Paul Butterfield (December 17, 1942 - May 4, 1987) was an American blues musician, and one of the most innovative harmonica players of the electric blues Chicago-originated style. Butterfield began performing in the Chicago area as a teen, and he soon formed a band with Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay (both of Howlin' Wolf's band), and Elvin Bishop. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was signed to Elektra Records after adding Michael Bloomfield as lead guitarist. Their original debut album was scrapped and re-recorded after adding organist Mark Naftalin and playing at the Newport Folk Festival, where they backed-up Bob Dylan as he famously plugged-in. Their self-titled debut, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was finally released in 1965 (1965 in music). Soon after the release, Lay became very sick and was replaced by Billy Davenport on drums. Influenced greatly by Ravi Shankar and other eastern musicians, the band's second album was East-West (1966 in music), a critically acclaimed hit.
At the height of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's success, Mike Bloomfield formed Electric Flag with Nick Gravenites and Bishop began playing lead guitar for The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw (1967 in music). The album included David Sanborn, Bugsy Maugh and Phil Wilson, and was a commercial failure that stunted the band's career. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a series of releases to a small and devoted cult following. Paul Butterfield finally died of long-term alcohol abuse 1987.
The dramatic impact on the course of rock & roll by the Butterfield Blues Band with the release of their first album, “The Paul Butterfield Blues Band,” and the song “Born In Chicago,” in particular, cannot be overstated. They introduced young white America to the blues, influenced 100s of bands from the Grateful Dead to the Allman Brothers, motivated Bob Dylan to go “electric” irrevocably changing the course of rock & roll, and launched the reign of Michael Bloomfield as America’s most influential guitarist until the arrival of Eric Clapton in 1967.
It is hard to imagine today, but prior to the summer of 1965, the Beatles’ music (and the rest of the British Invasion) was the stuff of screaming kids. Most viewed it as “bubblegum.” The music of the “hip,” “in,” college crowd, along with the trend-setting musical elite, was folk music and acoustic protest songs headed up by folk’s king and queen, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. And folk music’s Mecca was the annual Newport Folk Festival.
Paul Butterfield, a white lawyer’s son, grew up in Chicago, developed a love for the blues harmonica, hooked up with white, blues loving, University of Illinois student Elvin Bishop (later of “Fool Around and Fell In Love” fame), and the two started hanging with the great black blues players like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Junior Wells on Chicago’s South Side. Along the way, Butterfield became the world’s greatest blues harmonica player, and started a band made up of both black and white bluesmen. In 1963, a watershed event in introducing blues to white America occurred when Butterfield’s racially mixed band was made the house band at Chicago blues club Big John’s.
At only 16, Michael Bloomfield, a nice Jewish boy from Chicago, had already made a name for himself on the South Side as a blue guitar wunderkind playing with classic blues cats old enough to be his father like Otis Spann and Big Joe Williams. By 20, he had a Columbia record contract, loads of session work, and, in early 1965, an invitation to join the Butterfield Blues Band.
By ’65’s “Bringing It All Back Home,” Dylan had begun to turn his back on folk music. At that summer’s Newport Folk Festival, all the buzz was over the revolutionary performance of the Butterfield Blues Band with Bloomfield on guitar, and their song “Born In Chicago.” It is hard to imagine now, but fiery debate raged over the Butterfield Blues Band invading Newport with electric guitars! Closing the festival, Dylan played the first half acoustic, and then went “electric” backed by Bloomfield and the Butterfield Band. The crowd went nuts, booing Dylan off the stage. He returned acoustic to sing “The Times Are A Changing.” Bloomfield went on to back Dylan on the classic “Highway 61 Revisited” album.
The die was cast. Dylan went electric, embraced rock & roll, and taught everyone from the Beatles to Dave Mathews that lyrics were important. That fall, the release of the album “The Paul Butterfield Blues Band” was a revelation that changed music forever. Along with their second album “East-West,” it taught America the blues, became the genesis of folk rock, psychedelic/acid rock, and anything that rejected 1960’s teen idol pop. Along the way, listening to Michael Bloomfield taught Americans including Duanne Allman, Jerry Garcia, Steve Miller, and Carlos Santana how to play the electric guitar. The influence of the Butterfield Band continues to this day. Though obscured by time, they are uniquely responsible for making the blues something other than a forgotten musical footnote, and Michael Bloomfield stands along with Jimi Hendrix, Duanne Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Brian Setzer, and Eddie Van Halen as America’s greatest rock guitarists.