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Paul Butterfield: Origins of an Originator

Tom Reney Blogs on a Blues-Rock Innovator

Paul Butterfield Blues Band members Mike Bloomfield, Butterfield (bottom) and Jerome Arnold at the Newport Folk Festival, 1965

Martin Scorsese captured something of Paul Butterfield’s heroic stature in the way he framed the harmonica player’s appearance in The Last Waltz. Preceding an interlude in which the Band recounts meeting Sonny Boy Williamson near the end of his life in Helena, Ark., the blues portion of the concert begins with Butterfield, who was essentially the blues harp’s proxy in rock, framed in a long shot against a black background with no other musicians visible. Eventually Levon Helm comes into view; otherwise it’s all Paul as the band shuttles through the rhythms of “Mystery Train.”

A few years earlier, at another celebrated concert, Greil Marcus observed Butterfield backstage at Woodstock and was impressed with how deferential the Band and members of Blood, Sweat and Tears were toward him. Marcus wrote, “Butterfield’s…impact on rock and roll is incalculable and he is very much a father of the modern scene, as crucial to the emergence of San Francisco or Bob Dylan as anyone in the country. Butterfield’s first band and his first records broke down the doors and brought hundreds of musicians that are now famous into the light…[and] the jovial respect the Band showed him that night was simply more proof of his dignity. He’s a dignified fellow – black tie shoes, beat-up jacket, his hair cut in the style of Chicago’s hillbilly ghetto. He was, in fact, the only bluesman on the stage, and the way he carried himself provided a sense of what that word really means.”

You might assume that a player of such singular renown would be a first ballot shoe-in for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, which the Butterfield Blues Band was nominated for this year, but they didn’t make the cut. It’s not that the Hall means that much to me, but as an institution that will inevitably grow in stature as an authority on how popular music history is written, it does matter that it honor the right players and get the story straight. Twentieth century American music is rife with tales of neglected, exploited and forgotten originators, but the Hall’s main criteria for membership, “influence” and “significance of contributions,” suggests that it’s trying to make an accurate accounting of a legacy that’s often obscured by time and secondary, show biz motives.

Time may well be the chief reason why Butterfield, and his band’s legendary guitarist, Mike Bloomfield, were neglected by the Hall as individuals, and have now failed to garner enough votes as the collective Paul Butterfield Blues Band. They’ve both been dead for over 25 years, their most significant work was done over 40 years ago, and neither had a hit record. Those are difficult odds to surmount, but the historical record still speaks resoundingly for the “influence” and “significance” of the band and its leader.

Paul Butterfield is an archetypal figure in American music, a young white man who played the blues with startling authenticity and projected through black music a figure both daring and romantic, an iconic blend of dedicated virtuoso and pugnacious street tough. B.B. King’s biographer Charles Sawyer saw him as a figure who went directly from boyhood to middle age, skipping adolescence altogether. Butter was only 22 when he cut his debut recordings, but he came across as startlingly mature, and his no-nonsense approach raised the stakes for everyone else. Barry Goldberg, the keyboard player who worked with Bob Dylan and was a founding member of the Electric Flag, says, “Paul’s whole vibe, his whole persona, was of greatness.” Songwriter Joel Zoss, who first met him in Chicago around 1963, told me, “To know Paul was to touch real greatness. You knew you were walking with a master.”

In a 1971 interview, Butterfield allowed that when Muddy Waters first invited him onto the bandstand, he wasn’t yet a master of much, “But everybody there was saying, ‘Yeah, go ahead man, out of sight!’ They were humoring me, but that was okay because if they had said, ‘Please, man, come on, stop,’ I might never have gone on.” In a joint interview with Waters and Butterfield that Downbeat featured as a cover story in 1969, Muddy remembered of his young charge, “He wasn’t too good when I first noticed him, but he got good…And you always had this particular thing, this something that everybody don’t have, this thing you’re born with, this touch. ‘Cause you used to sing this little song and have the joint going pretty good. As soon as you’d walk in, I’d say ‘You’re on next, man.”

For many who were captivated by Butterfield’s legend as it came to light in the ’60s, he embodied the myth of a hero whose quest requires him to journey through forbidding lands. Mike Bloomfield was a witness to Butter’s odyssey, and related it in these words in a Rolling Stone interview in 1968: “Butter wanted to play harp. And he went down there, Butter went down there when he was a young man, right down on the street which was the hardest scene in the world, the baddest, filled with bad motherfuckers…Butter went down there with his harp and he sucked up to Junior Wells, and [James] Cotton, and Little Walter. After a bit, Butter got better than them…I was just sort of a white kid hanging around, and not really playing the shit right, but Paul was there man… He held his own. God, did he hold his own.”

Actually, Butter didn’t go “down there” so much as he went “over” to the South Side from his boyhood home near the University of Chicago. His father was known on the South Side for the pro bono work he provided as a lawyer, his mother worked at the University, and his older brother Peter kept jazz and blues spinning on the turntable at home. Music and art lessons were encouraged, and Paul studied flute with the Chicago Symphony’s principle flutist, sang in the church choir, and played baseball and ran track and field. The latter brought him a scholarship offer from Brown University, but a knee injury curtailed that dream and kept him closer to home at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Before his first semester was over, however, he was back in Hyde Park, where he soon met guitarist Elvin Bishop, a U of C student who’d caught the blues bug as a teenager in Tulsa.

Bishop told Butterfield chronicler Tom Ellis that his subject was a quick study. “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 get about as good as he got in that six months. He was just a natural genius. This was in 1960 or 1961. By this time Butter had been hanging out in the ghetto for a couple of years, and he was part of the scene and getting accepted.”

Butterfield’s main model was Little Walter Jacobs, who established in the early ’50’s the style of amplified harp playing that remains the norm to this day. Jacobs and Louis Myers, who’s best known for his guitar playing with Walter and Junior Wells but was also a fine harp player, spoke of Butterfield in a 1967 interview. “This kid, this Paul Butterfield, white boy playin’ harp, he play pretty good…I had been minglin’ with this kid all the time,” Myers recalled, “He was huntin’ sounds, you know.” Little Walter interjected, “Tryin’ to find that little thing in there,” then Myers continued, “He was looking for sounds…he determined that right away…and me and him would have harp battles…I know what he’s huntin’, sounds, [’cause] that harp is more than a notion, boy.”

Few roads taken in rock have entailed what Butterfield risked as a young player seeking to master an idiom in the presence of its creators, some of whom were supportive, others hostile or skeptical. Sam Lay, the great blues drummer who eventually worked with Butterfield, says that when he first heard Smokey Smothers tell of a “white boy” who was going to sit in on harp, he thought, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Lay added that Butter’s playing “shocked me.”

What shocked Sam Lay was not only Butterfield’s youthful, race-transcending mastery of the humble 10-hole Marine Band harmonica (of which he utilized the instrument’s first six holes only), but the emotional expressiveness he projected through it. As his music quickly evolved beyond the basics of the 12-bar blues to incorporate jazz, soul, and modal forms, he crafted a deeply personal sound in which tone was never sacrificed to technique. Bloomfield humorously asserted, “If Butterfield was a tuna-fish sandwich, he’d still be blues,” and his ability to cut through complex arrangements and horn-laden charts with the textures of blues feeling induced awe in his fans and the legions of would-be harp players he spawned. Butterfield invariably said that at its heart, music comes down to the expression of a “feeling,” and in 1983 he cut a harmonica instruction tape in which he called the instrument, “the heart’s horn,” and said, “It can cry better than most…and can bring out a lot of different kinds of emotion and feelings.”

Butterfield was hardly alone as a young white kid in the ’60s with a passion for blues. The Windy City was home to other aspirants including Bloomfield, Bishop, Nick Gravenites, and the transplanted Mississippi native, Charlie Musselwhite, who was initially puzzled when he ventured into South Side clubs and heard the locals addressing him as “Paul.” (Another example of how unusual the presence of whites was at South Side venues was related by Muddy, who said that when he first saw Butterfield show up at Smitty’s Corner, he took him for an IRS agent.) In New York, Al Kooper and Danny Kalb formed the Blues Project, while Geoff Muldaur and other folk musicians in Cambridge dug deep into country blues and jug band music. Bob Dylan absorbed everything, of course, while across the pond the Stones, Yardbirds, Van Morrison, and Eric Clapton made no secret of their devotion to American R&B. But outside of Clapton’s humbling encounter with Sonny Boy Williamson when the irascible blues great toured England in 1963, most of these players learned the music from records, while the Chicagoans honed their chops under the scrutiny of the originators themselves.

By 1963, Butterfield’s local renown led to a long residency at Big John’s, a North Side establishment in Old Town that Bloomfield likened to Haight-Ashbury. At Big John’s, he not only began to establish a reputation for himself with industry executives like Paul Rothchild, who signed him to Elektra Records in 1965, but also helped Chicago’s finest get their first local bookings outside the South Side. A few years later, Bill Graham would credit the Butterfield Blues Band not only for putting the Fillmore West on the map, but with encouraging him to book Muddy, B.B. King, Otis Rush, James Cotton and Albert King. In 1973, when he introduced Butterfield’s Better Days at the Winterland Ballroom, Graham said, “Without Paul, I don’t know if a lot of us would be here tonight.”

As it happened, it was Albert King, not the Butterfield Blues Band, who got elected to the Rock Hall this year, and who knows but that Paul would have deemed that the right choice? For all his drive and competitiveness, Butter revered the old masters, and he enjoyed at least one glorious moment at the Hall when he gave the induction speech for Muddy Waters in 1987. In April of that same year, Paul was one of B.B. King’s guests on a television special that featured him blowing harp with his host as well as Gladys Knight, Etta James, and Eric Clapton, and on one selection his plaintive vocals nearly stole the show from Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan on the Elmore James original, “The Sky Is Crying.” Alas, it was Butter’s last testament. He died a few weeks later on May 4 at the age of 44. B.B. lauded Butterfield in his autobiography as a “bad white boy…who had all the grit and grind of the old masters.” He dedicated B.B. King & Friends to Paul’s memory.

December 17 marked the 70th anniversary of Paul Butterfield’s birth.

Originally Published