Although I was disappointed with the Chicago blues segment of Martin Scorsese’s The Blues series, two great moments in the film were brief snippets of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band rocking at home in Chicago, and backing Bob Dylan at the fateful Newport Folk Festival of 1965. A lot of people today don’t realize what a great and pioneering band they were.
In 1964 Elektra talent scout and producer Paul Rothchild heard about a group in Chicago that was combining the grit of the blues with the excitement of electric music, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
On a visit to Chicago, Rothchild was blown away by the band. At the end of a long night’s club crawl through Chicago with Butterfield, he also found a guitarist who “tore,” as Rothchild told Joe Smith in Off the Record, his “mind apart.”
Michael Bloomfield had turned down Butterfield’s offer to join his group innumerable times, but when Rothchild and Bloomfield sat down together and did “a half hour of intense intellectual Jew at each other,” Bloomfield agreed to join the band.
After two false starts (a studio session and a live session – the studio session was released in 1995 on Rhino as The Original Lost Elektra Sessions), Elektra put out The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, one of the great blues albums of the ’60s featuring Butterfield on harmonica and vocals, Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop on guitars, and veterans of Howlin’ Wolf’s band Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay, on bass and drums respectively.
Rothchild and Holzman got the band included in the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, a first for an electric band at the pristine acoustic festival. Musicologist Alan Lomax introduced the band with a diatribe against electric music, after which Butterfield’s (as well as Dylan’s and Peter, Paul and Mary’s) manager, Albert Grossman, punched Lomax in the nose.
Impressed, Bob Dylan picked the Butterfield band to back him up for his first-ever electric set the next day. Rothchild was the only member of the festival management who had ever recorded electric music, so he was asked to run the sound for Dylan’s set.
As the band struck up the opening to “Maggie’s Farm” on electric instruments, “it seemed like everybody on my left wanted Dylan to get off the stage, and everybody on my right wanted him to stay … Here comes Pete Seeger with an ax wanting to cut the power cables … It was the turning point. The old guard realized the world was changing.”