Tuesday, March 18, 2014

# 39 Building a Bigger Butterfield Blues Band

   Paul Butterfield travels a long way from his days fronting a three piece band on the tiny stage at Big John's in '64 to his current role as the leader of a seven piece band. His ambitions to be a better musician, and bandleader are reaping benefits too. He is now the most famous harmonica player in the world, and his band is a major concert attraction on the growing Rock Concert circuit. He can easily stop expanding, and let his successful career coast for a while, but he is too enterprising for that route. If Butterfield were a businessman, he would probably subscribe to the philosophy, if you aren't growing, you're dying. In 1969, he is about to build, and command biggest, heaviest sounding band of his generation.

   Achieving any prestigious position usually comes with many social and financial perks, but it often presents some demanding expectations in the form of a continuous stream of problems to solve too. For Butterfield, it's the constant loss of band members. It must seem like he just gets them trained, and they leave. Regardless of whether the departures are a result of road fatigue, artistic differences, or personal disagreements, it is an issue that might cause the resolve of a weaker leader to fray. The problem doesn't seem to cause him much anxiety though, he seems to greet the hurdles an opportunity to build a stronger band.

   Over four albums, and near incessant touring, he loses six band members. Each time, his response to the set back is to add to the size, and flexibility of his band. He still has David Sanborn, Gene Dinwiddie, Philip Wilson, Keith Johnson, and Buzzy Feiten, but will lose his new bass player Freddie Beckmier by mid-'69. (Beckmier only records some of the tracks on Keep On Movin')

    However, in the coming months he will hire Ted Harris keyboards, Steve Madaio,trumpet, Trevor Lawrence, saxophone, and replace Beckmier with Rod Hicks. His new band will be a massive nine piece outfit, the biggest band to tour the '60's Rock circuit. (Even bigger than the Blood Sweat and Tears.) In addition, he will buy a used armored truck for his roadies to transport all the equipment from gig to gig. (It takes three bullets while en route to a gig in Toronto. Not everyone loves young men with long hair in the '60's)

   In the studio, his band is sticking fairly close to the commercially viable Rhythm and Blues format, but live performances are more eclectic, using Free Jazz, Hard-Bop, Blues, and Rock. They play a head, and then improvise on that theme, sometimes for 30 minutes. (listen to Work Song on the East West album for an example of this format) As Butterfield explains to an interviewer, We play the things we've been working with, so we have them down pretty much, we don’t write charts, or make plans or anything. It is a Hard-Bop approach, an excellent vehicle for any musician with talent to test their chops, and stretch their creative abilities, but it does require a lot of mental dexterity. It's a philosophy which might appear on page one of an imaginary Charlie Parker instructional manual: Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that crap, and just play.   

   Some listeners might find this approach to music as a bit laissez-faire, and it can be, if there isn't a strong leader to keep the musicians moving in one direction. As Trevor Lawrence recalls: Butter always kept things going. He was a blues dude, but it wasn't like doing the same little thing over and over.  We did it different every single night. We had to because there were no written arrangements. So the band just kept evolving. 

    So, in late '68, he hires Buzzy Feiten as a guitarist, but discovers the teenager has many other skills to offer too, he also sings, plays piano, composes, and plays the French Horn, (see post # 37). In the electric guitar driven world of '60's Rock, the French Horn seems like an odd instrument to be use in a Rock band. One interviewer actually stops Butterfield when he mentions the instrument, and asks him are you really going to use French Horn....? Butterfield replies with an emphatic, Yes, we’re really goin' to use the French Horn. We’re writing almost all of our own material now.

   Feiten shows that he has an ear for talent when he recruits Beckmier, and now he will recommend his former Mannes College classmate, Steve Madaio for a position in the horn section. At 19, Madaio has already worked the Copacabana, backed Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and the Beach Boys. His greatest weakness is that his classical training conditions him to work within a very tight structure,  Most of the music I’d played to that point had been very structured - I’d never heard the band, had no idea of this type of music. Sanborn had that hypnotic sound, and Gene Dinwiddie was like a very cool cat, and Philip Wilson was quick to play free - a monster. Keith was mostly playing organ, although we’d double up on trumpets sometime.  The band would play the head of a song, and then it would free up, which was perfect for me, some structure but a chance to play solo. It really intrigued me, was real cool, kind of like a jazz quartet. According Keith JohnsonMadaio is very quick to adapt to the new playing style though, that Steve was an absolute motherfucker, a young 21-year old whose father was also a trumpet player, he was always pushing me.

    Freddie Beckmier's duties as the band's bass player seem to be slowly shift over to Rod Hicks as the two can be found on tour, and in the studio with the band in late '69. Before joining the Butterfield band he is working with Aretha Franklin's touring band, and only leaves because she stops performing live. Hicks is a Detroit native, originally an upright bass player in a Jazz band, but can seamlessly move from Free Jazz to Rhythm and Blues or Rock. While in the Butterfield band he ... plays all the basses: upright, cello, electric, and some piano, but most of the time Hicks plays an Ampeg Fretless bass (the first electric bass of its kind) through a Kustom Amp while displaying an almost manic energy on stage. He is a composer too, and will write a few pieces for Butterfield over the next few years. (Long after the Butterfield Blues Band disbands, Hicks will still be playing live shows with Butterfield.)

    Another major contribution Rod Hicks makes to the band is the referral of arranger/keyboardist Ted Harris to Butterfield. He isn't the first choice though, as Butterfield initially hires the brilliant Canadian Jazz arranger Gil Evans for the position, but the two parties can not reach an agreement on work schedules, so the Evans hire is dismissed. However, Harris will prove to be the better choice as he is keener to participate in the band's experiments. Even Elektra, and Grossman are happy with Harris as they want a hit song from the Butterfield Band, and he is more likely to deliver than Gil Evans. Before he joins the Butterfield band he needs to finish up a stint as an arranger, and pianist for Tony Bennett, so he seems to have an ear for mainstream pop. He is very anxious to work with everyone in the Butterfield Blues Band though, That band was a godsend to write for.  That was the only band I've ever played with could turn it on - all you had to say is ‘Let’s play,’...

   Trevor Lawrence is working as a full-time session player in New York often for producer Jerry Ragovoy at the Hit Factory when Butterfield hires him. He has studied arranging under Hall Overton, and has done transcriptions, as well as charts for Thelonious Monk's Big Band. Lawrence will join the band in mid-'69, and stay for three albums. He says,  I don’t think we ever wrote arrangements.....  That was one of the remarkable things about the band.  It was totally a head band.  When we played we did it on the spot; what we played was what came out. It was like a magical creation that just happened.  It was so free and giving....
 .... When I got in the band I dug Philip Wilson’s playing.  He had a different feel and time, and there were always twists and turns and you just had to go with him.”... The blues is the blues, but it’s the twists and turns that make it great, and this bad did some very creative things.  Soon it was obvious that it wasn't just the blues anymore, or R & B or jazz - it had become something else.  For some reason they didn't record the band fast enough.  It had become so vivid that it would grow to one stage then grow right past it to another stage.  They should have caught more of that magic on tape......
Lawrence's memories of the dynamic in the band are so familiar when you listen to former members reflect on working in the Butterfield Blues Band, and that positive energy seems to transfer to fans also still carry fond memories of their performances.

    If hearing Paul Butterfield, and his big band leaves a lasting imprint on fans, then playing in the band must have been a musician's dream. As Ted Harris sums up his years with the band, I want to tell you something, I've been playing music a long time, and that’s the only band I've ever played in that could turn it on everyday, at the drop of a hat. It could just turn on.  I've never played in a band like that - it seemed like there never were any bad days.

     Enough said.


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