For aspiring musicians in the 1960s, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was hugely influential. If Bob Dylan turned rock into “music for adults” on a lyrical level, the Butterfield Band did the same thing musically.
The band had a ferocious, street-tough sound, best heard early on in What’s Shakin’ cuts like “One More Mile” and “Good Morning Little School Girl.” The performances on their first full (eponomously-titled) Elektra album were great, but despite the instruction on the back of the jacket to play it loud*, the sound itself, the production, was a tiny bit distant, as if you were standing at the back of the club. What’s Shakin’ put you right at the front edge of the stage. (I don’t think Butterfield achieved that degree of in-your-face toughness again until 1969’s Keep On Movin’, produced by Jerry Ragovoy.)
The first album was straight blues, pure Chicago. Sam Lay was probably the best blues drummer in the world at that point, but when he took ill on tour in Boston, the band recruited a jazzier drummer, Billy Davenport, to take his place. The band’s musical landscape was broadening; the landmark second album, East-West, features traditional blues (Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues”, Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Running,” and the probably public domain “I Got A Mind to Give Up Living” and “All These Blues”); New Orleans R&B (“Get Out of My Life, Woman”); hard bop (“Work Song”); modal jazz-raga-acid-rock (the title cut); and an old-style jazz ballad, “Never Say No,” that would be at home on a Billy Eckstine (or Billie Holiday) record.
Then there’s “Mary Mary.” The Monkees’ version of this Michael Nesmith tune is cute, it’s bubblegum. The Wrecking Crew (and Micky Dolenz on vocals) play it straight for the band’s teen audience; Micky delivers the vocal in a dry, non-syncopated style that seems disconnected from the lyrics’ plea. There’s even a pseudo-oriental cliché guitar riff. I’m not trying to slag the Monkees; I enjoy listening to their early hits. But when we step over to the Butterfield “Mary Mary” the contrast is unavoidable.
On the East-West “Mary Mary,” a snare cracks and we’re right into heavy. This song got bluesified. The G-A-D bass and guitar unison riff feels ominous; it brings tension every time around; it’s the call to the harmonica’s and fuzz guitar’s response. The Charlie Chan guitar riff becomes organ swell into barrelhouse piano. The song feels more A minor than A major; any thirds are somewhere between C and C# — that’s blues territory for sure. The “pop-iest” element is the backing vocals, washed in reverb, right out of a girl-group arrangement.
The blues harp is the most voice-like instrument, and Butterfield’s solo is as impassioned as his vocal. This is serious, grown-up stuff:
What more, Mary, can I do
To prove my love is truly yours?
I’ve done more than any clear-thinkin’ man would do.
As I said, the Monkees’ audience were teenyboppers, and their “Mary Mary” is a boy singing to a girl. Butterfield is a man singing to woman.
Billy Davenport nicely lifts the final verse with a 16th-note ride bell groove, then it’s the organ swelling to the song’s climax: one of the most electrifying guitar solos of the day. This was pure Bloomfield; Les Paul bridge pickup right into a Twin Reverb with the volume at about 8 (yes, Mike revealed his settings — a rare occurrence in those pre-web days — in the legendary Hit Parader interview). You have to understand — to hear a guitar sound like that coming off vinyl grooves in 1966 was mind-blowing!** The solo and the song fade, making a statement: when The Paul Butterfield Blues Band does a pop song, they mean business.
* “We suggest that you play this record at the highest possible volume in order to fully appreciate the sound of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.”