A Night with Paul Butterfield

A Night With Paul Butterfield

By Cathy Lemons

© June 11 2012

It was long ago—1986. Only Lonnie Showtime could have pulled it off: two nights with “The Great Paul Butterfield!” And at that ratty little Grant & Green club in San Francisco’s North Beach! Seating capacity: 51! And I was to open up each show—me on vocals, and Geno Scaggs on bass, and Lonnie on congas, and Greg Douglass on guitar, and John Chambers on drums. We were to play for 40 minutes. While the great Paul Butterfield held court in a broom closet amidst mops and sponges. His backstage room and the only one available. He sat on a chair. Next to the broom. And fans all gathered round him like he was Buda—they sat on the floor —cross legged. And everyone hung on every word he said. And he had a rough voice. And a soft gut. And he was instantly likeable. And deep. And intelligent. And I was thrilled to be even near this man. This legend. The one that really showed the world for the first time that a white man could really sing the blues. Not like Musselwhite—paced, understated, even limited—NO! Butter soared! Butterfield went right up there—to the top—full throttle! He was right up there with all the great black singers of all time—with Mahalia and Magic Sam! He soared as high as he went low like the devil in him.

It was so packed in that Grant & Green the first night that people were not only sitting on the floors, but along the windows, and on top of the little shabby round tables, and sitting sometimes 3 to a chair. And you had to crawl to get on the stage and crawl to get off. Because there was no stage. Just an invisible line that divided “performer” from “audience.” A quiet little line. And I was on the other side of it. Singing! My pay? 40 bucks. Why did I do it? To get to see, hear, hang out, and be with the great Paul Butterfield.

But Paul was hoarse. In fact, his voice was shot. I wanted to hear “One More Heart Ache!” I wanted to hear that high wail on “Oh, Wooooooo o o o! I can’t take it, ya, I can’t take it!” Well, there was no more of the high left in his voice. Two decades of whiskey and 3 decades of cigarettes had knocked it all out. And I could have cried. I could have. Because when you lose a gift like that—well you have to really be bothered by the devil.

So I knew this man. I knew he was a junkie. I knew he liked to drink. I knew he had so many stories. And I knew he was funny. And I knew he was kind to me—this blues singing girl from Texas. And he came up to me and said, “Now Cathy, you would make a great country and western singer.” And I took that as one of the greatest compliments of my entire life. Because Mr. Butterfield knew good from bad. And he would never say anything he did not mean—as I soooon found out. So we listened. Me and the crowd—many of them old hippies from the Fillmore days: long straight haired women in long flowery dresses, jangling bracelets, the men with their braided blue tattoos. We listened.

Thank god Butter’s harp was still magic and filled with sadness. And he had the phrasing, and the time, and the great great feel. And so when he ended the show with a slow blues the crowd fell under his spell. There was utter quiet. And then an explosion. He still had it. He still clung to it. The thing that kept him alive. The thing that was killing him too. He was hanging on to his last days. And we didn’t know.

So after the “Two Nights at the Grant & Green with the Great Paul Butterfield” ended, me and Greg Douglass, the dashing handsome man that HE was, and Paul Butterfield, and Lonnie Showtime, well we all crawled into Lonnie’s green van and went to a Blue Monday party at Larry Blakes.

I will never forget that night as long as I live. I remember what I wore even. I had cowboy boots on—blue pants, and a tight shirt with blue stripes. To show off my figure I liked to wear tight things. And I was still not strung out on the heroine—I was hangin’ onto an invisible thread—a tiny little spidery thread that came down from the ceiling and was somehow holding me up at the shoulder blades where the angels usually touched me when I heard spinning in bathrooms after shooting cocaine. And I knew I was about to go down. And I prayed I would not lose my voice like Paul Butterfield did when I did go down.

You see to my astonishment he liked me. He thought I was funny. Which I was with my extravagant Texas accent and my dim view of everything that went on around me. In fact Paul liked us all. Greg was always such a funny and nice man, himself. And so damn good to look at. And every time he walked into a room, the women all turned their heads. And then there was old Lonnie. The man of tall tales. The great beloved liar! Lonnie Showtime! Ah—but with Lonnie every once in a while one of his tall tales would turn out to be true. For example he played congas on a session for Aretha Franklin? And for Michael Jackson? And for Jackie Wilson? Well—it appears that this is true. Because Lonnie Showtime grew up in the projects of Marin City. And many a great talent has come out of that hell hole. So Lonnie was permanently cool.

Now for those of you that have just discovered the wonders of the 1, 4, 5 and how convenient it is to jump into blues because you can’t make a living at pop or rock—well here is a crash course in truth.

And for those of you that have been playing this shit for decades, sit back and smile.

So, it’s me, Paul, Dr. Showtime, Greg. We go into the front door of Larry Blakes. Lonnie immediately goes up to the guy collecting money at the door and tries to explain to him that this is THE Great Paul Butterfield. But this dumb college kid in his black turtleneck sweater with his puss face—well he wants to charge us all! Lonnie is incensed! He starts laughing—a laugh out loud from the stomach—“He he he ha!” And he looks over at me and I start to laugh. And I have a VERY loud laugh! Well the kid starts to get nervous. But he clings to his little wad of cash with his fist. So then Lonnie asks if he might speak to the owner. Now the kid finally decides to let us pass. But he still insists on stamping each of our hands with some virulent red shiny stuff.

So we go down the Larry Blakes stairwell. The first thing I see as I hit it is that long bar below. And it’s packed. Wall to wall bodies. And then to my left I hear the music—coming down. Pretty cool. LOUD though. And there are tables in front of the band. And people are grooving and dancing in the aisles.

But I never liked Larry Blakes. There was this feeling that you were under water—in a ship—things hanging from the ceiling—you know—strange pipes. And pockets of sound everywhere because the ceiling has been partitioned off into squares. And I always felt like there were a bunch of intellectuals just around the corner ready to pounce on me if I didn’t give the right answer to some academic question with regards to music.

Well the band is playing. Now it’s Tim Kahatsu on guitar, Linda Geiger on drums, Karl Severeid on bass. And they have some singer and harp player up there that I had never heard of and would never think to wanna hear again.

And this guy kept playing!

The great Paul Butterfield walks in—with his pals—and the “Rat Band” won’t stop or even say “Ladies and gentleman how ‘bout if for—the great Paul Butterfield!” Nope! They keep playing like they are in the GOD club and we are just shit.

Well, I ordered a shot right there. And so did Greg and so did Paul—Lonnie just grinned. He knew what was coming. And so we talked amidst ourselves. Paul said, “Hey Cathy—why don’t you get up there and sing. I’d rather hear you any time!” And I said, “Ya, well they ahre rather taken with theimsehlves tonahght. Ah wouldn’t wont to intrude.” And Greg who rarely said anything bad about anyone—except his wife—essentially sat back and smiled. All cool. No big deal.

And then Paul leans over and whispers to me “You know I hear you might be able to score me some stuff. Later.” He swings his head back and takes a swill of the liquor he’s drinking from a shot glass. And I light a cigarette and pull my head back too—to think. And then I say, “Paul. It’s pure shit from what you are used to. Pure shit. And it’s a cheat on top of it. I would be too embarrassed to cop it for you. And I’m trying to not get high. … I’m doing my best.”

So Paul shakes his head and looks down at the floor and at his gangster black shoes and says, “Ya. You’re right.” Then he looks up at me and says in a sweet way, tilting his head a bit “Thanks.”

And then suddenly we hear “And now let’s hear it for the great Paul Butterfield!” Finally! Well the great Paul Butterfield is now drunk. I can still see him holding up that honey colored liquor in that shot glass and swilling back on it and laughing and egging us all on to do bad deeds. And by the time his name is finally called he is pissing mad at “The Rats” in the band.

His teeth are showing when he walks up on stage. And he pulls his harp out of his shirt side pocket in a cool sort of way and begins to blow. And the drummer can’t seem to pick up quite fast enough for his taste and he turns on her and snarls. Now the band is playing. They are playing as hard as they can. And Paul is blowing his harp and looking cool. And he is in good form. And then he starts to sing—and then he suddenly turns around and snarls into Linda again, and tries to take away one of her drum sticks. But he is only playing. He pantomimes the beats with his arms and he tries to show her what the beat should be. For the song. For the traditional slow blues he is doing. And Linda is turning white and sitting straighter and straight up on that drum seat. And her beat is getting stiffer and stiffer—like a machine. At least she never drops it—the beat that is—and she is just stone faced as he fucks with her. And you can tell she wants to pick up one of those sticks and crack Paul on the head with it. And Mr. Kahatsu is trying his best to keep things civil up there on that bandstand. And Mr. Severeid, well he just looks down at the floor and plays.

But now Paul Butterfield is having fun. He has decided to give a blues 101 course in grooves. He wants just a simple beat—a groove that is just laid in—not even noticeable—he wants that puff of air just before the down beat—he wants that magical sway—that DEEEELAY and then the eeeeever so subtle catch up. Sooooo tenuous—so natural—that no one but the musicians themselves could ever even have noticed the slight change—in the infinity shape--all for the feel of a walk—a woman’s swaying nasty hips. That’s what he wanted.

But Linda Geiger was from the suburbs. She had no street in her. And she could not give it to the great Paul Butterfield. And so he tormented her—and then turned on Mr. Kahatsu, and then Mr. Severeid. They all felt the wraith of Buda.

You see they shouda given him some respect! They should stopped their show and called him right up. And they shouda been kind. No matter that he was down—even broke. No matter that he was drunk and that his voice was shot. He still had done more for blues than any of them could ever have hoped to have done in several lifetimes. He was a true great.

You know he died only one year later. A sad death. Alone. Heroine and alcohol.

And I can’t help but wonder how many times he was challenged, or disrespected, or just simply laughed at by other blues musicians that were jealous—you know the ones that decided to judge him before they had a chance to look him in the eye or to look down at his child-like gangster shoes.

And I can’t help but wonder which unkindness did him in.