Not only was this supposed to be a New Year’s column, but I had seriously planned to shift my focus to the more hard-hitting issues that I’ve been steering clear of the past month or so. As I mentioned in my last column, I really do want to respect the wishes of readers who would prefer that I leave my musical side out of the column and discuss more serious stuff. I had actually planned to do that this week.
But then, literally on the evening that I had planned to start writing this column — the Monday before Christmas — I got a call from a friend: Clarence Butler had died that morning. Actually, my wife was the one who picked up the phone and took the message. After telling me that he had passed — felled by a massive heart attack, we’d later hear — she said everyone was supposed to be getting together at the Attic Bar in Hamtramck to give some support to Clarence’s brother Curtis, and to see what needed to be done.
The Butler Twins, for those not clued into Detroit’s blues scene, are Detroit blues royalty. Their down-home delta blues style has been a crucial link in the city’s blues heritage since the ’70s when the twins moved to Detroit from their birthplace of Florence, Alabama, to carry on the music handed down to them from their father. Clarence got a job at Ford and Curtis went to work at Chevrolet, though they’d eventually devote themselves full time to the blues.
Those were the days of Bobo Jenkins, a close friend of the Twins who virtually became a one-man Detroit blues society and was responsible for the city’s earliest blues festivals. The Twins were part of the third generation of Detroit blues artists, most of whom were either originally from the South or were just one step removed, and all of whom inherited a Detroit blues scene that dated back to the 1920s. The scene didn’t actually start jumping until the 1930s though, and a decade later John Lee Hooker was making a name for himself around the city in the bustling entertainment area then known as Paradise Valley — now known as I-75. During the past decade, far too many of the musicians who provided a living link to Detroit’s earlier vital blues days have passed away, leaving a gap that is extremely difficult to fill.
Clarence Butler, who played harmonica and sang alongside his brother, who plays the guitar, was most certainly one of those vital links. Together, the Twins produced some of the most authentic Detroit blues that could be heard in this city during recent years. The fact that they rarely were booked at today’s major blues venues is a perverse sign of the times and a cutting indictment of a culture that more readily welcomes the students and the imitators than the teachers and the originals. What kind of sense does it make to praise the beauty of a tree while setting fire to the roots?
Still, when I heard the news, I didn’t know whether I needed to go to the Attic. I’m not even sure it hit me right away just how much of a loss this really was. Maybe I didn’t really want it to hit. I told my wife something to the effect that this was really sad news, that I really would like to go to the Attic, but I was leaving town in two days; there was still so much work left to do before getting on that plane — such as writing this column. My wife gave me one of those looks, then gently repeated herself: Everyone was supposed to go down to the Attic and be with Curtis. She continued to look at me. I looked away, then went upstairs.
I sat on the side of my bed for a few moments, then got back up and started putting on my jacket and hat. I went back downstairs.
“I think I’m gonna go to the Attic. At least for a little while.”
“I really think you should. At least to pay your respects.”
Anyone who knows the Twins at all knows that they don’t talk much, especially not to someone they don’t know very well. Clarence was always the twin more likely to offer a warm smile than his brother Curtis, who has always had more of a tough, somewhat suspicious edge. But once the Twins did get to talking? Couldn’t keep the words from spilling out. And the one thing that could get them talking like nothing else — at least for me — was the blues.
I had the opportunity to interview the Twins at their small apartment above the Attic Bar several years ago for a piece I did on the history of Detroit blues. Predictably the interview started off pretty slow as the two of them sized me up, even though we had seen each other and spoke to one another off and on for years at various blues events and gigs. Still, I think they wanted to make sure they were telling their story to the right man, someone who would put it down in the right way, before they said a word. They had both lived long enough to see the blues perverted and twisted by too many well-meaning people too many times, and they had no interest in playing a part in something like that happening again.
But eventually they opened up, and their stories and insights proved to be some of the most colorful and entertaining of all the folks I’d had a chance to talk to. When they spoke about the blues, they were speaking about themselves, and that gave them an authority on the subject that the pretenders simply can’t match.
When I got to the Attic, a small crowd had gathered at the far end of the bar. After picking up some details about what had happened, I also learned that Clarence Butler had no insurance, and Curtis Butler has very little money. In fact, as of that night, Curtis didn’t have enough money to bury his brother. As is so often the case in the blues community, the call once again went out to all the Detroit blues family that a fundraiser was in the works to help a fellow musician in need. If it wasn’t for the sense of community among Detroit blues musicians, many of them would be in far more serious shape than they already are.
As of this writing, the first fundraiser was scheduled to be held at the Attic the day after Christmas. Two more were said to be in the works for the near future, one of them at the Magic Bag.
It’s still not too late. If there’s anything you can do, then do everything you can. Curtis Butler needs you. Now.
Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org