The rise of what came to be known in the 1960s as ‘blue-eyed soul’ included contributions from a lot of different musicians. One band that should receive more recognition as an important influence in the evolution of the music is the Butterfield Blues Band, the Chicago-based band led by harmonica wiz and vocalist Paul Butterfield. Of course, it wasn’t technically ‘blue-eyed’ since it was a racially-mixed group, but in the broader definition of blue-eyed soul — bringing authentic R&B music to white audiences — the band delivered the goods.
Butterfield was schooled in the classics, but was also a big fan of Chicago blues joints in the early 1960s, when he and his guitarist friend, fellow student Elvin Bishop, spent a lot of time hanging around and listening to the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. It wasn’t long before they decided to form their own band — and to help fill the ranks, they raided Wolf’s band for drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold.
After polishing their act and wowing crowds in area clubs, they added talented guitarist Mike Bloomfield and signed their first record contract. The group’s self-titled debut album was delayed for a number of reasons but was finally released in 1965, after the addition of keyboardist Mark Naftalin. Although it was a little rough around the edges, it hit the target with audiences who loved pieces like “Born In Chicago” and “Mellow Down Easy.”
The band also made a splash that year by backing up Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, and soon began working on its second album. East-West added Eastern influences with touches of the psychedelic to the group’s sound, further establishing the band’s popularity and importance. Pieces such as “Mary, Mary,” and the album’s title tune — a thirteen minute fusion tour de force by Bloomfield — were indicative of the group’s explosive talent.
Butterfield’s band continued to be popular for a few years and made more fans with their appearance at Woodstock, but by then the personnel changes that began with Bloomfield’s departure in 1967 had continued. The band leaned back more toward R&B on its next couple of albums, but sales were disappointing and by the close of the decade the end was in sight.
In the 1970s, the enormously talented Butterfield managed to have some success with a mostly solo career, although he also showed up in some memorable spots — such as onstage for the final concert of The Band, immortalized in the film, The Last Waltz. He continued performing into the 1980s, but years of alcohol and drug problems had taken their toll on his health. He died in 1987, just 44 years old.