The Album Part III
Updated: Jan 11
During the production process for the album, Elektra had released a budget-priced sampler record of so-called folk music called “Folksong ’65,” which included, among a mix of traditional folk/country music, the Butterfield band’s recording of Nick Gravenites’s “Born in Chicago,” which was the first song on side 2. There were considerable favorable sales and publicity about that sampler, available for a dollar, and for that song, which seemed to bode well for what would come to be an entire album by the Butterfield band. A year later, in 1966, the label released yet another similar album, titled “What’s Shakin’”, this time with five songs by the Butterfield band, along with tracks from a diverse group of folksingers and rock ‘n’ rollers such as John Sebastian, Eric Clapton, and Tom Rush. This record was well received, as well, and got lots of air play on FM radio stations.
For Elektra’s people, recording the Butterfield band at the Mastertone studios in New York in 1965, the challenges for considerable. The record label was founded in 1950 by Jac Holzman, at a serendipitous time: the folk-music revival was beginning later in that decade, and by the middle of the ‘60s it was truly the craze. Folksingers were selling tons of records. Elektra had plenty of experience recording, say, Joni Mitchell singing “Babe, I’m Going to Leave You” as she sat, accompanying herself on an acoustic guitar, headphones on, singing into a 3-track mixing system. But recording the Butterfield band would be an entirely different, and difficult, project: these guys were electric, percussion-driven, loud.
But after a month in the studio Rothchild was still unsatisfied with the results. The power of the live performances was just not coming through on the tapes. So he decided that a recording of the band in live performance would best capture the sound and sell records. Rothchild convinced a reluctant Jac Holzman to scrap the record, discard the 10,000 pressings of the album, and proceed with recording a live show. Holzman was a pilot with his own plane, and he happened to be flying with Rothchild to Martha’s Vineyard to visit Tom Rush when Rothchild presented the unpleasant idea. Holzman was so upset that he put the plane into a sharp throat-tightening dive to make Rothchild certify his bona fides – which he did. So the 10,000 copies were scrapped, except for a few that were retitled “The Paul Butterfield Blues band – The Original Lost Elektra Sessions,” and found their way into the hands of collectors as bootlegs at the time, in 1965, and then were released to the general public more than thirty years later.
And Rothchild was right. “The Original Lost Electra Sessions” has 19 songs, an eclectic mix -- maybe too eclectic, without a compelling focus -- of traditional blues songs along with three written and recorded specially for these sessions. From the first song, “Good Morning, Little School Girl,” by Sonny Boy Williamson #1, the band sounds, well, lousy. Butterfield’s harp, which introduces the song, sounds thin and tinny. Sam Lay’s drumming feels hurried, almost frantic. Even Michael Bloomfield’s guitar has no authority in it. Butterfield’s repeated rendition of the basic riff on his D harp – 3-draw, 3-draw half-step bend, 3-draw, 3-draw half-step bend, 3-draw, 2-draw, 2-draw full-step bend – is hollow and rushed. It is repeated during the I chord throughout the song without much variation in tone or rhythm. Good harp players, we hear often, combine repetition with variation. Here we have plenty of repetition with little variation.
The third cut, “Help Me,” had been recorded in January, 1963, by Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson #2), and climbed as high as #24 on the Billboard R & B chart. It is and was “the necessary classic for every self-respecting harmonica player,” and was based on “Green Onions,” by Booker T. and the MGs. The song would be covered by Junior Wells, Magic Slim, and others. (https://archive.org/details/encyclopediaofbl00herzh/page/450/mode/2up). It is a mid-tempo regular 12-bar blues, but the band again seems to be in a hurry here. Butterfield’s singing is somewhat improved, and his solo at the :58 mark on his B-flat harp is excellent. But Williamson’s and later versions were better. When Sonny Boy pleaded “Help Me,” he meant it. Butterfield's vocal, by contrast, sounds frivolous.
“Nut Popper,” credited to Butterfield, is a nice instrumental in which his harp leads, and he gives some decent space for Bloomfield to rip out some complicated solo work in the middle – but the song is unremarkable. In song #8, “Lovin’ Cup,” also credited to Butterfield, it sounds as if he is singing the vocal in an echo chamber – so enough said about that. Cut #15, “Love Her with a Feeling,” is the only one that includes Mark Naftalin on the Hammond organ. It is a pleasant slow blues. Butterfield’s vocal is strong here, but he does not play a single note on the harp, which would have been a B-flat.
We do not need a song-by-song litany of commentary here on these 19 cuts, except to note that “Spoonful,” another blues classic written for Chess by Willie Dixon, is also lousy. The band is in A, and Butterfield would be playing his D harp -- if he played it, that is. This was another classic blues song, originally recorded for the Chess brothers’ Checker label in 1960 by Howlin’ Wolf, and subsequently covered by Cream and almost every other blues band on both sides of the Atlantic, and Butterfield did not blow a single note on the harp. The vocal is weak, and the band hurries through this song, like so many in this session. No wonder Rothchild wanted to scrap this record. And, as it turned out, not one of the tracks from the original “Lost” session made it onto what would become the band’s first album.
Rothchild went back to work trying to capture the sound and pure excitement of the band performing live. At the Café Au Go Go at 152 Bleecker St. in Greenwich Village, cables were laid, mixers were connected, and live performances of the band were taped. This was a six-night stand, and four of those performances were recorded. But the music from these tapes were disappointing, too. The power, the snap, the intensity of the live performances was simply not there on the tapes. Rothchild again pleaded with Holzman to discard the results of that work, and Holzman said OK, one more time. So it was back into the studio, now in September, for a third try at getting the band on record.
This one was better. For one thing, Bloomfield was beginning to feel comfortable as a full member of the band. He was relieved of having to play keyboards by the addition of Mark Naftalin on piano and Hammond B3 organ, so he could now concentrate on the lead guitar, at which he was pretty much the best anywhere. He developed a level of ease with Butterfield to the point where the two men were almost reading each other’s minds, backing and responding seamlessly to each other’s solos and fills.
Back in the studio, in the band's version of Chicago blues, the instruments were taking priority over the vocals. Butterfield worked hard on his singing, and he had developed a good level of vocal competence that would not detract or distract. Bloomfield voice was, by his own admission, lousy. Sam Lay, sitting behind the drums, could sing OK, but he was not given much opportunity to do so. Neither Bishop or Naftalin would have any vocals on this debut record. Butterfield was leading the band forcefully, and it was his harp and Bloomfield's guitar which mainly impelled the music.
The engineers at Mastertone benefitted from the development of new recording techniques by Ampex that let them add a fourth track to the recording system, whereas in the earlier sessions that had been using three heads. This enabled them to better isolate the instruments from each other and get more oomph out of the rhythm section’s bass and drums.
This session included a mix of songs that the band had played and rehearsed dozens of times. Some were driven by pulsing rhythm from the drummer and bass player; others were slow blues in which the bandleader got to blow wailing harp solos. They started off with a slow blues, Willie Dixon’s “Mellow Down Easy,” which the band had tried in the first two sessions with unsatisfactory results. This time Bloomfield and Butterfield, now fully comfortable with the other man’s work, complimented each other’s solos, vocals, and fills with precision. In the control booth Rothchild nodded approval.
The band started off with a slow blues, Willie Dixon’s “Mellow Down Easy,” which the band had tried in the first two sessions with unsatisfactory results. This time Bloomfield and Butterfield, now fully comfortable with the other man’s work, complemented each other’s solos, vocals, and fills with precision. In the control booth Rothchild nodded approval. Halfway through the session the band did “Blues With a Feeling,” a Little Walter song, which they had performed in July at Newport. They nailed it again here in the studio. The band is in G, and Butterfield introduced the song with the repeating 6-note riff on his C harp: 2-draw, blue 3rd 3-draw bent down half a step, sliding quickly over the 4-draw probably bent (it’s hard to tell), 4-blow, back to the 3-draw ½-step bent, finishing with the tonic 2-draw. This was the call that would be repeated and responded to in the vocal that followed, and by the harp and also by Bloomfield’s slide. The harp response followed the repetition-with-variation pattern, ending on the sharp and attention-getting 6-blow – which is, after all, another tonic note, the octave of 2-draw. Butterfield sings the vocal with confident authority: “BLUES with a feeling……….” The song sounded superb. And, following the advice in the liner notes: the louder, the better. Kids in college opened the windows of their dormitory rooms and blasted it out onto the quad. Later, as they stood in line in the cafeteria, they were humming that basic riff and response.
Next the band jumped into a song most recently done by Elvis, “Mystery Train.” This was a traditional driving blues song that Butterfield introduced with his train-like chugging on the low end of the harp with 16th-notes, adding yet another powerful element of percussion into the mix.
After that, Butterfield had the drummer Sam Lay do the vocal for a song that Muddy Waters had made his own, “I Got My Mojo Working.” The drummer shouted out the chorus and the band responded enthusiastically. Butterfield ripped off a screeching harp solo midway, and the band’s rendition of this song did full justice to the traditional Chicago versions. Another Little Walter slow blues, “Last Night,” was cooked just right, as was another slow 12-bar blues, “Our Love Is Drifting,” which was written by Bishop and Butterfield. The session finished with Nick Gravenites’s “Born in Chicago.” The band had performed this song dozens of times, and another version of it had appeared on Elektra’s folk-blues sampler earlier in the year, generating considerable positive reaction. So the band made sure to include the song on this, their first album. Given the ages of the band members, this song carried with it an autobiographical tone. “I was born in Chicago, 1941,” Gravenites, had written. Four of the band members were born within a few years of that date. The band dug into it with tight vigor, again improving on previous versions of the song. Nick, had he been there, would have been pleased. Rothchild and the engineers were, indeed. This September session had gone as well as could be expected.
It was during this recording session at Mastertone that Mark Naftalin became a member of the Butterfield band. He had been hanging around the studio on his own as an observer and general gofer, and to fill in on various instruments, mainly keyboards, when asked. There was a Hammond organ in the studio, and for one song, “Thank You, Mr. Poobah,” Butterfield asked Naftalin to play the organ. He did, it sounded just right, adding just the right push to the rhythm section, and gradually Naftalin began playing in some of the other songs, as well. Butterfield asked him to join the band, and Naftalin happy accepted. So the band was now a complete six pieces. With Bloomfield and Naftalin on board, a cranking six pieces.