Wednesday, June 3, 2015

#55 Paul Butterfield is Building a Better Band

    A bandleader's job is similar to most other leadership positions because it is a single person charged with the responsibility of leading a group toward a goal. It has always been a coveted position in the competitive, and sometimes lucrative music industry. However, the fact is, not everyone has the leadership acumen to motivate the unique talents of artists toward producing a quality product. Great bandleaders must be bold, assertive, risk takers, and possess enough social intelligence to analyze situations, and then take an appropriate course of action.  In the words of  General Dwight Eisenhower, Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it. 

    The other  attribute of  great leaders is that they are most often not born, but rather are created through on-the-job training.  For example, as the leader of T. P. B. B. B., Butterfield is a very autocratic bandleader, but over time, evolves through a few leadership styles to arrive at the more democratic approach he uses when working with his band Better Days. Much of the band's music, live performance, and recognition can be directly attributed to his egalitarian approach his group of musicians. It is this overlooked skill that makes him one of the most underrated bandleaders of the twentieth century, and definitely the best of his generation.


    However, there are critics who argue that he is not deserving of the accolade, and will quickly sight the facts that in 1964, he is resistant to the idea of hiring his generation's first guitar hero, Mike Bloomfield, and then he also needs too much persuasion to record one the anthems of the 60's,  Born In Chicago. However, these critics neglect to mention that in spite of his initial reluctance to accept advice, in the end he does listen, and then acts on the wisdom of the trusted people surrounding him.

    Another criticism leveled at Butterfield the bandleader is when he seems to hand over the reins of creative power to Gene Dinwiddie during the final years of his massive horn band the Butterfield Blues Band, but that too lacks credibility because it neglects to acknowledge that Butterfield has a unique ability to recognize an individual's strengths, and then use those strengths to help him achieve a final goal. As David Sanborn notes, Gene was the father figure to us all, ten years older, who had been around in Chicago, and knew the bebop vocabulary. He was such an accomplished player, the de facto music director, and just a huge inspiration to us all. He was the person everyone deferred to. He pulled the charts together, and directed the harmonics of the band...  Butterfield does what all other good leaders do, he surrounds himself with strong talent, and then utilizes it to achieve his goals. (Remember, he does the same thing with Mark Naftalin as an arranger.) This is another attribute of skilled leaders, delegation of tasks to the most capable.  

    In addition, David Sanborn says,  Paul really didn't read music that well. And by 1970, the band was playing some very involved charts and wonderful arrangements.  When you consider Butterfield is a three chord, twelve bar blues singer with a diatonic harmonica standing in front of  a band of sophisticated musicians who are playing complex chord changes over intricate rhythmic patterns, it is a testament to his ability to adapt to more complex expectations.

    One of the more challenging tasks of touring band is when the group is out on the road, and performing a steady stream of exhausting one night stands. It is up to the leader to keep the musicians focused, and momentum of creative energy going. According to long time Butterfield fan, and frequent witness to Butterfield's back-stage demeanor, Blues singer, Robert Bedard remembers, Butterfield always encouraged his soloists to play their asses off. I also remember him backstage, and once in their hotel rooms in Syracuse inspiring, and urging everyone to get 'INSIDE the song, and stay there to get the real feel of the tunes. As any leader will tell you, this is no small feat! In spite of the fact that he too must be feeling the road wear, he pushes himself to set the standard for everyone to follow.

    Butterfield is also a resilient leader as he shows when his big horn band the Butterfield Blues Band unexpectedly dissolves in 1971. He wastes little time assembling another group of talented musicians to form another band, the first version of Better Days. This time he has the benefit of being off the road, living in the artist community of Woodstock, and has direct access to some of a industry's most skilled artists.

   Paul Butterfield's Better Days is really a product of social meetings, jam sessions, and brainstorming sessions with several Woodstock luminaries, but most notably the husband and wife team, Geoff and Maria Muldaur. It is with this duo that he moulds the vision of a music which is a clear departure from anything his previous bands have created.

    Together with the Muldaurs, Amos Garrett, Chris Parker, Merle Saunders and John Kahn they rehearse, tour in the late spring through the summer of '72, and then minus, Garrett, and Geoff Muldaur, they record the soundtrack to iconic 1970's counter culture film  Steelyard Blues.with Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites. (see blog #53) (The film doesn't do well at the box office, but is notable for the reprising the Fonda-Sutherland pairing. It is still considered an iconic 70's movie, and the soundtrack still holds up very well.)

    As a unforeseen test to Butterfield's resilience, organist, Merle Saunders, and bassist John Kahn leave the band at the end of the tour to return home to San Francisco. In addition, Maria Muldaur is preparing to leave to begin her solo career. The frustration for Butterfield must be draining as it means the search, and training for new talent must begin again. However, true this resilience, he returns to Woodstock, and begins the rebuilding  process.


    Consider this fact, in 1972, Rock Music is the most popular music on the planet, so there are literally thousands of musicians trying to break into the lucrative industry. Most will assume that the task of filling the keyboard, and bass positions will be simple, but it isn't. New musicians of Butterfield's caliber need to have specific skill sets. They need to be musically versatile, proficient on their instrument, open to new ideas, willing to do incessant rehearsing, and grueling tours in front of large audiences, but as important, they must fit into the social structure of the band.

    Auditioning new band members is time consuming, and often frustrating, so asking people in the business for referrals is a common practice that Butterfield uses often. He loves the Hammond B3 sound made popular by Jimmy Smith, this is one of the appeals of Merle Saunders sound, but with Saunders gone, the search for an appropriate replacement is a challenge. As is turns out, former Albert Grossman partner Bennett Glotzner, has been telling New Orleans pianist/singer Ronnie Barron, to get in touch with Butterfield since 1968, but circumstances never lead the two into the same room.

    In the 40's, Barron grows up in Algiers, Louisiana, but by the 50's he is living and working as a musician in New Orleans. As an example of resourcefulness of this young and ambitious talent, he concocts the idea to maintain steady employment by creating a fictional character called Reverend Ether. The stage gimmick serves him well, attracting the attention of tourists, bar owners, and eventually the interest of Atlantic Records owners Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler in New York City. When they hear of Barron, they fly to the Crescent city with the intention of signing him. Their problem is that Barron has bigger ambitions, he rejects Atlantic's offer, and packs up for a chance at stardom in L.A.. When he leaves New Orleans, he leaves his character Reverend Ether behind, but the tourist attraction gimmick is not forgotten. Another local piano play Mac Rebennack adopts the stage persona, changing the Reverend's name to Dr. John.

    In L.A., Barron secures a job as keyboardist, songwriter, and session leader with the young pop duo Sonny and Cher. However, Atlantic Records is persistent, and while Barron is enjoying his new success in the L.A. pop music scene Ahmet Ertegun shows up, and finally convinces him to sign up with a Pop, R. & B., Soul band called The Prime Ministers. He records several singles with the band, but after only moderate success becomes disillusioned with the whole star process, and so, leaves to begin a solo career by playing local clubs at night writing songs during the day. It isn't until he meets up with his former colleague Mac Rebennack, now known as Dr. John, that new opportunities are presented to him. It is Dr. John who will lead Ronnie Barron to Better Days.

    Rebennack brings Butterfield's manager Albert Grossman out to hear Barron play at a local club with the intention of introducing his friend to one of the most influential impresarios in the music industry.  Just like Atlantic Records people, Grossman is impressed with Barron, the next day he calls him up, and offers him a job. According to Barron, Grossman says, I tell you what. I'd like for you to come and look at this thing I've got with Paul Butterfield. Can you fly to Woodstock tomorrow That was too soon, but I was there on Saturday. In 1972, Paul Butterfield is almost a household name in America so working with him will be, at its very least, a wise career move.


    However, when he arrives in Woodstock, Barron he discovers it is both physically and spiritually a long way from New Orleans, and even more distant from L.A.. He finds the sleepy artist community is so silent, with harsh weather, he remembers,  It was remote, cold and creepy. To make matters more stressful, Grossman has someone whisk him down dark dirt roads to his villa for what is suppose to be a short social meeting. Then he introduces him to Butterfield, who is can be unfriendly toward of outsiders, and he has his band with him. I didn't like Geoff at first, says Barron. He was telling me what style of piano I was playing each time. Then Bobby Charles showed up. He was friends with all of those guys and living up there. I'd had all of his records on Chess when I was a kid and knew all of the songs, but I'd never met him. We didn't like each other much at first either. And Paul came up and gave me some shit. I just picked him up over my head, and that shocked everybody there. I'm a street dude and don't take that stuff. I was going to throw him down, but just put him back down instead. Butterfield is known to be resistant to change, and suspicious of people who are not within the confines of his professional sphere, but he wisely trusts Grossman's intuition, and of course Barron, is a perfect match for his new band's sound. It solves a problem for everyone associated with the new band, leaving only one more problem, a bass player.  

    Butterfield hires a few notable bass players over the course of career, Jerome Arnold, Bugsy Maugh and of course Rod Hicks are all diverse artists in their own right. However, filling the bass position in Better Days is proving difficult, and what he doesn't know is that a good choice is right in front of him. The perfect fit is Billy Rich, and not just because he comes with an impressive resume.  He is familiar playing country, Jazz or Funk, and as comfortable in the studio as he is on stage in front of a larger audiences.

    Only two months out of high school, Omaha, Nebraska native Billy Rich is on a 1968 tour in San Francisco with local band The Whispers when his brother Herbie, (founding member of The Electric Flag), refers him one of Rock's premier rock drummers, Buddy Miles. Miles (also a founding member of The Electric Flag) is currently building a solo career on that reputation. So, Rich joins Miles' Rock/Funk band The Buddy Miles Express, and the band's first major gig is at L.A.'s famous Whiskey A Go-Go. As a favor to Miles, and good promotional strategy, the '60's newest guitar hero, Jimi Hendrix joins the band on stage. Later that year The Buddy Miles Express will release its first album Electric Church (partially produced by Hendrix.), and include the highlight of the album 69 Freedom Special, a Rich composition. When the B.M. Express travels to London, England as an opening act for Hendrix's Royal Albert Hall gig, the guitarist asks Rich to play bass on his upcoming live album Band of Gypsys, but he has to decline because of his own commitments. In retrospect it is a missed opportunity, but is countered when he tours, and records the album Devotion with British Jazz/Rock fusion guitarist John McLaughlin.

    After working with McLaughlin, Rich gets a job with African-American Blues singer Taj Mahal. Mahal is in Woodstock working on his 1971 live album, The Real Thing.  It is while working with Mahal that he meets Butterfield,  I had been working with Taj, and we were living in Woodstock for a few months working on a double album, says Rich, that's where I first met Butterfield and Amos, and I knew Maria. We'd get together and jam at the Joyous Lake. But I left there and moved back to Denver.

    Rich's participation in Better Days is almost serendipitous in that he is only available to join the band because his current boss takes long vacations. As he recalls,  Taj Mahal takes vacations that last for a few months you know, so during one of those times Butter's manager, Albert Grossman, called me to see if I would come to Woodstock to record an album with the new Better Days Band. I said shit yeah! And I was back in Woodstock, N.Y.  The band, now officially known as Better Days, is in the studio, working on their song Highway 28 when Rich joins. He will become an important contributor to band's music, in the studio, out on tour, and the choice to have him in the band is welcomed by everyone.

    I knew Billy only by reputation, Chris Parker remembers,  from his gigs with Taj Mahal and as one of the two great bass players from Omaha -- Bugsy Maugh and Billy Rich. Geoff Muldaur too is happy with the addition of Rich, I'd never met Billy, ..... and he did an overdub standing in the control room. And on went this fucking bass part -- we go back and listen to it. We just couldn't believe it. And we looked at each other and said, 'Now we're there. Let's go.'

     I don't know if anyone thought it was going to work, Rich adds. I think Paul and Geoff and Ronnie knew what they wanted to do, but it just came together. Once we got into the studio and started working stuff out it really started to work well. The band was kind of like a democracy -- everyone wanted to be happy with what we were doing to make it work. Everyone had a lot of input. Billy Rich's sound will prove to be an important addition to the band's music over its two album lifespan.

    Bands are easy to assemble, and there is never a shortage of musicians to play in them groups, but building an excellent band requires, talent, vision and leadership. Listening to Paul Butterfield's Better Days over forty years after their birth, it is easy to understand why their music still sounds fresh. Each member has a a unique background of knowledge and style, from Geoff Muldaur's encyclopedic knowledge of music to Amos Garrett's unique string bending technique to Ronnie Barron's vocal range and Chris Parker's use of the snare drum. So much of all this great music is a result of artistic chemistry, and Butterfield's creative vision and leadership skills. It is what makes Better Days, pioneers in Americana, one of the most overlooked bands of the 1970's.


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