Wild Child Butler

Rooster Blues R7611

They’ll never pin George “Wild Child” Butler down. The Alabama- born harmonica player, who claims that his mother gave him his nickname after complaining, “Boy, you wild, you wild, you wild, you just wild, you crazy!” has been living up to the moniker for most of his 53 years. Butler has made a career out of elusiveness; even his recordings have managed to slip into mystery. Blues historian Jim O’Neal writes that Butler’s first sides, recorded in Montgomery in 1964 and originally credited to “the Wild Child,” are so obscure that song titles (“Down in the Chile” and “Achin’ All Over”) and even the name of the record label (Sharp) are constantly misspelled in discographies.

Once you listen to the music, you’re still befuddled. Butler’s style has been described as everything from Chicago blues to swamp blues, and none of it really begins to describe what he does. It might help to take note of Butler’s primary influences. From harpist Rice Miller (aka Sonny Boy Williamson Number Two) he picked up much of his raw, sidewinding harmonica technique and penchant for showmanship; he also seems to have absorbed Miller’s obstinate individualism and his skills as a blues storyteller. Butler’s lyrics weave eloquent and offbeat tales, products of an imagination whose quirks and irregular flights of fancy seem endless.

Butler’s knack for couching stories in colorful, deeply personal imagery also links him to his old Texas compatriot Lightnin’ Hopkins. In the past it’s sometimes seemed that he also learned his timing from Hopkins, who was notorious for ignoring the 8- or 12-bar format and giving sidemen headaches in the process. Butler’s contrary notions of blues time have occasionally resulted in near-chaos; given his offbeat sense of humor and the pride he seems to take in his maverick reputation, you never knew whether it’s intentional or not.

This album puts Butler in perhaps the smoothest company he’s ever worked with. All but one track were originally released on Ralph Bass’s Roots label in 1976. The personnel included Chicago guitarist Joe Kelley, bassist Aron Burton, and drummer Sam Lay; Joe Zaklan and Wild Bill Moore alternated on rhythm guitar.

The rhythm section of Burton and Lay probably inhibited even Butler from getting too frisky with his timing, and young Kelley turned in a stellar performance. As if that weren’t enough, Rooster Blues added guitarist Jimmy Rogers and pianist Pinetop Perkins to several tracks when the album was remixed in 1986.

This setting was flexible enough to give Butler the freedom his anarchistic muse requires, but it also provided the discipline he seems to need to make his music accessible. His solos, idiosyncratic as they may be, sound in control here and mostly adhere to an internal logic; he seldom jumps time, and the few rhythmic or harmonic eccentricities he throws in are nothing the rhythm section can’t handle. The going is easy enough that we can sit back and enjoy an excursion into the world according to Wild Child, and a colorful, outrageous world it is.

The opener, “Funky Butt Lover,” isn’t funk at all but a grinding blues lope. This is the one cut on the LP that hasn’t been previously released; it features the late Sammy Lawhorn on guitar, adding a touch of grace to the raucous synergy achieved by the rest of the band. Lawhorn even augments the turnaround with a riff from Freddie King’s “Hide Away” before segueing into a solo that echoes the single-string dynamism of Guitar Slim, then escalating into a magnificent, early-morning dirty blues grind. “Funky Butt Lover” kicks you in all the right places like a Sunday-morning Maxwell Street jam: ragged around the edges, it sounds as if it’s fueled by an unholy mixture of whiskey, hambone stew, and Spanish fly, and it succeeds despite the raw audacity of its conception.

“Funky Butt Lover” sets the tone for the entire endeavor. “Gravy Child,” apparently Butler’s theme song for this recording, lays his greasy, fat-on-the-bone voice over the band’s fuzzed-out undulations, while Pinetop Perkins’s piano noodles around in the background like a moody Delta philosopher who came looking for a place to meditate and wound up in a whorehouse. Jimmy Rogers’s guitar is a bit more uptown than the rest of the arrangement, but it’s got a roadhouse echo and a fuzzy distortion that likewise evoke the atmosphere of a late-night club jam. Butler’s harp on this one is so elemental that he can hardly be said to have a style at all, except that it succeeds in the way the best blues always seem to: it grabs you unexpectedly and then works you over with a combination of emotive honesty, passion, and down-and-dirty directness.

Occasionally the Wild Child deigns to play it straight, and the results are both satisfying and indicative of why his music works so well. The blues world is full of screaming wild men, flamboyant entertainers who gyrate on the floor, leap around the stage, and affect outer-space leers; rare is the artist who can fuse a sense of the outrageous with an equally convincing feel for straight-ahead blues expression. “Love You From Now On” shows that Butler can do just that. Although the lyrics retain his trademark idiosyncrasy (“You said bigger fish were up the sea / And you didn’t have to worry ’bout me / But one thing you didn’t realize girl / Your bait ain’t what it used to be!”), Joe Kelley’s slide whines plaintively with authentic Chicago intensity, and Butler sings his angry tale of betrayal with convincing venom and his ever-present hint of fun.

As the album progresses, Butler’s harp seems to gain richness. It’s a stripped-down version of Rice Miller, and for that reason it’s perfect for Butler’s version of “Spoonful,” the Willie Dixon composition made famous by Howlin’ Wolf. Wolf was another student of Miller’s whose technique never progressed beyond the elementary; like Butler, he made up in passion what he lacked in refinement.

On “Spoonful,” Butler shows off his vocal versatility with a growling roar very much like Wolf’s. It’s offset by Kelley’s guitar, which comes in with a liquid smoothness that complements rather than contradicts the raw intensity of the arrangement. Throughout this LP Kelley demonstrates an effortless tastefulness that surprises and delights.

Perhaps the most unusual song on the album is “None of Nothing.” It’s an unaccompanied solo by Butler and it clearly shows his debt to Miller, who also recorded unaccompanied on occasion. Butler even incorporates some Miller-like finger snaps to complement his harp blowing. Butler’s lyrics, meanwhile, are as quirky and ambiguous as ever: “Once in my life I met a girl, never had none of nothing / And when I gave her some, I had trouble with the judge!”

Another, more subtle tribute to roots is “Rooster Blues.” The lyrics are an update of various folk rhymes and “dozens” themes that permeate the black oral tradition; the band drives the song in a noisy, rambunctious shuffle. The sound is very reminiscent of the Arkansas-based circuit of musicians–James “Peck” Curtis, Robert “Dudlow” Taylor, Drifting Slim, Sonny Blair, and others–who gravitated around Rice Miller, often played in his band or on his King Biscuit Flour radio program on KFFA in Helena when Miller wasn’t around, and recorded for the Modern label in the 1950s.

Throughout this LP, Wild Child Butler maintains a balance few others have achieved: he’s tamed none of his characteristic eccentricity, yet he never veers into chaos or self-indulgence. Much of the credit is due to coproducer Jim O’Neal and Rooster Blues for finding the empathy necessary to control this notoriously freethinking musician; the sidemen–especially Chicago’s Joe Kelley–uniformly demonstrate that one can be adventurous and tasteful at the same time; but final kudos must go to the Child himself for channeling his wildness into a solid musical mix and coming up with a recording that’s a rare blues delight.