Soul Singer Jerry Butler, Still Strong, Still Surviving
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Jerry Butler may not have the name recognition of Otis Redding or The Black Keys, both of whom have recorded his songs. But the 72- year-old soul singer had a string of hits in the 60s and 70s and has recorded over 50 albums. He’ll make a rare appearance in San Diego this weekend for two performances. KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone has this profile of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, known as "The Iceman."
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The contemporary rock duo The Black Keys covered the song "Never Gonna Give You Up" on their hit album from 2010 "Brothers." The song was written and first recorded by Chicago soul singer Jerry Butler.
During a recent phone interview, I asked Butler what he thought of the Black Key’s cover. I was surprised to find he didn't know about it. The 72-year-old singer responded: "If you run into them, please thank them for me. And if they hear this, thank you fellas, I appreciate that."
That’s the kind of gracious response Jerry Butler is known for. After all, he’s survived in the music industry for over 50 years, and he’s been in Chicago politics for 25. You don’t survive in either industry without making friends along the way.
Butler grew up on the North side of Chicago in the 1950s. He and Curtis Mayfield started singing together in church. Butler says a lot of soul and R&B musicians come up that way. He explains with a chuckle, "The first place you can go and perform is in a church and someone’s gonna say 'Amen' whether you’re good or bad."
Butler and Mayfield formed the doo-wop group The Impressions and they made a splash with a song Butler wrote as a poem at the age of 16. "For Your Precious Love" was a surprise hit in 1958. "In the days of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll, everything was pretty much juked up so the kids could dance and all," says Butler.
Shows like "American Bandstand" helped launch musical careers back then, but Dick Clark had to be convinced to play a slow song on a show known for high energy dancing. When Clark agreed to play "For Your Precious Love," everyone slow danced. Butler slyly adds, "and they found out they liked it!"
Soon after the success of "For Your Precious Love," Butler left the Impressions and started a solo career. (The band would later become Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions.) But Butler and Mayfield would team up again in 1960. Together they wrote and performed the hit song "He Will Break Your Heart."
In 1975, Tony Orlando and Dawn revived the song, with a different title, and took it to #1 on the billboard charts. Butler explains the title difference: "When we released it, we didn’t want to call it 'He Don’t Love You Like I Love You' because that’s bad grammar. Funny thing about that is, a couple years later Tony Orlando comes along with Dawn and he puts it on the album just like that and it's a hit. [Laughs] Just goes to show that as time goes by, things do indeed change."
Butler’s smooth voice, classic singing style, and sharp attire placed him in the tradition of his idols, like Nat King Cole. In the early 60s, he was given a nickname by a DJ named Georgie Woods and it stuck. Butler tells the story: "While performing one night in Philadelphia, the sound system went down, and from my days in the church, we just kept on singing. So we sang the song a capella. And when we finished it, the people jumped up outta their seats and hooped and hollered and George ran on stage and said. 'That was the coolest thing I ever saw. So cool, we’re gonna call you the Ice Man.'"
Butler went on to record two successful albums using his nickname, "The Iceman Cometh" and "Ice on Ice." But he also wrote songs other musicians (Otis Redding, Elvis Presley) made famous.
Butler and Otis Redding were both performing at a concert in Buffalo, NY. Butler goes on: "And that night after the concert, he and I got together with his old beat up guitar and sat in the hotel room talking about songs that we started and never could finish."
Butler put in a cassette tape and sang "I’ve Been Loving You Too Long" for Redding. Butler says Redding jumped up and said, "I like that, let me take it back to Georgia and see if I can finish it." He adds, "Well, the next time I heard the song it was on Stax Records.
Butler did get songwriting credits and to this day, insists Otis Redding was the right person to sing that song.
Butler eventually went back to college and then went into politics. Today, he is the longest serving member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in Chicago. He continues to perform, and has hosted the popular PBS music specials "Doo Wop 50" and "Doo Wop 51."
Butler says one of his biggest hits, the 1968 tune “Only the Strong Survive” was, in part, an homage to all the musicians who kept on making music, keeping soul and rhythm and blues alive. Jerry Butler can certainly count himself among them.
Jerry Butler will perform on Saturday and Sunday at Anthology in Little Italy.
When: 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20; and 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21
Where: Anthology, 1337 India St., downtown
Phone: (619) 595-0300