Paul Butterfield at Monterey Pop

Aug 2, 2017

One of the most widely-circulated films of Paul Butterfield in action is the footage that D.A. Pennebaker shot of the Butterfield Blues Band performing  "Driftin' and Driftin'" at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 17,1967. Butterfield's adaptation of Charles Brown's "Driftin' Blues" became the slow blues staple of his repertoire for the next five years. Brown was the singer-pianist with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, a Nat Cole Trio-style combo that played the blues in Los Angeles supper club and scored big with the classic "Merry Christmas, Baby."

Many of the bands that are associated with Monterey Pop were new to the scene in 1967, but though he was only 24, Butterfield was a seasoned master whose chops had already earned him a booking at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival. He'd released two acclaimed albums by this time, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and East-West, with a groundbreaking band that brought the guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop to prominence. He'd also blazed a trail that helped bring Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Little Walter, and the sound of urban blues into the mainstream of American culture, and as the archetypal white bluesman, he'd spawned a thousand-and-one suburban wannabe blues bands.

Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop, Gene Dinwiddie at Monterey Pop
Credit YouTube

Butterfield is the only bandleader to have performed at the three iconic fests of the Sixties: Newport '65, Monterey Pop, and Woodstock. He came out of Chicago in 1965 leading a racially integrated band at a time when that was a rarity in pop music, and over time his group became majority black in its makeup. The first edition of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, and he's the subject of a new documentary, Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story.

John Anderson's 90-minute film deftly combines a historical view of Butterfield's influential musicianship and his complicated relationship with powerhouse manager Albert Grossman with frank perspectives on his personal life from family and friends. Interviews with B.B. King, Nick Gravenites, Elvin Bishop, Sam Lay, Barry Goldberg, Jim Kewskin, Maria Muldaur, Joe Boyd, David Sanborn, Trevor Lawrence, Buzzy Feiten, Clydie King, Paul Shaffer, and Jim Rooney testify to Butterfield's musical depth, soulfulness, and influence, while poignant memories inform the recollections of his brother Peter and sister-in-law Pam Butterfield; his wife Kathy and sons Lee and Gabriel, and neighbors and friends in Woodstock, NY, where the one-time denizen of Southside ghetto bars spent over a decade living under Catskill Mountain peaks and mounds of cocaine. The film will have its East Coast premiere at the Woods Hole Film Festival on Friday, August 4. I'll be joining the film's director John Anderson, producer Sandra Warren, and the blues harpist James Montgomery for a Q&A at the screening.

Paul Butterfield at Monterey Pop, June 17, 1967
Credit Elaine Mayes

In June, The New York Times ran a 50th anniversary feature on Monterey Pop that named a lot of the fest's performers, but Butterfield, who played afternoon and evening sets, wasn't even mentioned. It's not like he never got respect, but pop history can be cruelly forgetful, and its memory lapses often occur most glaringly with blues subjects.

Butterfield premiered his newly-revamped band with horns at Monterey Pop a few months before recording the album, The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw. The association with Monterey gave him a boost in popularity that resulted in better bookings, more work as a headliner, and the highest chart position he would ever earn as Pigboy Crabshaw rose to Billboard's #52 in 1968. The album, like the Monterey performance, brought Elvin Bishop to the fore in the band. After nearly two years of non-stop one-nighters, Mike Bloomfield, who became the first white blues-rock guitar icon during his tenure with Butterfield, left to form his own group, The Electric Flag. The Flag also made its debut at Monterey, at that early date billed as the Mike Bloomfield Thing. Like Butterfield, Bloomfield got to work on the Flag's debut album, A Long Time Comin', in the fall of '67, and the band hit the road, including a couple of tour stops in Boston and a one-nighter at Holy Cross in Worcester. But only a year later, the Flag had begun to collapse under the weight of hype and heroin, and Bloomfield left his short-lived dream band and moved on to a commercially successful collaboration with Al Kooper, Super Session. He also gave Rolling Stone an interview in which he spoke with remarkable candor about the Flag's deficiencies and Kooper's ambitiousness, but with nearly idolatrous respect for Butterfield, characterizing him both a hardened street tough and an archetypal figure who transcended the racial boundaries that stood in the way of whites playing blues with authenticity. 

Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield at the Monterey Jazz Festival, 1966
Credit Jim Marshall

As it happened, both of these Chicago-born trailblazers came to premature ends. Bloomfield, after a long period of relative inactivity, died of a heroin overdose on February 15, 1981; Butterfield, who worked right till the end, died on May 4, 1987 from a combination of opiates and physical dissolution. It's hard not to think of how differently their outcomes might have been had they never parted musical company, a thought that always comes to mind when I see Bloomfield, here at the conclusion of "Driftin' Blues," beaming over and applauding his former boss.