Paul Butterfield: Origins of an Originator

Paul Butterfield, 1977; photo by Catherine Sebastian/CSP Images

Martin Scorsese captured something of Paul Butterfield’s singular stature in the way he framed the harmonica player’s appearance in “The Last Waltz.”  Following an interlude in which The Band recounts meeting Sonny Boy Williamson near the end of his life in Helena, Arkansas, the blues portion of the concert begins with Butterfield, 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.”

Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Jerome Arnold, Newport Folk Festival, July 24, 1965

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 it was announced on Thursday that 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.  20th 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, Michael 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.”

Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield in The Last Waltz, 1976

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 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 sixties, he embodied the myth of the 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 motherf***ers…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.”

Jerome Arnold, Mike Bloomfield, Sam Lay, Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop, sound check, Newport Folk Festival, July 25, 1965; photo by David Gahr

Actually, Butter didn’t go “down there” so much as he walked 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’d done as a lawyer, his mother worked at the University, and his older brother Peter kept jazz and blues spinning on the turntable at home.  Art and music 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.”

Jerome Arnold, Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop, NFF, July 24, 1965

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 that night at the Blue Flame Lounge, 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, but the personal expressiveness he projected through it– few harp players have effected such a wide emotional range. As his music evolved beyond the basics of the 12-bar blues to incorporate jazz, soul, and modal forms, he crafted a sound in which tone was never sacrificed to technique or complexity.  In Murray Lerner’s documentary about the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Bloomfield humorously asserted, “If Butterfied was a tuna-fish sandwich, he’d still be blues,” and his ability to cut through intricate 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 is less about form than 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.”  Jazz drummer Chris Parker, a charter member of Butterfield’s ’70’s band, Better Days, called him “the Hohner moaner.”

Butterfield was hardly alone as a young white kid in the fifties and sixties infused with a passion for blues, gospel and jazz.  The Windy City was home to other acolytes 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 mistook 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.

Billy Davenport, Mike Bloomfield, Mark Naftalin, Paul Butterfield, Jerome Arnold, Elvin Bishop; East West album photo taken at the Museum of Science and Industry, University of Chicago, 1966

By 1963, 20-year-old 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 early 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.”

Elvin Bishop and Sam Lay at Big John’s, Chicago

As it happened, it was Albert King, not the Butterfield Blues Band, who got elected last week, 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, this proved to be 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 is Paul Butterfield’s 70th birthday anniversary.  I’ll have more to report on his historic appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival at a later date.  Meanwhile, here’s a choice bit of rare audio from 1970, by which time Butterfield was leading a nine-piece band that played a funky synthesis of blues, soul, jazz, and rock.  The 90-minute concert includes his signature reworkings of the blues standards, “Driftin’ and Driftin’,” and “Everything Gonna Be Alright.”

Born Under a Bad Sign
Play On
Driftin’ and Driftin’
The Boxer (Rod Hicks)
Everything Gonna Be Alright
In the Countryside
Drown In My Own Tears (Gene Dinwiddie)
Love March (Dinwiddie)
Get Together Again
So Far So Good

The band includes:
Paul Butterfield, harmonica, flute, piano, vocal
Steve Madaio, trumpet
David Sanborn, alto sax
Gene Dinwiddie, tenor sax, vocal
Trevor Lawrence, baritone sax

Teddy Harris, piano
Ralph Wash, gtr
Rodney Hicks, bass, vocal
Dennis Whitted, drums



  1. Leslie Keros says

    Hi, Tom. A great blog entry on Butter–thank you! I’m scrutinizing that Newport ’65 sound-check photo, and the person I see at the drums sure isn’t Sam Lay; any idea where he is in this photo?

    • Tom Reney says

      Thanks, Leslie. The camera may be throwing you off a bit, but yes, that’s Sam Lay, back when he had a head of wavy hair.

  2. Patrick Coughlin says

    Thanks Tom,

    Lots of great memories of Paul from many he touched and many friends. I learned from his records myself at the age of ten and always was aware of how he could twist out musical ideas, reach much farther on a harp than even many of his blues mentors, but then bring it right back to the blues. I just saw a performance with Gabe and Jimmy and crew at Levon’s barn, a tribute to Mike Bloomfield, but also Paul was in the house. Everyone played there ass off. I spent the whole show three feet from Al Kooper and his Leslie cabinet..thank you everyone for one hell of a show!

  3. says

    I remember Paul at the Bear cafe where we hung out. I remember the night his mother died. I think it was about 74 or 75. Winter in Woodstock was brutal. We jammed at Leevons Studio all winter and I took pictures of Levon’s little blond daughter in the woods. Those jam sessions were the best! He did drink but I don’t recall him ever getting drunk. I was so saddened later having moved back to the city hearing what happened. It just didn’t fit with the guy I knew in Woodstock.

  4. Anonymous says

    Thanks, Tom. Nice encapsulation.  This is the band I saw in a tent in Hyannis, MA that same year. While I regretted being unable to see Buzzy Feiten, this was an unforgettable experience, nonetheless.

    I also remember my frustration at being unable to hear the entire Jazz a la Mode one particular night– because I was on the road and in and out of the car–when you did a special tribute to Butter 10 (?) or more years ago. 
    Butter (and Bloomfield) have always been unique in my pantheon of musical heroes owing to their uncompromising, mature blues artistry. His bands distinguished themselves from their less adult, rock contemporaries even in the early years. I’m glad he is in your pantheon as well, because I’ve often benefited from your insight.
  5. Anonymous says

    “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. “

    Delicately and respectfully put,Tom. Just revisited the track from “The Last Waltz” you include; hope to carve out time to listen to the WPLJ gig (before, as you say, it gets shut down on YouTube).  Startling to see Gravenites with that acoustic guitar — that’s what we were all playing when we (Elvin, Paul & I) first met in Chicago — mine an old f-hole narrow-neck Kay, later stolen from our 7th St. & Ave. C. apt. in NYC.

    Seventy, huh?  Be damned!  How the hell did that happen, anyway?
    Thanks loads, Tom.
  6. Anonymous says

    This is so true.  Butterfield not only inspired many rock musicians, but many musicians of all styles got their first international recognition in his bands (e.g. note Sanborn in your personnel listing).  Others include Gene Dinwiddie, Phil Wilson,  Buzzy Feiten, Amos Garrett, Elvin Bishop, Mike Bloomfield and more.  Butterfield’s musical standards were much higher than those of any rock groups of his time, and he always had high caliber musicians in his bands.    He never cared about race — only musicianship — and  had one of the first interracial bands on the rock scene, for which he got some grief while on the road.  He started quite a few trends, including the horn band craze that spawned Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears and the Electric Flag.  Guitarist Amos Garrett graced Butterfield recordings before he became well known for his solo on Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight At The Oasis.”  I would say Butterfield and Bloomfield both deserve to be in the R&R Hall of Fame more than any of those who followed them.  The way the lives of Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield ended is tragic.

  7. Anonymous says

    Your Paul Butterfield piece was excellent.  I love your writing and your programming.  Thanks for the perspective on Paul Butterfiled, and thanks for sharing your talent.

  8. Anonymous says

    Tom – thanks so much for posting the link to the wonderful article about Paul Butterfield. It is indeed a shame that he has been under-recognized for his contributions and influence. I played drums in a blues band fronted by a very good harp player in the late ’60’s – early ’70’s, and among other things we covered “Born Under A Bad Sign”, “Driftin and Driftin”, and “One More Heartache”. I got to see Butterfield a number of times, and in getting to know his music, became aware of those who influenced him and his playing. It’s bad enough that he died young; he shouldn’t also have to suffer the indignity of this Hall of Fame slight.

  9. Tom Reney says

    Hello Tom,

    I am Paul’s son Lee and I just wanted to drop a line and let you know that I enjoyed your article. It is nice to know that there are people out there that truly understand my dad’s influence. 
    Lee Butterfield
  10. Anonymous says

            This article is a great insight into one of the greatest blues harp players of all time. I saw the band @ Club 47 in ’65 or ’66. The band was so tight & full of high energy. I was blown away. I met Paul after the show right on the floor of the Club & had a brief conversation with him. I think I asked him what key harp he played on the instrumental “Screamin’.” He told me B-flat. I went out and bought one the next day. Ironically, I was in a band with Bob Margolin in high school and we were learning the blues. The still photo from the Last Waltz shows Bob on guitar between Muddy & Paul about six years later. Bob played on Muddy’s Woodstock album (Grammy) with Paul. I met Mike Bloomfield @ an after party in Boston when he was with Electric Flag, but that’s another story. They were both AWESOME to me. As far as the R&R Hall Of Fame, I know that The Butterfield Band was just as influential as Elvis & The Rolling Stones in bringing black music to white audiences. After that everyone made more $$$$$. Supah article & links… Thanx again!  WB


  11. Anonymous says

    Greatly appreciate this well-written article about my partner of 10 years and thought you would appreciate this excerpted quote by Geoff Muldaur from an interview:

     Butterfield was better than you think, even if you think he was great. We played Cleveland one time. Weather Report opened for us at some theater. We were staying in the same hotel as Cannonball Adderley. He and Nat [Adderley] were playing a local jazz club. Paul and I were hanging with Cannonball in his room, and Paul had to leave to get something. When he did, Cannonball turned to me and said, “Do you know who the fuck you’re playing with? Do you know how good Paul Butterfield is?”

    Kind regards,

    Elizabeth Barraclough

  12. Anonymous says

    Just thought this might be interesting to you all.  Paul’s son Gabe Butterfield has been playing many concerts of Paul’s music with the likes of Jimmy Vivino and many other local Woodstock, NY musicians.  He is doing this in order to raise funds for a well overdue documentary on Paul’s life and his outstanding contributions to the music world. They play all of Paul’s music and if you close your eyes and open your vibe you can feel Paul in the room, besides the fact that Gabe looks identical to Paul.  Steve Guyger has the amazing chore of playing the harp and what a job he does.  Being  raised in Woodstock, I have had the pleasure of his friendship and many other great ones. Thanks for this blog as I feel Paul has not recieved half of what he contributed. So folks keep an eye out, Philly and Chicago will be lighting up in 2013 with Paul’s music straight from his son . Peace & Blues………               

  13. Anonymous says

    As an old guy (I’ll be 70 next year), I’ve been listening to blues for a long time, and I must say that Paul was not only one of the best blues players of our time, but the best – period!  He actually created the Chicago blues sound for harp players.  Of course, no one has been able to duplicate that sound, but nonetheless, his sound is the one that all blues harp players should aspire to learn, albeit one hard task.  I’m still trying.  Why he didn’t make it into the hall of fame is beyond me.  Politics I guess.  Or maybe the panel doesn’t have a clue as to what constitutes a sound that  verily forces folks to their feet and gets them dancing.  Who knows what deficiency lies in the minds of ‘panel-men?”  Maybe they’re just too young to get it.  Or maybe they just don’t get it, and never will.

  14. Anonymous says

    This is such a beautifully-written article about Paul Butterfield. Yes, he WAS heroic. The irony of Albert King getting the induction instead of Paul is beyond what I can express publicly. Watch the video with Albert King, and watch his hints and body language,  Butterfield, you will ALWAYS be one of the greats.

  15. Tom Reney says

    Thanks for writing, James.  I was at that show at the Melody Tent on a Sunday night in July ’70.  We’d seen Paul earlier in the day on Main Street in Hyannis where he was strolling with his family and sporting a suntan.  The cover images for his LIVE album were all taken at the Melody Tent, even though the music was recorded at the Troubador in L.A.  One clue: Sanborn’s in the pics, but he wasn’t with the band in L.A.  Another, Paul’s suntan!  Another curiosity about the record was that it originally shipped with the wrong contents, two LP’s by the Incredible String Band.  Nothing against them, but after waiting five years for Elektra to finally release a live show by Butter, it was a drag having to wait all over again for a second shipping date.

  16. Anonymous says

    thanks so much tom for playing butterfield tonight…loved that live album…he was such a powerhouse and an important part of my adolescence….i played tenor and we covered so many of their songs, e.g. “One More Heartache”, in our high school combo….still remember nights by the turntable writing out the horn parts….LOVE THAT MUSIC…sanborn, dinwiddie, bringing the spirit of the blues but paul was the one who really brought it together…too bad about the hall of fame….great quote about woodstock and the other players giving him props

    john cordes west hartford

  17. james baker says

    That’s a funny story about Paul’s suntan and the ISB record being packaged inside Butter’s LP. Thanks again for your dedication to preserving his legacy. The New York Times disgraces itself when this morning’s edition devoted only cursory note of PBBB and inches to Miley Cyrus’s pronouncements at the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony.

  18. Anonymous says

    Hello Lee,

    This is Martine, David’s wife.  Loved the article about Paul and seeing your name here put a smile on my face. Sending you greetings. Hope you are well.    Martine Jackson

  19. Anonymous says

    I met you at your Dad’s gig at the old Jonathan Swift’s in Cambridge, MA (you were about 13 years old).  We were backstage and I re-introduced myself to your Dad (I had met him when I was 18 and then again when I used to hang occasionally in Woodstock) and he remembered me.   Anyway, your Dad and I were talking shop (I try to play harmonica) and the talk shifted to Little Walter and your dad asked me what one of my favorite LW songs were; I answered, “THE TODDLE”.  Your Dad asked me to play some of it and after I did, you piped up, “Dad, he plays it better than you.”  Well, it was hilarious, because he was gracious about it all and it was all in fun.  I DO believe that in the latter years, your Dad didn’t get his due.  It’s sad, because he helped open a lot of doors for the old Black guys.             Professor Harp

  20. Howard Wiseman says

    Lee, the song written by your Dad honoring your birth, like your Dad, is unforgettable. He is ALWAYS remembered here, in the musical heart he helped me build. The absence from RRHF of BBB is a ******* TRAVESTY.

  21. Anonymous says

    Thanks for writing, Elizabeth, and for your own fine recordings.  I first saw that quote in a Herald-Tribune article by Mike Zwerin a few years ago.  Till then, I could only wonder if the Adderleys had been impressed with “Work Song” and Paul’s other work, so it was great to have it confirmed by Muldaur. 


  22. Tom Reney says

    To the “old guy” in this thread, I appreciate your enthusiasm for Butterfield, but I can’t join you in endorsing him as the “best,” or the defining stylist or creator. That honor still belongs largely to Little Walter. TR

  23. Tom Reney says

    For the record, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.


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