The Album Part II
Updated: Feb 27
The Album, Part II
Butterfield was recorded once again in May, 1964, playing as backup sideman to a group called the Smokey Smothers Blues Band. The taping was done by a Swedish blues fan visiting Chicago named Olle Helander. Helander did the taping at the Hotel Sutherland at 4569 Drexel Ave. over the course of a week. Helander worked for the Swedish Broadcast Corporation, and was eager to get some genuine Chicago blues on tape to bring back to Sweden, which was experiencing its own revival of interest in folk and blues music. The record got lots of air play in Sweden, but none in the United States until many years later, when it was re-issued.
At the hotel Helander recorded a variety of Chicago blues players, including blues-harp player Big Walter Horton; Sunnyland Slim, a skilled guitarist and all-around go-to guy for many blues bands; Michael Bloomfield, about a year before he joined the Butterfield band; and, of course, the Smothers band, which included Paul Butterfield on harp. Butterfield’s work is not prominent in these recordings – he is not the bandleader -- but his playing is competent and skilled in a backup role. He does not waste a note or intrude on the vocalist’s role or that of other players in the band.
As Butterfield turned 22 in late 1964, his own band was coming together, with Elvin Bishop on board playing guitar, along with the excellent rhythm section of Sam Lay on drums and Jerome Arnold on electric bass guitar. Bishop played outstanding blues amplified guitar. He was from Oklahoma studying physics at the University of Chicago when he encountered Paul Butterfield out on Maxwell St., first playing guitar and, soon thereafter, blowing excellent harp. The two men were quickly drawn to each other, sharing a dedication to the blues, and became friends and collaborators.
Lay and Arnold were black, and most recently had played in the band of Howlin’ Wolf, whose blues band was second only to that of Muddy Waters in Chicago. But the Wolf was notoriously thrifty, paying his men $7.00 per night per session at one of the local clubs. They felt underpaid and unappreciated. Butterfield offered them $20.00 per night to come with him. They accepted.
Paul Rothchild, producer and talent agent for Elektra records, had first encountered Butterfield at a club in Berkeley, California, called The Cabal in 1963. Butterfield was playing harp while his friend Nick Gravenites strummed guitar. Rothchild had come away deeply impressed with the energy and vitality of Butterfield's playing. According to Nick, Rothchild offered to record Butterfield, but the harpist demurred, explaining that he didn't have a band as yet. A couple of years later, on the recommendation of Jim Kweskin Jug Band member Fritz Richmond, Rothchild caught Butterfield again, now with his 4-person band. This Butterfield Blues Band was blasting out powerful electric blues at Big John’s club, on the South side of Chicago. Rothchild was simply blown away:
I've heard the most amazing thing I've ever heard in my life. Here is the beginning of another era. This is another turning point in American music’s direction.
Butterfield had been in a funk, even though the quartet of the band was beginning to come together. They had been playing at a local club called the Blue Flame, but he felt that they weren’t getting anywhere. Butterfield told his friend Gravenites that he was considering taking a part-time job as a commercial artist, and, according to Nick, “maybe he'd give up music and start working for a solid future.” But then Big John’s called, and the career in commercial art was forgotten, as Paul Rothchild encountered Butterfield once again.
Rothchild told Butterfield that he wanted to record the band for Elektra. But he had also seen the guitarist Michael Bloomfield, with his own blues band, playing at other clubs in Chicago, and he believed that getting Bloomfield into the Butterfield band would enhance its sound and performance.
This marriage took months to accomplish and was by no means a simple transaction. First, Bloomfield had his own band, called the Group, and was content to be doing his own stuff, until that band disintegrated. Second, the Butterfield band already had an excellent lead guitarist in Elvin Bishop. But Bloomfield was better, as Rothchild and Butterfield agreed. Bloomfield was simply the best guitarist around; Eric Clapton, across the pond, called him "Music on two legs." [[[Bishop interview]]]] Third: Bloomfield and Butterfield did not like each other. Bloomfield was intimidated by Butterfield, who projected a rough and gruff exterior. Bishop, reminiscing, called him "a strong dude. He knew what he wanted to do." Did he ever.
Bloomfield told a reporter, “I didn’t dig Butter, you know. He was just too hard a cat for me. It took all the persuading to get me to join.” But Rothchild and, later, the music manager Albert Grossman marshalled their persuasive powers, and two other factors got Bloomfield to join: first, Bloomfield and Butterfield respected the pure talent and dedication of the other, and second, they both truly loved the blues.
Bloomfield had been the vital link for Bob Dylan when Dylan plugged in at Newport in July of '65, and had provided superb musicianship for the electric performance, as we have seen. After Newport Dylan was ready to launch a considerable international tour with his newly introduced amplified sound, and he considered Bloomfield to be, in his own words, the world's best guitar player. Through Albert Grossman, who was now the manager of both Dylan and the Butterfield band, Dylan asked Bloomfield to join his band and go on tour with him. This was certainly the most attractive deal that anyone could be offered: fame, fortune, stardom, and excellent music. But Bloomfield’s strong dedication to the blues and the prospect of being able to continue that commitment by working with Butterfield was even stronger. He also felt that he would be constrained as a member of Dylan’s band, not given enough opportunity to play his own stuff, to flourish and expand his repertoire, as he would be able to do as part of the Butterfield band. Bloomfield turned down Dylan, much to the latter man's surprise and consternation.
Michael Bloomfield had joined and now stayed with the band. We have seen in another blog on this website how the difficult marriage of Bloomfield and Butterfield continued to be fraught, but by the time that the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was ready to go into the studio to record its first album, in the spring of 1965, Bloomfield was playing lead guitar in the band, even though his official affiliation with them was as yet uncertain. And it was during the complicated, protracted process of making that album that Mark Naftalin was brought in to play keyboards, especially the Hammond A3 organ. So it was that, after the Newport Folk Festival of July 1965, it was these six men -- Lay, Arnold, Naftalin, Bloomfield, Bishop, and Butterfield -- who comprised the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; it was they who went into the studio to try to record the album in August.
Producing the first album of the band was going to be a difficult task. Elektra's recording technicians just had little or no experience in recording loud, electric, music: Elektra was a folk label. As it turned out, it was difficult and more. We use the term “producing” in both senses here, to denote the role that Paul Rothchild would fulfill in getting the record done, and to indicate how the engineers at Elektra would use the tools at hand to record the band to Elektra’s best possible advantage – that is, to sell a lot of records.
Rothchild was indeed a smart, resourceful, and experienced producer. He had begun his career in the lively Boston folk scene, and would go on, on the West coast, to discover the Doors, and would produce the band’s first five albums. YOU try dealing with Jim Morrison. Of course Rothchild had only seen Butterfield, then Butterfield and his band, performing live rather than in a studio environment. It was the energy contained and projected in those clubs, especially at Big John’s in Chicago, that impelled him to get them under contract and into the recording studio. Achieving a finished album was going to be a different story. But into studio they went.