The one and only Henry Butler lost his battle with cancer yesterday.
The first night of my very first visit to New Orleans twenty years ago, I saw Mr. Butler perform at the Funky Butt on North Rampart Street. If you know me, or if you've just been a long time reader, you know my life was changed after that first trip to New Orleans. My knowledge of New Orleans music prior to setting foot in the city was basic. Fats Domino, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Dr. John, The Meters and The Neville Brothers. I had heard of but not actually heard the music of so many artists that now seem like they have been part of my make all along. Henry Butler, for example.
There were a couple of records released on the Impulse label with names like Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden. Some CDs passed through my shop on the Windham Hill label. Was Henry Butler jazz or New Age? I didn't know and hadn't bothered to find out. Then, the night at the Funky Butt, downstairs in a room the size of your average living room, jam packed with bar stools and couches, with a piano shoved tightly against some French doors that opened onto Rampart, Mr. Butler finds his way to the keys and I hear Professor Longhair, James Booker, Beethoven and Monk all in the same song. His voice shook the Quarter, a wail somewhere between Paul Robeson's baritone and Ray Charles' heartbreak. This could only be New Orleans.
In 2005, Mr. Butler did an in-store at my shop. It was a modest turn-out, with a handful of New Orleans diehards in their glory. It was a special day for those who made it, a 45 minute set, not unlike those solo performances at Jazz Fest or the Butt.
Mr. Butler was diagnosed with cancer in January of 2017 and continued to perform until as recently as June of this year.
I never once called him Henry the handful of times I was in his presence. Always Mr. Butler. I bet he dug it as much as I did. He was an amazing talent and I’m grateful that I got to hear him perform as many times as I did. Gonna miss Mr. Butler.
If you feel like checking out some of Henry Butler's music, I suggest the following records:
Blues After Sunset
Viper's Drag w/ Steven Bernstein and the Hot 8 Brass Band
Vu-Du Menz w/ Corey Harris (my personal fave)