Saturday, January 18, 2014

# 22 East West & everything in between

   So much of the music we experience is the result of the media industry toying with our imaginations. It's nothing new, artists in every genre have had their stage profiles manufactured, and then a trademark is taken out on a logo to prevent identity theft.  The Rolling Stones and The Beatles are a couple of high profile examples of this reality. But what about a bluesman or a blues band? Blues fans tend not of their favourite artist's public persona as a product of a marketing department.

   For Elektra, the experience surrounding The Paul Butterfield Blues Band has a learning curve attached. They've never recorded electric music up to this point, or marketed to the new rock market, so, they make plenty of mistakes. However, they do learn quickly, and make a point of establishing a new more methodical strategy for the band's second album East West.

    Elektra invests a lot of their resources in selling this character Paul Butterfield: The White Bluesman, and the investment does reap some rewards. The FM radio stations help the first album crawl up the U.S. Billboard charts to peak at # 123, and in the process, Mike Bloomfield's reputation as the major American guitar hero of his generation is solidified, and this helps sales. A lot of the album's success can be attributed to the music as well as the promotion, but Butterfield is also a strong bandleader too. He is a disciplined leader, rehearsing his band six days a week, even while they are engaged in the relentless touring. Butterfield also has the ability of choosing excellent musicians, and then drawing the best from their talents, so he plays an important role in the band's past and current success.

    All this potential success also means that there is a lot at stake for both Elektra, and Butterfield. There is a contract securing several future album releases, as well as significant the business advantages offered from manager Albert Grossman inclusion which add to the potential for success.  In Butterfield's world, it's a lot of people that he needs to please, but he recognizes this fact, and appreciates that he is earning the type of confidence most artists will make serious sacrifices to maintain.

   By late '65, the Butterfield Band has developed a cult following on the West Coast, so Elektra decides it's a good time to capitalize on this success. The only thing missing is a hit record like some of the young British Invasion blues rock bands are enjoying.

    So, in a effort to protect their investment, Elektra changes the name of the band from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band to the alliterated Butterfield Blues Band. It even takes out a copyright on the font used in all the band's promotions. They have done their market research, concluding that Butterfield's audience is: twenty something, white, middle income, educated, socially and politically liberal, with minds open to new experiences. This knowledge reflects in the East West cover photos of the band standing outside the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago rather than outside a south side head shop. The manufactured persona of the band members is changed too. They now look more like hip young University students rather than the street wise kids shown in the first album photos. Even the liner notes are filled with overt, and subtle references to a classical education. In modern business parlance it's called branding. It's good for Elektra's business, but for Paul Butterfield, it means he will never be able to leave Elektra, and take his band's name with him.

    The irony of Elektra's marketing strategy is that the Butterfield Blues Band is not a blues band anymore. They are brashly marketed as a blues band as part of the release of their first album, but it is arguable whether they can be legitimately referred to as Blues Band.  As I mentioned in post #21, it seems easier to define the music of the Butterfield band with descriptors about what their music isn't, rather than what it is. By the time they release the album East West, the band is performing Jazz, Blues, Rhythm and Blues, as well as Rock, and I still think the jury is out on a definition for the instrumental East West. I propose the best label for most of Butterfield's music is eclectic, but I have never seen this label in any retail outlet. Personally, I like to think of most of his work as, post-war, urban, electric American roots music, but that is a mouthful, so lets just use the word eclectic.

    The song selection on the album reflects this diverse direction too. In addition to Nat Adderley's Hard Bop cross over hit, Work Song, there is a collection of traditional blues numbers like Robert Johnson's Walkin's Blues and Muddy Waters' Two Trains Running, but then, there is also a great version of Lee Dorsey's 1965 Rhythm and Blues hit Get Out of My Life Woman. Ultimately, the whole album is diverse in its musical scope, and should put to rest any illusions of the Butterfield Blues Band as a traditional post war Chicago blues band.

    Even the recording process for the album is eclectic, or maybe a little scattered. They start recording in January of '66 at Mastertone Studios in New York, then record bits and pieces at Chess Studios in Chicago, and continue work in L.A.. As an example, Work Song is recorded in three studios before being edited for the final release in August of '66.

    After the album release, the Michael Nesmith penned, Mary, Mary provokes some minor controversy. In the mid-sixties, Nesmith is a songwriter, and actor who is hired as an actor in the tween pop group, television show The Monkees. The Butterfield Blues Band records their version of Mary, Mary well before Nesmith achieves success on the television program, but the press raises questions of  artistic hypocrisy...Butterfield's music is suppose be representative of the West Coast Counter Culture, and the Monkees represent everything the counter culture rejects. I don't know if the controversy is a legitimate byproduct of the social politics of the day, or a creation of a marketing department, but it probably helped in the album promotion.

    In the quest for a mainstream hit, Elektra, and Butterfield make an attempt in that direction by hiring a young Barry Friedman to produce Come On In/ I’ve Got a Mind to Give Up Livin’, solely for the UK market. The single is released in November on the London label (they're the American arm of Decca Records in England), but it does gain any notable traction. In the U.S. they release the single All These Blues/ Never Say No, but it doesn't chart either. Even though the release of the singles don't gain them a lot of mainstream success, the publicity is priceless, plus they are performing well in the FM market, and selling out live shows. In the end, East West does manage to wrestle its way up the Billboard charts to peak at #65, which is a better position than the first album.

    There is an additional element about East West that should be mentioned here. Many fans lament the fact that the album marks the end of one of the best configurations of the Butterfield band. The departure of Sam Lay after the first album release is only the beginning of the many personnel changes Butterfield will weather over his career. Late in 1966, Jerome Arnold leaves, sighting artistic differences, he pretty much drops out of the music business, and is never heard from again. Billy Davenport grows tired of the incessant touring, choosing to return to the stability of his life in Chicago.

    Many fans will argue that the biggest loss is when Bloomfield decides to leave the band too. At the time, there is some speculation in the press that his departure is the result of too much personality friction between him and Butterfield. There are even reports of physical confrontations between the two, but I think that it is more likely that Bloomfield succumbs to the sleepless nights traveling across the country, often in close quarters, plus is increasing fame. If he doesn't get along with Butterfield on a personal level, that is not reflected in the number of projects they both contribute to in the future. There may well have been some personality issues, but there is also a lot of professional, and musical respect between the two.

    In defense of Butterfield, if any readers have ever been charged with the responsibility of having a group of people complete a task which will be presented to third parties, you will have some empathy for him, and the pressures he faces everyday. He is the bandleader, responsible for hiring, then leading his musicians in the creation, and performance of his music. I know from my own experiences as a boss, this can be challenging. Butterfield is a very young man in the mid-sixties, and not a seasoned bandleader. However, the fact that he leads his band up to East West, and then through several years of tours, and albums is a testament to his leadership abilities. After all, he is the bandleader who brought us a great group of musicians, as well as two of the most important albums in the history of 1960s popular music. As we will see in future blogs, he recovers from many professional set backs, and still goes on to explore, create, and perform some of the best music of a generation.

   So, in the end, the newly minted Butterfield Blues Band  is whittled down to Butterfield, Bishop, and Naftalin. Bishop is the big winner here because his role within the band changes from second guitarist to the main attraction in a world of Rock and Roll guitar slingers. The changes also open the door for Butterfield to pursue other musical experiments which he does.

    Fortunately,  Elektra's marketing strategy doesn't do much to bring the band as deep into the mainstream as they intend. In the coming years more attempts will be made, but eventually there will be a realization that the Butterfield Blues Band is more about good music than mainstream pop hits.

Set list:  Walkin’ Blues, Get Out of My Life Woman , I Got A Mind To Give Up Livin’ , All These Blues, Work Song, Mary, Mary ,Two Trains Running, Never Say No, East-West.

 Paul Butterfield, vocal and harmonica, Mike Bloomfield - guitar, Elvin Bishop guitar & (vocal
on Never Say No), Mark Naftalin, organ, piano, Billy Davenport, drums, Jerome Arnold - Bass

The video is Mary, Mary!



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