The Paul Butterfield Blues Band is being inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame tonight in Cleveland. The Hall is 30 years old, which makes the Butterfield induction about 30 years overdue, but as the ultimate recognition for blues, rock, and r&b musicians, it’s no less gratifying that they’re finally being honored.
It’s also fitting that Peter Wolf will be making the induction speech. Until a few years ago, B.B. King might have been the obvious choice as inductor. The King of the Blues benefited enormously from the constant praise that Butterfield and guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop showered on him, and he jammed with and befriended the three B’s in the mid’60s. At the request of Bloomfield’s mother Dorothy, B.B. tried to persuade the guitar hero, whom he felt a fatherly affection toward, to get back in the game after he’d become show-biz weary and inactive. And in 1987, only weeks before his untimely death at age 44, King showcased Butterfield on his Showtime special, B.B. King & Friends. By the time it aired, the star-filled spectacular was dedicated to the blues harp virtuoso’s memory.
As it happens, B.B.’s health has been in decline in recent years, and the 89-year-old blues great is no longer touring. Regardless, it’s fitting that Wolf is doing the honors. For while the Butterfield Blues Band helped bring recognition to living blues masters like King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter, it was their impact on a new generation of musicians and fans where their greatest significance was felt.
Wolf was in the first rank of players to experience it. The J. Geils Band frontman and r&b maven was a guest this week on WBUR’s Here and Now. There he spoke of Butterfield’s “authenticity” and “credibility ” as a young white bluesman, and the “power” of hearing the original five-piece band when it made its Cambridge debut at Club 47 in August 1965, one week after its groundbreaking appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. (Here’s a link to my account of that weekend, Dylan’s Guitar: Credit Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield, in which the PBBB introduced electricity to Newport and inspired Bob Dylan to plug in too.) Wolf was quick to note that while the band’s power was “assault” like in intensity, it wasn’t about “volume” but about the density of sound, ensemble intricacy, and professional musicianship that was characteristic of Chicago blues but unheard of by almost everyone outside of ghetto bars before the mid-’60s.
Wolf spoke also of Butterfield’s harmonica playing. The instrument is rarely discussed in musical terms, but Peter knows his way around a Hohner Marine Band well enough to appreciate Butterfield’s mastery of third-position playing and its jazz-like overtones. He recalled hearing the band rehearsing and performing “East West,” the innovative modal blues raga that served as the title track of their second album. Wolf said, “Hearing every time they played it [whether rehearsing in his “cold water flat” in Boston or in concert], it was almost like the kind of improvisation you would hear from great jazz masters.”
When I played “East West” two years ago for a friend who’d somehow missed the Butterfield Blues Band back in the day, he assumed it was recorded in the mid-‘70s. Upon learning it was done in 1966, he said, “Suddenly I’m hearing the roots of everything else, Cream, the Dead, the Allman Brothers, even Strawberry Alarm Clock.” I hastened to add that while they may have been models for these and many others, the Butterfield Blues Band’s musicianship, and Mike Bloomfield’s virtuosity and sophistication as a guitarist, have rarely been equaled in blues-rock.
Wolf concluded by describing their influence on himself and countless other white middle-class musicians whose lives intersected with blues and black culture in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He credited Butterfield & Co. with “open[ing] up the door and develop[ing] a new direction that gave younger blues fans like myself a direction to go and also, separate from a lot of blues bands…making these great, great songs come alive in your own personal way.”
It’s the original Butterfield Blues Band that’s being inducted tonight. Mike Bloomfield went on to found The Electric Flag in 1967, and Butterfield regrouped by adding a horn section with saxophonists David Sanborn and Gene Dinwiddie and bringing Elvin Bishop into the foreground as lead guitarist. Here’s a great example of Butterfield’s willingness to continue moving out of the basic structure of the blues and into popular song forms. “One More Heartache” was a Smokey Robinson original that Marvin Gaye had recorded for Motown in 1966. The following year it was the opening track on Butterfield’s East West successor, The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw. The song’s highlights include a crisp horn chart, Bishop’s unorthodox guitar sound and solo, and Butterfield’s soulful singing and the acoustic-sounding contrast of his harp, which like “East West,” was played in third-position.
Butterfield and Bloomfield are both long deceased, but their legacies live on as archetypal white bluesmen, a term that in their hands at least was never scoffed at as an oxymoron. Here’s a compendium of previous articles I’ve posted on them both.