Facebook is good for something. Last month, Clyde Groves, Billy Butterfield’s son-in-law, cordially reached out to me and we decided to do a profile of Billy – so respected in every context during his lifetime and less known now. I offer the result, a delightful conversation among Clyde, Billy’s daughter Judi, and son Pat.
For reasons of space, I have not written about Billy — from my own perspective — in this post, but tomorrow’s post will add in some previously unseen video and a few lines of mine. I also have not listed who’s playing what on the music excerpts, but can provide those details on request.
But first, some memorable music.
Pat Butterfield: He was a very private person, definitely incredibly generous. He would befriend anyone, which might have been one of his failings, too. Some people took advantage of him because of that. My father was very quiet.
He liked to read a lot. When I knew him, he’d get up in the middle of the night, go sit in the living room and read. Not necessarily the best-sellers, although he liked fiction, but he also would read about musicians. Not actually music itself, but the classical people – the life of Beethoven, people that he admired. And he listened to a lot of music in the house. He particularly liked Ella Fitzgerald, he felt that she was probably the greatest female jazz vocalist of all time. He listened to classical music, and, in fact, he introduced me to it. I can remember listening to SWAN LAKE and things like that, and a lot of Beethoven. In fact, I got the sheet music to the Moonlight Sonata. I’d sit there and peck away at it, and he’d help me with reading some of the difficult parts of the bass clef. He would sit down and play the piano. The problem was his hands weren’t very big, so he did a lot of slurring. My brother Mike had the same ability, an ear for music and a natural understanding of chord systems, but I didn’t inherit any of that. My brother played with string bass with him several times.
Clyde Groves: I met him when I was fourteen – that’s when I met Judi and her twin sister Debbie, and her mother Dottie, who was a wonderful vocalist also. We always thought that she sounded a lot like Ella, the vocalist she admired the most. And Billy was fortunate enough to have recorded with Ella.
Billy was very humble. He wasn’t one to toot his own horn, so to speak. I would be over at their house, for instance, and he’d have just gotten back from a tour, or he’d been on the Johnny Carson show, or with The World’s Greatest Jazz Band on Mike Douglas, or by himself on Merv Griffin, and I would tell him, “Oh, Mr. Butterfield, I just saw you on Johnny Carson!” and he would go, “Yeah. So, Clyde, how’s school? How’re you doing in baseball?” He would just change the subject.
Judi Groves: He was very shy. He was a man of few words, but when he would speak, because he didn’t talk a lot, you perked up and wanted to listen to what he had to say. It was like pulling teeth to get him to talk about his childhood and things that he had done, amazing things that he had done. You know, he played for the first all-integrated audience in South Africa. He came home and never even spoke about it. I didn’t even know about it until years afterwards. He told them that would be the only way he would play, that he could bring his black musicians and play for a mixed audience. He also – and I found this kind of neat – back then, they had the Green Book: you couldn’t go to hotels with black musicians, and since they wouldn’t let them stay in the hotel with him, he would go to the black motel. He was very loyal to his band in that way also. He was a very loving man.
When my dad did those college tours, my mom travelled with them, and we stayed with my mom’s sister. My cousins are more like my brothers and sisters than cousins. My dad wanted us to move down to Virginia. He wanted us to be with family. Once, I remember that my dad was kind of embarrassed. We lived in Smithfield, Virginia, where the meat-packing plant is, where the hams come from. They had asked my father to be the Grand Marshall of the parade there. He didn’t want to turn it down, because they really wanted him to do it. But he wasn’t about that kind of thing – that put him back in the limelight. I think he wanted people to like him for himself rather than for what he had accomplished, which is why he didn’t want us to talk about it all the time, either.
Clyde: He liked playing ballads more than anything. That was his favorite thing. He looked at the trumpet as his singing voice. And Yank and Billy, when they were with The World’s Greatest Jazz Band, they could really play off each other, the harmonies they could make on their horns on BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME or BLACK AND BLUE. Yank Lawson was an all-time great. And I put Billy there too. They’re being forgotten, unless it’s younger people who are playing the horn or in a jazz ensemble – most people don’t know who they were. He played that STARDUST with Artie Shaw, and he was in the Gramercy Five. He played with everybody.
Judi: He liked Bix Beiderbecke, too.
Clyde: Yes, Louis and Bix were his essentials. Are you familiar with the album BILLY PLAYS BIX? That’s a true joy to listen to. There’s the album on Victor called GUS HOO – I think the musicians were all in some kind of contract disputes, so they couldn’t play under their own names. He picked “Gus Hoo,” which was his sense of humor.
Judi: He did! He was a funny man.
Clyde: When I first met Judi, I was fourteen, and I had no idea who Billy Butterfield was. I was into the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. I had never heard of him, but of course my mom and dad knew who he was. My dad would try to get under Judi’s mom’s skin and say, “Yes, Billy’s a great cornet player,” and Dottie would correct him, “He’s a TRUMPET player.”
Billy was on the road so much when Judi and I were dating. He was thoughtful and kind. I used to go see him at Andy Bartha’s, and whenever he’d spot me in the audience, during the break he would come and sit with me. Of course, then all my drinks were on the house. All around us, people would be whispering. You could hear them, “Oh, that must be his nephew. He’s got to be related,” because every break Billy would come and sit with me. There were all these people he could have sat with, and I felt really honored that he would do that.
Judi: I found a record of my dad singing, and I was kind of amazed that he had a pretty good voice.
Clyde: It was with his big band, and Billy had commented that, back then, all the rage was that the trumpet players, the leaders of the band, would do vocals. But Billy said that this was the record company’s way of saving money, by not hiring a vocalist, but he hated doing it. He was pretty young then.
You know the story of how Bob Crosby discovered him? Bob and Yank or Bob Haggart were driving to a gig, and their car broke down near Lexington, where the University of Transylvania was, so when they went to the hotel, they asked the clerk if there was any good music around in this town, and the clerk referred them to the Austin Wylie band. As soon as they heard Billy play, they were amazed. After they stopped playing, Bob and either Yank or Haggart went over to Billy and said, “We’d like you to join the band. Are you interested?” Of course he said yes, and they said, “Well, we’ll send you a ticket to New York.” Weeks went by, and Billy was, “Well, they were just pulling my leg and praising me,” which was nice, but he thought nothing would come of it. I guess they knew there was going to be an opening, and here comes a telegram with a ticket to New York. So that’s how he got found by Bob Crosby. The chances of the stars aligning like that. If the car hadn’t broken down, who knows if anyone would have heard of Billy. That was his big start. He was in college, and he dropped out and went to New York. He played football. He was on the high school and college team.
Judi: He got cleated in the leg, and that was when penicillin first came out, because he almost lost his leg.
Pat: Dad got out of the service in 1945, when they said that anyone who could employ twenty-five people could get out, so he immediately did that, put this band together, and went on the road. The first year, which would have been ’45-’46, he did all right, and then in 1947, they basically went in debt. The Big Band Era was over, so he moved to New York. He had accrued a debt of twenty-five to maybe thirty thousand dollars, and he went to work as a staff man for ABC. I was five or six, and we lived out in Great Neck, in a house we called “House Horrible,” a big old Victorian they rented while Dad was paying off the debt. That period, my parents went through pretty difficult times. My mother insisted on making sure that he cleared his debt, that they have good credit. That entailed a few arguments.
I think Debbie and Judi were about two when they moved down to Virginia, and he left for Florida when they were about thirteen. After my mom and dad got divorced, she moved to Florida, and eventually she lived in a place called Coral Ridge, and the house where my dad and Dottie lived was, as the crow flies, five hundred yards from my mother’s house. It was really strange. But in order to get to their house from my mom’s house, you had to drive four or five miles. Five hundred yards, but they couldn’t see each other. I stayed in touch with them, and every summer I spent about a month with them in Virginia, a little place called Carrolton. Then, my wife and I would see them in Florida.
Clyde: Billy and Dottie were moving from these condominiums by the ocean, in Fort Lauderdale. They had bought a house on the water, by the Intercoastal. I went over with a friend of mine to help them move. Billy was built like a bulldog. But I was 16, 17, an athlete, really strong, and my buddy was also. We were lifting all this furniture, and there was one piece that was really heavy. Billy went to grab one end of it, and I told him, “No, don’t do that, Mr. Butterfield, that’s really heavy!” and he looked at me and said, “Just pick it up.” And he picked that thing up like it was a feather. I was thinking, “All he does is play music. He can’t be that strong,” but he just picked it up. I was the one struggling with it.
You know, Judi and I dated all through high school, and then things happened, and we got back together twenty-five years later. I was always in love with her. I was married, and I loved my wife, and we had two children, but when I saw on the national news that her dad had passed away, in 1988, I wanted to get back in touch with Judi, but I didn’t know how. But Dottie always had a public number, it wasn’t unpublished, so I called Information. Billy had been deceased for a number of years, and I got her number and called her house. And when Dottie answered, I said, “You’ll never guess who this is,” and she said, “Of course I do. You want to bet?” I said, “Yes.” And she said, “This is Clyde.” I said, “Dottie, how do you remember that, after all these years?” and she said, “I’ll never forget your voice.” People didn’t have Caller ID then. So her mom helped reunite us.
Judi: Dottie lived a long time, to 92. She was something! She was a lot of fun. Daddy was very quiet, but she was very outgoing.
Clyde: They were a perfect husband and wife in that respect. And after Billy passed away, Dottie never wanted to remarry, because there was no man that could ever compare to him, even though she was still fairly young. She was never interested in meeting anyone, even though she was still beautiful and men were always asking her out. She was gorgeous and always dressed impeccably.
Judi: When he was a kid, he first started out playing the violin. I’m not sure about the story that he was going to become a doctor. I know he went to the University of Transylvania. His brother, Donald, was a doctor, and I think he was eleven years older than my father. I’m not sure what his specialty was, whether he was a brain surgeon – I think that’s what he was – but he went in to the military in World War One and it affected him so much that he couldn’t go back into practice. When Billy first started out, he was playing violin on a riverboat – earlier than 13, he was just a small kid, so that he could help his brother who was going through college. Hard times back then. His dad would drive him where he had to go, because he was too young to drive.
He was beyond talented. Most of his recordings were done in one take. But he didn’t talk about the music business, and he dissuaded us from ever going in to it, because he felt it was a very hard life. He never talked about himself, and he didn’t talk about other musicians. He would have some friends he would play with, Andy Bartha. When Andy was playing, my dad would go and be the headliner where Andy was. Yank Lawson was a good friend of Daddy’s. They were good friends from Bob Crosby’s band. You know with musicians, they all have big heads. Daddy wasn’t about that. I think that annoyed him a bit, because they always wanted to talk about themselves.
When he came home, he would read the paper, watch tv. We had a boat, wherever we lived, and he loved to go out on the boat. We always lived on or near the water, he loved that. He loved being around family.
Clyde: They had a pool, they’d be out there swimming, relaxing, cooking on the grill. Even when he was at home, a lot of times he would have local gigs, so he wouldn’t get home until late at night, but he always would get up to spend family time. He enjoyed his time at home for sure.
Judi: And he liked to watch golf. I can picture him in the reclining chair, watching golf on tv. He liked to play.
Pat: When I was small, a lot of musicians would come around. We spent a lot of time with Felix Giobbe, Bob Haggart, and a really good friend, Andy Ferretti. We were all members of the same country club in Brookville. My father was apparently a terrible golfer. He could hit it a long way, but he never knew what direction it was going in!
Judi: But he never really kept anything he ever did. Anything we have of his, besides the trumpets – my sister and I have all of them – he said, “I did it. Why would I want to hear it again?” We don’t have all the records. And pictures, we’ve had to buy off eBay. He was totally the opposite of anyone who was famous. Even when we were growing up, he didn’t want us to talk a lot about him. So we didn’t.
Clyde: The only album that he had out on display was an album he made with the Dutch College Swing Band. Out of all his recordings, that was the only one he had framed and put up on the wall. But he loved playing. That was his passion. Even though you’re on the road most of the time, travelling, he wouldn’t have given that up for anything.
The reason they moved to Florida was that when Jackie Gleason moved his show down to Miami Beach, he wanted Billy to be down there, and the arrangement was he would pay him X dollars a year so that when he was available, he would play in the Sammy Spear orchestra. When Billy wasn’t available, Jackie was fine with that.
You know, after Billy had moved down to Virginia, just so the girls could have their mother’s family around them, when he was on the road, he and Dottie were walking down Fifth Avenue in New York, and across the street, he heard, “Hey, Billy!” and he looked over and it was Dizzy. So Billy said, “Hey, Dizzy, how’re you doing?” And Dizzy yelled back, “Hey, what’s this I hear about you moving south of the Cotton Curtain?”
Judi: He walked around all the time with a mouthpiece in his pocket, and he would always take it out and blow in it. He had to keep his lip up, you know.
Clyde: He’d go out on the boat and he’d have it with him, even though he’d just played a gig. It was part of him. You have to keep your skills up.
Judi: I remember he played at Nixon’s inaugural ball. He was on the road a lot. Especially in the late Sixties, he was in Europe a lot. Jazz was very big in Europe. He played over there all the time. I got to go on a tour with him, with The Great Eight, in Germany, for three weeks. That was really cool. That was the first time I got to see him really play, outside of going to the Jackie Gleason Show, or the Merv Griffin Show. But this was actually being with the guys, and even they didn’t toot their own horns. These were gentlemen like Sam Woodyard, who had played with Duke Ellington, and Tal Farlow. It was a wonderful trip. I got to see how much the people really loved him. I never got to see that when I was growing up, so for me it was a real treat, and it gave me a real appreciation for my dad. I’ll never forget that. It was the trip of a lifetime. This was 1981-1982, something like that.
Clyde: Judi’s dad had his own nightclub for a time, in Fort Lauderdale, at the Escape Hotel. Andy Bartha had a standing gig at the Moonraker, and whenever he was off the road, he would always go there to support Andy. He got the album made with Andy, and he just liked the man personally. He was a very giving man. If he could help somebody out, he would. And he never had anything bad to say about anyone, because his premise was, if you don’t have anything good to say about someone, don’t say anything, instead of putting somebody down.
Judi: Yes, the only negatives we heard were from my mom (laughing), about other people, not my dad. He was a saint!
Pat: He was disappointed with the way the music industry went after the Fifties, but he really enjoyed the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, all the travelling they did together. I never heard him say anything negative about them, but he wasn’t the type to complain.
Clyde: Even now, sometimes I’ll be playing some of his music, and Judi will ask me to please turn it down, because she gets really emotional hearing her father.
Judi: STARDUST was my favorite record of his, but if I was around when he was playing, I would ask him to play MY FUNNY VALENTINE. He always played that for me. But my favorite album, I think, was BOBBY, BILLY, BRASIL. I had the reel-to-reel tape and would play it all the time. Dad wasn’t mechanical, so I was always the designated person to set up the tape recorder or the video. And I knew exactly where to stop the tape to get it to play SUNNY or whatever. They did really well with the harmony of that. I really loved it.
Pat: It’s unfortunate that he really didn’t take care of himself, and that had a big effect, that he died at what I think is a really early age, 71, and he was in pretty lousy health the last five years of his life. And Dad definitely drank. He functioned, though. He tended to be more of a binge drinker. He could go for a month and not have a drink, and then he’d drink a lot. But those days in New York when he was a staff member, they’d all go over to Nick’s in Greenwich Village, after the job was over, and have jam sessions, and that would result in his getting home very late at night, and he often fell asleep on the Long Island Rail Road. My mother would be there, waiting for him, and he wouldn’t get off the train because he was asleep, and he’d go all the way out to the end of the Island and come back. He spent the night on the train quite a few times.
Clyde: I wasn’t there, but I heard a story about their Virginia house. He had a good sense of humor. They were having parties at that house, and they had a big pool. And they’d all been partying, having fun, and Billy took his horn and walked down the steps of the pool, playing, and when he got underwater, the bubbles were all coming up. He was a lot of fun to be around.
Pat: He was a really genuine individual. He wasn’t impressed with his own self-importance. He enjoyed life.
I really appreciate the time and effort and kindness of Clyde Groves, Judi Butterfield Groves, and Pat Butterfield — helping me insure that no one will forget the very talented musician and very sweet man Billy Butterfield. More about Billy tomorrow!
May your happiness increase!
Bob told me some wonderful tales from WGJB days, many including the sweet natured Billy…I remember a long phone call Bob was having with Artie & they talked a lot about Billy & his musicality.
I now wish I had made recordings throught our years together- real gems-fabulous & colourful memories!
Such an awesome article, and listening to the songs while reading it is a nice touch. Thanks, Judi, Clyde and Pat for this. Such a great tribute to Billy, he contributed to Americana and brought so much joy to so many. And Billy, a belated thanks for serving your country.
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