By Michael Lello
Growing up in Woodstock in the 1970s, Gabe Butterfield crossed paths with a host of legendary rock musicians. And none were more talented or in demand than his father Paul.
The elder Butterfield, a master of the blues harmonica and a singer, led a band – the Paul Butterfield Blues Band – which was as big as it got in the late ’60s. The group was a fixture on the burgeoning rock festival scene, performing at Woodstock and Monterey Pop. Its lead guitarist was Mike Bloomfield, Bob Dylan’s first electric guitar player, and the band was managed by legendary Dylan manager Albert Grossman.
Gabe, a drummer, leads the Gabriel Butterfield Band, and his major thrust these days is ensuring that his father is recognized for what he was: one of the premiere harmonica players to grace a stage. To that end, he’s working with filmmaker Thom Pollard on a documentary film called “In My Own Dream: The Life and Times of Paul Butterfield,” and hoping to get his father – who has been nominated, but not yet elected – enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Speaking with Gabe, however, you realize none of this is based on a desire for show business flash – just credit where credit is due.
“My father, in a lot of ways, was a really good father in that way. I never thought of these great artists as the ‘name.’ I didn’t grow up saying ‘I’m Paul Butterfield’s son.’ I never saw celebrity,” he said.
Gabe also performs his father’s music in the GBB, which will return to the Briggs Farm Blues Festival on Friday, July 11.
Gabe said he never felt pressured to play the instrument that made his father famous.
“My father never pushed the harp and I’m glad he didn’t,” said Gabe, explaining that even if he excelled on the harmonica, he’d be seen as living in his father’s shadow in that regard.
The elder Butterfield was born in Chicago, and he dived into the city’s thriving blues scene. He rubbed shoulders with Muddy Waters and other luminaries, who accepted him into the fold, and he became “the first white harmonica player to develop a style original and powerful enough to place him in the pantheon of true blues greats,” according to AllMusic.com
He later moved to Woodstock, and after the PBBB broke up in 1971, he played with Waters, BB King, Levon Helm, Bonnie Raitt and others. He dealt with health issues – a perforated intestine and peritonitis – which forced him to undergo several major operations, according to his Rolling Stone biography. He died in 1987, only 44 years old, having fallen prey to the health problems and drug addiction, according to AllMusic.
That Gabe and his younger brother Lee – who plays in Sons of the Lawless with actor Gary Busey’s son Jake Busey – both became musicians pleased their dad.
“Before my father died, one of the things he wanted to do was put together a true Butterfield band with his kids as the rhythm section,” Gabe said. “It’s really nice that his kids were a rhythm section.”
The Butterfield film, which has been in the works since Pollard contacted Gabe, is in a sabbatical phase, Gabe said, as Pollard works on another documentary about the Mount Everest avalanche earlier this year that killed 16 Nepalese guides.
A storyline for the Butterfield projects hasn’t been developed yet, Gabe said; so far, they’ve conducted a series of interviews with his father’s contemporaries and collaborators, the most recent with BB King.
The film’s IndieGoGo campaign has raised more than $5,000 of its $25,000 goal. You can learn more about the film or contribute here.