Here’s a clip of integrated Chicago blues collective the Paul Butterfield Blues Band with their take on “Driftin’ Blues” as performed at the 1967 Monterrey Pop Festival.
Although by no means the first racially integrated blues group, the Butterfield band was one of the earliest integrated American blues bands to sign to a major label; Elektra records under Jac Holtzman and with encouragement and leadership from A&R man Paul Rothschild. The band featured Butterfield on lead vocals and harmonica, and Michael Bloomfield on lead guitar, Bloomfield also being well known as the guitarist on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album.
In the attached clip, that’s Elvin Bishop on lead guitar. Bishop had originally been the rhythm player in the group before lead guitarist Bloomfield left to form The Electric Flag, a band that also played the Monterrey Festival. Bishop would go on to have a pop hit in “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” a decade later. The band also featured drummer Sam Lay and Jerome Arnold on bass, both of whom had appeared with Howlin’ Wolf on local club dates in the Chicago area. Mark Naftalin rounded out the band on organ, a role he would fill for people like John Lee Hooker as well after the group disbanded.
The group’s 1965 self-titled debut album is noted for being one of the first major American blues releases to feature a white lead singer, making it something of a precursor to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton record released the following year, and was in line with the British blues-rock movement in general, where white blues singers were the order of the day. Yet unlike their British equivalents, Butterfield and Bloomfield had grown up in the Chicago area, and frequenting blues clubs where Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and many others practiced their trades. The guys in the Butterfield group had a solid pedigree, having literally learned at the feet of the masters as opposed to having to get what they needed strictly from the records. Yet, credibility-wise, they had something of an uphill battle among blues and folk purists.
Established folk archivist Alan Lomax’s introduction of the band before an urban blues workshop at the infamous 1965 Newport folk festival was something of an indication of how they were perceived: “These guys are imitators, will you (the audience) put up with them anyway? Let’s see if these white kids can really play”, causing something of a stir when the band’s manager Albert Grossman took exception to Lomax’s condescending tone. Yet, the band proved their worth that day, although they would prove to be a part of the infamy of the day too when they backed up a plugged-in Dylan that evening to a shocked folk-purist audience. The times were, as they say, a’ changin’ in the folk community by 1965.
The Butterfield band burned twice as bright for half as long, and by the end of the 60s, they dissolved entirely. Butterfield had a number of other projects starting in the early 70s, including his work with a new band Better Days, and his contributions to the solo work of Rick Danko, and later to Levon Helm, both of the Band. Butterfield made an appearance in the film The Last Waltz in 1976. His chops as a blues harp player made him a respected figure in the blues, putting him in good company with the other artists who also appeared in the film. He was a frequent collaborator with Band bassist Rick Danko and drummer Levon Helm, appearing on record and in concert, as well as continuing as a solo artist and session player.
Butterfield’s health was in steady decline by the 80s, a result of years of drug use. He died in 1987.
For more information and music, check out the Paul Butterfield Blues Band MySpace page.