They came roaring out of Chicago, playing electric blues that seemed plugged into the cosmos. Grounded by the music of their South Side heroes – Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Elmore James, and others – the Paul Butterfield Blues Band changed rock and roll as surely as any band in mid 60s America. They did it with a combination of street-smart swagger, an endless well of feeling and, maybe most strikingly, an impossibly energetic attack on the soul.
The group, originally composed of Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, Sam Lay (later replaced by Billy Davenport), Mark Naftalin and Jerome Arnold, made true blues accessible to the growing youth counterculture, and in the process opened up the possibilities for what rock and roll could really be. Theirs was one of the greatest gifts the music ever received.
Until the group’s debut, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, was released in 1965, blues mainly had been the domain of older African-Americans. While people of all races and ages could appreciate that most timeless of music, not everyone could aspire to being a bluesman. Paul Butterfield changed that once and for all – now there was a role model for musicians of any age, and the freedom the Chicago singer-harp player personified would open the doors for many a musician. One look and listen to Butterfield’s first album made the blues seem immediately available to everyone. On the cover, the group was lined up against a South Side storefront, with drummer Sam Lay sporting gold Beatle boots. The rest of the band members made it clear they did not come for a fashion shoot. They came to burn down the house and anything else in their path. This was serious business, and anyone who heard the album could feel it.
As word on the Paul Butterfield Blues Band spread across America and England, musicians of various styles – from San Francisco’s psychedelic crowd to the U.K. blues bunch – looked to the group as standard bearers of a new sound. Butterfield and company were one of the first groups to play the Bay Area’s nascent ballroom scene, and once they performed in front of the area’s developing bands, the ante got upped to the ceiling for what was possible. Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop’s guitar excursions on songs like “East-West” would sometimes last half an hour, and include the entire history of American music and then some.
When Bill Graham introduced Paul Butterfield onstage, he said, “Without Paul, I don’t know if a lot of us would be here tonight.” The same was true in England. On the band’s first U.K. tour, Paul Butterfield recorded with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, setting a new standard for authenticity overseas. In 1965, when Bob Dylan decided to play electric rock songs at the Newport Folk Festival, he did it with members of the Butterfield Blues Band, and changed the course of rock and roll forever. In so many ways, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band walked right into the rock explosion of the mid 60s and lit the fuse for what was about to happen.
Michael Bloomfield became one of the era’s first electric-guitar heroes, right there with Eric Clapton in terms of taking blues guitar to a new level. The gunpowder in the band’s equation, Bloomfield was a musician who saw no boundaries, only possibilities, and approached songs like they were vessels to be filled with his hugely impressionistic soundscapes. Joining the group for its first recording sessions, Bloomfield fit seamlessly with original guitarist Elvin Bishop, and together they built a sound perfect for Butterfield’s vocals and harmonica.
Butterfield Band at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 > https://youtu.be/e3LEhfbKCSc
Paul Butterfield, born in Chicago in 1942, grew up in that city’s Hyde Park, close to blues clubs like Pepper’s and Theresa’s – where urban blues had taken hold in one of the largest black neighborhoods in the country. And while Butterfield might have started his musical pursuits on classical flute and then guitar, the young man found his lifetime calling when he first picked up a Hohner harmonica.
The musician’s good fortune was that he lived right next to the ghetto, and once he found his way into the clubs, the world of blues became his second home. Butterfield carried himself with enthusiasm, and was there to learn. Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Little Walter, James Cotton, and others offered living lessons on how the blues should be played and how a bluesman should behave. Butterfield drew on those early teachings for the rest of his life.
If listeners were overwhelmed by Butterfield’s blues harp ability, once he started singing, he attained even further liftoff. As he grew older, his vocals deepened and became as much part of his calling card as his harmonica. In the early 1970s, he formed Better Days, and following that he made three solo albums. When he died in 1987 in North Hollywood, it signaled for many the end of an era.
Michael Bloomfield was the son of a wealthy family on Chicago’s North Side. But he too rebelled against the life he’d been born into. Venturing into South Side and West Side clubs, Bloomfield became a first-class blues player almost instantaneously. Early recordings before he joined the Butterfield Blues Band reveal a man on a mission, with the fire of a true believer. Though Bloomfield stayed in the Butterfield band for only two albums, they were two of the most influential releases of the 60s. The second, East-West, is still credited for introducing improvisatory elements of Eastern music and mysticism into the rock palette, not to mention taking Nat Adderley’s jazz standard “Work Song” and showing how guitars and harmonica could make that song into a new anthem. After Bloomfield left the Butterfield band, he formed the Electric Flag. But after a promising start, he retreated into a life of near obscurity, dying in 1981 in San Francisco. Like Butterfield, his legend continues to grow as listeners discover just what an original approach Bloomfield always had.
Elvin Bishop spent most of his young years in Oklahoma. After becoming a National Merit Scholar in high school, the budding guitarist chose to attend the University of Chicago to be close to the blues. On his first day there, “I was walking around the neighborhood of the college, just checking it out,” he said. “And sitting on some steps in front of an apartment building was a white guy playing blues on the guitar and drinking a quart of beer. It was Butterfield. We fell right together. For the first six months I knew him, he was more of a guitar player. But he picked up the harmonica and went straight to the stratosphere. He became as good as he was ever going to be in six months. Just a natural genius on the harmonica. And the beautiful thing about Butterfield was he was so strong and so dynamic, but he didn’t play anybody’s licks. Butterfield was just himself, right from the get-go.”
Bishop added a strong sense of rhythm guitar on the early albums, but also could go toe to toe with Bloomfield on solos. In addition, he contributed vocals and a distinctly Southern vibe, staying with the band for four albums and earning the unforgettable nickname Pigboy Crabshaw. His lead vocals on “Never Say No” and “Drunk Again” remain classics, along with a slashing lead style on the post-Bloomfield recordings. Once he became a solo artist, he helped invent the burgeoning Southern-rock genre and never looked back.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s rhythm section was always its secret weapon, a take-no-prisoners pair seasoned in the hardest-core blues bands in Chicago, including that of Howlin’ Wolf. Drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold walked away from those slots to join Butterfield. Lay’s muscular drumming always announced that the A-team was on the bandstand, and his vocal on the debut album’s “Got My Mojo Working” took them into extraterrestrial territory. Arnold was the kind of bassist whose talent came in providing the rock-solid bottom that isn’t always noticed but is always felt. He helped carry the other players to new heights without ever showboating. The fact that both men were African-Americans meant they were one of the very first integrated blues bands to gain national attention, and they helped integrate the bandstand for all who followed. At the time the Paul Butterfield Blues Band formed in 1964, that was no small achievement.
When drummer Billy Davenport (1931–1999) joined for the second album, he brought a new sound, favoring jazz leanings for the group’s long, often complicated forays. Bassist Bugsy Maugh came onboard for the third and fourth albums, singing “Drivin’ Wheel,” “Morning Blues,” “Mine to Love” and “Get Yourself Together.” Keyboard player Mark Naftalin joined Butterfield, Bishop, Arnold and Lay shortly before recording the band’s debut, and brought sophistication to their sound.
Born in Minneapolis in 1944, Naftalin attended the University of Chicago and quickly immersed himself in the live music landscape. Once he took his organ and piano skills to Butterfield, he’d found a home, helping the other players add a different slant on their blues songs. Naftalin cowrote the signature instrumental “Thank You Mr. Poobah” on the first LP, and stayed with the aggregation for four albums, though he used the pseudonym Naffy Markham on his last group effort, 1968’s In My Own Dream. By then, the band had added a full horn section and expanded its range into different areas. In later years, Ted Harris took over the keyboard position, allowing Butterfield to continue to feature those musically advanced arrangements.
The Butterfield Blues Band would continue into the early 1970s, always moving forward and finding new and innovative ways to play blues. Horn players like Gene Dinwiddie, David Sanborn, Keith Johnson, Steve Madaio and Trevor Lawrence, among others, helped audiences appreciate a whole other area of musical heights, and with guitarists like Buzzy Feiten and Ralph Wash, the group stayed true to their early groundbreaking stature. Drummers Phillip Wilson, George Davidson, Dennis Whitted and bassist Rod Hicks made sure the band’s glow stayed strong and bright. It is in the unique makeup of the group that the players found their fire, and in all the musicians’ dedication and talent that they succeeded in inventing a new and unforgettable sound.
On the sleeve of their debut album, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band were the very first to include the admonition Play It Loud. Now we can add “play it long.”
Paul Butterfield’s early ally in playing the blues probably says it best. When someone asked Michael Bloomfield to describe Butterfield, he said: “You can quote me on this, man. Butterfield’s something else. He feels it, he’s in there all the way. Butterfield is a blues singer. There’s no white bullshit with Butterfield, white-colored thing with him. He’s there. And if he was green, it wouldn’t make any difference. If he was a planaria, a tuna fish sandwich, Butterfield would be into the blues.”
Butterfield himself continued to record and appear after the breakup of his premier bands, but he’d fallen more or less completely out of the limelight by the time he passed away on May 4, 1987, at the age of 44 — the victim of a painkiller habit he’d picked up as the result of a long battle with peritonitis and subsequent complications.
Even after his death, Paul Butterfield’s music didn’t receive the accolades that were so deserved. Outputting styles adopted from Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters among other blues greats, Butterfield became one of the first white singers to rekindle blues music through the course of the mid-’60s. The result was a wonderfully messy and boisterous display of American-styled blues, with intensity and pure passion derived from every bent note. In front of all The Butterfield’s instruments is his marvelously dexterous and soulful harmonica, beautifully dictating a mood and a genuine feel that is no longer existent, even in today’s blues music.