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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Friday, May 04, 2007


Yes, it's the 20th anniversary of Paul Butterfield's death. Here's his entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Butterfield, Paul [1942 - 1987]
Paul Butterfield was born in Chicago on December 17, 1942 and grew up in the city. He was exposed to jazz and taught classical flute as a child. He learnt guitar and harmonica, dropped out of college to visit blues clubs and by 1961 he and Elvin Bishop were good enough players that they could sit in with HOWLIN WOLF, Little Walter, MUDDY WATERS, Junior Wells and others in clubs where they were commonly the only white faces. In 1963 he formed the Butterfield Blues Band, with Bishop, the splendidly-named Little Smokey Smothers, JEROME ARNOLD and SAM LAY. In 1964 out went Smothers, the word ‘Paul’ was added to the band’s name and in came Mark Naftalin and MIKE BLOOMFIELD: a line-up that stayed steady until illness forced drummer Sam Lay’s 1966 replacement by Billy Davenport. Butterfield led this extraordinary unit till 1972, when he disbanded it.

He was a remote individual but an adequate yet expressive vocalist and a superb harmonica-player, and his achievement was to create and lead the band that ‘slit the membrane between the two cultures’, with a first album (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, on Elektra) that was racially-mixed, hard-driving, unapologetic blues that showed white enthusiasts how to play it instead of archiving it, and thus brought urban Chicago blues into the white mainstream. The band’s appearance under its own name at the 1965 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL was a revelation to those who heard it, taking this music to a whole new level of energy. It was as vividly remembered by the likes of MARIA MULDAUR as the Dylan controversy at the same festival.

For Dylan’s appearance, Butterfield lent him his rhythm section and Mike Bloomfield but did not play himself. The only time he came together with Dylan on stage was at THE BAND’s Farewell Concert at the Winterland in San Francisco on November 25, 1976, when he and others provided backing vocals on Dylan’s performance of ‘I Shall Be Released’.

Towards the end, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band nudged closer to rock, and the group he formed afterwards, Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, reined in this trend but was never outstanding. In 1976 Butterfield made the solo album Put It In Your Ear (on which LEVON HELM and GARTH HUDSON both played), and five years later North South, but neither sold well. He moved to Los Angeles, did some session work and made one last album, The Legendary Paul Butterfield Rides Again in 1986 - a decent album that includes a fine rendition of the Bob Dylan-HELENA SPRINGS song ‘The Wandering Kind’, on which he proved he could still play the harmonica searingly well.

Butterfield was by now a heroin addict and in poor health after years of heavy drinking and of suffering from peritonitis. He died of drug-related heart failure in Hollywood on May 4, 1987. He was 44.

[Paul Butterfield Blues Band: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elektra 7294, NY, 1965. Paul Butterfield: Put It in Your Ear, Bearsville BR 6960, US, 1976; The Legendary Paul Butterfield Rides Again, Amherst, US, 1986 (CD-AMH 93305, 1990). The ‘membrane’ quote from Charles Sawyer, ‘Blues With A Feeling: A Biography of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’, 1994, online Jul 2 2005 at]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a loss! I only discovered his music a few years ago and yet I mourn as though he had been a good friend.

2:36 am  

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