They were the original Glimmer Twins of the Chicago blues, two white kids from disparate backgrounds who introduced an African-American music form to a generation of new fans. Harmonica virtuoso Paul Butterfield and guitar pyrotechnician Mike Bloomfield played together barely two years, from 1965-67, but they are forever linked in the musical legacy of this capital city of the blues and beyond.
Now, three decades after their early deaths and five years after the release of the Bloomfield biopic “Sweet Blues,” Butterfield now has his own film biography, “Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story.”
Butter and Bloomers, as they were collectively known, were unlikely and uneasy collaborators: Butterfield, the brooding working-class kid from the pre-gentrified Hyde Park of the 1950s, and Bloomfield, the mercurial North Shore trust-fund youth. They must have eyed one another warily as their paths invariably crossed when they sat in with the black blues greats of the early 1960s at South and West Side dives.
They each craved an authentic blues experience, while never becoming mere mimics of their musical forefathers. Butterfield learned from the great Little Walter and other seminal harmonica stars of the era, while developing a distinctive style that was deeply soulful and incredibly inventive, but with enough power that his harp might be mistaken for an entire horn section. “It’s such a personal instrument, it’s like a horn from the heart,” Butterfield explains in the film.
In 1963, Butterfield formed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, hiring drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold away from Howlin’ Wolf’s Band. Lay says his decision to join Butterfield’s house band at Big John’s on the North Side was a practical one; Wolf paid $7 a night, while Butterfield offered $20. The two veterans of the great Wolf groups gave Butterfield’s band instant cred. Lay’s contribution to “Horn From the Heart” cannot be minimized, either: The prolific blues videographer provided key performance footage that keeps the film from becoming an endless parade of talking-head bandmates and associates.
Butterfield recorded his eponymous debut LP two years after forming the group, using Bloomfield on lead guitar at the urging of Elektra Records producer Paul Rothchild. The album became a smash hit in the blues genre, featuring a tune by another budding Chicago bluesman, Nick Gravenites, called “Born in Chicago.” The song was an ode to our rough-and-tumble legacy that deserves recognition as the city’s official anthem. With this early success, the musicians set off on a nonstop tour schedule that sent the band down the rabbit hole of substance abuse and burnout more common to rock supergroups.
Director John Anderson received invaluable participation from Butterfield’s older brother Peter, ex-wife Kathy and son Lee that sheds light on the reasons for the bandleader’s demons. “I know how much he loved me and we talked all the time. But he would make promises that he couldn’t keep, and that kept breaking my heart,” says Lee Butterfield, who blames his father’s drug and alcohol abuse and the musician’s lifestyle for his irresponsibility. Brother Peter adds, “His lack of awareness was really more heartbreaking than anything.”
Paul Shaffer, who played keyboards on the 1984 comeback album “The Legendary Paul Butterfield Rides Again” and became his neighbor in New York’s Gramercy Hotel, recalls Butterfield’s strange diet of fried peppers that exacerbated a serious abdominal ailment known as peritonitis. “I said to myself, man, that is living the blues … by putting himself through that on purpose,” Shaffer says.
Like Bloomfield, who shuffled onstage in a bathrobe and slippers while sitting in with Bob Dylan in his last public appearance, Butterfield’s final days weren’t pretty. Anderson makes the case that manager Albert Grossman’s untimely death sent Butterfield into a spiral that was interrupted only by the occasional moment of musical inspiration, such as playing on a B.B. King TV special. The footage of Butterfield belting out “The Sky Is Crying” is particularly poignant.
Twenty-eight years after his May 1987 death from a drug overdose, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While it’s unfortunate that the documentary does not include footage from the ceremony, Anderson does the Butterfield legacy a service with “Horn From the Heart.”
‘Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story’
Abramorama presents a documentary directed by John Anderson. No MPAA rating. Running time: 94 minutes. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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