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How the Paul Butterfield Blues Band Earned Its Spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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The latest batch of artists bound for induction into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been announced, which means that for the next few months, you’re going to read and hear a lot of arguing about who deserved to make it and who didn’t — and this year, that’s going to include plenty of head-shaking over one act in particular: the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

The confusion and/or disapproval is understandable to an extent, because the band had a relatively brief existence that was pockmarked by continual turnover and produced little in the way of commercial success. Butterfield himself continued to record and perform after they split, but he’d fallen more or less completely out of the limelight by the time he passed away on May 4, 1987, at the age of 44 — the victim of a painkiller habit he’d picked up as the result of a long battle with peritonitis and subsequent complications.

Much as they might be viewed as a footnote, however, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band exerted a musical influence well beyond their lifespan or chart profile, and managed to find themselves involved in a number of rock milestones while providing early career boosts for an impressive group of artists. More importantly, Butterfield himself was a crucial factor in the mainstream ascension of the blues during the mid-to-late ’60s, as well as a pioneering harmonica player whose style is still being imitated today.

The band got its start in the early ’60s, when Butterfield and fellow University of Chicago student Elvin Bishop formed a musical partnership that steadily dragged them away from their studies and onto local stages — where they ultimately lured Howlin’ Wolf’s bassist and drummer away from the blues legend’s touring band to start a group of their own. Steadily building buzz through a regular gig at the Chicago club Big John’s, they eventually crossed paths with guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who joined the lineup at the behest of future Doors producer Paul Rothchild, an early champion of the band and one of the stewards of their contract with Elektra Records.

Early attempts to record a debut album proved difficult, with Rothchild struggling to capture the band’s energy either in or out of the studio. By mid-1965, they’d already taken two aborted passes at their first LP, but Rothchild’s steady persistence started paying off when he booked them a slot at that year’s Newport Folk Festival, where they drew praise for a pair of performances — and ended up serving as Bob Dylan‘s backing band for his fateful electric set. By the end of the year, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band had their self-titled debut in stores, and seemed to be on their way.

Listen to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s ‘East-West’

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Unfortunately, things never really sparked for the group, perhaps owing in part to a restless diversion from their blues roots that started to manifest itself as early as their second release, 1966’s ‘East-West,’ an eclectic effort whose cornerstone is a 13-minute title track containing musical nods to everything from blues to jazz and Indian raga — and, ultimately, much of acid-rock’s eventual DNA. But while they could jam for hours when they felt like it (and played circles around most of the bands who decided to pursue that kind of thing as a career), they weren’t really a jam band.

By the time they returned in 1967 with ‘The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw,’ they’d adjusted the lineup to account for Bloomfield’s departure, adding a horn section that included future sax legend David Sanborn, and adopted a much more economic R&B sound.

‘Pigboy’ would serve as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s commercial high point, peaking at a middling No. 52 on the Billboard chart, and it was followed by a flurry of personnel changes — including Bishop’s eventual departure in 1968 — and a series of albums that produced diminishing sales returns. After a sixth album, ‘Sometimes I Just Feel Like Smilin’,’ failed to spark, the band dissolved in 1971.

Butterfield picked up where he left off, quickly establishing a new band he dubbed Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, but that proved short-lived, as did his recording career in general. Although he’d continue to release albums into the early ’80s, health problems eventually disrupted his momentum, starting with a debilitating bout of diverticulitis that struck in 1979, leading to burst intestines and a painful rehab process complicated by his continued impatience to get back to work — and the fact that, as a harmonica player, he was leaning heavily on the same part of his body that needed the greatest care.

In 1986, he returned with what was supposed to be a comeback record, ‘The Legendary Paul Butterfield Rides Again,’ featuring covers of Dylan and Tom Petty songs as well as musical input from session ringers like Paul Shaffer. The mid-’80s weren’t exactly the best time for producing albums that had the kind of raw energy that Butterfield’s music thrived on, however, and after laboring for a year and a half to secure distribution through the small Amherst imprint, he found himself staring at yet another commercial disappointment.

Watch Paul Butterfield Perform on David Letterman in 1985

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Even during what turned out to be the twilight of his career, however, Butterfield never lost sight of what drew him to the music in the first place. “I was exposed in person to Muddy Waters in his prime with Little Walter and Pat Hare, that original band, and a little bell went off in my head,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “The pulse and feeling of the music just turned me around but it was a natural thing. It wasn’t a conscious effort like, ‘I’m going to go out and play the black man’s music.’ I’m not a musicologist — I’m a musician.”

And from the beginning, Butterfield’s eventual widespread (albeit often unrecognized) influence was reflected in his expansive approach to the blues.

“Blues to me is a pretty wide range. Stuff like — Roland Kirk plays the blues, Nina Simone sings the blues, Ray Charles, Aretha, Muddy Waters, Little Milton,” he argued in a 1970 interview with Zig Zag. “I mean, there’s so much difference. Some people say that there’s certain kind of changes with the blues, and some say it has to be like Muddy or John Lee Hooker to be blues, and some people say you have to have certain instrumentation for the blues, and it’s all bulls–. Complete bulls–. Blues, to me, is any kind of music that has a heavy feeling. The word means as much as saying ‘greens’ or ‘reds,’ you know.”

See Yearbook Photos of Bob Dylan and Other Rockers

Next: Bands That Deserve Hall of Fame Induction

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