Many of my generation have told me how once they heard the Butterfield Blues Band; things were never the same inside their heads. At the height of his popularity Butterfield and his musicians ignited an interest in a musical genre that had been buried in a racial enclave of American culture. There are all cultural pivot points which arrested public attention and forever changed our musical sensibilities; all used the styles of African American musicians as a foundation for their own music and, in the bargain, introduced the world to some of America's greatest artists, who had remained invisible. Yet Butterfield, the musical pioneer, has been all but completely forgotten. History can be worse than unfair.
The Butterfield Blues Band was exceptional in many ways but none so much as the fact that it was the first integrated blues band. The white members of the band came from middle class families. Had they not fallen in love with this music they probably would have become professionals like their fathers. Instead, they gave themselves to the power of a music that had been hidden away in a part of America where few whites ever ventured. The black members of the band had known little else besides a life of ghetto bars and rural roadhouses, places where you could get shot just for standing in the wrong spot at the wrong time.
Paul Butterfield grew up in Chicago. In high school he played classical flute and starred on the track team. Through the influence of an older brother and with the urging of a chum, Nick Gravenites, Butterfield set out to find the music he had heard on the black radio stations in Chicago. This music could be heard live only on the South and West Sides in bars where the only white faces belonged to policemen. Somehow Butterfield and Gravenites made that musical culture their own. They learned all its varieties, from the hard-edged slide guitar of Elmore James to the smooth big band sound of Bobby Blue Bland. One particular blues musician captured Butterfield's imagination, Marion Walter Jacobs, known as Little Walter. Little Walter created a new blues instrument, the amplified harmonica. A cheap instrument, invented in Germany in the 19th century, the harmonica was designed, not mainly for playing melody, but, rather, to play chords. Harmonica was not new to blues music, but its voice in the hands of Little Walter, blowing it through a cheap microphone plugged into a guitar amplifier, was brand new. The sound of vibrating brass reeds, moving a column of air that reached down into a man's innards, driving a crystal microphone in the confines of a small, air- tight accoustic space, this sound was a new voice, raw and primal, and Butterfield took it for his own. More precisely, he stated, the instrument chose me. He sang, too, with a strong, chesty tone and a delivery full of authority.