Blues Harp Master

Born in Chicago

In 1941 1942

The Butterfields, the lawyer father and painter mother, had their baby boy born eight days before the Christmas of 1942. The child they named Paul actually arrived a year later than the date made famous by the "anthem" written by future friend Nick Gravenites for the future band to be headed by Paul. This Hyde Park family immersed themselves with classical and jazz music, and Paul studied flute with one of the members of the Chicago Symphony. After his field and track interest was cut short with a bungled knee, he devoted his time learning the guitar and harmonica, the latter instrument Paul would explain -- chose him.

Drop out and Tune Up

Paul's parents worried about his hanging with singer Nick Gravenites at the Chicago blues joints and jamming at colleges, sent him to one, the University of Illinois, but the only classes he was attending were at blues clubs, and eventually he chose the latter as his career. Butterfield, like Gravenites were lured at first by the great sound heard on the the Black radio stations. Around the time Butterfield was practicing along side records or alone in the park, he hooked up with guitarist and fellow new southsider, former Tulsa Oklahoman Elvin Bishop. He happened to walk by while a stoop sitting Butterfield was wailing the blues and with feeling. They would soon be playing at parties in the 'hood. He, like Paul would be seduced from college.

Bridge With Waters

Elvin and Paul not only hung at the clubs, where they were the only whites, but got on stage and won the respect of the masters which included Little Walter (who was one of the ones who originated the amplified harmonica--and obvious inspiration), Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Junior Wells, Howlin' Wolf and their most important friend and watchdog, Muddy Waters. It was on a trip to the Cabal coffeehouse in Berkeley, CA with pal Nick Gravenites that Paul Rothchild initially offered his services to Butterfield, and also in late 1963 unsuccessfully attempted to play in New York clubs. But back in Chicago they were jamming with Wolf and Smokey Smothers at the 1015 Club and the Blue Flame Lounge, respectively. Nicknamed "Bunky", (and later "Butter") Butterfield several times had fans scream for him to come up and join Junior Wells' sets, to the point that the jealous Wells would exit stage left and out the door. Though picky critics could analyze Paul's voice as wanting, and compared to his predecessor's -- it was, his harmonica work was always at the zenith of the medium --going beyond even that other genius, James Cotton1.

Diversity comes to the Blues

The connection with Muddy Waters and his musicians was to loom very important in 1963 when Big John's2 asked Butterfield to bring his band, which, fifty cents short of a dollar, consisted of he and Elvin, to be basically their house group. When Michael Bloomfield, who helped establish this club with Big Joe Williams and harpist Charlie Musslewhite, left over under-compensation he was ripe for this new position. He successfully seduced Muddy Waters' six year veterans bassist Jerome Arnold3 and drummer Sam Lay with the incentive that they would be beneficiaries of a union payroll4. Thus, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was born with an integrated foursome that were the first mixed blues men to play in Chicago, or America, for that matter. Paul's making an instrument with a limited range do so much, almost like a tenor sax was blowing audiences away. His action even among such as Barry Goldberg, Louis Meyers, Otis Spann, Luther Tucher and Doug Jones as well as the other's mentioned above was the one that got the important people's attention.

Paul Butterfield got his worse scare with the draft notice in the mail, and he quickly solicited women everywhere he knew howsoever much, and got one on the hook with a waitress to marry him to get him exemption.

Fields of Dreams

Meanwhile in 1964, another Big John's participant, Michael Bloomfield, was known by Paul, but it wasn't until Elvin Bishop heard him play a hocked guitar in Bloomfield's uncle's pawn shop that he was invited to become part of the recording project. This was produced and directed by Paul Rothchild, and Jac Holzman supervised the production. As much humbled by the hard driving Butterfield, even with his unique talent, his intimidation with the revered mouth harpist came more slowly. Mike found that his street talkin' mouth was no match for the year older Paul. It was not until after the recording on Elektra, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was finished and Michael's contribution was heard was he asked to become a member of the ensemble, as on the credits, he was on it courtesy of Columbia records. Unlike Paul, who never known to hit a sour note, Mike had to work his quirky off-notes into the riff--which he pulled off ingeniously. Two guitarists in this type of group was a new twist to style borrowed from Delta blues harpist's bands.

I'm Goin' Back to New York City


It was at this time that Mark Naftalin, a one-time student at the University of Chicago where they had crossed paths jamming at parties , and now heavy into music theory at New York's Mannes College of Music and fellow sit-in artist at the Village's Cafe au Go-Go. He happened to drop by the studio in NY and in the absence of Elvin Bishop that day was invited to play some organ, a venerable Hammond B-3 (a first for Mark) on the warm-up instrumental track that would become "Thank You Mr. Poohbah." This impromptu audition led to his becoming the sixth member of the band, and he went on a gig to Philly that coming Saturday. Eventually eight of the eleven tracks from this session remained on that fabulous first album contribution. Paul Rothchild had been reminded about this group by a Chicago visitor and member of the Kweskin Jug Band, Fritz Richmond on New Year's Eve of 1964. He actually flew to the Windy City to catch the last set, and his breath at Big John's. Rothchild was a novice, alas in electric instrumental recording and he exasperated the band with multifarious re-takes, even at one point causing Butterfield's concern he was spitting out pieces of lung! His first scrapped sessions in New York are part of the Lost Electra Sessions. (He was a perfectionist just like Al Grossman.) One cut, however, was put on a sampler that boosted sales ten-fold from the normal twenty thousand copies: "Born in Chicago".


The album, released in this year, could never actually be matched-- by even this band-- was a new addition to the Chicago Blues scene, not a remixed clone like some other famous rock groups of the time emitted. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and this same titled premiere album showed the city upbeat hip side of the blues from a mix of urbanites who were immersed in those deep waters of the genre, as opposed to dipping a toe into it, and then spitting out superficial emulations. I had bought an album shortly after its release, and the CD version is one of the most repeatedly played music compilations to date. The album has remained continuously in print since its inception:

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

The Tracks:

  1. Born in Chicago (Gravenites)
  2. Shake Your Money-Maker (arr. Butterfield)
  3. Blues With a Feeling (W. Jacobs)
  4. Thank You Mr. Poobah (Butterfield, Bloomfield, Naftalin)
  5. I Got My Mojo Working (Morganfield)
  6. Mellow Down Easy (W. Dixon)
  7. Screamin' (Bloomfield)
  8. Our Love is Drifting (Bishop, Butterfield)
  9. Mystery Train (unknown)
  10. Last Night (W. Jacobs)
  11. Look Over Yonder's Wall (J. Clark)

Helping the Breakaway from the Folk Mafia

The Newport Folk Festival

Now that this group's work paved the way better than any other wanna be's ever did, and history would prove this right when previously relatively unknowns B.B. King, Muddy Waters et al would become more part of the audience's horizons and now, radio play would help. (Michael Bloomfield would introduce B.B. King to the those grooving at the Fillmore West in 19685.) However, where all this really gained impetus was late in '65 at the Newport Folk Festival.

This Land Is Your Land (If You're a Purist)

Part of the Folk Mafia basically headed by Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel were purists, and they were famous in Cambridge, MA clubs. Along with Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio and others the early sixies folk scene was growing with festivals and hootenannies. Old time blues men were gaining notoriety in the folk set3, especially as chronicled so thoroughly as Alan Lomax, as Lightnin' Hopkins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt were brought into the coffee houses and the such. However Maynard Solomon of Vanguard (Jac Holzman of Elektra , also like the former was a folkmusic "mobster" was asked to help but was too worried about the bottom line) had put together a studio "Blues Project." This compilation included white (and more significantly some electric) blues musicians: Dave Van Ronk, Eric Von Schmidt , Danny Kalb (who joined Al Kooper later in a later Blues Project) and Geoff Muldaur (husband to singer Maria Muldaur), Dave Ray and John Koerner. The last two above mentioned are given a mention in Pete Welding's liner notes. A lesser (in quantity only) contribution was provided by Tom Rush and future Lovin' Spoonful and Papa, John Sebastian.

Help, I Need Somebody, Not Just Anybody

Rothchild had called not only George Wein about getting Paul Butterfield and his band on the bill at the Newport Folk Festival for 1965, but got on the horn with the other Newport founder, and more famously Dylan's (and Peter, Paul and Mary's) manager, Albert Grossman. Grossman had previously been very active in Chicago including owning the Gate of Horn. The gathering a year before had many traditional blues artists, and this year would have Butterfield's bluesmen in an early (but, almost unattended) opening set, and a next day's blues workshop.


In the afternoon Alan Lomax introduced the Paul Butterfield Band with a comment that these white pretenders were "imitative" and pleaded patronizingly for tolerance. The guys, undaunted, however screamed and beamed some blues that would not be denied to a growing crowd to thousands as opposed to the normal hundreds at such venues. This music Butter was putting out was not rock, and not like other amplified blues, but it was driven, and it drove scores to dance to the music.

Doth Protest Too Much

The afternoon turned chaotic as Grossman found himself in fisticuffs after verbally chastising Lomax and his rude intro, but Theodore Bikel was won over by this new high powered sound. When Bob Dylan, sensing something new blowing in the wind, invited the Butterfield entourage to back him later that night, and that would start another ruckus with an ax wielding (to cut wires) Pete Seeger fortunately stopped by Bikel. Sure enough the folk purists jeered and staged a walkout on Dylan's four electric numbers. This would be a kind of last march of their movement ironically displayed in these kinds of festivals Those that remained and wildly praised them represented the split in the Cambridge community, and also those that would be hip to the new folk sound. Boston would become a great blues town not unlike Chi-town, and it would give birth to J. Geils, Taj Mahal, Tim Hardin, and Bonnie Raitt. It has been pointed out that in Harvard Square's House of Blues there are pictures of all the blues greats, but none of Paul Butterfield who opened the door wider for the embracing of this genre and probably the raison d'etre for that juke joint (albeit near one of the most elite colleges).

Personnel Tragedies and Triumphs

When seemingly robust drummer Sam Lay became sick later in the year, from potential problems from an earlier bullet wound, he was replaced by a jazz oriented drummer, Billy Davenport. Billy had met Paul a little earlier at Pepper's Lounge and actually was courted just before Newport by Bloomfield. At this time Rothchild had been wanting a more substantial endeavor in the studio with his talented and streetwise sextet, and the following studio work with newly embraced eastern influences by Bloomfield, (perhaps foreshadowing the San Francisco psychedelic sound coming a few years later) and the jazzier interpretations by Davenport resulted in:



  1. Walkin' Blues (Johnson)
  2. Get Out of My Life, Woman (Toussaint)
  3. I Got a Mind to Give Up Living (traditional)
  4. All These Blues (traditional)
  5. Work Song (Adderly , Brown)
  6. Mary, Mary (Nesmith){prod. Barry Friedman}
  7. Two Trains Running (Davis)
  8. Never Say No (traditional) {vocals: Bishop}
  9. East-West (Bloomfield, Gravenites)


The title cut was originally called "The Raga" and was inspired by Ravi Shankar and Davenport had to incorporate a bosso nova beat, as a jazz or rock beat would not do. By the time of this album, Butter was no longer the "stone leader" going off on musicians, but allowed a civil cooperation to develop. On tour, Bloomfield would eat fire, matching the stage stunts of Jimi Hendrix and the Who.

Three's a Charm


The third album out in 1967 is acknowledged as the last of the standard Chicago blues like the first two: The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw. They played the Saturday afternoon and the evening on the 17th of June at the Monterey Pop Festival. Around this time Bloomfield left to form his Electric Flag, followed a bit further on by Naftalin, and the music took new directions while adding more horns that started newcomer David Sandborn.

Our Love Band is Drifting

The next two albums were diverging from the blues, in 1968 he had In My Own Dream, and the following year the aptly named Keep on Moving was somewhere else again. He moved to Woodstock, NY, like Albert Grossman and others.

Play On


He did an album, Sometimes I Feel Like Smilin' with another new lineup, of course without Michael Bloomfield, and still with David Sanborn's alto sax. The had Ralph Walsh play guitar and help with vocals. Gene Dinwiddie sang, and added flute to his tenor-soprano sax. Rod Hicks diddled the sticks, and congas were banged by Bobby Hall and Big Black. The horn section was rounded out by Trevor Lawrence on baritone sax, and Steve Madaio's trumpet. He had a chorus made up of Merry Clayton, Clydie King, Venetta Fields, and Oma Drake. Ted Harris and George Davidson guested for piano and drums, respectively on "Play On" and "Night Child." The opening cut, "Play On" was a driving R and B cut that makes one think of James Brown.

If It Ain't Broke Don't Fix It


The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was vanquished, and his new group optimistically named, Better Days, recorded Paul Butterfield's Better Days and the not so aptly named It All Comes Back.

Time Has Come Today

In the following years Paul Butterfield, after disbanding Better Days, was somewhat just another rocker seen here and there. He did a PBS show with this group with Bonnie Raitt. He lived with Elizabeth Barraclough during these Woodstock years.

If It's Bigger Than Your Elbow


He did a solo effort Put It in Your Ear that featured Woodstock comrades: Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Ben Keith, Fred Carter and aided by Big Apple experts: David Sanborn, Eric Gale, Gordon Edwards, and Bernard Purdie. James Jamerson and Chuck Rainey rounded out the low end. Helping in this endeavor for A & R was none other than "Honky Tonk" author, James Brown and Hank Ballard producer, and pioneer black executive once with King Records, Henry Glover. This was all orchestrated by England's Ian Kimmet brought over by Albert Grossman. Butterfield shows some of his old form on harp with "The Breadline" and "I Don't Wanna Go" but Kimmet already predicted the failed vocalization and acceptance.

The Almost Last Shuffle


In the year that Paul Butterfield's In Your Ear was released he had a cameo in the Band's swan song, The Last Waltz and around this time worked on an album of Muddy Waters in his Paul's hometown, Woodstock. The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album was the last Grammy Chess would ever earn, especially since it was the last album, period. It was Muddy's first and only, too, and he was honored also with a key to the city celebrated with a couple of hundred denizens. He guested on Andy Robinson's "Blues Break" on WDST bringing his own music including Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me." He worked with Helm's RCO Allstars (which starred Booker T, Dr. John, and Steve Cropper.) He toured a little bit with Dallas Taylor, Rick Reed and Goldie McJohn, and the captured moments are still in the can. He finally let up on his boycott of Southern gigs (due to MLK's being shot) Butter's voice and playing were back up to par on this small tour.

Greek Pre-Tragedy


There was a couple of nostalgic reunions with former PBBB members Bloomfield, Bishop, and Naftalin in Frisco, one last being at the Greek Theatre. The next year he appeared (without rehearsal) on Bonnie Raitt's The Glow combining on the Mary Well's cover: "Bye Bye Baby."

Memphis Soul Connection


Elizabeth, Paul's girlfriend was down in Memphis recording for Willie Mitchell, and on her return she arranged to bring him down for a project. They gathered Michael Toles, the Hodges brothers and the famed Memphis Horns, but they rushed the thing before better quality material was obtained, but there still was a harvest: North-South released in 1981. However, the synthesizers did not add, but diluted the overall effect, but two cuts were memorable, "Bread and Butterfield," and "Baby Blue." This failed musical revival would be his last recording at Bearsville.

Look Over Yonder's Berlin Wall


In a year that would devastate him with increasing health problems (peritonitis - a torn gut requiring surgery the previous year and this one that probably hampered his North-South work), and the Heroin overdose death of --practically a brother-- Mike Bloomfield; he took on a tour to a German musical festival: Rockpalast that had many English and American bands, including Ten Years After. He gave it his best effort with fellow members drafted for the tour: Ernest Carter, Peter Atanazoff and Bobby Vega and helped by the Rolling Stones' producer, Jimmy Miller, but he was not able to really get his leadership oomph behind it, and the tapes brought back to the States were shelved as inferior.

I Got a Mind to Give Up Living


Much of the rest of this decade was spent in a California circuit that joined Dr. John, Gary Busey and the Band on the Strip to thrilled onlookers. After Busey left for the silver screen, a Danko-Butterfield Band was born and played on the East coast and made it to Saturday Night Live. The gigs, were plentiful, but erratic, as he disobeyed his original rule: no Heroin, and his doctor's orders. But the pain drove him to it, and self medication ironically made him sicker. His old and new drinking days were catching up with a vengeance leaving serious damage; Albert Grossman footed the bill for professional help for him.

Butterfield made some teaching tapes for the harmonica noting that one should learn from Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Terry and Little Walter, but he is the one that really put blues harp on the map.

Two Trains Running Out of Track

Sadly the last dose was the last song on May 4, 1987. Now the effort to broadcast his blues should begin, as his role was much bigger than most people know.

1 He was Muddy Water's harmonica player who went on to form his own blues group after Muddy declared no raises " no harmonica player." They would play for Nick Gravenites at his more musically expansive club, the Burning Bush.
2 Big John's was on Wells street on the "white" North side with the head shops, improv theater, coffee houses, jazz clubs, Broadway musicals and inter-racial harmony in the community. This club would attract a diverse assemblage from actors like William Marshall to hit men, or artists or even Symphony conductor, Seiji Ozawa. Steve Miller 2 He was brother to Billy Boy Arnold a well respected vocalist and harmonica player, also.
3 Most urban blacks were not part of this appreciative audience as they preferred sophisticated jazz/blues like Count Basie, rather than inebriated down home off the farm blues. It was a struggle bring the eclectically evolved Delta blues to the East as John Lee Hooker learned.
4 The music business was cutthroat. The big stars like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters in a block feudal manner kept most of the money (that they did not have to give others, namely the managers, promoters and the like with their hands out.) Then one had to worry about the capricious distributors, too. This is why the folk music, then the blues scene became an underground and college thing, but the dynamic of the story is the struggle of white electric blues men to find a place. Their naivete to the system, actually provide a means to bettering the ex-Muddy Waters rhythm section to get decent wages.
5 Michael Bloomfield in around 1968 had told Bill Graham who ran the Fillmore Ballroom, there were better players than them, namely Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and B.B. King, and that's when these guys really opened the door for the authentic electric blues men, starting with B.B. King. B.B. was terrified at first, but the standing ovation ended all those fears.


Blues Access magazine online: Tom Ellis III (several biographical essays)
Nick Gravenites Webpage
Charles Sawyer online

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