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Published on Aug 3, 2012
Paul Butterfield, one of the first blues harp players to cross over to rock, was born in 1942 in Chicago, Illinois, and studied classical flute with Walfrid Kujala of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a teenager. He also listened to his father's jazz records as a youth. In 1957 he and future bandmate Nick Gravenites began to catch blues acts in the clubs of the South Side. There he met and started jamming with the legends of the postwar blues scene: Muddy Waters, Little Walter Jacobs, Howlin' Wolf, and others.
From the first, he began to craft his own style-unlike the older players, he didn't tongue block (except to play octaves), and his phrases were often more drawn out than those of the Southside bluesmen.
In 1963 he and white teenage guitar virtuoso Michael Bloomfield lured a couple of Howlin' Wolf's sidemen away from Wolf's band to form the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Fronted by Butterfield's strong vocals and harp and augmented by Bloomfield's searing guitar, the band landed a deal for their first LP with Electra in 1965, and also backed Bob Dylan when the folk hero famously defected to rock at the Newport Folk festival that year.
The landmark East West, with it's jazzy and even raga-rock overtones came out the following year and was a huge success for the group. But with rise of pychedelia the following year, Bloomfield left to play with Electric Flag. Butterfield then retooled by adding a horn section that included young saxman David Sanborn.
1971 saw Butterfield move to Woodstock, NY, and stop touring. Drugs and alcohol were wearing him down, but he did record two fine albums with Woodstock locals Better Days. By the 1980s he was plagued with health problems, and wound up dying of a drug overdose in Los Angeles in 1987. Innovative and inspired, Paul Butterfield ranks among the greatest harp players.