Soul Serenade: Jerry Butler, “Mr. Dream Merchant”

Written by Ken Shane's Soul Serenade, Music

Jerry Butler has had a lot of hits over the course of his illustrious career, but it was a lesser-known 1967 single that found a place in Ken Shane’s heart.

Christmas is a time for dreaming, and whether you are dreaming of sugar plum fairies or winning back a lost love, who better to make your dreams come true than the great Jerry Butler. The legendary Philadelphia DJ Georgie Woods gave Butler the nickname that stuck. He called him “Iceman,” and don’t think for a minute that Butler got that name because he was so cold. No, it was because he was, and is, so cool.

Butler was born in Mississippi and like so many other African-Americans left home for Chicago in search of better opportunities. Instead what he found was a ghetto that was personified by the notorious Cabrini-Green housing complex. But then came the church choir, and a fortuitous meeting with one Curtis Mayfield.

Butler teamed up with Mayfield in the Roosters, who eventually became the Impressions. He wrote a song called “For Your Precious Love” which got the group signed to Vee-Jay Records. The record was a big hit, winning the Impressions their first gold record. It wasn’t long before Butler left the group to pursue a solo career.

And what a career it’s been. Butler had major hits with songs like “Only the Strong Survive,” “He Will Break Your Heart,”Moon River,”Make It Easy On Yourself,” and “Let It Be Me” (with Betty Everett). Oh, and he also co-wrote, with Otis Redding, the classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” A lot of Butler’s hits came as a result of his collaboration with Philadelphia songwriters/producers Gamble and Huff. There were hit albums too. Butler’s 1968 album, The Iceman Cometh, garnered three Grammy nominations.

I love so many Jerry Butler records, but if I had to choose one it would be his 1967 single, “Mr. Dream Merchant”. The wistful tale of loss and hoped-for redemption was written by Butler along with Larry Weiss. The single wasn’t much of a hit for Butler, only reaching #38 on the R&B chart, and #52 on the Pop chart. Much bigger hits would follow over the next two years.

Jerry Butler went on to have a magnificent career which continues to this day. In the ’80s he expanded his horizons to include politics. He became a Cook County commissioner and he continues to serve in that capacity. Of course you can also see him hosting those great PBS music specials.

I don’t know whether Butler’s plea to the Dream Merchant worked out for him, but I hope that all of your Christmas dreams will come true this year. Have a wonderful holiday.

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