Wednesday, March 12, 2014

#37 Paul Butterfield and Fathers and Sons

    In the early 20th century, many of the American port cities are busy receiving massive shipments of raw materials for the processing of products which will be shipped to markets around the world. It is this industrial initiative which will help to catapult the country into the role of an economic power. However, all this industrial growth demands a huge labor force, and so, it sparks a huge national migration of workers to the industrial centers.
    For example, during the '40's, the City of  Chicago's population increases 14% , and then another 22% during the 50's. The demographic of the thousands who flood into the city tends to be poor, under-educated, Afro-Americans from Southern states along the Mississippi River, and especially the State of Mississippi. Young fathers and mothers often leave their lives back home, in search of prosperity for their future sons and daughters only to become lost in a life of menial labor, low pay, and substandard housing in the city's South Side neighborhoods. Many times the only connection they have with their former lives is the music, and that too is changing.

    By 1943, McKinley Morganfield is embarking on his second attempt at success in Chicago. This time he intends to use his music as the vehicle which will deliver him to success. After all, working long shifts in a factory is hard work, and music helps to settle the dust at the end of the day.

   So, he works a day job, and at night turns into Muddy Waters, playing his acoustic country blues anywhere he finds a willing audience. By 1948, he has an electric band, and touring in support of his first hit, I Can't Be Satisfied. Then in '53, two Polish-Americans, the Chess Brothers, offer to record him. The relationship he develops with the brothers will deliver several R. & B. hits over the decade.

    Many believe the key to Waters' success is that he is singing Country Blues, but with electric instruments, and this is what resonates with so many of the southerners who have migrated north.

  The motivation for his transition to electric instruments isn't impulsive, serendipitous, or even new. In the '50's, it is an industry standard first introduced by A&R man, Lester Melrose.  In many ways he is the unsung father of the Chicago Blues sound. (His format uses drums, bass, piano, guitar, and saxophone to support the singer.)

    However, Waters does make one significant alteration the Melrose format; he replaces the saxophone with an amplified harmonica. It's a wise adjustment as the popular little instrument maintains a emotional rural connection in his urban presentation. Waters is a harmonica player too, and knows exactly what he wants in a harp player. The new addition needs to be able to to solo in a way which compliments Waters' rural lyrics, and he finds that skill in Marion Walter Jacobs (Little Walter). Having a harmonica player of Jacobs' caliber will establish Waters as bandleader with an ear for talent.

    As a bandleader, Waters will command some of the greatest blues bands of his era, and in the process develop a patriarchal profile both on and off the bandstand. The influence Muddy Waters has on the genre of Chicago Blues, its musicians, and its offspring Blues Rock is as profound as any of the great band leaders working in any genre of the twentieth century.

    Unfortunately, by the late '50's, the art of the Country Blues singers who morph into electric Chicago Bluesmen is a dying trade. Waters' popularity is waning, and so is his music; both are in danger of fading into history. The children of his initial audience are searching for new sounds that resonate inside them, and that doesn't include electric Country Blues. It is a throng of young Rock musicians from Britain who pay a lip service to his music that temporarily release him from a future in obscurity.

    In the early '60's, the promotion of Chicago Blues by the young white Rock artists sparks a renewed interest in Waters, as well as a few other Blues artists, but it is the introduction of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in '65 that really re-energizes his profile.

    Butterfield Band members, Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, and Paul Butterfield are the nucleus of what the West Coast press will call the Chicago Crowd. They have become stars in the new world Blues Rock, and they never forget their roots. They never deny the historical significance, and respect they have for Muddy Waters either. Most of them know Waters on a personal level, he invites them into his home, allows them to sit-in with his band in local bars, and many times they have been on the receiving end of his fatherly support. So, as their fame grows, they don't just pay lip service to Waters, they actively promote his music to Rock promoters, the press, and audiences alike. It is the support of these young white bluesmen that helps Waters access a larger more diverse audience, and return him to active duty as one of a great Bluesman.

   In early '69, Mike Bloomfield tells Marshall Chess that he and other local artists, including Paul Butterfield will be in Chicago on April 24th to play a charity for The Phoenix Academy. During the conversation he tells Chess that he would like to record an album with Waters and Butterfield. Chess likes the idea and immediately agrees:  Michael was at my house, and he said he’d like to do a record with Muddy and Paul.  The title, Fathers and Sons was his idea.  Muddy thought that was a good name because he saw himself as a father to these younger musicians. Bloomfield's idea sets the wheels in motion for a Muddy Waters album which will be unlike any album the bluesman has done.

    As the project develops it is decided that another Chicago Crowd alumnus Norman Dayron will be the producer. He sifts through every Chess recording of  Waters, and manages to whittle the set list down to songs which are good and strong but not over- familiar....  Then Chess, hires Memphis groove bassist Donald Dunn, Otis Spann for keyboards, and shuffle drummer Sam Lay to create the studio band. Once everyone is on board, Tel Mar Studios is booked to record on April 21, 22, & 23, and then the Phoenix Academy charity show will take place in the 24th.

    Muddy Waters: Father and Sons is one of the first Chicago Blues albums which succeeds in crossing over to Rock audiences.The success of the album sparks a trend where many Chicago Blues artists record blues albums which are directed at larger Rock audiences.

   It is heavily promoted in the Rock press, with good reviews, and interviews with key players like Butterfield and Waters, but it isn't the publicity that makes Fathers and Sons such a great album.

    The musicianship, especially the harmonica work by Butterfield is stellar. Each song is an energetic, inventive expression of soulful blues though his harmonica. As one critic notes: Butterfield played with controlled power, with taste and invention to spare, and tons of energy to spare.....  Then too, Butterfield plays slashing, burning harmonica on these tracks never letting up and pushing things along...... The project is helped not a little by Butterfield’s intelligent and feelingful playing.... It is Butterfield's work on Fathers and Sons that establishes his profile as the logical successor to the late Little Walter. After the release of Fathers and Sons, Paul Butterfield becomes the greatest living blues harmonica player.

   There are documented face to face conversations between the two, but Butterfield never seems to seek out Walter's advice or make an effort to watch the master play. Butterfield has a healthy respect for Walter, but views him as a rival rather than an iconic figure. When Butterfield is establishing himself as credible singer/harmonica player, he makes a concerted effort to distance his technique and style from that of the established master. He succeeds at achieving this goal, but he shares some other qualities with Walter which are not as apparent in 1969.

    Over the course of his career, Little Walter develops a severe addiction to alcohol, and this disorder enhances his frequent erratic behavior. It is a personal element which is a major factor in his decline as an artist, and his early death. So, there is an irony in the sentiments Butterfield express' when an interviewer asks him about Little Walter.  He says: I’m only talking about the only person who can mess you around is yourself.  Little Walter, man, I had the greatest respect for that cat. He always treated me good.  But he messed himself around by juicing too much.  He was a great cat, a great musician, but he messed himself around.  That’s sad y’know?


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