Saturday, December 3, 2016

# 63 Paul Butterfield @ The Last Waltz

  The disadvantage of living inside a culture is that it's next to impossible to fully appreciate it without some outside help. It's one of the reasons we often seek the insights of professional outlanders like comedians, artists, and tunesmiths.  More specifically, a skilled songwriter can create a two or three minute vignette which can be captivating enough that it becomes the soundtrack of our lives.

For example, during the sixties and seventies, those great pioneers of Americana music, The Band, compose songs which not only become a backdrop for a whole generation, but they also change the direction of American popular music forever. 

It is too easy to simply conclude that their music is just a synthesis of country, blues, gospel, presented in a rock format; their songs are more than just a sonic mosaic. Actually, their artistry is the product of the more complex feat of creating images of American culture which are insightful enough to transcend cultures, and generations. One of the secrets of their success is the fact that they have the outsider's advantage, four fifths of The Band are actually Canadian with only one member coming from the culture they sing about.  

Another interesting thing about The Band is that they don't achieve success the same way most artists of the day do. They're actually a reclusive unit. They  hunker down like monks in a remote house on the outskirts of the tiny New York state town of Woodstock where they carefully craft near mystical tales of life outside the mainstream. When you listen to many of their songs they seem almost part historical document, and yet are also current enough to capture the imagination of millions of young people in several countries. As American scholar Greil Marcus notes, they have a magic feel for history. They came out of Canada, but had a love affair with the American south, minstrel shows and blues singers.  
This self-imposed reclusive profile also serves as a marketing campaign concocted by their label when they hire the brilliant American photographer Elliot Landy to photograph them in Woodstock. At a time when color film is all the rage, he photographs them in black and white, crafting an image of young men who may have just walked out of a civil war painting, or some other period in ancient American history. Then there is their name, The Band, simple, yet distinct, and boasting both notoriety, and humility.  

Unfortunately, their magic doesn't last long.  Most of their best work grows out of a five year period before they begin to repeat themselves, and finally fizzle like an evening bonfire in late November. By the mid-seventies three members are preoccupied with debilitating heroin and alcohol addictions. The frustration with this social dynamic pushes their clear thinking principal songwriter to look at options outside the group. It is Robbie Robertson who proposes a halt to the self destruction, and then offers a very public celebratory wake for The Band.  

An ardent film buff with ambitions to merge his hobby with his career, Robertson tables the idea of inviting twenty one of the artists who play an important role in their career to join them in   a final performance at San Francisco's Winterland auditorium, and then filming the event for posterity. The idea will become The Last Waltz and like so many of their songs, it will become a historical document about the creators of the soundtrack for a whole generation. One of these key performers will be an important historical figure in his own right, Paul Butterfield

Similar to his colleagues in the The Band, Butterfield too earns much of his notoriety because of his time as a cultural outsider. Remember, he is the white middle class kid who penetrates the social fabric of Chicago's south side, charms the locals into teaching him their craft, and then emerges a journeyman bluesman. It may seem an uneventful feat now, but in the early sixties, it is quite an accomplishment for a young white man from Hyde Park.
In spite of the fact that most historians agree on Butterfield's contributions to post-war blues, it is probably a remote reason for him being invited to perform at The Last Waltz. Firstly, every member of The Band shares a similar opinion of him that Levon Helm confides, Paul was there for any blues based thing we wanted to do. Boy, he could really make it go. I really loved playing with him anytime. He was a good bandleader: He loved being the harmonica player; especially with Muddy. Just like all of us, I'd rather drummer, and would rather be the harmonica player. Those aren't just crass marketing blandishments either, almost every member of The Band works with him in the studio, or in live concerts. (See blog # 61) 

Of all the musicians who appear on stage with The Band at The Last Waltz, Butterfield shares the closest social bond with all the members. Robertson remembers, We knew him from Woodstock. He actually had taken us around Chicago. We had a long relationship with him up until this point. However, as Butterfield's social relationship with members of The Band deepens it also becomes darker. By the seventies there are people in Woodstock who refer Butterfield, Manuel, and Danko as the chemical trio for their excessive abuse of hard drugs.  

However, it is Butterfield's talent as a blues singer and historian that should be remembered the most. Firstly, as producer of the concert Robertson chooses Muddy Waters' 1956 hit Forty Days and Forty Nights for the great blues man's performance, but Butterfield interjects, insisting that Waters performing Mannish Boy will be most memorable. It proves to be wise advice, and a testament to Robertson's respect for Butterfield's opinion. As Waters' guitarist Bob Margolin remembers, Muddy loved the way Butterfield played on that song, setting up a warble that "holds up my voice" rather than just playing the song's signature lick. Decades later and Muddy Waters' performance still remains a highlight of the concert.

(As a side note, Robertson identifies Butterfield's harmonica on Mannish Boy incorrectly. He says Butterfield is using circular breathing during the song, but it is probably best described as extraordinary breath control. He is playing the three hole blow, the four hole blow, and then drawing on the two and the five hole, using the tongue blocking method. Circular breathing is the ability to hold a single endlessly, Butterfield is not using this technique.) 

The song chosen for Butterfield's performance is a song which both he and The Band share a history, but it comes with an intimidating lineage. Mystery Train is an old folk song which has been traced back to the Celtic tradition, then reworked by the Carter Family to earn them their biggest selling record of 1930. In the early 1953, Memphis bluesman Junior Parker reworks the song into a more urban interpretation and then two years later, twenty two year old Elvis Presley explodes into the young country market with Mystery Train as the B side of his 1955 hit,  I Forgot to Remember to Forget. Twelve years after Presley records it, Butterfield offers his own version of the Parker hit, only this time turning up the volume, and tempo to capture a whole new audience. Eight years later, The Band will attempt to mold the song into their own interpretation when they record in on their 1973 album Moondog Matinee. So, Mystery Train is logical choice for Butterfield to sing as a duet with Helm. 

Another interesting point about the version of Mystery Train from The Last Waltz is that it includes additional lyrics for which Robertson had to secure clearance from the publisher in 1973. As great chronicler of American popular music, Geil Marcus says,  It's a song that goes all the way back. Nobody knows where it began. Of Course it's a song that Elvis recorded in 1955, at the Sun Label, maybe his greatest recording there. A couple of year before Junior Parker did it a blues singer at Sun. Before that it a song called Brain Cloudy Blues by Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys, before that it was a song called Worried Man Blues by the Carter Family. When Paul Butterfield sang the song in '65 he followed the Junior Parker version which is kind of defeated, well so what, whatever, it's all fatalism. Elvis Presley completely changed that song. When he sang it, ''That train took my baby and I'm getting her back'  Well, that's how they do it tonight. I didn't see every show Paul Butterfield ever played, I only saw a couple of 'em.... I don't believe he ever played or sang this song with anymore fervor, with half the fervor that he did this night. One of the things you see in the Last Waltz is the absolute joy of performing, of people saying everything that's in their minds, hearts and bodies. It's putting everything out, leaving nothing behind, leaving not a word unsaid, and that's what you get in this performance. It's impossible to believe that there's anything more that Paul Butterfield could give this song or that there is anything more that this song could give him or the song and the performer could give to the audience. This is one of the absolute highlights of the Last Waltz. It is important to remember that a song with such a rich pedigree also demands respect, so the pressure to perform it flawlessly must have been intense, and as Marcus suggests, they nailed it!


Indeed, the performance of Mystery Train at The Last Waltz should not disappoint any of the artists who have recorded it in the past, and this version will serve as a benchmark for all twenty artists who will attempt it in the coming decades.  Fortunately, the audio portion performance is not jeopardy during the concert, but the video comes very close to ending up on the cutting room floor.

One of the unique technical features of The Last Waltz is that director Martin Scorsese chooses to document the concert with 35mm film, (a gusty choice for 1975), but he doesn't anticipate the strain the format places on the cameras. During the filming, there are constant shut downs due to overheating, and so when Butterfield begins Mystery Train, all but one camera is not operating properly. Fortunately, the unintended consequences of this catastrophe will actually serve to enhance the visual atmosphere of the performance, and catapult it into what many critics call a highlight of the concert.  

When The Last Waltz is released to movie theaters in April of 1978, it injects new life into the careers of most of the performers, including Butterfield's. In spite of the fact the early reviews are mixed, the film gains respect, and is generally regarded as the best music documentary ever made. Some calling it an important time capsule, or the greatest rock concert film ever. Even the cornerstone of Rock journalism, Rolling Stone, says of all the coffee-table albums to date, The Last Waltz is in many respects the most impressive... These accolades make the end of The Band as a creative force in popular music a tragic loss for fans. When the group leaves the stage that Thanksgiving night, even the future attempts to regroup in later years will be overshadowed by their past triumphs as creators a small, but important body of work.   

There is another sad postscript to the concert and film. The Last Waltz is also a signal from the stage wings to the artists standing in the spotlight that they should prepare to move from the center stage so a new generation can move into position. By 1978, there are new forms of music capturing the imaginations of young people the same way The Band does a decade earlier. In only a couple of years, the eighties will begin; Punk, then New Wave will invade the airwaves, and eventually, so will a new urban folk music, Rap. Similar to so many songwriters before them, these fresh artists will act as outlanders, composing their own two or three minute vignettes which will become the soundtrack of a new generation.   



                                                                 

  




 









Friday, October 28, 2016

# 62 Paul Butterfield's Put It In Your Ear

Almost two decades after white middle class Americans develop their infatuation with post-war blues, a new generation of suburbanites are falling under the spell of another urban folk music called Rap. Similar to blues, Rap boasts vivid tales about the pursuit of unrestrained and gritty pleasures on the lawless side of a big city.

There is another similarity that Rap and in particular Gangsta Rap shares with urban blues, in particular, 1960s white blues. It is the emphasis on a journeyman's profile as a badge of respect, or as the Rappers call it, Street Cred.  The marketing departments of every record label know of its importance, and go to great lengths to secure it for their artists.  Street Cred is seal of approval that Paul Butterfield enjoys for the first ten years of his career, but after he releases his ninth album Put It In Your Ear in February of 1976,  seal of approval is starting to peel away like the paint on a neglected ghetto window sill. 

By the middle of the seventies critics applaud him as the first white bluesman to interpret blues with an authentic conviction usually reserved for African-American counterparts. Part of the reason is that he carries the prestigious credentials is that almost every article written about him devotes about fifty percent to his past accomplishments before any discussion of his current work is given mention. 

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, most of the accolades critics shower on Butterfield are actually a product of talent and hard work not a fabrication of the press. He really does have the documentation to prove his apprenticeship and journeyman's papers. In addition, his resume cites years of grueling road tours, film and television performances, and innumerable studio appearance that enhance his own catalogue of recordings. Street credentials aside, Butterfield also proves himself to be a pioneer in popular music, an innovator, and a respected bandleader. He is the real deal.  As journalist Albert Goldman notes in his 1968 essay on the bluesman, Butterfield has always had always true sense of the real thing....

As an example of one of his many historical contributions to popular music, his band Better Days is part of a select group of artists who pioneer the new genre of roots music which will become known as Americana Music. Part of the widespread appeal of his music as a skillful blend of very hip, urban blues, folk, rock, and jazz, which strives to be anti-pop is still popular decades after release. As one critic notes,  His blues collage is pasted together out of black New York jazz of the sixties, blues Memphis soul of the late sixties and moire-screen orientalism from Frisco '67. 

However, in spite of any grand honors an artist's receives, they are really only as good their last performance. Even though every Butterfield project proves to be yet another example of a clear artistic vision for a new music, that ability seems to be fading by the time he records Put It in Your Ear. It is here that his artistic acumen falters under the weight of his gnawing drug addiction. If there is a point where his fans and critics begin to question his street cred it is with this album. 

The most recent stage of his artistic decline seems to begin in early '75 when hires the new Woodstock production company RCO to produce the new project. RCO (Our Company) is a business venture that music industry legend Henry Glover, and his rock star friend, Levon Helm concoct as their second career. Their first production contract The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album puts their company on the spotlight with a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording. The prestigious award generates some industry interest, enough to convince Butterfield to sign up as the company's second client.

One of the appeals of the project to Butterfield is that offers him an opportunity to shed the weighty responsibilities of being a bandleader, leaving the heavy lifting to the businessmen. However, this decision will prove to be a mistake because once he submits to the seduction of RCO, he loses control of any vision he may bring to the transaction.

It could be his desire to break free of past projects, or his inflated ego, but Put It In your Ear is definitely an error in judgement. While he considers Helm to be the best drummer he has ever played with, he seems more enthralled with Glover's curriculum vitaeHenry's done a lot of work over the years for people like Diana Washington, Ray Charles and Hank Ballard. He's a black man in his 50s, and I've known him for about three years.  We met on some session in New York.  He worked with me and Garth Hudson and Levon Helm on that Muddy Waters album we did for Chess. However, the two factors that Butterfield neglects to consider are that Glover's past accomplishments are redundant to most in the mid-seventies rock scene, and while Helm is ambitious, he also suffers from inexperience.

There is another factor to consider in the failure of this project though. The communication between an artist and his label is crucial for the ongoing success of both parties. In spite of what an artist wants to record, their label knows what will sell, and will often nix projects that look unprofitable. However, Albert Grossman's new label Bearsville Records is different from most other labels. They maintain a hands off philosophy with both the personal lives of their artists, and the projects they want to produce. It seems like an unorthodox business model, but it proves very successful for most of their stable of artists.   


It could be that the success Bearsville has with Paul Butterfield's Better Days is a signal tot them that anything Butterfield touches will reap financial rewards for the label. However, this time their laissez faire attitude is will cost them revenue.  The recording of Put It In Your Ear is expensive by the standards of blues singers of the day, Butterfield confidesWe used 25 pieces (actually 48) on the sessions and almost everything was done in one take. At $4000 (18k in 2016 dollars) a session you can't screw around. We did the whole thing in three days in New York plus two three hour session in L.A.  These are premium rates in the seventies, and so it is a surprising that no one at Bearsville questions the project spending.

Part of the cost of the album is the expensive use of some of the most skilled studio musicians in the business. When you look at the lineup of  talents, you can see that Butterfield is really asserting his reputation as a artistic force in the industry. Among the supporting forty-eight musicians are some of the industry's important luminaries: Chuck Rainy and James Jamerson on bass, Garth Hudson, Eric Gale, and then there is the flock of  11 string players,  and bank of 12 horns. The magnitude of the project is not lost on Butterfield either, he boasts to one critic, Fred Carter, who's a great Nashville guitarist and a terrific song writer, was on that one also. He wrote one of the songs on the new record. Henry wrote two, Aaron Banks, who wrote 'Ain't that a lot of Love' write one, there's Hirth Martinez song, and one song that was written by Bobby Charles and Robbie Robertson. There' also one of mine. However, Put It In Your Ear should also be viewed as an example of how albums often fail in spite of the quality of the individual components of the project.

It only takes one listen of the album to understand that this is technically an excellent album. Even the euphemistic album title Put It In Your Ear, and the product packaging demonstrates clever marketing, but those incidentals don't have much staying power with fans or critics, who mostly recoil when hearing it. One critic erroneously says,  ...his talent is undermined by flaccid arrangements and atrocious material. Even Rolling Stone's Kit Rachlis writes Even a career predicated on experimentation, Paul Butterfield breaks a number of precedents with Put It In Your Ear. However, while most critics focus on the songwriting and production, they neglect to address the real issue of  a mismatch of material with artist persona.

There is another more subtle reason for the failure of Put It In Your Ear . There are some historical trends developing in the mid-seventies which might contribute to Butterfield's decision to record this album. Consider, he is respected as a trailblazer in history of popular music, but with this album he becomes a follower of mainstream fads.  

The historical pattern in popular music tends to be that every decade gives birth to a new generation of young people who feel disenfranchised from the offerings of the mainstream, and so, seek out a new music. There are many examples of this pattern, from Dixieland in the 20s, Be-bop in the 40s, Rock and Roll in the 50s, and then the melding of Folk/Blues and Rock in the 60s. However, as a new music gains popularity, the music industry sniffs out ways to capitalize on its popularity. One thing they usually do is strip away any unique characteristics, (i.e. country music) and then promote a pasteurized version to the mainstream audiences. Finally, when the music becomes part of the mainstream market, the original audience recoils from its redundancy, and so the cycle continues. Remember, it is this dynamic which introduces The Paul Butterfield Blues Band to the world in the mid sixties.

So, how does this pattern tie in with Paul Butterfield's album Put It In Your Ear? Well, by 1975, genuine post-war blues has been marketed to mainstream audiences for a decade, and audience interest is stagnating. Butterfield, and many of his white Blues/Rock contemporaries have  established audiences, enjoy the very envious position of signing lucrative recording contracts, and participating in big budget tours.  As a reaction to this trend a younger generation are starting to seek out a new music.

Disco, is a loud, exciting, fresh music which employs, in-your-face vocals over a steady four-on-the-floor beat, prominent syncopated electric bass lines, string sections, horns, electric piano, and electronic synthesizers. It becomes so popular that many of the more ambitious blues/rock acts like the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Rod Stewart, and Paul Butterfield will attempt expand their market share by capitalizing on the popularity of the new pop music. Many acts will have some success pandering to the disco craze, but others will not, and Paul Butterfield is one of them.

Herein lies the main problem with Put It In Your Ear, it should be a musical event, by a historically significant artist, but it sounds like a feeble attempt at pandering to the disco fad. Remember, Butterfield's public persona is of a progressive blues singer, who composes and interprets gritty blues based music, and then adventurously bridges genres of music, so his new album seems crassly superficial. Listen to Day to Day, Breadline, I Don't Want to Go with their very distinctive 70s social commentary, but then notice how Butterfield's once evocative harp solos seem to doze just at the surface of the mix.  

Then there is Fred Carter's saccharin based syrupy If I Never Sing My Song, which sounds more like an attempt to turn Butterfield into a lounge singer at a two star motel bar on the outskirts of Las Vegas rather than that of the white boy who masters Muddy Water's Just To Be With You at Smitty's Corner. If there is a single song on the album that damages Butterfield's street cred as a blues singer, it this track.

It gets worse. One of the highlights of Paul Butterfield's Better Days two albums is their interpretation of the Charles/Danko composition Small Town Talk. It is an insightful social commentary on the incestuous, mostly melodramatic social scene that Woodstock becomes by the mid-seventies. Now, compare it to what sounds like Butterfield's attempt at a sequel. Glover's Watch'em Tell a Lie, replete with a Barry White intro, and very unconvincing spoken introduction by Butterfield, and an anonymous female stand in. Similar to so many of the other songs on the album, they are so distant from the Paul Butterfield of the last ten years that they sound contrived, and consequently pathetic.


Then there is one of Butterfield's compositions The Flame. It too is another blatant opportunity to capitalize on the disco fad. In case you are curious, he is using the trendy 70s synthesizer invented by Alan Robert Pearlman called ARP. It is one of those instruments that becomes so popular in the 70s that you can hear it in many of the pop songs of the decade. (Edgar Winter uses one on his hit instrumental Frankenstein) When you listen to The Flame, and compare it with an earlier Butterfield composition Song for Lee, it is difficult not to be struck how directionless The Flame is as a piece of music. 

However, the whole of Put It In Your Ear is not a failure. There are three tracks that offer some redemption for Butterfield: You Can Run But You Can’t Hide, The Animal, and Ain't that a lot of Love. These are examples of material which are better suited to Butterfield persona, and can fit very neatly in any one of his concert setlists. As a side note, You Can Run But You Can't Hide is often attributed to either Freddie King or Luther Allison because both cover it in the 70s, but it is in fact Butterfield/Glover composition. Royal Southern Brotherhood, and Welsh singer Philip Sayce will cover the tune in the 2000s.

It is one thing to record an album of new material, but quite another to promote the project to your fans with a road tour. The live shows need to compliment the album, and Butterfield can't afford to ever offer Put It In Your Ear to a live audience. The logistics of mounting a tour with the weight of all the studio musicians will simply be too costly. It's one of the reasons why major artists like Frank Sinatra or Celine Dion hunker down in Las Vegas. 

However, Butterfield is either deluded by his own wishful thinking, or he is desperately overselling the album when he says, But everything we did in the studio we can do on stage. I'm forming a new band, and we'll be doing a lot of the new songs. I'm not precisely sure how many people are going to play, but I'll use Chris Parker and Richard Bell (drums and keyboards), probably two guitars and maybe a girl singer and one horn. My playing doesn't change much, though. The musical concepts change but my playing is always the same. I think people still crave that good old like music. Sure there la lot of theatrics around now, but I think a lot of people really identify with straight happy shows. Man, when I play I'm happy. It is a boast that will never materialize.

However, he does manage to form a modest road band, and then mount a sporadic tour; one which will take him to areas on the south that only a decade earlier he swore he would never play. His touring band is made up of out-of-work rock star sidemen Goldy McJohn   keyboards), young upstart Rick Reed (bass), and fellow alcoholic Dallas Taylor (drums). They do appear at the July 1976 edition of the Montreux Jazz Festival, and while it has yet to surface, there is a video made for a television special, and apparently a live recording. I have part of one recording from that tour Live at the Pipeline Tavern in Seattle Washington, July 29th 1976 where Butterfield demonstrates that his harp playing is better than ever, but the set list is made up of blues standards, nothing from Put It In Your Ear.

The album could be a product of Butterfield's frivolous artistic folly, or Bearsville's neglect, but in the end, it never does capture the imagination of his fan base. Shortly after its release Grossman hires Ian Kimmet from Britain to run the day to day affairs of his studio operations and assigns the Butterfield account as his first file. During his first meeting with Butterfield, Kimmet recalls I remember quite clearly the first time I was with Paul, in a bar in Woodstock, and he was looking me right in the eyes and asked, 'You didn't like my record with Henry Glover? Do you know who Henry Glover is?' .....He said to me, 'Why don't my records sell over in Europe?,' and I answered quite clearly that nobody was getting a buzz over them. He laughed at my terminology. I told him that I thought he needed better material, and I told him I thought the record just wasn't enough. He was clearly amused by all of my comments. 

While Butterfield might be smiling on  the outside, he seems to be aware of his loss of street cred as critics are looking for answers to several questions about his activities. He puts on a brave face, and defensively excuses his recent behavior, I've really been taking it easy for the past year and a half...... Well, I really needed some time to think things over, to work on my life and my music. A lot of people take themselves too seriously. I try not to, I live to laugh at myself, and that's good because it takes work to stay open. But it's a necessity to stay open. A while ago I got to a point where I knew I didn't have to play all the time, when I felt good about myself. When you're 19 things are very intense, but when you're 34 , like I am, their intense in another way. I've always tried to believe in my fellow man and believe in myself.
You see, the time I've spending hasn't been wasted. I've been listening to Pablo Casals. I've been sitting in with Taj or Muddy or doing a little session work for friends like Happy and Artie Traum. It's more fun, and it's better than getting paid a lot to do sessions in New York. I've been writing on piano, playing more piano. And the record company's been great; I've always had a lot of  faith in Albert Grossman and Mo Ostin. I'm going to be playing music all my life, just like Casals. I'm in no hurry. 

Butterfield's career is no hurry to recover after Put It In Your Ear either. His substance addictions are continuing to drain his financial resources, his wife leaves him, he still doesn't want to tour, and he only has one album left in his four album contract with Bearsville. As mainstream audiences continue to lose interest with new blues artists Butterfield is fortunate to still possess some important street cred as draw to the shrinking venues he is forced to play.

The one bright light will come when he appears with his friends and neighbors the Band at their farewell concert.  In the film The Last Waltz  he will be immortalized singing material more suited to his persona as a legendary bluesman. After the Band decides to dissolve, Helm will form his dream group called the RCO All Stars, and Butterfield will be the group's first call soloist. However, as both his personal and professional life is fraught with declining health and professional failures, the late seventies will continue to be a stark unforgiving period for the once great bluesman. During these years the only thing he seems to have left is his  street cred .

Paul Butterfield   Put It In Your Ear  Bearsville BR-6960  February 1976
You Can Run But You Can’t Hide, The Flame(If I Never Sing) My Song, Day To Day, Ain’t That A Lot Of Love, The Breadline, The Animal, I Don’t Wanna Go, Here I Go Again, Watch’em Tell A Lie.

Paul Butterfield - Vocal, harmonica, keyboards (ARP and Synthesizer)
Strings: Sidney Sharp, Richard Kaufman, Karen Jones, Bernard Kundell , Jack Pepper, Paul Shure,
Meyer Bello, Norman Forest, Jess Ehrlich, Raphael Krammer, Christine Ermacoff  
Woodwinds: Frank West, alto, Seldon Powell, tenor, babe Clark, Baritone, Mel Tax, baritone ,
Jerome Richard, alto, Clifford Shank, alto, Wilbur Schwartz, Gene Cipriano, David Sanborn, alto/soprano              
Keyboards: Henry Glover, Garth Hudson, Richard Bell.
Brass: Lloyd Michels, trumpet, Irving Markowitz, trumpet, Al DeRisi, trumpet  Sonny Russo - Trombone
Reeds: Garth Hudson              
Bass Sax: Howard Johnson
Electric bass: Chuck Rainy, Tim Drummond , James Jamerson, Gordon Edwards.
Guitars: Fred Carter Jr., Ben Keith, Eric Gale, John Holbrook, Nick Jameson
Background Vocals: Gail Kanter, Chris Parker, Bernard Purdie, Steven Kroon
Drums and Percussion: Levon Helm, Erin Dickens, Ann Sutton, Evangeline Carmichael, Lorna Willard, Julia Tillman, Andrea Willis.
Conductor/Arranger/Producer: Henry Glover,
Recording Engineers, Angel Balastier/TTG Studios (L. A., Cal.), Ed Anderson/Shangrila  Studios, (Malibu,Cal.), John Holbrook /Bearsville Studios, (N.Y.), Tom Mark, Assistant Engineer, Bearsville, Mixed at Bearsville Studios,
Mastering Engineer: Mark Harmon,
Contractors: Mel Tax, George Berg,
Photography: Barry Feinstein,
Cover Design: Milton Glaser.


                                                                      

Friday, October 7, 2016

#61 Paul Butterfield on The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album

McKinley Morganfield A.K.A. Muddy Waters is a member of a select group of artists who are responsible for so many important contributions to post-war American popular music that the books, periodicals, and personal testimonials should easily occupy its own section of a music library.  Most people are unaware that Waters music is often found embedded in the soundtrack of our lives by way of big budget movies, television soundtracks. In addition, his songs are regularly sampled to promote everything from jeans, and trucks, to soft drinks. It is surprising someone hasn't used to use his Mannish Boy to promote erectile disfunction medication.   

In addition, there are more subtle signs of his influence. Listen for the host of references to his memory in songs like Come Together by the Beatles to Led Zeppelin's borrowing of You Need Love to compose Whole Lotta Love, or Van Morrison's Cleaning Windows, and then Bob Dylan's adaptation of Rollin' and Tumblin'.  Even in 2016 there are many mainstream artists who employ a Waters song in their concert setlist.  One of the originators of the genre of music we now call Americana music, Robbie Robertson, calls Waters as a cornerstone in Rock and Roll History.

So, what is the attraction of Muddy Waters to so many people who create the soundtrack of our lives? When you dig deeper and listen to these artists describe their first experiences with Waters' music it is often like listening to someone tell you about their first fleeting glance of a naked woman, or a bloody automobile accident where there were too frightened to stare, but too transfixed to look away. Yes, the experience seems to be that powerful.

However, this type of legacy is never the product of just the artist. There is always a fraternity of the devoted who feel compelled to keep the memories active. While the facts of Waters contributions are documented, the people he is beholden to that are not always as obvious.    

Let's briefly look at the facts of Waters contributions. The most creative part of his more than three decade long career is the ten years starting in the late forties. During this period he writes, and performs a string of top ten blues hits that established him as the reigning king of postwar Chicago Blues. However, by the end of the fifties, the growth of his mostly African-American audience has stagnating, and the children of his fan base are rejecting the antiquated music of their parents in favor of young artists such as Ray Charles and Charles Brown. This dynamic should be a signal for Waters to exit centre stage, and accept a slow descent into obscurity, but it doesn't happen. Instead. there are a series of unforeseen events will keep his profile alive for the rest of his life. 

The first is the American Folk Revival of the 1950s. The revival begins during the second world war in Greenwich Village, and over the next ten years spreads throughout the United States, up into Canada, and across the Atlantic to Britain. In 1958, promoters attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the revival by hosting a tour of Britain with American blues artists, one of whom is Waters. Unfortunately, his set does not win many accolades by critics, or many fans who seem to have a limited knowledge of the progressive nature of Chicago blues. Many of them cling to an archaic, racist image of aging, undereducated, Negroes who wear dirty overalls, and strum a worn acoustic guitar while they sing their songs of hardship. (They can thank John Hammond sr. for that image) Now contrast this image with an immaculately dressed Muddy Waters, boasting carefully coiffed processed hair, and using only electric instrumentation. He is being sincere, but his audience doesn't want truth, they demand fiction. Consequently, many of his performances become like victims of a shallow cultural tourism cruise ruined because of a food poisoning outbreak. It is a devastating tour for the great bluesman and returns to Chicago feeling the pinch of frustration from the unfair rejection. 

However, the British tour isn't a complete failure. Ironically, even though his performances seem to annoy the stuffy older audiences, they do capture the imaginations of many young people. The new music of these people is the electric blues based Rock and Roll, which old people consider loud, unruly, just like Waters' music. Many of these young males are so transfixed by the music of the Muddy Waters that they begin to develop a life long relationship with his music.

Two members of this growing gang of young Waters converts are adolescents Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They are mesmerized with the back beat, the searing slide guitar, and primal vocal performances. In fact, during the late fifties, Jagger and Richards are becoming members of an exclusive brotherhood of British blues fans who fall in love Chicago blues produced on the Chess label, and their  favorite is
Muddy Waters. They collect imported blues records, congregate in each other's houses, and learn each song -  lick for lick. Then form a rock combo, christening with  a Muddy Waters song, Rollin' Stone. By the early sixties, their fresh faced brand of blues becomes so popular in Britain that record labels offer them contracts, albums are recorded, and promoters decide to export the new music back to the United States. It seems like an odd dynamic, but as Irish singer and actor Maureen O'Hara says... that's showbiz.

Then, The Rolling Stones make their first tour of the United States with throngs of screaming adolescent girls and rebellious boys greeting them at the airport. It is exciting for the young rock and rollers, but it will also be an opportunity for them to visit the birth place of the music they love so much. When they arrive in Chicago, they make a point of touring the Chess studios, and meeting some labels stars, many of whom are not familiar with the white foreigners with long hair. The music press pepper the group with questions about their musical influences, but they don't get answers they expect. Instead, they are shocked to hear the boys, lead by Jagger, passionately regale the influences of homegrown talent like Muddy Waters. It will be the first time that Muddy Waters' name and music are promoted to a young mainstream pop audience. However, there is a sad postscript to this development in the great bluesman's career. Years later, he will confide that attention by Jagger boosted the profile of his name into the mainstream, but did little to enhance his back account, He stole my music, but gave me my name.

There is an interesting irony in this corner of the Muddy Waters story. While many in middle class white America are surprised, maybe even a little bewildered that the main influence on this wild rock music that their children are listening to is rooted in African-American folk music, this fact it is not lost on a fraternity of young American folkies who have been listening to Waters for years.  Actually, there is a growing brotherhood of these young white American kids who love post war blues, and in particular Muddy Waters. In fact they are just as passionate Jagger and Richards, and liver right in the city of Chicago. It is a relatively small group of converts who not only know of Muddy Waters' records, they regularly attend his shows in local bars. 

The middle income, mostly white neighborhood of Hyde Park is an oddity in Chicago because it also rests in the middle of Chicago's south side ghetto neighborhoods where most of the postwar urban blues is born, nurtured and and is part of the fabric of the community. There are several artists who routinely hold court in these south side bars, but the king is Muddy Waters. Two of the first members of young coterie who cross over from Hyde Park into these dangerous ghetto blues bars is Nick Nick the Greek Gravenites, and his younger side kick Paul Butterfield. Like so many other young whites who have a front row seat, they too are transfixed by the grandmaster.

It is important to note here that the experiences Gravenites, and Butterfield and others in their circle have with blues, in particular, Muddy Waters, is distinct from blues converts like Jagger and Richards. While those Britons sit in the safety of their bedrooms, listening to professionally produced recording sessions of Waters, Butterfield and his gang are hearing and watching real blues in its natural habitat.

 
The now familiar story is that Gravenites takes Butterfield to see Muddy Waters for the first time at Smitty's Corner on 35th and Indiana. For 18 year old Butterfield, it's as though he is entering into the temple of carnal knowledge, and unwittingly locks eyes with the grand shaman as he stands on a stage unrepentantly boasting of his secret powers. It's an event which changes Butterfield's life forever, and will benefit Waters a decade later.  In November of '73, Butterfield remembers that night when he tells Rolling Stone's Josh Mills: The best blues singer I ever saw live was Muddy Waters, and he had 'em dancin' on the tables, he was doing Mannish Boy. I don't know why I remember that, but he knocked me out. He just killed me. It was all over..... the music really got to me, he said with a sigh. Butterfield's experience is similar to many other young men in Chicago who witness Waters live, but there is a difference. Butterfield is in fact a gifted musician and knows the value of a great teacher. After seeing Waters perform, he makes it his goal to learn to recreate the magic of the blues from some of the masters of the art form.  

Among the growing entourage of young men who are frequent the south side clubs to see Muddy is a gifted physics student from the University of Chicago. Like his new friend, Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop has fallen under the spell of Muddy Waters too. He remembers some of those performances with Muddy life for their spectacle , ... you know sometimes before the show, he'd go back in the bench room, and stick a coke bottle down his pants... He would be up there and sweating profusely. and Spann was playing that great piano, and Pat Hare played guitar, and they would just get worked up to a pitch, and people would be crowded around the front.... it was mostly women, and they would be going nuts. He worked them into a lather.... For these young men in their sexual prime, it isn't just the music, but the performances that are so captivating too. Similar to Butterfield, Bishop's life will change after seeing Waters ply his craft in the local bars. He too will choose to become a bluesman,  and evolve into a very skilled composer of blues songs.  

As the sixties begin Butterfield is now frequenting several of the south side bars, networking with musicians, and soaking up the atmosphere the music generates. He regularly does face time with masters like Little Walter, Otis Rush, James Cotton, and the grandmaster Muddy Waters. On one of these nights a nervous, but determined Butterfield accepts a dare from friends, and asks Waters if he can sit in with his band. Always looking for new ways to keep his audience interested, he invites the young white boy up to share his stage. As Butterfield recalls, When I couldn't even play, y'know, I was just blowin' on the harp tryin' to hit things. I was singin' and having a good time doin' it, but I wasn't too good. Muddy use to let me come up and play when I was just 16 or 17 years old. He would let me  come up and play, just a really nice thing y'know. That'll really teach you, that'll really get you playin'. Keep in mind that Butterfield  has a few years of formal training on classical flute, something most bluesmen do not possess, so he isn't intimidated by the music. So, probably one of lessons that leaves the deepest impression Butterfield is the gracious generosity a teacher gives to his student, something he too will model later in his career.

Almost a decade after these nights Butterfield has become a respected bluesman with following larger than anything Waters ever experiences. As an act of gratitude toward Waters, he and guitar hero Mike Bloomfield approach Chess Records owner Marshall Chess with the idea of recording a concept album with Waters called Fathers and Sons. The album will be an attempt to recreate the excitement the two younger blues men remember from their first experiences with Muddy in the late fifties. The project idea is accepted, the album is recorded over a couple days in April of '69, then a promotional concert is performed. Chess releases the double album in August and Waters watches it catapult up the mainstream charts to peak at #70. The critically acclaimed album is Waters' biggest selling album to date, and exposes his music to an even wider audience than Jagger and Richards do in 1964. Keep in mind that Blues has not been a big seller since the early decade of the century and neither is Muddy Waters for that matter. So, the fact that two stars of Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield's magnitude take time from their career to record with the bluesman is a testament to their respect for him.

You don't read too many negative opinions or anecdotes about Muddy Waters from any of the largely white musicians who get to know him. He is a frequently identified to as being regal, stately, intelligent, generous with his time, and generally a kind soul. His reputation is repeated enough times that even musicians who have never meet him want to get close to him.

One of these people is Levon Helm. His performances as a drummer and singer with the rock band, the Band earn him the love and respect of fans, as well as many of the greatest artists of the latter half of the twentieth century. Artists such as George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and so many more sing the praises of Helm. In the seventies,  Paul Butterfield counts him as a friend, and neighbor in Woodstock, and also points to him as the best drummer I have every played with. However, Helm is a humble about his talents, preferring to see himself as an artisan rather than artist. This attitude will serve him well when the Band begins to dissolve in 1975, and he is faced with the prospect of a grueling life on the road as a former rock star. Instead, he decides to go into the music production business with a former colleague, the successful songwriter, producer and record executive, Henry Glover.  

It is a good partnership coupling as both have skills which can complement each other's goal. Helm will contribute his knowledge and contacts in the music industry of the 1970s, and Glover will serve up his experience in studio and boardroom. During the 50s Glover writes, arranges, produces some of the biggest hits of the decade. Artists such as James Brown (I Love You, Yes I Do ) Merle Haggard (Blues Stay Away From Me) and Ray Charles' fourth number one hit, 1956s Drown in My Own Tears, owe much of their success to Henry Glover. (He will also  the first black record executives in the U.S.) Helm and Glover will call their production company RCO (Our Company), and on Glover's recommendation, their first project will be an attempt to recapture the excitement 1950s Muddy Waters era. They will call the album The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album.

There is an unforeseen hurdle though. Waters' label, Chess Records is in the process of going out of business, they also consider the 62 year old blues singer well past his better earning years, so they reluctantly offer RCO a very small advance for the project. Helm remembers, I got a 12 thousand dollar advance (about 50k in 2016 dollars) from the record company in early '75. which helped pay the plumbing bill for my barn. Muddy came to Woodstock in February. He brought along Pinetop Perkins and his regular guitarist Bob Margolin. Money is always a problem for recording artists, and it usually deepens as their career ages. The fact is that even if they make a lot of money for managers, and record labels in their heyday, once the audience begins to dwindle, so does the monetary support. By 1975, Muddy Waters commands a lot of respect from critics and artists alike, but very little from the industry. So, while the idea of an album with Muddy Waters might seem a sure bet to a 2016 reader, in 1975, it is a project most people are unwilling accept.  

Since the central goal of the album is to recreate the excitement Waters creates two decades earlier, they duplicate as much as possible. It will be a live-in-the studio experience found on the Chess recordings, but recorded inside the converted chestnut-timbered barn on the Turtle Creek Farm which has become Bearsville Studios. As Helm recalls, they even use a transistorized German mike. After we made sure he had a big Norman microphone to sing in, so we had his voice covered. Of, then there is the issue of the harmonica. Remember, every important blues harmonica player of the fifties and sixties comes out of a Waters band, so Butterfield using a Green Bullet microphone is the obvious choice for this role.

The personnel on the album will be special too. The studio band will be made up of a combination of the musicians who know Waters' music intimately such as his longtime friend and piano player Willie 'Pinetop' Perkins plus guitarist Sammy Lawhorn, andthen his touring guitarist Bob Margolin. However, there will also be some serious star power brought in with a very accomplished frontline made up of the best in Americana music. The Band's Garth Hudson will handle keyboards, saxophone & accordion, while Nashville's complete guitarist Fred Carter will there with Howard Johnson on saxophone. The principal soloist for these sessions is someone who knows Muddy's music intimately, and in 1975 is the reigning king of blues harmonica,  Paul Butterfield.

Excuse this minor digression here but, an often overlooked contribution of Muddy Waters to postwar urban blues is the electric harmonica. Many think his consistent use of the instrument is mainly because of the success Walter Jacobs earns in while in his band, but there is another reason too. He is an accomplished harmonica player himself so using the instrument as identifying feature of his music is understandable.  In addition, it should be noted that not only is Paul Butterfield an important member of the studio band, but he really does shine on every track. However, he does some really exceptional work on Goin' Down Main Street and the Let the Good Times Roll. You will hear Butterfield at his absolute best as a blues harmonica player. There is no other blues harp player who out shines him in the mid-seventies, and yes, that even includes Magic Dick. Do I sound biased?

Unlike the music of the Band or Better Days this set of tunes is The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album is not diverse enough to for a listener to consider it as roots music in its purest form. It is a collection of mostly Chicago blues with five songs composed by Waters, a couple of Louis Jordan R&B classics, Let the Good Times Roll, Caldonia and then a cover Wilbert Harrison's version of Kansas City. The only new song which fits into the roots genre is Bobby Charles' Why Do People Act Like That? (Butterfield will make it part of his concert set list in the 80s, and in '85 perform it on Late Night with David Letterman.)

The recording sessions only take two days which is unusual for blues album, (Sonny Boy Williamson often records a whole album in less than a day), but the town of Woodstock does not want visiting blues royalty to leave without some appropriate ceremony. Two hundred of the locals show up in the town square, on that Valentine's Day in 1975 to show their love for the visiting dignitary. Then the mayor pronounces it Muddy Waters Day, and the 62 year old bluesman, looking very dignified in his fashionable overcoat accepts the keys to the town. It is a memorable experience for everyone associated with the event.

In the end, the first RCO project is a success because it wins favorable reviews from most critics, and then a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording, but it is not a financial success. There are few reasons for this unfortunate outcome, Muddy has given 27 years to Chess Records, but by the time the album is on store shelves, the label is collapsing, so the crucial promotional campaign is a failure. Another factor is that Waters cannot afford to sustain a tour with the high profile principals from the studio band. It would bring him much needed recognition and money, but they all have other commitments, and cannot afford to tour the smaller clubs.  

Probably the most high profile promotion that Waters receives for his album is when he is asked by Levon Helm to appear in the Band's rockumentary The Last Waltz. Concert producer Robbie Robertson asks Waters to perform his 1956 hit Forty Days, Forty Nights in addition to Caldonia, but Butterfield interjects, emphatically insisting that Muddy Waters performing Mannish Boy is an experience everyone will remember. The great bluesman does not disappoint either. He mesmerizes the crowd for an impressive six minutes with his one chord opus. It is still a highlight of the film.

There is a bright postscript to this story. While Waters is creating his magic at Chess during the fifties, there is young albino teen down in Texas who becomes transfixed by Waters music pouring out of his little radio. He goes to bed at night dreaming of playing the grandmaster in his future. The dream comes true for bluesman Johnny Winter when he negotiates a contract on behalf of Muddy with Steve Paul's label Blues Sky in the mid seventies. Like so many producers before him, Winter will attempt to recapture the Muddy Waters sound of the 1950s. When listening to the playback of the first album Winter produces, Hard Again  Waters announces to everyone that he likes it so much, it makes my pee-pee hard again. Winter will produce two more albums for the master, all of which win Grammys, bringing Muddy Waters his most financial success, and critical acclaim that the cornerstone of Rock and Roll deserves.