During the blues revival and rediscovery of the Sixties, few dominated like Paul Butterfield, the hard-puffing, hard-living harmonica player and band leader. Assertive and experimental Butterfield Blues Band albums like 1966’s East-West, featuring equally manic and inspired guitarist Mike Bloomfield, were essential college-dorm listening. And during the following decade, Butterfield’s mighty harmonica powered a version of “Mystery Train” at the Band’s Last Waltz concert and movie.
These days, over three decades after his death, Butterfield is largely known only to blues cognoscenti — a situation that could hopefully be rectified by director John Anderson’s documentary Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story, which opens at select theaters around the country on Oct. 17th. The movie includes interviews with friends and fellow musicians like Bonnie Raitt, Todd Rundgren, Paul Shaffer, Al Kooper and the late B.B. King, and traces Butterfield’s story from blues-loving Chicago kid to his groundbreaking work and his subsequent health and addiction issues. (He died from an overdose of substances, including heroin and alcohol, in 1987 at 44.)
Even for those who know his best work, from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to his overlooked 1970s group Better Days, Horn From the Heart is an enlightening look at an under-documented musician. Here are five things we learned along the way.
Forget any clichés you have about harmonica playing.
As seen in clip after clip, even during the difficult final decade of his life, Butterfield didn’t just play the harp; he shredded it. The documentary elucidates the difference between his aggro style and those of harp legends like Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Junior Parker. One reason: Butterfield played the harmonica upside down, possibly because he was left-handed. Whatever the reason, his style wasn’t just motorized; he seemed to throw himself onto — and into — the instrument, blasting out single notes over chords and making for a pained, expressive wail all his own.
Especially in Chicago, the blues were bigger — and drew more inter-racial crowds — than you may remember.
As recalled by singer and cohort Nick Gravenites, Chicago was home to an astounding number of blues bars — between 50 and 70 — when the two musicians were starting out. Butterfield himself was raised in Hyde Park, a neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side that had been predominately white but was racially integrated during his formative years. One of his early gigs was playing a dance party, and we see both white and African-American kids doing the Twist, of all moves, to the blues. That legacy wasn’t only heard in Butterfield’s genre of choice but even his band, whose members were both white (Bloomfield, guitarist Elvin Bishop and keyboardist Mark Naftalin) and African-American (drummer Sam Lay, bassist Jerome Arnold) at a time when that was rarely seen. In the movie, Lay also recounts that Butterfield offered him $20 a night — a big bump up from the $7 nightly Lay was getting backing Howlin’ Wolf.
Bloomfield turned down Bob Dylan to hook up with Butterfield.
One of the top-gun guitarists of the era, Bloomfield was something of an American Eric Clapton. In 1965, played on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited; he was also in Bob’s band at that infamous Newport Folk Festival electric show. When Dylan offered him a regular spot in his group, though, Bloomfield declined — and went with Butterfield instead. “I just want to play the blues,” he told Kooper. The guitarist probably lost out on a sizable paycheck, but the clips of him and Butterfield going head to head —Bloomfield’s hands swarming over the fretboard, matching the bandleader’s harp frenzy — confirm he made the right decision, even if left the band not long after.
Butterfield played Woodstock.
Since one Butterfield Blues Band track appears on the original Woodstock triple LP, this shouldn’t be a complete surprise. But since the band wasn’t included in the movie, it’s still startling to be reminded that they were indeed there, ripping it up with a lineup that included saxophonist David Sanborn.
Butterfield really did live the blues.
As shown in the doc, Butterfield’s high school yearbook sported one of the most poignant inscriptions you’ll ever read: “I think I am better than the people who are trying to reform me.” Yet he struggled with reforming himself. Raitt admits she had a crush on him, and for a brief period he seemed to lead a cozy, domestic life with his wife and young son in Woodstock. But Butterfield’s hellraiser side was always lurking. Even after he was diagnosed with peritonitis, an inflammation connected to the abdomen, he didn’t always take care of himself; Shaffer, who played on his final album in 1984, recalls him eating “the worst fried peppers” despite his stomach problems. Nor did return to a clean and sober lifestyle after his health problems intensified. (This writer had a particularly petrifying experience with the musician a few years before his death, when an initially friendly Butterfield agreed to an interview, disappeared into his dressing room at New York’s Lone Star Café for a lengthy period and re-reemerged as an entirely different, paranoid and irate person.) White blues players were sometimes accused of being dilettantes, but that charge could never apply to Butterfield, who lived it as he sang and played it.