The Album, Part VIII (last)
Updated: Jan 3
Meanwhile, Elektra was doing everything they could to generate sales for the album and get what Jac Holzman considered its most popular songs on the radio and out to the public. In February the company released a single from the album: “Mellow Down Easy,” backed by “Got My Mojo Working” on the flip side. This single drew some favorable attention, especially from the rock critic Paul Williams, who had just started the rock 'n' roll magazine Crawdaddy. In his review of “Mellow Down Easy,” 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 blues groups, including the Stones.” [[[[Dann, p. 228]]]]]]]]]]]
We have seen elsewhere on this site, in the brief survey of the history of the blues, how popularity of blues in the United States waxed and waned. It declined especially after the birth of rock 'n' roll in the mid-50s well into the next decade, until the Rolling Stones and other British bands, who never wavered in their dedication to the music, revived its popularity as they cut records, toured, and performed in America. Thus Williams’s apt comment regarding “the Stones.”
Shortly thereafter Elektra would prevail on the band to record yet another single, this time of new material that was not on the album, as the company demonstrated how eager it was to get a hit single from the band. So Holzman got them into a recording studio in Los Angeles to cut two more sides. Paul Rothchild, back in New Jersey, was serving time in a federal prison on marijuana charges, so he was not available to produce the record. Holzman hired the producer Barry Friedman, who had a reputation as a hit-single magician, to oversee the project in Rothchild’s stead. Still hoping to get a record that would crack the Top 40, Friedman had the band record a song written by Elvin, “If I Had My Way.” They backed it with a three-minute version of the instrument “The Raga.” And while they were in the studio the recorded a true pop tune, “Mary Mary,” written by Michael Nesmith – yes, THAT Michael Nesmith, of the Monkees. “Mary Mary” did get a track on the band’s second album, with little fanfare.
After the engagement at the Trip, in February the band moved over to the Whiskey a Go Go, where they played for three weekends as the headlining band. The group had learned some crowd-pleasing lessons from their experience at the Trip, and the reception at the Whiskey was considerably warmer. From there the band performed at other clubs in the Los Angeles area, such as the It Club in Lafayette Square, with mixed receptions. At one such club, however, the promoter Chet Helms saw them play, and he arranged for them to play on the last weekend in March at the Fillmore Auditorium, in San Francisco – for the exceedingly generous compensation of $2500.00. Butterfield and the band were thrilled, and their performance, to about 7,000 people over three nights, was an unqualified success. The crowds were dancing in the aisles, singing along as best they could, and reveling in the music as Bloomfield and Butterfield traded scorching solos and the rhythm section laid down a can’t-sit-down beat. The band had never sounded better, and the hip San Francisco crowd bought into the music fully. The band would return to the Fillmore often; it became, next only to Chicago, its second home. Bill Graham, the Fillmore’s in-house promoter, was eager to have them back regularly, and made an arrangement with Albert Grossman to seal the deal.
After the Fillmore it was down the coast to Huntington Beach for a two-week engagement at a restaurant-lounge, The Golden Bear, with a seating capacity of 350. A young comedian named Steve Martin opened for the band. From April 1 to the 10th the Butterfield band played to enthusiastic crowds there, filling the club every night. The Golden Bear’s owner, George Nikas, praised the band, extended their stay, and tried to get them to return. [[[[at 43:30 in “Horn From the Heart”]]]] By this time the band had begun to include “The Raga” and other jazzy and soul-infused material into their regular play list, and the crowds at the Golden Bear and the Fillmore “exploded,” according to Mark Naftalin, with an overwhelmingly positive reaction. It was Bloomfield who took the lead in introducing “The Raga” and some of the other non-bluesy stuff, but Butterfield was open to these changes, as well, somewhat to the surprise of the other band members.
Butterfield had, in fact, begun to let up on his assertive style of leading the band over the course of this long tour. There had been some conflict between him and some band members, especially Bloomfield and Bishop, and occasionally those confrontations turned physical. Bloomfield reported that Butterfield punched him (Dann, p. 230) during a serious disagreement, after which Bloomfield and other members of the band were ready to quit. But after tempers cooled and differences were resolved, Butterfield showed himself to be wise beyond his years, and eased back from some of his more authoritarian tendencies. He began to let other musicians contribute more to what the band should be playing and what it should sound like, and the result was a salutary one for the band and its leader as it began to change.
The band was booked for a return engagement back at the Fillmore for another weekend beginning on April 15th. There the band alternated sets with a local up-and-coming band called the Jefferson Airplane. And out-performed them. Then, at the insistence of Elektra, the band continued their extended tour back east, mainly to large and enthusiastic crowds on college campuses. They played during spring break at Penn State University, and at Stony Brook University the opened for Simon and Garfunkel. Then they traveled to Detroit for a couple of weeks as a small club called the Living End, where people waited in line to get in and hear them. Then they returned to Chicago, where they played for eleven nights straight at Poor Richard’s, at 1363 N. Sedwick St., from May 12-22.
The music press was impressed. In Detroit a reviewer wrote that the band was “tearing audiences apart.” (Dann, 237). In Variety the reviewer wrote that the band
“dishes up big-beat blues at its best. The sound, definitely not for the delicate of ear, is at times almost overwhelming in sheer volume. The band’s three electric guitars, drums, organ and Butterfield on harmonica, play with considerable intensity, yet never degenerate into becoming merely noise.” (Dann, 238).
As the band continued its tour, they included more material that did not conform to strictly blues format. These included “Watermelon Man” and “Work Song” by the jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, and Percy Mayfield’s “Danger Zone” and “River’s Invitation,” as well as covers of songs by Marvin Gaye and Wilson Pickett. Other band members took the lead vocals more frequently, as well. The band, with its new drummer becoming more comfortable in his role and Elvin getting a chance to play lead more often, was performing as well as it ever did.