Saturday, February 8, 2014

# 28 Elvin Bishop and the Butterfield Blues Band Pt. 2

   There are some minor problems with the release preparation of Butterfield's third album, but this news only serves to heighten the anticipation for his fans. Finally, on November 22nd 1967, The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw is distributed to retail outlets, and for the most part, it is greeted with a warm reception.
    In the coming weeks, it will peak at # 52 on the album charts, encouraging Elektra to support their artist with even more international promotion of the band. Even the Rock critics seem content with the new set of tunes from "the Butter Band". As one reviewer notes, “ P.B. has successfully worked the brass into his band in a way that is fairly original, and not imitative.”  So, with all this positive press, what is Butterfield's reaction to the release of his most successful album?

    During a post release interview, he speaks about The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw , “We went in, and played the session without having the time to experiment with what we could really do with the horns.  It was too new.” ..... “ Some people put me down when I got horns, they’d say “ man, why’d you do that,” but there’s so many things you can do with the horns..... I really dig working with horns.  I don’t dig having them just stand there, and play along with us - that’s why I don’t like the Pigboy Crabshaw album too much."  At first, a fan might think he is just under selling his album as a marketing ploy, or maybe it's just his ego's attempt at collecting more accolades, but Butterfield is serious. His new horn band really is a product of a series of surprise changes in personnel, and almost opportunistic format alterations. So, he probably does feel that his band is capable of doing better.

At this stage in his career, Butterfield is maintaining more focus on growing as a musician, and he figures the best way to develop his craft is through playing live. Later in the same interview he does soften his position a little,  “I do like the Crabshaw album for one reason only. We just got in there and played, no going through any of this junk of over-dubbing again and again.” It was recorded completely live? 
 “Right, That’s the way I think all music should be recorded. Groups should cut live, and play the thing, not overdub, and use all kinds of tricks.” It's that Hard-Bop inclination that he, and his previous band introduced to world of Rock with their song East- West.  After East-West, almost all Rock bands are at least attempting to infuse their music with this Hard-Bop attitude. It's a pretty important idea that they introduce to Rock music; it's an attitude still heard in a lot of current roots music.

    However, it isn't just the attitude expressed inside The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw that plays such an important role in the history of 1960's popular music.  The album changes the direction of music when it inspires other Rock bands to add a horn section, and pursue Rhythm and Blues material. It also encourages other Rock artists to use Jazz elements in their music, similar to the way The Beatles introduce the use folk chord progressions into Rock.

     Another significant gift the album makes to popular culture is the introduction of several talented artists to the growing community of Rock fans. It provides Elvin Bishop with the opportunity to establish himself as a viable replacement for Bloomfield. He is the one member of the Butterfield band who consistently works the hardest to maintain a position in the group, and all his hard work is now paying off.  During the early days, right through the recording of the first two albums, Bishop is constantly working hard to improve his timing, soloing, singing, songwriting, as well as his ability to become a front man on stage. Quite a feat when you consider his artistic proximity to the talent of Mike Bloomfield. By '67,  his efforts are paying off though, as many more critics and fans, accept him as a respected member of the elite group of 60's Guitar Slingers.

    Originally, Butterfield is happy to have Bishop as the guitarist in his band; he only hires Bloomfield at the insistence of Paul Rothschild. As we now know, this decision to hire Bloomfield proves to be a wise choice, but for Bishop, it means he has to wait in wings. So, as an endorsement of Bishop's new role, Butterfield uses his nickname, Crabshaw in the album's title.

    It sounds like an odd nickname to me. I can say for sure that I have never heard of someone referred to as Pigboy Crabshaw before seeing this album. Maybe it's an Oklahoma tradition? “Everybody had different nicknames to reflect different sides of themselves,” Elvin remembers.  “Pigboy was my workboots-and-overalls side.” As we will see later, Bishop will build a  successful career around this persona.

    The album also establishes Bugsy Maugh as a credible, and soulful vocalist. When his singing on Drivin' Wheel becomes known, people in the industry start paying attention to the fan reaction. Like Bishop he will build a solo career based on the work he does with Butterfield.

    In addition, the growing community of musicians, writers, and producers in the Rock are also taking notice of the talents of DinwiddiePhilips, JohnsonNaftalin and Sanborn . They too will experience the benefits of recording, and touring with popular 60's band. (This album is David Sanborn's first major recording debut.)

    There are other contributions Resurrection makes too. For Paul Butterfield the artist, it affords him the opportunity to shed his reputation as the leader of a band that plays loud, up tempo Blues-Rock, and he is successful. There are plenty of artists who never manage to move beyond the style of music in which they experience initial success. So, Butterfield's successful shift to a music filled with experimentation is quite a coup for him.

    Butterfield even manages to successfully move away from the amplified harmonica sound he has become so famous for in the last couple of years. None of the songs on the album feature his chunky, electric tone. In spite of all the excitement he generates with his past electric sound, in a gutsy decision, he chooses to return to the more rural sounds of the acoustic harmonica. As most good harmonica players with agree, acoustic and electric harmonicas are almost two separate instruments, both requiring considerable talent to master.

     Butterfield employs several techniques in his playing that place him in the category of "Great" harmonica players, but the two most recognizable features are his tone, and vibrato. In the 60's these are both are groundbreaking sounds in Rock, to this day many harp players are still trying to emulate his sound. I can't think of another active harmonica player in Blues, Rock or Jazz of the 60's who produces such a rich, round tone on a diatonic harmonica, as he does on The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw.  His solo on One More Heartache is stunning!

     Interestingly, one of the frequent criticisms that I read about Butterfield's style is that he is just an imitator of Little Walter. The position is that as a harmonica player, Butterfield is overrated, and consequently should not be afforded the accolades he receives in the trade press as a great harmonica player. However, all living music is derivative to some degree. What separates the greats from the mediocre is their ability to infuse their own sound with their personality, and musical vocabulary on their instrument. If you listen to Butterfield's harmonica work during his early days, you can hear his unique style is present even then. .

     However, acoustic harmonica is best heard in a closed environments like a studio. Playing in large Rock venues creates some sound quality issues, so Butterfield is still using his electric harmonica for live performances.

    Around '67 he makes some changes to his stage gear.  Similar to so many of the 1950's Chicago Bluesmen, up to about '64, he has been using a relatively inexpensive microphone made by Astatic. In recent years they are often referred to as a Green Bullet. (see the photo above, right.) Originally, factories making goods for the Second World War effort use these public address microphones in factories. After the war, many of the factories close, and the mics wind up at the Maxwell Street Market, where local harp players pick them up for very little money. Personally, I suspect their entry into Chicago Blues is more a story of economics than choice of their sound quality, but that is a whole other discussion.

     There has always been an irony in the pervasive use of the Bullet mic in Modern Blues. So many players spend excessive amounts of money on reproductions of the mic, and amps, all in an effort to sound like they are playing 1950's Chicago bar blues. It is doubtful Butterfield would ever consider this retro attitude as a viable option.

    Then, around 1964 he switches from the Astatic to a long skinny wand mic made by Altec, and around '67, he makes a switch from the Altec, to a Shure a pistol grip mic seen in the photo above left. I am going to spare you the product numbers, and technical detail for a future blog on the subject, but the Altec and the pistol grip mics produce a less "distorted" sound than the Bullet mic. Whenever harp players talk about the Shure pistol grip mic Butterfield uses, they often refer to it as the "Butterfield Mic". It surprises me that Shure never tries to capitalize on this fact the way Fender or Gibson capitalize on their high profile customers.

     In spite of all the obvious, and more subtle successes of  The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw, creates, it also marks the beginning of a new problem for Butterfield and his music. While the album represents the peak in popularity as a mainstream act, it also is the beginning of his decline as a creative influence on popular music.

The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw,
One More Heartache, Driftin’ and Driftin’, I Pity The Fool, Born Under A Bad Sign, Run Out
of Time, Double Trouble, Drivin’ Wheel
Droppin’ Out, Tollin’ Bells.

Paul Butterfield: Vocals & harmonica, Elvin Bishop: Guitar, Mark Naftalin: keyboards,
Bugsy Maugh: Bass, (vocal on Drivin’ Wheel), Philip Wilson: Drums, Gene Dinwiddie: Tenor sax, David Sanborn: Alto sax, Keith Johnson: Trumpet.

Produced by: John Court for groscourt productions.




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