MUSIC WRITER IN JAPAN
25 July 2012
Q: You were born in California and moved to Tulsa…
EB: Yeah, with some things in between.
Q: Tulsa is a Rock and Roll town. J.J. Cale, Leon Russell, Bob Wootten from the Tennessee Three and yourself of course to name but a few; what was Tulsa like in the mid-fifties?
EB: Country music was in the air. When I was in the 7th grade, I would turn on the TV before I went to school. I’d be eating my cereal and they’d have Leon McAuliffe from the Bob Willis Band who would have a fifteen minute show in the morning on the TV. It must have been how the blues guys in the Mississippi Delta learned blues; it just comes in through your pores and you ain’t got to do nothing but I got interested in blues by listening to the radio. It was hard core segregation in the late 50’s – this was before civil rights – and you don’t think of Oklahoma as being hard-core like Mississippi or Alabama but it was. Maybe it was even worse because in the 1920’s, they had Race-riots there. People ran down the street with machine guns and bombed the black Baptist church, stuff like that and it was rough because I couldn’t get to know too many black people very well. There were white and coloured schools and neighbourhoods and I remember going to the Greyhound bus to go to Chicago and there were white and coloured waiting rooms, drinking fountains, bathrooms. Anyway, I just went crazy for blues when I heard it on the radio.
Q: That must have been a black radio station.
EB: Yeah. Oklahoma is in the plains because it’s in the middle of the country and late at night those 50,000 Watt stations would come from thousands of miles. I did know a few black guys because I worked in the restaurant part of a bowling alley and the black guys that were working there had the radio on the blues all the time. When I went to Chicago it was the same story. My family didn’t have any money but I got a scholarship to the University of Chicago which turned out to be in a place called Hyde Park which is an island in the middle of the south side of Chicago and there were hundreds of blues clubs all around; it was like Ground Zero for the Chicago blues. The first thing I did was make friends with the black guys that worked in the cafeteria in the school and we got real tight and within a week I was down seeing shows. The first blues band I ever saw was Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Otis Spann, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, Pat Hare and a bass player and I thought ‘Damn! The blues bands are pretty good!’
Q: Before you left for Chicago, did you ever go to the Casa Del Club?
EB: Yeah! That’s where J.J. Cale played. It was on 11th and Memorial I think: maybe 21st and Memorial.
Q: You would have had to have been twenty years old to get into because of the liquor licence…
EB: Well….yeah….I went places that I wasn’t supposed to be. I was one of those guys that would go out the window at night. I even went to the black part of town but that was pretty hard because they were afraid to associate with white people. How do you know about the Casa Del Club?
Q: I like my rock history.
EB: J.J. Cale played there a long time. I used to go to some of the country clubs. I have a song called Arkansas Line about that time. Oklahoma was technically a dry state in those days. You had to go to either Fort Smith Arkansas or Joplin, Missouri to get a drink. There were a lot of bootleggers though and the clubs had some kind of deal where you could bring your own bottle and stuff but basically the Baptists had a pretty good grip on Oklahoma in those days.
Q: You went to college in Chicago in 1959 and no doubt you saw some amazing shows there performed by some of the great Blues artists.
EB: I’m the luckiest guy in the world! I just got there and realized what was going on. Man, you don’t have enough time to listen to all the guys I saw and was able to play with.
Q: You played with them?
EB: Yeah. We were pretty good friends. Before I met Butterfield I played with Hound Dog Taylor, J.T. Brown, Junior Wells…lots of guys. They were all really nice and helped me out. Otis Rush, Little Smokey Smothers, Sammy Longhorn…the only guys I didn’t see were Sonny Burnette and Jimmy Reed. People don’t realize what a huge scene it was. Blues at that time was like Rap music now; it was the music that was the choice of the people and there were – no exaggeration – 200 blues clubs in Chicago. Charlie Musslewhite and I have talked about this a few times and we hardly knew any of the same people although we were both immersed in Chicago blues because he would go to one set of clubs and hang out with one set of guys and I’d be at another.
Q: Was segregation still an issue in Chicago?
EB: It wasn’t nearly as bad as it was in Oklahoma – it was a big breath of fresh air. In some places they were positively integrated. There were black neighbourhoods and white neighbourhoods; the north side was fairly cool but once you got out in the suburbs it got a lot more polarized. I remember going on some of the civil rights marches in the middle sixties and we’d go through a white neighbourhood and they’d throw rocks at you.
Q: Incredible to think it was only fifty years ago.
EB: Yeah. The people that are born today, you can’t blame them for having no concept or feel for what it was really like.
Paul Butterfield Blues Band 1965
Q: Paul and you recruited Sam Lay and Jerome Arnold from Howlin’ Wolf’s band: that was an unusual step to form a half black/half white band back then. Was it a big issue?
EB: It was to everybody else. It hadn’t been done before that I know of but we didn’t see any of the rock fame coming in at all. We were just crazy about the blues and wanted to be like our heroes making a living playing blues was the most fabulous thing we could have imagined at that time.
Q: Did it give you any problems in finding a record deal?
EB: The label that we went with was ready for it. It’s just amazing and like you say, it was only fifty years ago that it was so different. There was this huge beautiful body of music called the blues and this huge white audience - music listeners - and they had never to any extent to speak of, met. It was overdue to happen and we were at the right place at the right time.
Q: Producer Paul Rothchild recorded your first album and it was shelved. It was then recorded a second time, live in a cafe which also went unreleased and a third version, another studio recording finally saw the light of day as your debut album. Whose decision was that, why was it so and what were your feelings at the time?
EB: You obviously know a lot more about this than I do (Laughs). I don’t have that kind of memory for stuff and besides that I was just playing the music. I had nothing to do with what was going on behind the scenes. People always ask me, ‘How was it when you were there and you saw that terrible fight* they had when Dylan was doing that earthshaking thing at Newport?’ and I just have to tell the truth and say “I don’t know. I was at the other end of the fairground splitting a half pint with Mance Lipscomb.
(* between writer Alan Lomax and Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager.)
Q: Quote Bill Wyman 2001; “Their debut album is one of the best white blues albums ever to come out of America.” In my opinion, the Stone bought blues to the white people of England and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band bought it to the white kids of America. You’re a pioneer.
EB: Yeah. I don’t know how many musicians have come up to me and told me ‘You guys got me into music’. That’s kind of a good feeling. Last Saturday night we played with John Mayall at Winthrop in Washington – it was great, it’s a good festival. He’s got a nice band; he always does. I’ll tell you something; his voice still has a youthful cut to it and his taste is great and a sweet guy too. I don’t see anything not to like about John Mayall.
Q: Internet inconsistency has you playing either once, twice or three times at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965; can you clear up once and for all how many sets you did and when?
EB: I doubt that it was three.
Q: How bad was the Dylan controversy that year? Has it blown up out of proportion?
EB: I didn’t see it. You see, just to make it plain, I have nothing against Bob Dylan but in those days when blues was just starting to cross over, the only time you were going to get to see a blues performer, they had a token one or two on all the folk festivals and on that festival they had Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb so I was too busy hanging out with them.
Q: What prompted you to go solo after ‘In My Own Dream’? Was it problems within the band or a genuine case of musical differences?
EB: No differences at all. I’ve always viewed the Butterfield Band experience as a wonderful thing and the best thing I could have possibly been doing at the time. It was a great apprenticeship and set up some standards in my mind but when you are a sideman and you get to do maybe a couple of songs a night which are really close to your heart you can’t help but start to think ‘What if I could do all the tunes tonight?’ and the thought works on you and then after a while you’ve just got to do it.
Q: Just after you went solo, you played a show with Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King; can you tell us a little bit about that?
EB: I don’t know which one you are talking about but especially in the 70’s I was on quite a few jam sessions with those guys as well as Clapton…it was more of a jammin’ time.
Q: Are there any recordings of those jams?
EB: People send them to me once in a while. Anything you want is on the internet now. Pictures you didn’t know existed…
Q: No official recordings?
EB: I don’t think so. I remember we went to England in I think ’68 or so and I think Butterfield did some stuff with Mayall at that time.
Fillmore March 1971
Q: Your first live album wasn’t until 1977 when you released Raisn’ Hell. Is there anything from the early seventies?
EB: Yeah it’s on YouTube – some pretty good stuff but nothing official. Someone forwarded one to me the other day of us with Van Morrison singing Domino and it really sounds good and I’ll tell you something else that me and Van Morrison talk about every time I see him. Sometime, in the late 60’s or early 70’s – must have been the early 70’s – he really liked my band so we just went in the studio one afternoon and cut a whole album’s worth of stuff. He did a lot of blues stuff. I think he did Spoonful and that one about ‘If your house is on fire and there ain’t no water around, throw your trunk out the window and let the doggone shack burn down’ * but right after that he got into some huge controversy with his record label and he thinks they still have it somewhere.
(*When I Was A Cowboy)
Q: You played at the Fillmore just before the Allman Brothers recorded and released their live album from there. A lot of recordings were made at that time at the Fillmore that were never released, do you recall anything being recorded with you on it?
EB: I don’t know if they were recorded or not. You talk about missed opportunities and things, well, right before he passed away, Duane and I were talking about doing an acoustic album…so that didn’t happen.
Fooled Around And Fell In Love 1975
Q: Moving forward to the hit…
EB: Ah ha!
Q: Struttin’ My Stuff in 1975 gave you arguably your most commercial success with Fooled Around And Fell In Love. The album itself is probably the least bluesy of all your work up to that point, particularly if you compare it to your previous album, Let It Flow. Was that a conscious decision on your part, record company pressure or something that just evolved?
EB: It was just like I felt like doing and I am realistic enough to take a look at the situation and see what’s going on and to see what the record company is going to get behind a little bit but you know I won’t bend over very far. It was just that what it amounts to is that it is the one and only time in my career, either before or after, where they had an officially approved pigeon hole that they could comfortably stuff my ass into; the commercial category. Before and after that, it’s a different deal.
Q: Great song though. I read in another interview that it was pretty much thrown together in the studio as a filler track.
EB: No. It was written long before. I had trouble in that I couldn’t find anyone that could sing it. My voice wasn’t good enough and I had two or three other people in the band before including Jo Baker and another guy who had voices that could have done well with it but for some reason they couldn’t get into the tune. So we did eleven tracks and they asked me if I had anything else laying around and we did a backing track and it was great and I tried it but it didn’t work and then I asked Mickey if he would be nice enough to give it a shot and it worked.
Q: Did you know Mickey is in town?
EB: Nooooo! Really?
Q: Yeah he’s at Billboard.
EB: No wonder he didn’t call me back last week! Tell him to come over to the gig. That’d be great!
(Beatleg tried to make arrangements for Mickey to come to Elvin’s gig that night but unfortunately, their two schedules clashed and it wasn’t possible).
EB: Our paths hardly ever cross but have you heard of the Blues Cruises? They’re great and Mickey did a special guest thing with my band on the last one. We’re doing it again this year I think.
Q: Is it good working a cruise because you are stuck in the venue for the duration?
EB: I resisted it for years because I thought ‘Do I want to be stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean with three thousand drunks?’ but it turns out to not be like that. People give you just as much contact as you want and I think the price of the thing kind of weeds out the riff-raff.
Q: I love Rod Stewart’s version of Fooled Around And Fell In Love.
EB: So does my daughter! It put her through college. Seriously, he did a good job
Q: Have you heard the Japanese band Superfly’s version of it? The singer, Shiho Ochi, belts it out.
EB: Nooo…when did that come out?
EB: I’d like to hear it. You should get her to come down to the gig!
Grammy nomination 2008
Q: Grammy nominated for The Blues Rolls On which as well as you has a superb line-up of musicians. Recorded in a variety of locations, how did you select the songs and assign the guests?
EB: I tried to match up songs that would fit the people or had some kind of historical connection and also with an eye to doing tunes that hadn’t been done to death. I’m lucky because just by being old I remember the time when local hits were possible and things were not homogenised and generic; a record could be a hit in Detroit or Chicago but not anywhere else and so a lot of the tunes came from that experience.
Q: were there any tunes that you wanted to do with artists that you want to use that didn’t work out?
EB: I was trying to get Buddy Guy to do something with a Junior Wells tune but it couldn’t be done.
Red Dog Speaks 2010
Q: It’s a very live sounding album…
EB: It was done at my house.
Q: …presumably most of it done in only a couple of takes?
EB: Probably pretty much, yeah.
Q: When and where did you first acquire Red Dog?
EB: I don’t remember. Ever since 1962 or so I’ve had a Gibson 345. I got my first one from Louis Mayers. He was a great guitarist who played in Junior Wells’ original band The Four Aces. I was in Butterfirld’s band and he came by the gig and I was complaining to him that every time I broke a string and I said there was something wrong with the bridge and he said ‘Nah, ain’t nothing wrong with the bridge it’s just that you’re as square as a pool table and twice as green. If I had that guitar, I wouldn’t break a single string.” Fortunately for me, he was drinking at the time and he had this beautiful Gibson 345 and I said “I sure like that guitar of yours, how about if we trade them?” and he said “Yeah, I’ll do it.” So he took my Telecaster and I took the 345 and he came back the next week and said “Maaan…every time I touch this son-of-a-bitch it breaks a string, can I trade back with you?” “Well I kind of fell in love with this guitar so…”. My thought used to be that every five years thieves or the airline would get the guitar so I kept trying to find the same ones from 1959. Every time one would disappear I’d go to the pawn shops and try to find another one. They weren’t too expensive for many years but now I don’t even take it on the plane. I had a guy look it up on the internet and it scared me to death how much it’s worth.
Q: I presume Red Dog doesn’t go out on the road with you anymore.
EB: No. You think of the fact that if they break it or lose it they’ll give you three or four hundred dollars for it.
Q: You must use a heavy gauge set of strings to get that sound.
EB: Light top and heavy bottom. 10 13 17 32 42 52.
Q: What is your opinion of modern recording techniques? Do you feel something has been lost to digital?
EB: I think that every change that has been made in the recording technology has been for the convenience and the profit of the business and I think every change has brought a small degradation of the sound. Some guy was telling me the other day that there is now a whole generation of kids that have never heard anything better than an iPod. There’s been millions of people that come and go that have just never had the experience of hearing these cool tunes on a 15” Wurlitzer jukebox and it’s sad, especially when you are about fourteen years old and your hormones are raging.
Q: Is your home studio analogue or digital?
EB: It’s digital, Pro-tools and all that. We’re living in this world we’ve got to deal with it.
Q: Which Doo-Wop artists inspired the medley?
EB: Still Of The Night by The Five Satins and Maybe by The Chantels. I tried to get that power thing that she has in her voice.
Q: Which slide players do you like to listen too?
EB: The one guy that really knocked me out was Earl Hooker. I was lucky enough to see him quite a few times in Chicago. When you say slide, most people are usually into the ‘E’ tuning which is Elmore James or the ‘G’ tuning which is Robert Johnson and those two things are nice for some things but it’s a trap for most people. It’s just like Charlie Parker was for saxophone, it ruined a lot more guys than it ever helped out just because you can’t help sounding a little bit like them. I like to hear guys that play melodies as opposed to just straight across.
Q: Where do you go and what do you do from here?
EB: I don’t know. My wife keeps wanting me to retire because I’m 69 but this ain’t football; you ain’t got to quit when you’re 30. You just do what you were sent to do and keep going as long as you can.
Q: Have you thought about writing your autobiography?
EB: Awh I got enough shit laid down already without telling it all.
Q: I think there’s a good book in you.
EB: Well, maybe you should write it. It’s not really something I’ve really thought about.
Q: Elvin, thank you very much.
EB: Thank you very much. It was my pleasure talking to you.