This April the Butterfield Blues Band will enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, drawing attention to a band that, since folding in the early 1970s, has largely been overlooked and is overdue to receive some recognition. The Butterfield Blues Band was a highly visible and influential group when blues rock was in its infancy (and when it was most popular). Both rock and blues fans took notice when the Butterfields emerged in the mid-60s, a racially mixed group led by a white guy who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago but seemed like he’d spent his whole life on the street. Unlike most blues bands with a white leader, the group immediately established strong blues creds. It didn’t hurt to have Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section (Jerome Arnold on bass and Sam Lay on drums), a remarkably versatile harmonica player, and two guitarists (Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop) who, though still at an early stage in their careers, were already recognized as superb players. The Butterfield Blues Band repeatedly performed at iconic venues and in historic situations. Before their first album was released the group accompanied Bob Dylan during a controversial electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The Butterfields played the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, and both Fillmores, and after the band folded Paul Butterfield—the leader, vocalist, and harmonica player—appeared in The Last Waltz. Between 1965 and 1971 the group compiled an impressive body of work. All of their first six albums were solid, and they only made seven.
Hot, aggressive, electric Chicago blues describes the eponymous first album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (their name was soon shortened). Raw, dirty, gritty, and loud, this 1965 release was recorded with thick reverb that when coupled with hard-edged playing made for a sizzling sound. For this debut record the newest band member, Mike Bloomfield, played all the guitar solos, which were as edgy and spine-tingling as the harmonica work of Paul Butterfield. With “Born in Chicago,” “Shake Your Money Maker,” “Got Your Mojo Working,” “Mystery Train,” and “Blues With a Feeling,” the first album was packed with songs that were already—or would quickly become—classics in blues circles.
The follow-up LP, East-West, had a similar sound except for the extended improvisations that ended both sides of the LP. First recorded in 1960, Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” was already making the rounds in jazz circles. Even more ground-breaking for a rock band, the 13-minute title track featured a solo by Michael Bloomfield that is one for the ages. Anything but the loosey-goosey sprawling stream of notes we expect from that period, Bloomfield’s lengthy improvisation, which incorporates Indian scales and ranges from otherworldly to playful, impresses from the beginning of his raga-like entrance to his down-home ending that presages the more lyrical side of the Allmans. As Elvin Bishop put it, “Quicksilver, Big Brother, and the Dead—these guys were just chopping chords. They had been folk musicians and weren’t particularly proficient playing electric guitar. [Bloomfield] could play all these scales and arpeggios and fast time-signatures....He just destroyed them.”
Numerous personnel changes followed East-West, including, for the first time, a horn section. Two new members were part of the Chicago-based AACM, an organization that has played a major role in the development of avant-garde jazz. The drummer, Phillip Wilson, performed with an early version of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Gene Dinwiddie, whose main instrument was the tenor sax, remained with the Butterfields through their seventh and final album. The horn section (which also included David Sanborn) was essential to the new sound, which still had a strong blues element while increasingly exploring soul music. Suddenly a band that previously covered Elmore James and Muddy Waters opened a record with the Marvin Gaye hit “One More Heartache.” The marked detour paid off, as 1967’s The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw ended up becoming the group’s best-selling album.
Critics tend to see the first two records as the high point of the Butterfields, but I’m also impressed by what followed and would argue that Pigboy Crabshaw is another high point. Some writers deem the departure of Mike Bloomfield a major loss, but it seems to me that any group that has Elvin Bishop handling the guitar work is doing very well for itself. Listen to the way Bishop’s guitar slithers around on “One More Heartache.” Sinister and spooky, his thick, nasty guitar jabs are augmented by the thick reverb that permeates Pigboy Crabshaw. Another highlight is “Born Under a Bad Sign,” where the band slows down Albert King’s classic and makes every note hurt. Even bleaker is “Double Trouble,” which features a hypnotic wall-of-sound horn riff, ecstatic guitar playing from Bishop, and some down-and-dirty tenor sax by Gene Dinwiddie.
On In My Own Dream a total of four band members sang lead. The more democratic approach may be the main reason that overall this effort was less impressive than its predecessors. That said, there’s plenty of good material, plus one great song. Again the Butterfields leaned toward soul music, the most memorable and hilarious exception being the blues-drenched “Drunk Again,” on which Elvin Bishop unveils the persona that would later serve him well during his still ongoing solo career: a reckless, hard-drinking, good ol’ boy. Two of the Butterfield compositions are similar in character to Pigboy Crabshaw, and the other inspired what I would consider his strongest performance ever. The title track has a gospel feel to it, with thoughtful lyrics and impassioned vocals. The song also boasts a strong arrangement aided by several nice touches, including the harmony vocals that burst out of the speakers, some mandolin fills that adds a hint of Americana, and David Sanborn’s hypnotic and cathartic solo on soprano saxophone.
On Keep on Moving the songs were more concise and catchy, and this may be the band’s leanest, tightest, and most energetic studio endeavor. The horn section slams, and bassist Rod Hicks and drummer Phillip Wilson lock into numerous grooves that are augmented by the scratchy rhythm guitar of newcomer Buzzy Feiten (yet another Butterfield guitarist who achieved cult status). Through much of the record there’s a strong funk strain that’s balanced by the more reflective and deeply soulful title track as well as “Losing Hand.”
Fortunately there’s plenty of live documentation of the Butterfield Blues Band. Monterey Pop includes a performance of “Driftin’ Blues” with the first incarnation of the horn-based group. Although “Love March” from Keep on Moving is a fun pop song, its inclusion on the original Woodstock LP wasn’t representative of the band’s sound in general; more exemplary was “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” from Woodstock II. The 1970 double LP that I consider the last album to capture the true spirit of the band, Butterfield Blues Band Live is a must for anyone who collects analog live albums from that brief period after engineers began to understand how to record large rock concerts and before they started sanitizing the sound. Live allows the band to stretch out more than on their studio efforts, with longer horn solos and more harp playing. Again “Born Under a Bad Sign” is a highlight; this version is faster and funkier than their studio track, with a raunchy harmonica solo that meets with some spirited interplay by the guitar and rhythm section.
Probably it makes sense that Sometimes I Just Feel Like Smilin’ (their final album except for some posthumous releases) fell flat. By 1971 the Butterfields were one of many 60s bands that were left stranded as tastes changed; fortunately they never made an attempt to dilute their product in order to woo a new audience. They were always a group that in some ways epitomized the spirit of the 60s at the same time that they seemed anachronistic. No doubt their love of the blues and their penchant for experimentation were in tune with the times—yet there was something different about them. With his short, combed back hair and everyday clothes, Butterfield looked like more of a 50s throwback than a hippie, and the same could be said of many of his band members. The street vibe the Butterfields exuded was unaffected, and part of their appeal was, quite simply, the fact they didn’t look like rock stars. Also, every incarnation of the band was multi-racial, preceding groups like Santana and Sly and the Family Stone in that regard.
Fortunately most of the group’s first six official releases are available on CD, and Sundazed has released remastered vinyl versions of the first five. Sundazed’s East-West packs a sonic punch, revealing the scorching guitars and gritty-sounding harmonica in all their ragged glory. During Bloomfield’s solo on the title track, an open soundscape clearly brings out the texture of details like the drum heads being hit by a mallet and Butterfield’s harmonica riffs under the guitar lines. Not a bad place to start.