An interview with regional harmonica hero and bandleader James Montgomery was featured on the Jan. 27 edition of Greasy Tracks as part of a program spotlighting the music of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
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Montgomery, a devotee of Butterfield, discussed his latest release, The James Montgomery Blues Band (Cleopatra Blues) which is chock full of Butterfield-styled tracks as well as a handful of originals. He also previewed an up-coming appearance with David Foster & The Mohegan Sun All-Stars at The Wolf Den on Feb. 2 which is a free show. He leads the James Montgomery Blues Band at The Iron Horse in North Hampton, Mass., on Feb. 10.
Montgomery made his recording debut with Capricorn Records, the upstart Macon, Ga.-based label that inked The Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Sea Level, Grinderswitch and Wet Willie among others when he signed a three-album deal with them in 1973.
Like many harp players, Montgomery lists some of his influences as James Cotton, Junior Wells and Little Walter, but notes that Butterfield made a profound impact on him as an artist while the music the Butterfield Blues Band was performing in the mid-1960s especially gained the attention of musicians in the burgeoning psychedelic rock movement in San Francisco.
The Butterfield Blues Band was inducted to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
The band’s self-titled debut in 1965 was a combination of original compositions and covers of Little Walker, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Willie Dixon and Junior Parker material.
Oddly enough, the group, featuring Butterfield, drummer Sam Lay, guitarists Elvin Bishop and Michael Bloomfield and bassist Jerome Arnold had recorded nearly 20 tracks in New York City in December 1964 for an album that was intended to be their debut, but was shelved by Elektra Records. In 1995, the results of those sessions were finally released as The Original Lost Elektra Sessions.
Butterfield and Bishop were students at the University of Chicago when they started playing together. In time, they would bring Arnold and Lay — who made up Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section — into the fold. Bloomfield, who was gaining a reputation around Chicago, had a regular club gig at Big John’s and partially thanks to producer Paul Rothchild, who was instrumental in signing the band to Elektra Records, helped facilitate Bloomfield joining.
It was all about the music.
“When I was around 18 years old, I had been sort of messing around, and Paul (Butterfield) sort of accepted me,” Bloomfield said in a 1968 Rolling Stone interview. “Well, he didn’t really accept me at all, he just sort of thought of me as a folkie Jew boy, because Paul was there, and I was just sort of a white kid hanging around and not really playing the shit right, but Paul was there, man.”
Based on his chops, Bloomfield became the de facto lead guitarist and as Lay recalled, was never shy about turning up his amp, something the drummer admits took getting used to.
“I didn’t dig Butter(field), you know. I didn’t like him,” Bloomfield said. “He was just too hard a cat for me. But I went to make the record, and the record was groovy, and we made a bunch more records. One thing led to another, and he (Butterfield) said, ‘Do you want to join the band?’ And it was the best band I’d ever been in. Sammy Lay was the best drummer I ever played with. Whatever I didn’t like about Paul as a person, his musicianship was more than enough to make up for it. He was just so heavy, he was so much. Everything I dug in and about the blues, Paul was.”
Pianist Mark Naftalin, who had played on one of the tracks from the 1964 sessions, joined the band midway through the recording of the debut record which was finally released in the fall of 1965. The band had kept busy before going into the studio, essentially honing their sound on stage playing live shows. That summer they made two appearances at the Newport Folk Festival, including backing Bob Dylan who headlined the fest.
Dylan’s appearance, with Butterfield, Lay, Arnold, Bloomfield and Bishop joined by Al Kooper and Barry Goldberg on keyboards, proved to be Dylan’s first electric performance of his career.
Weeks earlier, Bloomfield and Kooper participated in sessions for Dylan’s soon-to-be-released Highway 61 Revisited album. Lay played drums on the title track.
While Butterfield, Bishop and Bloomfield were certainly students of the blues and Chicago’s clubs serving as their classrooms, they were fortunate to have the likes of Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells, Little Walter, Otis Spann, Hubert Sumlin, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy often in a mentoring role.
Deemed a key proponent to mainstreaming blues music in the 1960s, the Butterfield Blues Band was fronted by Butterfield, while the dual-guitar approach by Bishop and Bloomfield melded with Naftalin’s keyboards and the Lay-Arnold rhythm section. The band was boosted by Lay’s innovative drumming style, but health issues would force him off the road with the band in 1966, opening the door for the equally superb timekeeper Billy Davenport.
By 1966, the band’s second album, East-West, recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago, was released to critical acclaim with eight of nine tracks being covers ranging from gems by Muddy Waters, Allen Toussaint, Robert Johnson, Nat Adderly and Michael Nesmith. The ground-breaking title track — clocking in at 13-plus minutes — written by Bloomfield and Nick Gravenities, merged psychedelic blues and jazz with Indian ragas and provided ample space for each member of the band to solo.
Following East-West, personnel changes would be common. Bishop would become the lone guitarist when Bloomfield exited as the band took on a harder-edged sound with Butterfield adding a horn section.
Bishop and Naftalin would leave the band after the fourth album, the horn-infused In My Own Dream.
Bishop opted for a solo career, ultimately releasing 20-plus studio albums and a number of live offerings. Naftalin, who would move to the San Francisco Bay area, continued to do session work, ultimately playing on more than 100 albums. He was on a handful of Bloomfield solo albums and often on stage with he and Gravenities.
Bloomfield passed away in 1981 at the age of 37 and Butterfield was 44 when he died 1987.