Wednesday, December 4, 2013

# 7 The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

    I have been was watching the documentary The Sixties: The Years That Shaped a Generation. It's about the social and political struggles the United States experiences the 1960s. In the film there is a brief segment on Columbia University in New York becoming a flash point for student unrest. Within the segment there is a clip of students dancing, and relaxing in an effort to offset the stress associated with their civil unrest. As I'm watching the segment, I notice that off in the background, music is playing. It isn't part of the orchestrated soundtrack, but rather, the actual music these young people are listening to at the time of filming. The song is Screaming from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

   It's a minor part of the documentary, but it says a lot about the soundtrack to the lives of these young people in the sixties. They are Butterfield's audience: white, middle class, educated, and passionate about the future of their world. Much of the music they choose to represent their mood is a departure from the mainstream, and Butterfield's music fits into that era so well.

   In the context of the intellectual atmosphere of the sixties his music is a subtle act of rebellion. He has the nerve to front a racially integrated group of musicians, call themselves a Blues Band, and then play blues with the aggressive, and passionate authority of originators. After Elvis, no group of young white men in the United States has ever had the audacity to snub their noses at the racial connotations in this manner. Not only is Butterfield a gifted blues singer, and harmonica player, but he also employs a white, Jewish, heir to an industrial empire to play bottle neck guitar, and an academically gifted kid from Oklahoma farming country to play rhythm guitar. In addition, he enhances the band's credibility with a seasoned rhythm section from the South Side of Chicago's ailing blues scene. It seems like a tame act now, but in the mid-sixties, this is a radical statement.

   Producer Paul Rothschild believes so strongly in the Butterfield Band that he makes three attempts at producing an album of them for release on the established folk label Elektra. None of the participants can possibly realize that they are not only creating history, but they are also recording an album which will transcend generations of music lovers.

    In post # 6, I write about The Original Lost Elektra Sessions, and how that group of tracks is suppose to be the band's first album. They even have the album, and promotional posters printed for the public, but something doesn't resonate with the Rothschild. So, at his insistence, the album is rejected in favour of recording the band live at Cafe Wha? This attempt proves to be a technical disaster, forcing the band back into the studios for the set of tracks we hear on the second version of  The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

   Keep in mind that recording electric music in the '60's is relatively new to the recording industry, everyone is in a constant state of learning. In addition, Elektra's problems are compounded by the fact that they a folk label who focus on the recording of acoustic music, not electric Blues Rock, so the Butterfield band is their very first electric act.

    In the end, confronting all the challenges pays off for everyone participating in the project and in October of 1965, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band is greeted with much critical acclaim. Their are no serious mainstream "hits" from the album, (it made it peaks at 123), but that this is a bonus from their audience's perspective. By 1965 the counterculture movement is becoming established, and one of the qualities expected from artists is a rejection of mainstream corporate goals. This is one of the reasons the album becomes a staple in the emerging album oriented FM radio market.

   While the album does not produce any mainstream hits, it does generate a profound influence on popular music for the several decades. As well, it will provide Butterfield with set list staples for his entire career. The Latin back beat of Born in Chicago, his version of Little Walter's Mellow Down Easy, and Screamin' are still being covered by many blues bands. There is the shuffle with a jazz sensibility Thank You Mr. Poobah (Poobah stands for Paul Butterfield). This song alone inspires more than one young Blues Rock musician to at attempt the art of improvisation. These three songs alone establish Butterfield as an artist who is open to experimentation, and defiant of social expectations in music, qualities he practices for his whole career.

    Another feature of the album is its volume and speed. Many rock bands are playing their music with more volume, but no one is playing Chicago Blues with the tempo and volume of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  Elektra even instructs the listener to "Play it Loud".  It is one of those rare albums that never seems to sound dated, and it still sells well.

Paul Butterfield   There are some other long term influences that the Butterfield band generates after the release of the this album. It anoints Mike Bloomfield as the first American guitar hero of a generation, and establishes him as an elite member of the very large group of emerging guitar slingers from the sixties and seventies.

   Another subtle influence the Butterfield band has on popular music of the sixties is the rejuvenation of interest in original blues artists. By the early sixties, the appeal of traditional Chicago Blues is waning in the Afro-American market, and it is Butterfield, Bloomfield, and Bishop who recommend artists like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Howlin' Wolf to rock promoters.

    For Butterfield, his first album establishes him as the next great blues singer, and harmonica player. John Lee Williamson (Sonny Boy Williamson 1) holds that title in the late 30's and 40's, then in the 50's Little Walter becomes the second singer/harmonica player with broad appeal, in the 60's Butterfield earns the role. Every white singer/harmonica player we hear today owes so much to what Paul Butterfield accomplishes with the release of his first album.

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