Paul Butterfield used to be a household name in Woodstock. You’d see him out at nights in the bars, at local clubs and restaurants. He played with everyone. His band, as tight as any around town, was always in demand…as was his own demon harp playing and tried and true blues chops. It’s hard to think he moved away 30-some years ago and passed away 25 years ago last spring.
This Friday night, Butterfield’s talented son Gabe will be playing the Bearsville Theater in a tribute and retrospective concert for the great bandleader and seminal rock and roll figure alongside a band put together by longstanding Conan O’Brien sidekick Jimmy Vivino, and including a host of top local players…many of whom shared the stage with Gabriel’s father, back when.
The idea is to raise funds for a full-length documentary film that Butterfield’s been putting together about his father, The Life and Times of Paul Butterfield, that he’s hoping will ensure the man who plugged electric blues into the rock and roll world, and Bob Dylan to The Band, a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“This would be our second nomination,” Gabe Buterfield says.
Who was Paul Butterfield, only 44 when he passed away of peritonitis in a North Hollywood hospital in May, 1987?
Like many rock and roll legends from Woodstock’s 1960s/1970s heydays, there’s a host of stories.
Michael Lang recalls going to see him one Thanksgiving at Benedictine Hospital, where he was for some illness.
“I walked these long empty hallways until I found him all alone in this one room. It was like one of those scenes from The Godfather,” he said. “But as always, he was good to see. He had real talent.”
Lynne Nasoe, once married to Butterfield Blues Band drummer Phil Wilson, still speaks in awe about how much fun, and how bright, the boss was back when everyone kept moving from coast to coast with recording and concert gigs, kept on time by Paul.
Happy Traum spoke about a man who, while not as big in size as many of his fellow rock and rollers or blues men in town, could appear gruff and intimidating at first. But then was all charm and chumminess once you got to know him.
That side of his father, Gabe Butterfield now says, was part and parcel with his having been a bandleader having to keep a whole host of temperamental players in line for years. And having come up in the harshness of the Chicago blues scene in the 1960s.
Paul Butterfield, born in the same Hyde Park neighborhood where our President now keeps his private home, was the son of an Irish immigrant turned lawyer who attended private school and studied classical flute until he got bitten by the blues harmonica…and started hanging out at South Side clubs with his buddy, guitarist Elvin Bishop. Somehow, in their early 20s, the two hired away Muddy Waters’ rhythm section…and secured a gig as the house band at a folk club on Chicago’s North Side, where they brought in a second, younger guitarist…Mike Bloomfield. By summer 1965 they were headlining at the Newport Folk Festival as a blues act…and infamously went onstage (sans Butterfield) to back folkie Bob Dylan for his first attempt at electrified rock music.
Butterfield’s first albums, on Electra Records, were critical hits — and trendsetters — in their day. His bands spawned superstars, splintered regularly, and he kept experimenting…adding horn sections, moving back to Woodstock to become his manager Albert Grossman’s first big act on Bearsville Records. Eventually, he took to touring with The Band’s Rick Danko after his main gig itself splintered. He was known as one of the top guest artists to have on any truly cool album.
“I was born in Chicago and only four when he played at Woodstock,” Butterfield’s eldest son, Gabriel, says in preparation for this Friday’s concert. “I spent years on the road, going everywhere, with my father and brother Lee…I was 21 when he passed and we had just spent several months with him. Then we dispersed and he came home from a show, started making himself a sandwich as he liked to do late at night, when everything just started to shut down.”