When I was compiling yesterday’s post — a conversation with Billy Butterfield’s family that revealed him to be a sweet-natured, generous man who loved being with them — read it here — I also returned to the music he made, and there’s a proliferation of it on YouTube, showing Billy in many contexts. (Trust me: this post will not be silent . . . )
I knew about the breadth of Billy’s working career — more than forty years of touring with big bands, small jam-session groups, concerts here and overseas, radio and studio work, club dates and gigs a-plenty — which pointed me to Tom Lord’s discography.
Recordings are only a slice of a musician’s career, a narrow reflection of what (s)he may have created, but in Billy’s case, the list of people he recorded with is astonishing in its breadth: it says so much about his professionalism and versatility, and the respect his peers afforded him.
For my own pleasure and I hope yours, here is a seriously edited list — in alphabetical order — of some of the people Billy recorded with . . . many surprises. I did get carried away, but it was impossible to stop.
Louis Armstrong, Georgie Auld, Mildred Bailey, Pearl Bailey, Tallulah Bankhead, George Barnes, Andy Bartha, Tony Bennett, Eddie Bert, Johnny Blowers, Will Bradley, Ruby Braff, Lawrence Brown, Oscar Brown, Jr., Kenny Burrell, Connie Boswell, Dave Bowman, Les Brown, Vernon Brown, John Bunch, Ernie Caceres, Nick Caiazza, Una Mae Carlisle, Dick Cary, Sidney Catlett, Charlie Christian, Buck Clayton, Al Cohn, Cozy Cole, Eddie Condon, Ray Conniff, Jimmy Crawford, Bing Crosby, Bob Crosby, Cutty Cutshall, Delta Rhythm Boys, John Dengler, Vic Dickenson, Tommy Dorsey, Buzzy Drootin, Dutch College Swing Band, Billy Eckstine, Gil Evans, Nick Fatool, Irving Fazola, Morey Feld, Ella Fitzgerald, Helen Forrest, Bud Freeman, Barry Gailbraith, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Brad Gowans, Teddy Grace, Freddie Green, Urbie Green, Tyree Glenn, Henry Grimes, Johnny Guarnieri, Bobby Hackett, Bob Haggart, Al Hall, Edmond Hall, Sir Roland Hanna, Coleman Hawkins, Neal Hefti, J.C. Higginbotham, Milt Hinton, Billie Holiday, Peanuts Hucko, Eddie Hubble, Dick Hyman, Chubby Jackson, Harry James, Jack Jenney, Jerry Jerome, Taft Jordan, Gus Johnson, Osie Johnson, Hank Jones, Jo Jones, Roger Kellaway, Kenny Kersey, Carl Kress, Yank Lawson, Peggy Lee, Cliff Leeman, Jack Lesberg, Abe Lincoln, Jimmy Lytell, Mundell Lowe, Joe Marsala, Carmen Mastren, Matty Matlock, Jimmy Maxwell, Lou McGarity, Red McKenzie, Hal McKusick, Johnny Mercer, Eddie Miller, Miff Mole, Benny Morton, Tony Mottola, Turk Murphy, Hot Lips Page, Walter Page, Oscar Pettiford, Flip Phillips, Mel Powell, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Jimmy Rushing, Babe Russin, Pee Wee Russell, Doc Severinsen, Charlie Shavers, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, Jess Stacy, Jo Stafford, Kay Starr, Bill Stegmeyer, Lou Stein, Rex Stewart, Joe Sullivan, Maxine Sullivan, Ralph Sutton, Buddy Tate, Jack Teagarden, Claude Thornhill, Martha Tilton, Dave Tough, Sarah Vaughan, Helen Ward, Earle Warren, Dick Wellstood, George Wettling, Paul Whiteman, Margaret Whiting, Bob Wilber, Joe Wilder, Lee Wiley, Roy Williams, Shadow Wilson, Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, Bob Zurke . . .
This list is breathtaking. Sure, some of the associations come from Billy’s being a Swing-Era-and-beyond big band star, sparkplug, and valued section player. And some of the associations come from studio work. But the whole list says so much about Billy’s marvelous combination of skills: he could play a four-chorus solo that would astonish everyone in the room, but he could also blend in and let other people take the lead.
And these associations speak to a wonderful professionalism: you could be the most luminous player in the firmament, but if you showed up late, were drunk or stoned, didn’t have your instrument ready, couldn’t sight-read the charts or transpose or take direction, your first studio date would be your last. Clyde and Judi Groves (Billy’s son-in-law and daughter) told me that Billy’s house in Virginia had that most odd thing, a flat roof over the garage, and it was spectacularly reinforced . . . so that a helicopter could land on it, and I am sure that was to get Billy to a New York City record date quickly. In today’s parlance, that’s “essential services,” no? And it says how much in demand he was for his beautiful sound, his memorable improvisations, and the maturity he brought to his work.
Now, to move from words to music. One of the video-performances I most cherish is from the December 1, 1978, Manassas Jazz Festival, featuring Billy, Spiegle Willcox, trombone; Kenny Davern, clarinet; Spencer Clark, bass saxophone; Dick Wellstood, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Van Perry, string bass; Tony Di Nicola, drums. “Fantastic!” says Marty when the second number suggested is SWEET SUE in G. I can’t disagree:
Judi also mentioned that Billy had — under duress — essayed a vocal on one of his Capitol sides, that he disliked the result and said that the company was trying to save money. Here’s one example, showing his gentle, amused voice . . . with a searing trumpet solo in between the vocal interludes (followed by the instrumental JALOUSIE):
You may decide to skip the next performance because there is an added echo and a debatable transfer — but Billy sings with easy conviction and plays splendidly:
There is a third vocal performance (very charming) of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ on YouTube, but the owner plays the record on a seriously ancient portable wind-up gramophone that allows very little sound to emerge, so you’ll have to find that one on your own.
For a palate-cleanser, a little of the famous Butterfield humor, from my friend Norman Vickers, a retired physician who is one of the founders of Jazz Pensacola in Florida:
My late friend, record producer Gus Statiras, would sometimes handle a tour for the group—Lawson, Haggart, Butterfield – remnants of World’s Greatest Jazz Band. There was a practicing physician in Georgia who played piano. He would sponsor the group so he could play piano with them. Of course, they would have preferred a professional pianist, but he doc was paying for the gig. During the event, Haggart said to Butterfield, “How’d you like to have him take out your gall-bladder?” To which Butterfield replied, “ Yeah, and I think he’s doing it RIGHT NOW!”
To return to music. When I asked the multi-instrumentalist Herb Gardner if I had his permission to post this, he wrote back in minutes, “Fine with me. Those guys were great fun to work with.” That says it all.
This brief performance comes, like the one above, from the Manassas Jazz Festival, this time December 3, 1978, where Billy plays alongside Bob Wilber, clarinet, alto, soprano saxophones; Herb Gardner, trombone; John Eaton, piano; Butch Hall, guitar; Dean Keenhold, string bass; Cliff Leeman, drums: SOMEDAY SWEETHEART / STARDUST / a fragment of STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY — that performance does not exist on this tape although Johnson McRee issued it on an audiocassette of this set / COTTON TAIL / SINGIN’ THE BLUES:
Savor that, and help me in my quest to make sure that the great players — the great individuals — are not forgotten. Gratitude to Clyde, Judi, and Pat (the Butterfield family), Norman Vickers, and my enthusiastic readers. And there is more Manassas video featuring Billy, and others, to come . . .
May your happiness increase!