The Album Part I
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
Before Butterfield recorded his own first album he played on a record produced by Norman Dayron called “Rare Chicago Blues.” This compilation of 20 songs, which were taped live in Chicago clubs, was recorded between 1962, when Butterfield was only 19 years old, and 1968, and released by the Bullseye Blues label in 1993. It featured many of the best blues players in Chicago during those years, including Big Joe Williams, Robert Nighthawk, Otis Spann (the pianist for the Muddy Waters’s band), and James Cotton, who had also played harp in Muddy’s band. Elvin Bishop, Butterfield’s comrade and partner, played on three tracks, as did Butterfield.
On “Wild Cow Moan” Butterfield backed up singer/guitarist Big Joe Williams, who sang the vocal. The younger man’s harp is sharp and confident on fills and a brief solo. On “Diggin’ My Potatoes” he and Elvin played competently while James Cotton did the vocal. And Bishop and Butterfield played together again on the instrumental “Three Harp Boogie.” If they were intimidated by the older and more experienced Cotton, who had already been in the bands of both Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and by then had his own band, they did not show it in the live performance. Both players, still truly young and inexperienced, demonstrated why Muddy, the king of Chicago blues, had been impressed with their playing and had taken them on, especially Butterfield, as mentor. "Rare Chicago Blues" is the earliest instance of each having been caught on tape, which eventually went onto cassette and CD about 25 years later.
The record itself was well received when it was released, during yet another revival of interest in the blues in the 1990s, after all the musicians who participated were dead. One reviewer called it “enthralling,” and said,
“These tracks give a good taste of what real, gritty urban blues sounded like in the '60s.”
Elektra recorded and released another compilation album in 1964, titled “The Blues Project,” with the subtitle “A Compendium of the Very Best of the Urban Blues Scene.” This collection had songs by Geoff Muldaur, Dave Van Ronk, Eric Von Schmidt, and other performers who were making their mark on the east coast – mainly in Boston, not Chicago. Butterfield was not on this compendium, but the record, along with the commentary and reviews of it, would portend significantly for the music that Butterfield and his band would be enhancing soon thereafter. In the liner notes for “The Blues Project” the rock critic Barry Hansen made a strong case that white musicians could and should be fully accepted as legitimate practitioners of the blues, and contributors to the legacy of previous blues performers and bands, such as those of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and others. Hansen wrote prophetically, in 1964, that
It seems inevitable that by 1970 most of the blues worth hearing will be sung by white men. For years, the younger Negroes have been losing interest in this ‘old-fashioned’ form. Caucasians have been providing more and more of the audience for the blues lately.”