilising compositions by jazz man NAT ADDERLEY (`Work Song’), ALLEN TOUSSAINT (`Get Out Of My Life, Woman’) and MICHAEL NESMITH (`Mary, Mary’), although highlights flowed through ROBERT JOHNSON’s `Walkin’ Blues’, MUDDY WATERS’ `Two Trains Running’, public domain pieces, and an all-encompassing, concluding 13-minute-long instrumental title track featuring psychedelic lead guitar licks from Mike and haunting harmonica from Paul. MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD duly quit to find his feet with The ELECTRIC FLAG; suffixed initially by “An American Music Band” for the soundtrack to `The Trip’, and a bona fide concern thereafter.
BUTTERFIELD, meanwhile, dusted down his lapel and added a brass section consisting of Gene Dinwiddie, David Sanborn and Keith Johnson, in order to complement retainers Elvin Bishop and Mark Naftalin, and fresh rhythm section, Bugsy Maugh and Phil Wilson. Referring to the nickname of Bishop (now on lead guitar), THE RESURRECTION OF PIGBOY CRABSHAW (1967) {*7} saw a dramatic switch to R&B and blue-eyed soul, that for the most part worked in the context that it nearly cracked the Top 50. Nine tracks in all, but only a couple credited to the pen of Paul (and a band member), this was probably the catalyst for purist blues devotees; with the exception of their rendition of OSCAR BROWN, JR.’s `Driftin’ And Driftin’; the Warren “Pete” Moore (of The MIRACLES) co-composer connection was less effective on opener, `One More Heartache’. Of the others, such as the infectious ROOSEVELT SYKES’ `Drivin’ Wheel’, OTIS RUSH’s `Double Trouble’, Deadric Malone’s `Pity The Fool’ and WILLIE DIXON’s `Tollin’ Bells’, only possibly BOOKER T JONES & William Bell’s `Born Under A Bad Sign’ let the side down, as it had just been covered by CREAM.
For the blues band’s next offering, IN MY OWN DREAM (1968) {*6}, there was little reliance on cover versions, just honest-to-goodness home-grown tracks penned by either Bugsy, Elvin or crooner-ish Paul (and David); the exception to the rule was outsider piece from Bernard Roth, `Just To Be With You’.
Minus Natfalin and the solo-bound ELVIN BISHOP, The BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND was indeed a different proposition from whence the group began. For 1969’s rather average and unappealing KEEP ON MOVING {*5}, fresh meat to complement guitarist Dinwiddle, Wilson, Sanborn and Johnson, had been found via Howard “Buzz” Feiten (organ/guitar/French horn/vocals), bassist Rod Hicks (and Fred Beckmeier), pianist Ted Harris, trumpeter Steve Madaio and baritone saxophonist Trevor Lawrence. The low point came with the appalling `Love March’, which PB chose, for reasons only known to himself, to play at Woodstock in ‘69. With BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS and CHICAGO already leading the way under this R&B spotlight, there was little room for another ensemble to prop up the underside of the album charts.
For the LIVE (1970) {*5} double-set, PB only retained Harris, Dinwiddie, Lawrence, Hicks and Madaio, and roped in guitarist Ralph Walsh and drummer George Davidson. The latter moved aside for Dennis Whitted when time came close to record their next studio venture; though SOMETIMES I JUST FEEL LIKE SMILIN’ (1971) {*4}, seemed to suggest PB’s band were treading water. The singer was now contributing less and less harmonica. He then upped sticks to Woodstock in order to recuperate when his contract with Elektra ran out.
Towards the fall of ‘72, the main man inked a deal with Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Records, for whom PAUL BUTTERFIELD’S BETTER DAYS recorded a couple of albums before they split. Notable for sharing vocal duties with his friend and guitar player Geoff Muldaur (ex-JIM KWESKIN BAND), and the recruitment of keyboardist Ronnie Barron (ex-DR. JOHN), guitarist/bassist Amos Garrett (ex-JESSIE WINCHESTER BAND), bassist Billy Rich (ex-TAJ MAHAL) and drummer Christopher Parker, the eponymous PAUL BUTTERFIELD’S BETTER DAYS (1973) {*7} was a tad better than the follow-up, IT ALL COMES BACK (1973) {*6}. The aforesaid self-titled set featured horizontal, New Orleans-styled arrangements once the property of PERCY MAYFIELD, BIG JOE WILLIAMS, ERIC VON SCHMIDT, NINA SIMONE and PB’s friends Nick Gravenites on `Buried Alive In The Blues’ and BOBBY CHARLES on a few. And another to bubble under the Top 100, the reflective second set carried on in much the same vein; Paul and Bobby teaming up for `Take Your Business Where You Find It’ and `Win Or Lose’; Ronnie for `It’s Getting Harder To Survive’ and `Louisiana Flood’ (with Dr. JOHN); auxiliary member Bobby served up the title track finale and `Small Town Talk’ (along with RICK DANKO).
Apart from an appearance on MUDDY WATERS’ `The Woodstock Album’ in ’75; that closed the chapter on Chess Records, little was heard from PAUL BUTTERFIELD until early 1976, when he released his first session-friendly solo set, PUT IT IN YOUR EAR {*4}. Augmented by a handful of songs from producer Henry Glover, PB’s blues had sunk irretrievably. That year also saw Paul make a guest appearance on The BAND’s farewell concert that latter morphed into “The Last Waltz”; in this he duetted with LEVON HELM on `Mystery Train’, played harmonica for MUDDY WATERS on `Mannish Boy’, and was part of the all-star cast on `I Shall Be Released’.
In 1981, PAUL BUTTERFIELD attempted another solo comeback by recording the Warner Bros/Willie Mitchell-produced NORTH SOUTH {*3} set. Another funky LP that veered into a dirge-y disco beat, only the concluding piece `Baby Blue’ had Paul’s old-hat trademark on board. During the sessions he’d fallen seriously ill with peritonitis (caused by his powerful harmonica playing), and the album was delayed while he underwent two operations.
His pressurised return to live work in L.A. failed to re-ignite his past popularity, and it was possibly at this stage, while in pain, he became addicted to heroin.
In 1986, after a further lengthy recording silence, the overwrought THE LEGENDARY PAUL BUTTERFIELD RIDES AGAIN {*3} was released by Amherst Records. An attempt at pop/rock, there was little compensation for his blues fans to salivate; with the exception of `Mannish Boy’. Composer Joe Droukas was on hand for a few bits and pieces, but covers of DYLAN’s `The Wandering Kind’ and BLONDIE CHAPLIN’s `Don’t You Hang Me Up’, bore little resemplance to PB’s great work of yesteryear.
As the album faded into the background, a near-bankrupt BUTTERFIELD was tragically found dead on May 4, 1987, in his north Hollywood flat. Another casualty of a drug overdose, Paul found to his cost that it was easier to get into the blues than it was to get out. However, his legacy remains as one of the greatest harmonica players of the 20th century.
© MC Strong 1994-2002/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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