Forget about the incredibly cool music within. It was the cover that got me. More than almost any other image or song, the cover of the debut album by Chicago’s Paul Butterfield Blues Band made me want to be a musician. There are actually two photos on the front cover of the album. In the top photo, five really hip looking guys, guitarist Mike Bloomfield, harmonica player/lead vocalist Paul Butterfield, drummer Sam Lay, rhythm guitar player Elvin Bishop, and bassist Jerome Arnold are standing in front of a storefront which advertises, “Incense, Herbs, Oils.” Before joining Butterfield, Lay and Arnold were Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section. The only person missing from the photo shoot is organist Mark Naftalin. The band’s original debut album was scrapped, and re-recorded after Naftalin joined the band, which probably accounts for him being missing in the photo.
The other photo is a purposefully blurred photo of the band in action. We see Arnold, Bishop, Lay and Butterfield, this time dressed in what appear to be slick matching suits. Naftalin did manage to make it into the small, black and white shot on the back cover, along with Bloomfield and Butterfield. The whole package was cool when Elektra Records released it in 1965, and it’s still cool.
An interesting side note: when Bob Dylan turned the music world upside down by “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, it was the Butterfield Blues Band, sans Butterfield, that backed him.
Despite the remarkable images, it would all be for naught if the music sucked. Thankfully, it does whatever the opposite of sucks is. The Butterfield Blues Band was simply one of the baddest bands to ever prowl a stage. Led by one of the two or three best blues harp players ever in Butterfield (the only people that I can think of who are in his league are Little Walter, and Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band), and one of the greatest blues guitarists ever in Bloomfield, the band simply smokes.
The album opens with Nick Gravenites powerful “Born In Chicago” and never lets up from that point on. The band does a great take on Elmore Leonard’s “Shake Your Money-Maker,” with Bloomfield’s remarkable slide playing much in evidence. There are also covers of Little Walter Jacob’s “Blues With A Feeling,” and “Last Night.” Muddy Waters is paid tribute with a great version of “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” which is given an intense vocal workout by Sam Lay, and Willie Dixon gets a shout-out on “Mellow Down Easy.” Original songs include “Thank You Mr. Poobah,”, Bloomfield’s aptly titled “Screamin’,” and the languid blues of “Our Love Is Drifting.”
This is one of those albums where no one misses a step over the course of the 11 songs. This lineup stayed largely intact for the equally great, perhaps even more adventurous 1966 album East-West, with one notable exception. After the release of the first album, Sam Lay was diagnosed with pneumonia and pleurisy and replaced by drummer Billy Davenport. The debut album didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but reached a respectable #123 on the pop albums chart. Of more importance was the influence the album had on bands like the Electric Flag (which Bloomfield founded when he left Butterfield), Blood, Sweat & Tears, and countless others.
MIke Bloomfield died of a drug overdose in 1981, and we lost Paul Butterfield to the same curse in 1987. Elvin Bishop went on to solo success in the southern rock scene. Mark Naftalin stayed with Butterfield for four albums before moving to the San Francisco Bay area. There he kept playing, became a radio personality with his own blues show, and promoted blues festivals. Despite the dire diagnosis all those years ago, Sam Lay is still very much alive and kicking. If anyone knows of the whereabouts of Jerome Arnold, please let me know.
The remarkable Paul Butterfield Blues Band wasn’t around for very long, but they did have their moment. In that moment they took a backseat to no one as one of the greatest blues bands the world has ever known.
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