The Album, Part VI
Updated: Jan 1
Nonetheless, the band went and stayed on the road to support the album. After the dates back at Big John’s, Grossman booked the band into the Unicorn coffeehouse, on Boylston St. in the Back Bay district of Boston. The club’s usual live acts featured folk-singing acoustic performers, so bringing in the Butterfield band was a departure for management. The risk brought immediate reward, however, as crowds lined up to hear them, as they had in Chicago.
Between weekend engagements at the Unicorn Grossman booked the band into a more impressive and prominent venue in New York, Town Hall. The band performed there on November 27, 1965, on a bill that included the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and the folk singer Gordon Lightfoot. The Butterfield band’s set was a great success among audience and music critics. One such influential critic, Robert Shelton of the New York Times, wrote that the Butterfield band, along with other blues performers gaining significant popularity in New York, was a healthy reaction to the British bands, the Beatles and Rolling Stones, a “Beatles backlash.” New York was becoming something of a blues town, Shelton wrote, due to the influence of the Butterfield band and other Chicago performers. The British groups, he acknowledged, had gone to school on and borrowed from the American blues groups, but now the domestic groups were taking the music back once again, “building an audience here for what is essentially an American music.” Calling Butterfield “the best white blues singer and harmonica-player in the country,” Shelton echoed Pete Welding’s liner notes on the back of the debut album:
“The recurring controversy over whether a white performer can or should work in the Negro blues idiom continues to rage. But Mr. Butterfield offers the persuasive answer that even a young city boy of Irish descent can absorb can master the idiom and become a compelling blues artist. His wild harmonica sorties against the surging heavily amplified rhythm of drums, electric guitar and bass, are without parallel in blues or jazz. When he plays one of his six harmonicas at the height of its range, it vaguely resembles the soprano saxophone of the late Sidney Bechet. His timing is impeccable. The vocal or instrumental phrases may be sweet, soulful, or strident, but they are shaped with the compositional purpose of a master painter. As in the Chicago honky-tonks where he learned his art, Mr. Butterfield builds a suspenseful tension and then resolves it with a gratifying emotional release. The great Chicago blues style, having ricocheted back from England, is now sending out its own electrical charges in New York.” [[[ TimesMachine: March 11, 1965 - NYTimes.com]]]]
Shelton then reviewed the album in the Times a couple of months later, on January 30, 1966, in an article that covered what he called the “folk-rock rage” in contemporary music. The column included commentary on a dozen other records of note, including issues from Sonny and Cher, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Barry McGuire, the Yardbirds, and others. Shelton wrote:
“This Chicago blues band inspired a lot of people to get wired for sound a year ago. Butterfield is a harmonica player without equal in this bluesy area of folk-rock. Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar is imaginative and the entire aggregation swings and surges with demonic energy.”
Not every review was enthusiastic. In the June 1966 issue of Sounds & Fury, a magazine mainly focusing on jazz, Julius Lester raised the issue that encompasses race and the blues. He wrote:
“This record makes me wonder …. why a white person would feel that he could play in a Negro idiom. If whites want to learn from it and adapt it to something else, fine, but why the attempt by so many to assimilate a tradition which is, essentially, alien to them?
“Despite reports to the contrary, Paul Butterfield sounds like a young white boy trying to play and sing Negro music. . . . I hope one day the Butterfields will realize they can’t walk into another man’s house and cook the meal he would cook on his stove. If you try it, the man may not like it.” ( https://www.music-journalism-history.com/2020/02/14/american-blues-journalism-1920s-70s-part-37/)
Lester’s review did not go unnoticed or unanswered. The editor of Sounds & Fury, Ralph Berton, disagreed. He cited the counter example of a white musician, Weldon Leo “Jack” Teagarden, who had sung vocals and played excellent trombone for Louis Armstrong’s band.
Michael Bloomfield had also seen the Lester piece. As we have seen, Bloomfield stayed abreast of reviewing in the music press. He was sensitive to the issue of whether white musicians could and should be playing the blues. Bloomfield was angered by Lester’s dismissal of Butterfield and “the Butterfields,” and felt, in this instance at least, that the criticism was off the mark.
Then, in February, 1966, Crawdaddy started distributing hand-stapled copies of its journal focused on rock 'n' roll. The founder, Paul Williams, wrote:
“Butterfield’s singing and harmonica are fantastic here, As is Mike Bloomfield’s electric guitar. Butterfield definitely has the best sound of all the white blues groups, including the Stones. Sooner or later, this band is sure to record a #1 hit song.”
But not with anything on this album, he said, and he was right.
Notice how often the various commentators and reviewers focus on the issue of race when evaluating the album and Butterfield and the band. Can and should white guys – or even a band that is partly white and partly black – be playing the blues? The question is there in the Pete Welding’s extensive liner notes on the back of the album cover, as we have seen. It is prominent in Robert Shelton’s several reviews for the New York Times, and in those of Paul Williams and Julius Lester. We know that members of the band were aware of the controversial racial issue, especially Michael Bloomfield (Butterfield “could be a tuna-fish sandwich”) and Elvin Bishop, who said, looking back: “It was an idea whose time had come. We were in the right place at the right time. The big, beautiful, body of music, the black blues and this huge white audience, they had never to any extent met. Then the idea just caught fire.” (19:40 in Horn From the Heart). Sam Lay, the black drummer, said that “Butterfield, didn’t care if a guy had a pink stripe down his back,” as long as he had the chops. Butterfield himself, taciturn as usual, kept his thoughts and statements to himself and did not address the question for the press. But we know that he was aware how significant the topic of race was for the band as a unit and for band members, both white and black, individually and as a unit.