Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story Honors the Blues Legend

Paul Butterfield. Photo courtesy PVB LLC

Back in the days when I was immersed in the white blues of Cream, John Mayall and Johnny Winter, Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield were also on my radar, although the similar surnames confused me as to which was the guitarist and which was the singer/harmonica player. Further complicating matters was Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop supplied the dual guitar attack on the 1965 Elektra Records release The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which Downbeat declared the 11th Best Blues Album of All Time.

I forgave myself for the band-mate dyslexia until the 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF), where I caught the world premiere of Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story, which enlightened me about the legend status of the late blues musician many have never heard of. The documentary, which won an NBFF Outstanding Achievement Award in Filmmaking: Editing award, screens at Art Theatre in Long Beach this weekend.

Rising from Chicago’s South Side, where people who knew Butterfield described him as a badass and outcast, he trained early as a classical flautist, but as a teen, he ducked into shows by the original black blues masters. These included Muddy Waters, the singer/songwriter/guitarist/harmonica player who is regarded as the father of modern Chicago blues. He became Butterfield’s mentor and lifelong friend.

Known for deeply soulful and ferocious blues-harp playing, Butterfield hit notes that took the genre into previously unexplored directions. “It’s such a personal instrument,” he once said. “It’s really like a horn from the heart.”

Butterfield is credited with unabashedly plunging into a black musical form at a time—the early 1960s—when white American musicians avoided the genre lest they be branded unauthentic. That obviously was not a concern across the pond in England. Indeed, like the early Rolling Stones (and later Cream and Zeppelin), Butterfield is known for helping broaden the audiences of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon and Elmore James.

The interracial Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which formed in 1963, included not only Bishop and Bloomfield, but also the rhythm section of drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold, plus the keyboards of Mark Naftalin. They played loud, which is how theater operators have been instructed to present Horn From the Heart, and their music caught the ears of rock audiences. Butterfield was the only musician who played the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and 1969 Woodstock.

As director John Anderson’s film shows, Butterfield always felt the blues inside, just as the giants he idolized did. He was much more into the music and overindulging in his downtime than he was about calculating a rising career, which explains why the highly influential bluesman is missing from most retrospectives on the 1960s and the musical genre.

But Butterfield was important beyond the music. He was an outspoken civil-rights advocate whom band mates will tell you got in the faces of those on the road who disrespected African-Americans, especially if they were his sidemen.

While he could be volatile and standoffish, Butterfield also had a softer side, as the documentary relates through recent interviews with his family, friends and fellow musicians, who recall casual dinners capped with impromptu jam sessions.

After seven Elektra albums, the Butterfield Blues Band broke up in 1971. The front man continued to tour and record with Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, which included Muddy Waters and members of The Band. In between fronting his own bands, Butterfield played on recordings featuring B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt, and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers.

Sadly, while still recording and performing, 44-year-old Butterfield died from a heroin overdose in 1987. As happens after the death of a prolific musical genius, many compilations, live recordings and bootlegs have been released since his departure for the great gig in the sky.

Horn From the Heart plays like a love letter to Butterfield, which is understandable given that producer/executive producer Sandra Warren has been hooked on his music since first hearing it on the 1965 Elektra sampler record Folksong ’65. Having gone on to snag Butterfield albums upon their releases and seeing his band live multiple times in Greenwich Village, Warren made it her mission to bring a documentary on him to the big screen.

To do so required working closely with Anderson, a Grammy nominee for the platinum-selling Brian Wilson Presents Smile DVD, his fifth project with the former Beach Boys leader. Anderson also directed and filmed Wilson’s performance of the title song in the 2014 biopic Love & Mercy. Among the filmmakers’ many other projects are the documentaries Sam Lay In Bluesland and Born In Chicago, which is about white teens (including Lay) who went to the South Side to see black musicians perform the blues.

Butterfield has received some well-deserved recognition. In 2006, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and the early incarnation of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. His harmonica skills and contributions to bringing the blues to a younger and broader audience were cited by both foundations. Here’s hoping the film accomplishes the same.

Horn From the Heart was directed by John Anderson. Screens at Art Theatre, 2025 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 438-5435; arttheatrelongbeach.org. Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m. $8.50-$11.50.

Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.

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