by Greg Cahill
They proved that white boys can play the blues.
In 1963, then 20-year-old blues singer and harmonica player Paul Butterfield, a classically trained flutist raised in Chicago’s exclusive Hyde Park neighborhood, hooked up with some like-minded college kids and a seasoned black drummer to form a blues band that would break the color line. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band blazed the trail for the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Mayer, Ronnie Earl and Jonny Lang, among other white blues artists.
Last month, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced that the Paul Butterfield Blues Band—whose surviving members include guitarist Elvin Bishop of San Geronimo and keyboardist Mark Naftalin of San Rafael—would be inducted into the genre’s pre-eminent institution.
The band’s best-known song, “Born in Chicago,” written by Occidental resident Nick Gravenites, has become a blues standard.
The Butterfield Band was a major player on the nascent rock scene, appearing at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, though footage of their performance was cut from D.A. Pennebaker’s film documentary of the groundbreaking concert (though it was included as bonus material on the 2013 Criterion Collection reissue).
“The racially mixed Paul Butterfield Blues Band blasted off from the Windy City with a wall-of-sound fueled by Butterfield’s inspired harmonica and lead guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s explosive lead guitar—at that moment, American rock and roll collided with the real South Side Chicago blues and there was no turning back,” the Hall of Fame stated in its announcement. “Along with original members Elvin Bishop on second guitar and Mark Naftalin on organ, they conquered the landmark 1965 Newport Folk Festival. It was there that Bob Dylan borrowed Bloomfield and the Butterfield Band’s African-American rhythm section of Sam Lay on drums and bassist Jerome Arnold (both former Howlin’ Wolf band members) for his world-shaking electric debut that Sunday evening.
“The Butterfield Band converted the country-blues purists and turned on the Fillmore generation to the pleasures of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon and Elmore James. With the release of their blues-drenched debut album in the fall of 1965, and its adventurous East-West follow-up in the summer of ’66, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band kicked open a door that brought a defining new edge to rock and roll.”
The other 2015 inductees are Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ringo Starr, Lou Reed, Green Day, Bill Withers, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and the 5 Royales.
The artists will be celebrated April 18 at the 30th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony when the event, formerly held in New York City, returns to the museum’s facility in Cleveland, Ohio.
Performer inductees were chosen by a voting body of more than 700 artists, historians and members of the music industry. To be eligible for nomination, an individual artist or band must have released its first single or album at least 25 years prior to the year of nomination. The 2015 nominees had to release their first recording no later than 1989.
For several years, in the 1970s and ’80s, Naftalin booked the Marin County Blues Festival and the blues programs at the Monterey Jazz Festival. He also hosted the Blue Monday concert series at the original Sleeping Lady Cafe in Fairfax—those shows were broadcast on the San Rafael-based KTIM-FM and spawned a pair of excellent live recordings of blues legend Percy Mayfield.
Bishop, who played at the Marin County Fair last year, has enjoyed a successful solo career (in 1977, he scored the hit single “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” featuring vocalist Mickey Thomas). Bishop and Gravenites reunited in October 2013 at a Sweetwater Music Hall event following the Mill Valley Film Festival’s premiere of Sweet Blues: A Film About Michael Bloomfield.
Bloomfield, who recorded Bob Dylan’s landmark Highway 61 sessions as well as the popular 1968 album Super Session (with Stephen Stills and Al Kooper), died in 1981 of a heroin overdose. His body was found abandoned in a car parked on a San Francisco street.
Butterfield, a longtime heroin addict, would follow suit in 1987—he had performed at New George’s in San Rafael just weeks before overdosing.
At the time of Butterfield’s death, Marin blues diva Maria Muldaur told Blues Access magazine: “He had the whole sensibility and musicality and approach down pat. … He just went for it and took it all in, and he embodied the essence of what the blues was all about.
“Unfortunately, he lived that way a little too much.”
Induct Greg into the Hall of Fame at [email protected]