Paul Butterfield, who died 30 years ago, was born on December 17, 1942. Most of us who had any connection with Butterfield back then were more saddened than surprised when we learned of his death on May 4, 1987, at 44.
Booze, opiates, emergency surgeries and hospitalizations for peritonitis were all contributing factors to his prolonged and painful demise. Personal issues undoubtedly played a major role in his decline, but professionally it had begun 15 years earlier with the sudden dissolution of the Butterfield Blues Band, an eight-member group that combined Butterfield's richly expressive, virtuoso harp playing with funky grooves and the dynamic thrust of one of the greatest road-band horn sections in contemporary popular music.
Butterfield's early renown (and in 2015, election to the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame) was based on his archetypal status as a white man who'd honed his chops on the rough and tumble South Side blues scene, and for the band he led out of Chicago in 1965 with guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, and the veteran blues drummer Sam Lay. Bloomfield's departure early in 1967 caused Butter to shift gears and add a horn section and bring Bishop to the fore as lead guitarist. Further changes and additions took place in personnel, but throughout the years, the Butterfield Blues Band consistently reflected the soulful, hard-edged aura of its leader. Beginning with his first combo in 1963, Butterfield played compact, harmonica-driven versions of Chicago blues with a command and authority virtually unprecedented among white musicians. With Bloomfield's arrival in 1965, the PBBB epitomized the newly emerging style of blues-rock. With his departure two years later, the band quickly developed a fluid mastery of blending contemporary jazz and soul elements with an expansive range of rhythm & blues that included tunes associated with Bobby "Blue" Bland, Marvin Gaye, Howard Tate, and Charles Brown.
A new documentary on the Chicago-born vocalist and harmonica virtuoso, Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story, supports the view that, notwithstanding a long, personal relationship between the two, Butterfield was blindsided in 1972 by his sudden realization that his manager, music industry heavyweight Albert Grossman, had pulled the plug on the budget that maintained the Butterfield Blues Band, and that his exclusive contract with Elektra Records, for whom he’d recorded seven albums, was terminated. The film also But that wasn't the end of their connection. With Grossman's encouragement and a generous new contract with Bearsville Records, a label founded by Grossman, Butterfield formed Better Days.
The band featured a loose-knit group of music veterans including Geoff and Maria Muldaur and Amos Garrett whose backgrounds in folk, funk, rock, and blues made for a rootsy mix that pointed the way toward a stylistic phenomenon still popular today. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band's election to the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 was based on the trailblazing work Butter and guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop did in blasting the amazingly vital sounds of Chicago blues through the segregated barriers of suburban America. But the broader mix of styles that he incorporated with his horn band, and the roots music foundation he laid with Better Days, were innovations still deserving of wider recognition. (To be continued.)