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Blues, booze and debauchery: the agonising story of Paul Butterfield

Paul Butterfield
(Image credit: Larry Hulst/Getty Images)

July 23, 1965, Rhode Island. It’s late afternoon at the Newport Folk Festival when noted musicologist Alan Lomax gets up to introduce the final performer at a workshop called Blues: Origins And Offshoots. 

The festival has been a warm, informal affair so far, and the 1,000-strong audience has already seen acoustic performances by bluesmen Son House, Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon, plus various folkies and bluegrass founder Bill Monroe. 

There’s a delay as this next group busy themselves with amps and mics. Annoyed at the hold-up, Lomax, an advocate of the simple, acoustic purity of the blues, says with some disdain: “Now you’re going to hear a group of young boys from Chicago with electric instruments. Let’s see if they can play this hardware at all.” 

His derision is aimed at the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a multi-racial bunch of 20-somethings making their first appearance at the festival. Butterfield himself is a great bear of a man, a commanding figure who has gathered together a sympatico group of blues players and drilled them hard. 

No one is quite sure what to expect, at least until Butterfield starts up, cupping his hands around his amplified harmonica and blowing with a power and articulacy that leaves many in the audience slack-jawed. His singing voice is equally striking, an outpouring of raw emotion that marries the phrasing of Ray Charles and the declamatory blues of Jimmy Witherspoon or Muddy Waters. His band, led by guitar prodigy Mike Bloomfield, are no less impressive and their short set is met with howls of approval by the crowd

Afterwards, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band is all people can talk about afterwards. This was blues all right, but not the slow-moan version of the Mississippi Delta. This was blues spat out loud on electric instruments; living blues from the urban sidewalks of Chicago’s South Side. 

“Paul had a very strong way about him,” recalls Butterfield Blues Band co-founder and rhythm guitarist Elvin Bishop. “He gave us high standards to reach for and operate under. And if he got in front of a crowd, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He’d keep getting more and more intense until he got them going. He was a one-of-a-kind character.” 

One of the people who chanced upon the group that weekend was Bob Dylan. Irked by Lomax’s disparaging comments, Dylan decided to go electric, even using Butterfield’s band to back him during his headlining set that Sunday – a decision that changed the singer’s career forever. But there’s a fair argument that the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s performance that weekend was just as influential as Dylan’s. 

Already signed to Elektra Records, their song Born In Chicago became the highlight of the label’s Folksong ’65 compilation released that September, prompting sales of 60,000 in its first month. They became the new darlings of the college circuit in the US. Before the arrival of Love, The Doors or The Stooges, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band were the first people to go electric on what was, until then, primarily a folk-based label. More importantly, they were the first to introduce black blues to a white American mass market. 

“I knew that it was a historical movement,” explains keyboard player Mark Naftalin, who joined the band that September. “It was in our generation that the reverence for blues artists and their music swept into the white world.” 

“I don’t know how many people have told me over the last 50 years that it was the Butterfield Band that got them into music,” adds Elvin Bishop. “We were at the right place at the right time, because there was this huge, beautiful body of music – the blues – and a huge white American audience. And the two had never really got together.”

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Paul Butterfield was arguably the first authentic white bluesman to emerge from the US. Not only was he a consummate singer and harmonica player, but he was also a bandleader whose deep feeling for the blues went way beyond mere slavish reverence. For Butterfield it was a universal idiom to be adapted and expanded. Under his tutelage, his racially integrated band took the traditional form of the black neighbourhoods and blasted it with electric rock’n’roll, free jazz and, as the 60s wore on, Eastern classical music. 

“Butterfield was the genuine article, feeling the blues,” observed Paul Rothchild, who was to achieve greater fame as producer of The Doors, Love, Janis Joplin, Tim Buckley and Neil Young. “I believe he was one of the greatest bandleaders this country has ever had. He’s right up there with Benny Goodman or Nelson Riddle.” 

The Band’s Levon Helm, with whom Butterfield played in his later years, called him “one of the best harp players alive. What a touch he had. He could hit a single note and make it sound like a full orchestra.” 

Butterfield jammed with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton in his prime, led his band at both the Monterey and Woodstock festivals, and fetched up at The Band’s The Last Waltz. Yet history has consigned his role in the great blues crossover to that of a marginal figure. Thumb through the usual roll-call of those who made that leap – from BB King and John Lee Hooker to Clapton, Hendrix, Page and Beck – and it’s odds-on that Butterfield’s name is absent. 

Perhaps it’s due to his lack of a signature tune, a ready identifier. Maybe it was his disinterest in fame. Or it could be down to his elusive nature: he was a private man for whom the term ‘enigmatic’ seems entirely apt. 

“I don’t know if anybody ever got to know Paul on a personal level,” says Elvin Bishop, who played alongside him for most of the 60s. “He was a complex person. There’s some truth in the fact that he could be distant and maybe too hard for people, but I really wouldn’t define him either way.”

Born into a liberal enclave of Southside Chicago in December 1942, Butterfield was an attorney’s son who excelled from any early age. His athletic prowess made him a regular on the track team at school, where he also studied classical flute. By high school he was studying with the Chicago Symphony, but a running scholarship at university was always the likely career route. 

It was only when he got a knee injury as a teenager that he began to fully devote himself to music – in particular the local blues scene. Butterfield and fellow blues fan Nick Gravenites began hanging around the Chicago clubs and playing informal gigs at local college campuses. His parents packed him off to the University of Illinois at 17, but he soon dropped out, bitten by the blues. 

His brother Peter remembered him spending long hours alone at The Point, a headland jutting out into Lake Michigan, playing harmonica. “It was all internal,” he recalled, “like he had a particular sound he wanted to get, and he just worked to get it.” 

Together with Gravenites, Butterfield immersed himself in the music of Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. But it was the primal sound of Little Walter, blowing into a harmonica plugged through a guitar amp, that moved him most. As Butterfield himself put it: “The instrument chose me.” 

In 1960, Elvin Bishop arrived in Chicago from Tulsa to study physics at the university. “Soon after I met Butterfield he was listening to Sonny Terry and Jimmy Reed, then Little Walter,” he explains. “That’s when he decided he wanted to play the harmonica. And within six months he was as good as he was ever gonna get. He went straight to the stratosphere, he was a natural genius on that thing.” 

Butterfield and Bishop became regulars at the black clubs in town, more often than not the only white faces at shows by Magic Sam, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Muddy Waters. Sometimes they even got up to jam along with their idols. 

“We were pretty much accepted because we loved the blues,” says Bishop. “And Butterfield always had a little bit of a scary appearance about him. It sort of kept people from wanting to fuck with him."

Butterfield’s first break came in 1963. The owner of Big John’s, a club on the North Side of Chicago, asked him to play a residency. He and Bishop poached the rhythm section from Howlin’ Wolf’s band: bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay. Wolf may have been a feted player on the blues circuit, but Butterfield’s strategy was simple – he offered them more money. 

This line-up became the inaugural Butterfield Blues Band. Arnold laid down solid, unfussy bass lines, while the more demonstrative Lay created full-bottomed staccato rhythms. It was an ideal platform for Butterfield’s guttural voice and dizzying harp solos. 

Elektra’s Paul Rothchild had first met Butterfield at the Creamery, a small club in Berkeley, in 1963. Nearly two years later, on the recommendation of Jim Kweshin Jug Band bassist Fritz Richmond, he caught Butterfield again, now fronting his heady electric blues band at Big John’s. 

Rothchild was blown away by the transformation. He told Butterfield he wanted to record the band, although he felt the addition of another guitarist would seal the deal. Butterfield took Rothchild across town to another club after the gig, where Mike Bloomfield happened to be playing. 

Heir to his father’s fortune in the furniture business, and beneficiary of a $2m trust, Bloomfield was free to pursue a lifelong fascination with blues guitar. He’d sat in with Butterfield at campus gigs in 1963, but it was only at Rothchild’s suggestion that he joined the band. Wary of Butterfield’s reputation as a tough bandleader, Bloomfield agreed cautiously. 

“I didn’t dig Butter, you know,” he admitted later to Rolling Stone magazine. “I didn’t like him. He was just too hard a cat for me. It took all the persuading to get me to join.” But Bloomfield was generous enough to concede that their mutual love of the blues – and respect for each other’s talents – eventually overrode any misgivings he had about Butterfield as a human being. 

“It was the best band I’d ever been in,” he said. “Everything I dug in and about the blues, Paul was.”

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Under Rothchild’s wing, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band set about recording their debut album for Elektra in December 1964. Initial sessions were scrapped, due to the producer being flummoxed by the band’s sheer volume. Another attempt to capture the band, this time live at New York’s Café Au Go Go, didn’t solve the problem. It was only back in the New York studio in September ’65 that Rothchild nailed the sound to his satisfaction. 

The self-titled debut album fused new and traditional forms, with stinging reconfigurations of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Junior Parker alongside fresh offerings like Our Love Is Drifting and Thank You Mr Poobah. The latter was an open-ended instrumental jam that featured the whole band at full tilt, including rookie keyboardist Mark Naftalin. 

“I played an organ solo on the song, and when the song was over, Paul told me to keep on playing,” he says. “It was a long session, about nine hours, and at some point Paul asked if I’d be interested in joining the band and going on the road with them that weekend.” 

Naftalin found himself a full-time member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. “Paul wasn’t a tough taskmaster; the band was very democratic. But he was tough in some ways. Sometimes, during those first weeks, Paul would have a problem with what I was playing and he’d give me this strong stare over his harp, which was very intimidating and sometimes a little upsetting. But as time went on, that changed. I stayed with the band for two-and-a-half years.” 

The album pointed to a bold new future for Elektra. It even came with a brief instruction on the sleeve: “We suggest you play this record at the highest possible volume to fully appreciate the sound of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.” 

As Rothchild said: “The Butterfield Band opened another door to American musicianship. It made the electric blues a viable form for popular music.” 

The record sold moderately, settling outside the US Top 100 by February ’66. Butterfield’s band were perhaps best experienced in the raw, where their live shows had people queuing for blocks. But by then he was already bunkering down to record the follow-up.

Issued in August 1966, East-West was even more free-ranging. Butterfield was now a less stern leader, urging his band members to express themselves more openly through the music. The sound was still very much grounded in the blues, but there was also a hallucinatory sense of discovery. An eight-minute cover of Nat Adderley’s Work Song was remarkable for Butterfield’s lyrical harmonica runs and the squeal of Bloomfield’s improvised guitar playing. 

It was a tactic that reached its fullest expression on the 13-plus minutes of the title track, which blended Indian modal forms with Coltrane-like jazz. The effect was little short of stupendous. Live, the band would sometimes extend the song to an hour, with Bloomfield indulging in a spot of fire-breathing. No one recalls how this all started, but it certainly made an impact. 

“The fire-eating was extremely effective on a crowd of LSD trippers,” laughs Elvin Bishop. “Mike had a thing like a kettledrum mallet and would pour lighter fluid on it. He said it was no problem as long as you didn’t inhale.” 

The song’s open-ended feel was duly noted by those in the audience during the band’s West Coast dates, where they would regularly put in shifts at the Fillmore and Winterland in San Francisco. Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead and Santana were among those who took note of the group’s explorative approach. 

East-West is like a hippie raga superimposed on a blues tune,” offers Bishop. “There’s an exotic-sounding groove to it, like a blues form of striptease. Plus Bloomfield had been taking acid and listening to Ravi Shankar.” 

East-West climbed to No.65 on the US album chart, with Butterfield’s reputation growing rapidly. Yet he was about to receive a shock.

In February 1967, Bloomfield announced he was quitting to form his own band, the Electric Flag, with Butterfield’s old friend Nick Gravenites. It seems there wasn’t any great falling out between Butterfield and Bloomfield, just a desire on the guitarist’s part to take the experimentalism of East-West even further. 

Undeterred, Butterfield modified his band. A well-received set at the Monterey Pop Festival followed in June. Bishop took over as lead guitarist for The Resurrection Of Pigboy Crabshaw, released in February 1968. There was still a blues purism to the music, but Butterfield’s addition of horn players alongside a new rhythm section added a heady whiff of R&B. 

The album stalled just shy of the US top 50, making it Butterfield’s biggest chart success of his career. However, while it punched hard it lacked the urgency and eclecticism of East-West. It was the beginning of the end for Butterfield on Elektra. Shortly after that year’s In My Own Dream, Naftalin and Bishop left the band to explore solo ventures.

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Butterfield may not have made the great populist crossover, but he was still adored by his peers. He was invited on to the bill for the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. The same year, he guested on Muddy Waters’s Fathers And Sons, a record that helped Waters reach a wider audience in the States. 

Yet there was a palpable sense that Butterfield’s best days were already behind him. His final studio albums for Elektra – Keep On Moving in ’69 and Sometimes I Just Feel Like Smilin’ in ’71 – were too far from his blues origins, which only diluted the power of his songs. By the early 70s he had settled in the boho retreat of Woodstock in upstate New York. 

“Little by little I got to know Paul, even if he was charmingly aloof,” recalls resident musician Geoff Muldaur. “By the time I moved to Woodstock in 1970 it was natural that Paul and I would do some serious hanging out. He spent time with a variety of people, from the visiting stars to the local folk musicians. But most people need sleep, and Paul and I were not into that. So many a late night and early morning were spent in debauchery. This kind of behaviour eventually caused Paul’s demise, but this is how the Better Days group eventually came about.” 

Enlisting Muldaur, guitarist Amos Garrett, New Orleans pianist Ronnie Barron, bassist Bill Rich and drummer Chris Parker, Butterfield recorded two albums – Better Days and It All Comes Back – released at either end of 1973. 

“The Better Days sound was really down-home and funky,” says local guitarist Jim Weider, who jammed with Butterfield on many occasions and later replaced Robbie Robertson in The Band. “Levon [Helm, of The Band] really dug his harp playing and phrasing, and Paul and Rick Danko used to do solo shows together. I think later on Paul was really into that Woodstock/Band-style country blues, rather than the Chicago sound where he started.” 

Chris Parker remembers Butterfield as being “hilarious when relaxed, but frightening when getting ready to perform on occasion. Or if someone in the organisation made a mistake, he could be vicious… He was a magician with a harp and a Fender Super Reverb amp. And as a vocalist he was unique. He had an instrumental approach to singing: declarative, no nonsense, straight from the heart and very emotional.” 

But Butterfield’s drinking, something he’d kept up throughout his career, was beginning to take a toll. He had also developed a heroin habit. Creatively he seemed lost. There was an occasional guest spot here and there, most notably a sizzling version of Mystery Train during The Band’s 1976 send-off The Last Waltz, and a couple of fairly forgettable solo albums. 

Ex-Mountain drummer Corky Laing, a Woodstock neighbour, remembers sitting with Butterfield in a Greenwich Village bar. “He got drop-kicked out of his house by his wife, so he’s sitting there drinking in the Village,” says Laing. “And people are coming up to him, saying: ‘Paul, I really love your shit.’ And he said: ‘Y’know, if you really liked me you’d give me 20 bucks right now.’ And people went into their pockets three times! 

"I think he walked out of there with a couple of hundred bucks. He just came right out with it, sat there and eventually drank himself to death. He was hard. He’d been through it all, and wasn’t impressed with the music business like a lot of other people were. But the talent he had was unbelievable."

The last 10 years of Butterfield’s life were messy. North South, a 1981 comeback album with Memphis soul producer Willie Mitchell and marked by synthesisers, suggested a man devoid of a creative rudder. Nobody bought it. Privately, too, he lacked direction. His drinking and drug abuse had accelerated and there were concerns about his health. A move to LA didn’t alter the downward course of his life either. 

Jim Weider recalls one particularly ominous return home: “We were sitting together in a bar called Deanies in Woodstock. I said: ‘Paul, why don’t you move back to Woodstock and get out of LA? It’s a lot safer here.’ He said: ‘There’s no place left safe for me.’ That really stayed with me.” 

Butterfield’s last album was released in 1986. The title, The Legendary Paul Butterfield Rides Again, might have hinted at an artist recapturing the glory days of the 60s, but it was another uninspired record that didn’t sell. On May 4, 1987, Butterfield died of drug-related heart failure in Hollywood. He was just 44. 

Decades after his death, he remains forever locked in the memory of those who played with him. Elvin Bishop remembers him as one of the all-time greats, albeit an unheralded one. 

“On stage Paul was always balls-out, super going for it,” he says. “There was no such thing as dragging your feet in his band, not that any of us wanted to. I don’t think any of us thought about it in sociological or ethnological terms, we just wanted to be like our heroes, guys like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. We were just thrilled to be able to make a living playing the blues. That was what it was all about."