Pundits will forever argue about the validity of white people singing the blues, but there's no doubt that two white band leaders of the mid-'60s, Paul Butterfield and John Mayall, played vital roles in introducing the styles and repertoire of urban blues to the rock audience. Mayall's Bluesbreakers were an English band that became famous for showcasing the nascent guitar talents of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, who went on to form the original Fleetwood Mac, and Mick Taylor, who later played with the Rolling Stones. The Butterfield Blues Band was born in Chicago and cultivated its own guitar hero, Mike Bloomfield, who also breathed fire on Bob Dylan's electrical breakthrough, "Highway 61 Revisited." Both Butterfield and Mayall sang and played harmonica, with Butterfield the stronger on both counts.
The Butterfield Blues Band was the first electric band signed to folk-oriented Elektra Records, and the band's self-titled 1965 debut suggested a Chicago blues band jacked up on speed. Indeed, the two-CD anthology begins with earlier tracks that are more plainly derivative of the masters whose work they'd studied. From the start, however, Butterfield was a harmonica virtuoso, and while clearly inspired by the beefy tones of Little Walter, he played with the kind of controlled passion that gives a musician a unique voice.
While the band's debut pumped up the volume to rock-band proportions, its second album, "East West," was cut in the subtler manner of the best Chicago blues. "I Got a Mind to Give Up Living" is as fine a slow blues as has ever blown out of the Windy City, with Bloomfield's guitar lines as dark and soulful as a long drink of whiskey after a painful goodbye. The album also included two instrumental workouts that made other '60s jam bands look like amateurs: a rave-up on Cannonball Adderley's "Work Song" that climaxed with sizzling baton passes between the guitars (Elvin Bishop was the second guitarist), harmonica and Mark Naftalin's piano; and a modal-scale jam called "East West" that took the blues on a trip inspired by (and fully worthy of) John Coltrane. Bloomfield, who'd become as much of a guitar god as Clapton, then left the band, and rarely climbed again to such lofty peaks.
Butterfield subsequently added horns to the group, though his harp and Bishop's boozy lead guitar remained the primary solo instruments. And while the music was never as incendiary as that of the band's earlier incarnation, the second disc is filled with standouts from the next four albums. Highlights include Butterfield's aching vocal on "Just to Be With You" and a rollicking version of "Walking By Myself" featuring Buzzy Feiten, the guitarist who replaced Bishop. (Incidentally, Elektra's choice to make two-CD collections of the Butterfield Blues Band and Judy Collins make for solid retrospectives that avoid the boxed-set syndrome of diluting an artist's best work by surrounding it with secondary selections.)
The music of Butterfield has aged remarkably well, but that's only proper for a band that aimed not for the pop charts, but to create the kind of soulful adult music made by inspirations like Muddy Waters. Butterfield and Bloomfield joined Waters to record 1969's "Fathers and Sons," and it was that two-disc set that introduced rock fans like me to the greatest of all Chicago blues singers. Decades later, my music library is flush with recordings by the bluesmen that inspired the Butterfield Blues Band. Butterfield and Bloomfield both died sad deaths fueled by drink and drugs, but in the fire of their youth, they taught us a lot with their brotherhood born of the blues.