The Album, Part VII
Updated: Jan 3
With the release of the album and playing to sold-out crowds at clubs, colleges, and coffee-houses, the band was on a roll. They returned to Chicago and their status as the house band at Big John’s. Over to Detroit they went at a joint called the Chessmate, located at the corner of W. McNichols Road and Livernois Avenue. But in December, 1965, Sam Lay developed serious health problems. Pleurisy, pneumonia – although there is an unsubstantiated rumor that Sam accidentally shot himself in the foot, or elsewhere, wounded from a gun in his pocket. But this is a significant event for Butterfield and the band. Sam must be replaced and doing so would not be easy. Sam had been with Butterfield since the beginning, and both his skills on the drums and his mature demeanor were a perfect fit for this group. Each of them, with the possible exception of the bass player Jerome Arnold, was a high-strung, large-ego type who was confident of his own abilities and protective of his contribution to the band’s sound. This was particularly true of Butterfield and Bloomfield, who often came into conflict over issues both trivial and otherwise. During one such disagreement Butterfield punched Bloomfield forcefully in the chest. But Sam Lay had filled the role of peacemaker among the group, so his loss was more substantial than merely the need to replace a drummer.
After auditioning several drummers, Butterfield offered the position to Billy Davenport, a black percussionist with a background in jazz. Davenport was more than ten years older than Butterfield, and he had been around the music scene long enough to realize that a racially-integrated band might not be welcome at certain locations – motels, restaurants, even clubs – even there in the Midwest, in the mid-1960s. Davenport expressed these misgivings about joining the band to Butterfield. The band-leader assured Davenport of his full support: that the band would not tolerate such treatment. And we know that Butterfield was good for his word; he was not a man to be trifled with, and in some situations he would use strong language or the threat of physical violence to defend his colleagues. Thus assured, Davenport agreed to join the band, and it was obvious immediately that it was a good fit for the individual and the band itself.
With the band again complete in the new year, 1966, Albert Grossman booked them into a series of performances in the Los Angeles area. A club named the Trip, at 8572 Sunset Boulevard, was their first engagement, for the month of January, where they served as opening band for the Byrds. The Butterfield band got a mixed reception from crowds that were accustomed to hearing the folk-rock material then popular on the west coast. Those crowds were doing the Twist and other current dances, as well, and it was not a good fit for the Butterfield band with its hard-driving, take-no-prisoners sound. [[[[[David Dann, Bloomfield, pp. <226>>]]]]
The reception from the audience was secondary to the band’s commitment to get the music right. And when the rocking Wilson Pickett replaced the Byrds as the club’s headliner during the last two weeks of January, Butterfield accommodated the change by giving the crowd a nice mix of blues and rock and rhythm. This proved to be a better fit between the opening band, still Butterfield, Pickett, and the crowd.
During their time on the west coast the band started experimenting with material that was a departure from the pure Chicago blues that had always been their bread and butter. In some cases this involved indulging in long solos, especially on the part of Michael Bloomfield. These, too, were distant from the twisting, rock ‘n’ rolling rhythm that many listeners wanted to hear. With Bloomfield at the lead and full support from Butterfield and the rhythm section, the band began playing some music with Indian influences; they were calling this “The Raga,” with extended guitar and harp solos that extended for long stretches lasting multiple minutes. The new drummer, Davenport, supported the Eastern and jazz-inflected material ably. The band in live performance would sometimes play the song, purely an instrumental, for up to 30 minutes; when it was ultimately recorded and released on an album, it would be over 13 minutes long.