On April 18, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, finally gaining a posterity that’s long overdue, according to the leader’s son, Gabriel Butterfield. “I’ve been fighting for it for a long time,” said Gabe, who was born in Chicago and was four years old when the Paul Butterfield Blues Band played the Woodstock Festival. “I’ve been back and forth with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, educating people about the pinnacle my dad played in music history.” Gabe and his wife, Elizabeth, who both reside in Woodstock, will fly out to Cleveland, and among the film clips they will screen in the ceremony is TV footage from the 1986 induction of Muddy Waters. Waters was introduced by Paul Butterfield — a piece of celluloid history that points to the seminal role played by Butterfield in popularizing the Chicago blues and integrating the music into rock and roll. This occurred both through the electric blues of his band, which became a major force in rock music, and his own blistering harmonica playing, a quintessential ingredient. Through that came the subsequent resurrection of careers of the great bluesmen of Chicago, some of whom played with him.
“There’s not a blues book that talks about a black artist that doesn’t mention Paul Butterfield,” said Gabe. “When B.B. King went onto Johnny Carson, he said ‘if were not for Paul Butterfield, I wouldn’t be here today.’ Blues writer Dick Waterman said that basically what your father did was he bridged the gap.”
Paul Butterfield, who resided in Woodstock in the 1970s and early 1980s, was born and raised in the Hyde Park area of Chicago and studied flute before hanging out in clubs on the South Side of Chicago and getting hooked on the blues. As recounted in John Milward’s book Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock ‘N’ Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues), Butterfield and his two musician friends Nick Gravenites and Elvin Bishop, fellow students at the University of Chicago, became converts to the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and other blues greats just as the popularity of the blues was fading among black audiences. The young musicians began playing in the clubs, attracting whites as well as blacks, and when the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was formed, it featured Sam Lay on drums and Jerome Arnold on bass, both of whom had played with Howlin’ Wolf; it was the first integrated blues band. In 1965, after guitarist Mike Bloomfield joined the band, it produced its eponymously titled first record, and from the first groove Butterfield’s harp blew into the signature tune, “Born in Chicago,” they were off and running, delivering, as Milward describes it, an “exhilarating shot of Chicago blues with solo space filled by Butterfield’s full-bodied harmonica and Bloomfield’s soulfully shamanist guitar.”
The band was a headliner at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, and its electric blues — a festival first — so mesmerized another headliner, Bob Dylan, that he recruited the band (without Butterfield) to back him in the electrified performance that changed folk-rock history. The “virtuosic instrumental jams” of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s second album, East-West, recorded the next year, was also influential, inspiring young musicians to pick up and move forward with the seemingly ancient ageless fury of the music.
Butterfield spent much of his life on the road performing, eventually expanding the horn section of his band. In 1967, after Bloomfield had left the band, he recorded The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw, another seminal work, using Bugsy Maugh on bass, Phil Wilson on drims, Gene Dinwiddie on tenor sax, David Sanborn on alto sax and Keith Johnson on trumpet, along with Bishop on guitar and original member Mark Naftalin on Keyboards. That was followed by another record, In My Own Dream, both albums moving toward R&B and paving the way for horns in the rock world.
In the early 1970s, he settled in Woodstock, after, as with so many others, being brought to the area by his manager Albert Grossman. Butterfield’s relationship with Grossman dated back to his days in Chicago, where Grossman, formerly a steel worker, owned a bar, according to Gabe. “Albert got him to leave Electra (Records) in 1970 and he signed with Bearsville Records in 1971,” he said. The Butterfield Band played at the Woodstock Festival — they were featured on the album, though not in the film.
Paul Butterfield formed another band, Better Days, and after it broke up, toured with Rick Danko. He did many recording sessions, including playing harmonica on Muddy Waters Woodstock Album, orchestrated by Levon Helm in his barn, and he also performed in The Last Waltz, the celebratory concert of The Band’s last performance filmed by Martin Scorsese. He moved to California in 1984, cut his last record in 1986, and died of peritonitis at age 44 in 1987.
To further ensure his father’s legacy, Gabriel is also working on a film about Paul Butterfield. He’s been collecting interviews and stories since 2004, and having enlisted Emmy Award winning filmmaker John Anderson onto the project, is confident it will be finished this fall. The film, which will include footage never before seen, is the first authorized biopic of Butterfield. It will shed light on his formation as an artist, chronicling his “creative and intense” side as a teenager, said Gabe. Paul’s flute playing helped him develop the “circular breathing” technique that enabled him to sustain a note, according to Gabe. At age 14, “he was sneaking down to the clubs with my mother.” Once he discovered the harmonica, his devotion to the instrument was total: “He used to go out on Promontory Point” — a point of land protruding into Lake Michigan — “and play every day.”
Gabriel, who grew up in Seattle, spent some time on the road with his father when he was a teenager. “I learned how to sleep at Winterland behind an amp in front of 8,000 people,” he said, referring to Bill Graham’s famous San Francisco concert hall. Music has always been in his blood — he plays the drums — and to raise money for the film, three years ago he put together a tribute concert at the Bearsville Theater featuring songs of his father performed by a band organized by Conan O’Brien sidekick Jimmy Vivino and including numerous local players, many of whom had played with Paul back in the day.
While living with him in Woodstock, Gabe recalls how his father and fellow musicians would come home wired after a show and take up instruments lying around the house and play. “Before my father died he planned to put the family band together and was working on a European tour,” he said. “He was excited about it.” And though Butterfield was known as being somewhat aloof, totally absorbed in his music, “he was a very good dad and very protective. When he was around my brother and me, he loved us really nice.”