Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page

by Jerry Gaughan - 1989
George Wild Child ButlerOn October 1, 1936, in Autaugaville, Alabama, a 13-year-old girl, Beatrice Butler, gave birth to the first of her nine children, a baby boy who was to become the subject of this interview: George Wild Child Butler. George remembers, "On Sundays some of the older ladies would come to the shack where we lived to visit my mother, and even as a toddler I would grab their legs and tug their skirts. The ladies would tell my mother that she had to do something about that Wild Child, and the name just stuck". In fact, when you meet George Butler, one finds him to be a pleasant, higy personable man with a ready smile as big as an Alabama cotton field, and in no way in keeping with the image conjured up by the name Wild Child.

George Wild Child Butler is one of the most stylistically interesting and underrated blues performers in the business today. In this, an era when Blues is so frequently used with rock, soul and other more commercially viable music forms, Wild Child stands his artistic ground. Today George Butler plays and sings his blues in exactly the same authentic style that he developed and learned from his rural Alabama sharecropping mentors over forty years ago. Wild Child was asked: "If it meant that you could be far more commercially successful, would you change your style?" His answer was quick and definitive: "No I would not! Record companies have asked me to do that before. I wouldn't do it then, and I wouldn't do it now, just to sell more records. The way I do my blues, that's me! The blues isn't just something that I do, it's something that I am". George is polite but firm with his audiences: "Do BB King", a patron calls, and Wild Child replies, "Perhaps BB King will play here sometime, but you've got the Wild Child up here tonight".

George relates how he started in the blues: "My peoples used to have parties, all night jukes, and I was still so small that at the age of five they would stand me up on the table to sing my blues. My peoples were poor sharecroppers who worked the fields and I would see them taking their instruments with them when they went to work. They would play their blues during their lunch and any other breaks they might get." Wild Child is the product of an authentic cultural tradition, playing as he does the music that he learned and adapted from these people. In true folk tradition, George made the most of what was at hand. "At the age of twelve I made my first harmonica out of an old Prince Albert tobacco can," George remembers, "I closed in the one end, filled the can about half full of thin gravel, cut holes in the other end into which I moaned, and the swamp-harp sound was born". George plays his blues with a snapping style and retains to this day that swamp tone that is his trademark. "No one ever taught me how to hold a harmonica", George recalled, "and so I learned to play it bottom up, just like a left handed guitar player. The sound that I got was so uniquely my own that people just encouraged me to continue doing it in my own way." In fact, George's purist insistence on doing his blues in his own way has led him to part company with more than a few back-up bands.

George lived with a younger sister and his mother in Chicago for a brief period of time in the mid 40's but he did not move to Chicago on his own until the mid 50's. George also spent some time during this period of his career playing around Detroit with such blues legends as John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson II. The 1950's represented the most fertile period for the Chicago Blues and Wild Child immersed himself in the Chicago scene, hanging out on the corners with Little Eddie Taylor and other blues greats. In 1963, George cut his first sides in Montgomery, Alabama, for the Sharp label, "ACHING ALL OVER" and "DOWN IN THE CHILI", a harmonica instrumental, both Wild Child originals. In fact, unlike many better known blues artists, Wild Child writes most of what he records. George's first and only record release on the Sharp label has since become somewhat of a collector's item. After an artistically frustrating and totally non-lucrative five year stint with the Sharp label, George moved on to an association with Stan Lewis and the Jewel label. George recorded about twenty sides for the Jewel label in the Chess studios in Chicago, featuring as side men some of the finest performers of the Chicago Blues tradition, including Johnny Young, Mighty Joe Young, Big Walter Horton , and Willie Dixon to name just a few of George's legendary back-up musicians. In spite of the high quality of these performances the Jewel label never actually released an album of Wild Child Butler, although they had more than enough material. They chose instead to later lease much of the material that George had recorded to other labels, most notably the Charly label, who released the material on an album which is still available called "OPEN UP BABY" . Serious blues lovers should take note of the fact that as an artist George receives absolutely no remuneration whatsoever form such leasing arrangements: in fact, George is never even informed when such leasing are going to occur and only learns of their existence by finding the records in the stores.

George remained active throughout the 60's and from 1966 he performed mainly in Houston and New Orleans. He worked extensively with the late Cousin Joe Pleasant and Roosevelt Sykes in New Orleans and the great Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins in Houston. George appears as a sideman on a number of sides with Lightnin' Hopkins, the best known of which being the album on the Jewel label entitled "TALKING SOME SENSE". He was next signed to a contract by the Mercury label; in fact George observes, "The record companies always wanted me to sign an exclusive contract, and their people always met me with a paper their hand." George did an album for the Mercury label entitled "KEEP ON DOING WHAT YOU'RE DOING". This album contained brand new Wild Child material including "HIPPIES PLAYGROUND" and also the song that has become most associated with George, "GRAVY CHILD" . However, during this period Mercury Records experienced severe distribution problems and granted George's request of an outright release from his contract with them. "KEEP ON DOING WHAT YOU'RE DOING" on the Mercury label should be a prime candidate for re-release as a blues classic. George next recorded on the TK label in 1977 doing an album entitled "FUNKY BUTT LOVER". TK Records soon went out of business and George had to go to considerable trouble to regain possession of his original master, which he later leased to Rooster Records. From 1977 until 1986 George was a part of an all-star blues package including Ted Harvy, Sam Lay, Jimmy Rogers and Wild Child Butler. His travels with this package took him from Atlanta, Georgia, to Whitehorse in the Yukon, and just about everywhere in between. During this period of his career George appeared in nearly every state in the union, but ironically rarely in Chicago itself. When he did appear in Chicago, he would be asked to close shows by the legendary Howlin' Wolf, an honor granted to few performers. George's powerful singing style is often compared to that of Howlin' Wolf and one syndicated blues DJ even referred to him as a Howlin' Wolf  imitator, which established the fact that the DJ knew little about either man.

The question most frequently asked of me, as a blues DJ, concerning Wild Child is why isn't he better known than he is? George Butler has been the victim of questionable business practices on the part of record companies. He states, "Why, an executive of one company even went so far so to claim the authorship of some of my songs." George believes his greatest problem in the past to have been extremely poor management: he states quietly, "I really believe that it was just poor management." Until recently those who managed his career considered his unique blues purity to be a liability instead of the obvious asset that it could and should be in his career. Wild Child has also had more than his share of just plain bad luck. George notes: "No sooner did my record come out on Mercury than they had major distribution problems. TK went under shortly after my record was released, and even Rooster was unable ot release my latest album for four years." All of these situations were totally beyond his control and yet they combined to put his career temporarily on hold.

When I asked George why, as a blues DJ, I receive so few requests from black kids he replied, "Those young black kids don't know nothing about the blues. The stations that they listen to don't play the blues. When I come into a town to do a show, the local bands will say that they can play the blues, but never the down home blues, and when they hear what I do, they say, 'we can't play that because we've never heard it'. The rap records that the black kids listen to are nothing but musically simplified versions of the old time original talking blues. We'd come up on someone's porch with a whole rap of rhyming and jive and they'd say get out of here with them lies. Now they're on the hit parade, listened to by kids who don't know their own history, and that's a shame because you've got to know where you've been to know where you're going". One of the things I respect Wild Child Butler the most for is his complete refusal to work for less money than he feels that he's worth. George says, "I've been in this business a long time, and yet there are still people who want me to work for what I got twenty years ago, and I won't do that!" I asked George, "In spite of all the hard times and bad luck, why do you still keep going?", and he replied with an audible grin, "The blues is the facts of life, the truth, and the blues is what I'm about." Indifferent agents, unethical record companies, insensitive audiences and the tough life on the road have not squelched the blues fire in Wild Child Butler. In fact, George is more optimistic about his career today than he has ever been and with good reason. Things are definitely looking up for the Swamp-harp King - who is one authentic original folk blues artist who can in his own words, "Sho' 'nuff make the blues come down.".