Film Review: Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story

In-depth look at harmonica player Paul Butterfield, who bridged the gap between blues and rock in the late 1960s.
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For a brief moment, Paul Butterfield had everything he wanted. A singer and harmonica player, he led a hugely influential, multiracial band. They backed Bob Dylan when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and were the only group that appeared at Newport, Monterey and Woodstock. And then suddenly it was gone—the band, the tours, the recording contracts.

Born in 1942, Butterfield grew up devoted to Chicago blues, a style of music that updated Southern influences with electric guitars and amplified harmonicas. Frequenting clubs, Butterfield met blues performers, eventually sitting in with them. He later formed a band with guitarist Elvin Bishop and members of Muddy Waters' backing group.

Producer Paul Rothchild helped persuade Butterfield to add guitarist Mike Bloomfield to the group, and later got Elektra president Jac Holzman to sign the band to a contract.

Released in 1966, the Butterfield Blues Band's album East-West was a revelation to rock fans. The songs ranged from traditional numbers like Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues" to pop songs like Mike Nesmith's "Mary, Mary," covered by The Monkees. Written by Allen Toussaint, "Get Out of My Life, Woman" brought New Orleans R&B into the mix. And then there were the instrumentals, blends of modal jazz, Indian ragas and full-blown rock that stretched out to thirteen minutes.

Other groups were quick to copy the album, but the band fell apart almost at once. Bloomberg left to form The Electric Flag, a horn-heavy group. Bishop embarked on a successful solo career. Butterfield introduced horns into his band, but the magic was gone. Poor record sales, bad management and drugs brought Butterfield down. He died of a heroin overdose at the age of 44.

Director John Anderson has helmed several music documentaries, including one on Sam Lay, a drummer with Butterfield's early band. Anderson includes interviews with several of the musician's admirers, including Bonnie Raitt, Happy Traum, Paul Schaffer and longtime friend Nick Gravenites. Unfortunately, footage of Butterfield is scarce. Anderson is forced to replay the same concert clips a number of times.

Butterfield benefited from the pop fascination with blues that peaked in the late ’60s. His work anticipated the growth of horn sections in rock bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Significant musicians like Bishop, Bloomfield and David Sanborn passed through his group. He was championed by the likes of Dylan manager Albert Grossman. But despite his talent, Butterfield couldn't make the leap to stardom. In the end, Horn from the Heart is more a cautionary tale than a celebration.