When the blues enjoyed a rebirth in the mid to late 1960s, it wasn’t Americans who helped reintroduce it to the American pop music scene, it was bands from across the pond that did. Or, so the story goes.
British Invasion bands, the Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds and others, got all the credit for putting the stuff back on the map. Suddenly, artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker were hip to listen to again. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say the Brit Bands’ young white fans in this country finally began listening to music forged by African-American artists a decade or more earlier. When Eric Burden recorded John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom he made no secret of where the music came from. The Stones, the Animals, and others idolized the founding fathers of the blues and went out of their way to promote the musicians and their music.
But John Mayall (The Bluesbreakers), Eric Clapton (Yardbirds, Cream) and Jeff Beck (The Yardbirds) weren’t the only ones whose passion for the blues burned white hot. Right here in America, Chicago to be exact, home of Chess Records, one of the leading proponents of the blues, a twenty-something white kid was blowing audio dynamite on the harmonica and blowing minds with his old-beyond-his-years blues shouting. Patrons of the city’s blues clubs, who were almost exclusively black, and accustomed to hearing the blues royalty of the day — the early 1960s — were dumbstruck by this raging force of nature named Paul Butterfield. That he had the audacity to take the stage next to the masters was either an enormous act of courage or a fool’s errand.
“Butterfield, not one to shy away from a challenge, had crazy confidence and could deliver the musical goods...”
Butterfield, not one to shy away from a challenge, had crazy confidence and could deliver the musical goods. Before long he rose to the top of the Chicago blues scene. So persuasive was his assent that he managed to finagle Muddy Waters’s backup musicians right out from underneath him — he also offered them more than Muddy was paying them. And if anyone doubted the young upstart, securing one of the tightest rhythm sections in the city gave Butterfield instant credibility.
This sort of meteoric rise is custom made for a documentary, and Horn From the Heart has all the right elements that lend themselves to a compelling story.
A tough kid in a leather jacket, Butterfield combed his hair straight back and often wore a pair of shades. A bright student but a bit of a misfit, his attitude toward authority figures is best summed up by the citation he wrote for his high school yearbook photo, “I think I am better than the people who are trying to reform me.”
“He came from the South Side of Chicago, where it was all about, ‘I’ll kick your ass,’” says Buzz Feiten, a guitarist with Butterfield’s band. Working the club circuit, Butterfield got into some scrapes with barflies who objected to his racially mixed band. “He’d get right in your face,” says Feiten. “He really stood up for what he believed in.”
“…few could come close to coaxing the same passion from that small instrument made from wood and a couple of strips of metal.”
Bandmates and fellow musicians described Butterfield’s sound as “ferocious.” He made a powerful emotional impact on audiences and quickly became a driving force not only in the Chicago blues scene but around the country, as well.
Butterfield’s distinctive voice on the blues harp probably helped inspire a generation of young fans to try their hand on the Hohner Marine Band harmonica. But few could come close to coaxing the same passion from that small instrument made from wood and a couple of strips of metal. The film’s title is a quote from Butterfield, who observed,”It’s (the harmonica) such a personal instrument. It’s really like a horn from the heart.”
In later years, Butterfield, a family man with a demanding career, settled in Woodstock, N.Y., but spent much of his time on the road. A rising star in the 1960s, the country’s tastes in popular music changed as the 1970s wore on, and while still an in-demand musician, Butterfield never enjoyed the success that the British bands experienced. Perhaps it was because the Stones and others molded their music to better fit the times, while Butterfield remained a traditional blues stalwart. Late in the movie, we learn that his life began a gradual decline, much like the popularity of the music he loved. Drugs, alcohol and the hardships of life on the road probably contributed to his downfall. It’s not giving away too much to reveal that he died too young. And although his fame has waned since his passing, he was a musical phenomenon of the first order. This is a must-see for music fans. Others who are too young to remember Butterfield ought to check it out, too. It’s not every day you get to see a truly American phenomenon in action.
Horn From the Heart (2017) Directed by John Anderson. Starring Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop, Mike Bloomfield, Joe Boyd, Cindy Cashdollar, Marshall Chess, Bob Dylan, Buzz Feiten, Anton Fig, Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, Happy Traum, Jac Holzman, B.B. King, Clydie King.
8 out of 10