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Jerry Butler: Soul Survivor
Jerry "Iceman" Butler was an A-list soul singer, playing with Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding. Today, he mulls taxes and health care as the longest-serving member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

Thursday, April 07, 2011
Chicago Reader
by Ted Cox

It was 3 AM on a Saturday in late February, and during a recess in the Cook County Board of Commissioners' marathon session to pass its 2011 budget, a small reprieve arrived in the unexpected form of a 40-year-old ballad.

Only a few commissioners were on the floor of the board's meeting room as they waited for the latest set of budget amendments to be printed and delivered to their desks. Reporters, staff, department heads, and others with an interest in the late-night proceedings were seated in the audience area, talking quietly. With many of them struggling to stay awake, Commissioner Robert Steele slipped a little music onto the sound system via the iPad on his desk. He started with some smooth, quiet jazz that wouldn't have been out of place in an elevator, but then he got an impish look on his face and switched to something more suited to a Jackson Park barbecue: an old soul song called "Never Give You Up." The few people familiar with the track immediately started murmuring to those around them, and with good reason: the impassioned singer was sitting in the room.

Commissioner Jerry Butler was at his desk with his eyes closed, perhaps sleeping, perhaps just resting. When he recognized the music and sensed the attention focused on him, he at first frowned. Then a slow, sly, self-satisfied smile crept across his face. "OK, I'll go along with the joke," he told himself. "I better roll with it."

Butler's dignified carriage and unflappable demeanor are what earned him the nickname "The Ice Man." Coined 50 years ago by WDAS Philadelphia DJ George Woods and later shortened to simply "Iceman," the name is a product of a 1959 performance in Philadelphia where the public-address system went out and Butler kept singing, holding the audience and filling the theater with his big baritone.

There was a time, back in the late 60s, when Butler was one of the biggest stars in soul music, a creative collaborator to icons including Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding in an era that also found Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and the Temptations at or near the peak of their careers. Yet today Butler is more of a connoisseur's choice, not heard on the radio, even on oldies and dusties stations, as often as those other artists. The man fellow Cook County commissioner Larry Suffredin calls "one of the most modest people you'll ever see in public life" is more likely to deflect inquiries about his career in show business with his self-deprecating sense of humor.

When first told I wanted to do a profile on him, including his music career, Butler said, "Music, huh?" Then he turned away and muttered over his shoulder, "Thought I'd covered that up."

Born in Sunflower, Mississippi, in 1939, Butler was brought to Chicago by his parents three years later as they sought wartime jobs as part of the Great Migration. They settled in what would become the Cabrini-Green projects. It was not then the notorious housing project it would become, but it was still public housing and a place to escape to from somewhere else. As a student at the now-long-gone Washburne Vocational High School at Division and Sedgwick, Butler already had a plan for a better life—thanks to the school's cooking class, which also instructed adults under the G.I. Bill. Butler had worked in an uncle's restaurant on Orleans called Pearl's Kitchen, and he loved the bustling milieu and the clientele, ranging from police to prostitutes. "I was looking to find a safe landing," he said, to eventually open a place of his own or, at very least, ship out on a boat as a cook and see the world. "The singing was my avocation. It was what I wanted to do for fun."

Butler said that as far back as he can remember, he sang. "My mother used to sing, bouncing me on her knee, singing, and I think I picked it up from that."

Like many a soul singer, Butler first got serious with gospel. "All people who sing probably started in church," Butler said, "because that's one place you can be good or bad and somebody's gonna say, 'Amen.'" He gravitated through friends to the Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church, where he formed a group called the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, including a younger singer-guitarist named Curtis Mayfield, who would go on to be as essential to the development of Chicago soul, and to Butler's music, as Butler himself.

By the time he was 17, Butler committed himself fully to rhythm and blues, hooking up with a trio of Tennessee transplants who had a group called the Roosters: Sam Gooden and brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks. Mayfield, who had another group going, was enticed by Butler to join in short-term and see which act had a better chance of making it.

In those days, Butler listened to everything. When the local R&B stations would go off the air at midnight, he'd switch over to WLS AM for the country and western show, Prairie Farmer on the Air. "There was big jazz in this town and big blues, so we had all that converging."

The Roosters caught the attention of a man named Eddie Thomas—who, Butler writes in his 2004 autobiography, Only the Strong Survive: Memoirs of a Soul Survivor, showed up one night, "like out of nowhere . . . in this canary yellow and white Cadillac," calling himself a manager. Thomas drove the band around Chicago, which impressed them enough to earn their trust. Thomas thought "the Roosters" sounded too country; they settled on the Impressions instead at Thomas's suggestion.

The band started canvassing Record Row, the series of record companies based on South Michigan Avenue, and in 1958 got a contract offer from independent Vee Jay Records (the company that would first bring the Beatles to America a few years later) on the strength of "For Your Precious Love," a song Butler had written while "doodling" with poetry as a 16-year-old.

Heard today, "For Your Precious Love" still sounds haunting, perhaps because it's so innocently structured, the work of neophytes trying to arrive at something without a blueprint. It begins as almost a devotional hymn, but soon swings into more earthly, if no less elevated territory. Like the Dells' "Oh What a Night," it owes much to doo-wop, but takes it somewhere beyond. Music critic Joe McEwen would write in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll: "The song can almost be considered the first soul record." Butler was 19 when it was released, Mayfield 17.

The gospel feel dominates at the outset, but is soon transcended. "We were trying to find a new sound," Butler said. "We didn't want to be doo-wop. We wanted to have a different and lasting impression. There's no hook. There's nothing to sing along with. It's a poem set to music."

Vee Jay had at first contemplated a dancier tune as their first single. "But there was something in the song that went beyond dancing," Butler said, "and I think that's what makes hit records—the connectivity between the listener and the song."

The song peaked at number 11 in the Top 40 and reached third on the R&B charts, but with its success came problems. "Suddenly I am rich and famous," Butler said. "At least that's what people listening to the radio thought. So much so they told my mother she had to move out" of Cabrini-Green. So he put a down payment on a south-side home on 65th Place, a property he still owns, and the family moved.

The hit also caused friction within the group. As Butler explained in his autobiography, Vee Jay shocked them all by releasing "For Your Precious Love" with a label calling the group "Jerry Butler and the Impressions," under the belief that it would be easier to market the band behind the name and face of the big baritone out front. Called upon by industry types to act as leader of an increasingly fractious band he had no real control over, Butler left the group and went solo the following year.

"Fame didn't change me as much as it changed the people around me," Butler wrote in the book.

WVAZ FM dusties disc jockey Herb Kent, whose career in Chicago radio goes back further than Butler's, agreed. "I never caught any effect that he was starstruck or anything like that," Kent said. "Through his long career he's always just been cool and Jerry Butler—and a great singer."

Butler spent most of the 60s honing his craft while striving to settle on a single successful sound, and he epitomized much of Chicago soul in the decade. They were all chasing after the success of Motown in Detroit, but for better or worse no similar monolithic stylistic direction ever developed in Chicago.

"People always want to compare Chicago to Motown, and you can't do it. Motown was very stylized and very limiting to the writers and performers," Butler said. "The reason Chicago had no distinctive sound is because it had so many. You had Earth, Wind & Fire that came out of here. Minnie Ripperton came out of here. Curtis Mayfield, Mahalia Jackson, Muddy Waters."

Soul singers like Major Lance and Tyrone Davis had a series of hits in the 60s, yet today are barely remembered. Lance's "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um," written by Mayfield, has recently been revived in a TV commercial for processed food, giving it more airplay than it's probably had in decades. Even on Kent's weekend dusties shifts, a listener is less likely to hear Butler than a Motown artist or a Philadelphia stylist as one-dimensional as Barry White.

With the city's blues artists cornering the market on grit, the Chicago soul scene was more content to provide a whiff of sophistication in string arrangements and smooth horn charts widely divergent from the saucier honking of Memphis. Compared with Motown or Memphis, Chicago had more of a glide. And Butler was proving himself one of the great all-rounders, comfortable in any setting, as long as it served his own abilities.

Butler displayed his mature mastery of crooning soul on the Burt Bachrach production "Make It Easy on Yourself" and his version of "Moon River," which actually predated and heavily influenced Andy Williams's cover, right down to the harmonica. "I was trying to get to Vegas," Butler said, following in the footsteps of idols like Nat "King" Cole, and it needs to be remembered that in that era almost all popular recording artists were after the same goal, including Motown, with Barry Gordy trying to get the Supremes and the Temptations first into New York City's Copacabana and then on to Vegas.

By that time, Butler had reunited with Mayfield, dragging him back into the music business after Mayfield had all but abandoned it and was working at the Alfred Dunhill cigar shop downtown.

Vee Jay executive Calvin Carter had first suggested "Moon River" to a doubtful Butler. "I said, 'It's a waltz, and black people don't waltz,'" he recalled. "So Curtis and I, we take the song, we go up to Idlewild, Michigan, and we mess around with it. And I said, 'Let's put it in 4/4 time.'" That improved it markedly for their purposes, but also stretched it out. "So we speeded it up. And fortunately when we sped it up it took on a sort of a Latin feel. Well, the big dance at the time was the cha-cha, and so people could do the cha-cha to 'Moon River'—my version. They couldn't do it on [Henry] Mancini's version, and they couldn't do it on all the other versions that were out there."

Yet there's no denying, for small-scale successes like that, Butler sounded more relaxed and more assertive in compositions like "He Will Break Your Heart," the lovely duet he recorded with Mayfield that also had a Latin tinge, thanks to Mayfield's distinctive guitar style. He said that "Make It Easy on Yourself" wasn't what he did best, because he was singing Burt Bachrach's song: "We probably didn't get along as well as we should have, because he wanted his song to sound a certain way, and I wanted to sound a certain way." Bachrach soon found his perfect interpreter in Dionne Warwick, but Butler went through the rest of the decade trying to arrive at a set sound, shifting to Mercury Records and cycling through a series of producers.

In those years, his greatest songwriting success arrived in part by accident: "I've Been Loving You Too Long," which he cowrote with Otis Redding. "I'll give you a Michael Jordan, now—he cowrote it with me," Butler said with a chuckle. "I had been toying with this idea—I've been loving you too long to stop now—for about a year and a half."

After a show in which they shared a bill in Buffalo, New York, in a strange town with nothing to do, the two retired to their hotel to work on some songs. Butler played what he had of "I've Been Loving You Too Long," but complained that he was stuck at the bridge. Redding returned to Memphis with a recording he made of Butler's early version.

"The next time I heard it, it was on the radio," Butler recalled. "And I said, 'As bad as I needed a hit record, I just gave it to him.' But he was supposed to do it. Nobody else, I believe, could have given it what he gave it. He just gave it a life all its own."

Butler was about to enjoy another collaborative success, having heard the first records out of Philadelphia by producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. "I said, 'What a fresh sound these guys have,'" he recalled, and asked Mercury to arrange sessions, which the company approved. Over their year working together, Gamble and Huff recorded Butler's twin album masterpieces, The Ice Man Cometh and Ice on Ice, both released in 1969 and including his signature song, "Only the Strong Survive."

The albums produced ten singles, six of which made the Top 40, and two of which topped the R&B charts: "Only the Strong Survive" and "Hey, Western Union Man." Today, it's still something of a mystery why they don't get more radio play. The innovative use of strings, which sets off the gruffness of Butler's otherwise tender baritone, points directly to the Philadelphia sound that would come to dominate 70s soul just as Motown dominated the 60s. Yet the songs also rock in a way meant to compete in the Top 40 with Motown's Funk Brothers house band and Memphis's Booker T. and the MG's. Butler was at the peak of his powers as an impassioned storyteller.

"Huff would start playing," Butler said, "and we would start humming melodies, and I'd put the rhymes together, and in 45 minutes to an hour we would have a song."

The collaboration, while fruitful, was short-lived. Gamble and Huff soon launched their own Philadelphia International record company. "They came to me right at the time I was renegotiating my contract with Mercury," Butler recalled. "They said, 'Oh well, you can come with us.' I said, 'I don't know if I want to gamble my whole career.'

"I'm sitting here, I had a big year with Mercury, they offered me a big contract, and to walk away from that to go with an unproven label . . . just didn't make sense.'"

Philadelphia International went on to reign over soul music in the disco 70s. Butler never attained the same level of success, although he did have hits such as "Ain't Understanding Mellow," a duet with Brenda Lee Eager that built on his earlier "Let It Be Me" with Betty Everett.

Asked if he regretted not going with Gamble and Huff, Butler said, "Of course," then laughed again, adding that he likely would have had an ownership stake in what turned out to be the biggest soul label of the decade. "But I might have gone with them and had no more [success] than I'd had already."

Yet, even while expressing regret, Butler never seemed rueful. "Folks always say, 'Would you do anything differently?' And I say, 'If you don't do anything differently, if you get a chance to do it again, then you didn't learn anything the first time.'"

As it is, he didn't do too badly. Schooled early on by manager Eddie Thomas, the man who named the Impressions, Butler retained control over song publishing, the lucrative end of the business many soul artists were gypped out of by record companies, Gordy's Motown foremost among them. Butler and Mayfield instead formed Curtom Publishing in the early 60s, and Butler collected better-than-decent songwriting royalties, sharing with Redding on "I've Been Loving You Too Long" (still his most profitable single royalty) and with Gamble and Huff on their songs together (something they never did with Philadelphia International artists). Butler said they even made sure to get fair treatment for "Only the Strong Survive" when Elvis Presley covered it, even though Colonel Tom Parker was notorious for negotiating sweetheart deals before Elvis touched anything.

Although he briefly considered a move to Los Angeles when he signed with Motown in the 70s, after it had relocated to Southern California, Butler and his family stayed put in Chicago. "My family, my wife's family, were here," he said. And here they stayed, settling in the Lake Meadows area of Hyde Park.

In the 1980s, as his recording career waned, Butler's focus gradually drifted from music to civic life, in some ways following his younger sister, Mattie. In response to an "arson for profit" that left a woman and 13 children dead, Mattie formed a Woodlawn neighborhood activist group where today she remains executive director.

He was inspired to enter politics by Harold Washington's election as Chicago mayor in 1983 and his "Council Wars" struggles against a majority block of white aldermen led by Eddie Vrdolyak and Ed Burke. At the time, Butler was mostly occupied running a beer distribution company he'd formed in 1973 with partner Ron Bogan.

"One day we were riding around talking about the Vrdolyaks and the Burkes and the 29-21, and I said, 'You know, somebody ought to . . . '" Bogan interrupted him: "Yes, always somebody. Why not you?"

Butler first thought about pursuing a seat in the state house of representatives and contacted Bobby Rush, who came back saying Washington had already committed to another candidate in the race. "He thinks you probably could beat her out because of your name recognition," Butler recalled Rush saying, "but where we really need some help is at the Cook County Board."

In what was then an at-large race, Butler was swept in as an independent Democrat with Washington's backing in 1986, along with Charles Bernardini and Bobbi Steele. They were joining a body that at the time had one African-American, John Stroger, and one Hispanic, Irene Hernandez. While they didn't immediately alter the direction of the board, they altered the debate, something Butler continues to affect as senior member of the 17-person body.

Today, Butler is the longest-serving member of the board, whose main responsibilities are governing Cook County's courts, jails, and health care. He speaks passionately about the injustices that take place on county law enforcement's watch, but has devoted most of his energies to health care—serving as chair of the Health and Hospitals Committee almost as long as he's been on the board. "It was, 'Give that to him, we can't fix it,'" Butler recalled, but he's defended the system ever since.

These days, Butler makes his voice heard by backing such measures as a 2007 ordinance that imposed a one-percentage-point county sales tax increase—then president Todd Stroger's proposal to stabilize the government—and created the independent Health and Hospitals System board, whose meetings Butler attends regularly as the County Board's liaison.

In 2009 he voted against a partial reduction of that tax increase and earned the enmity of the Tribune editorial board, which lumped him together with other tax-and-spend Stroger loyalists and campaigned for his defeat in the 2010 election. "I was very upset by that," Butler said. "But that's politics."

What the Tribune ignored, however, is that Butler wasn't a Stroger loyalist, but backed Hyde Park alderman Toni Preckwinkle in the Democratic Primary, joined by only Suffredin among county commissioners. When she won and coasted into office in the general election, Butler recently backed her bid to fully rescind the sales-tax increase with her promise to remain committed to health care.

During February's budget marathon, he shepherded several amendments through the process and successfully fought bids to pad the budget with pork-belly minority hiring sought by Commissioner William Beavers and others. "I'm grateful for him," Preckwinkle responded. "He's not only my commissioner, but he was one of the two people on this body who supported me in the Democratic Primary in February 2010. So this is just another reason for me to be indebted to him."

Adds Commissioner Suffredin: "I think [Butler] got into [politics] for only one reason—he felt that he had a voice because of all the blessings he'd been given, and that he could use it for other people."

Suffredin points out that there are other perks of sitting next to Butler on the County Board: "I know a meeting is going well because he'll hum to himself. The moment he stops humming, it's like, 'Oh my God, something's about to happen.'"

Aside from serving the community at large through his County Board seat, Butler has also tried to give back to the musical community. In the early 1970s he formed the Jerry Butler Songwriting Workshop, which nurtured the careers of Donnie Hathaway and Natalie Cole and songwriters Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancey, among others. He also went on to serve as chairman of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, which attempted to address wrongs done to artists less business-minded than Butler had been. That led him to play host to a series of PBS specials reviving old soul artists.

The only thing that seems more important to Butler than music and politics is family, though all three have intertwined throughout his life. In addition to jump-starting Butler's interest in politics, Mattie Butler joined her brother's performing act as a background singer in the 70s. Their younger brother, Billy, who also had his own career in music, joined them in the 80s to form the Iceman Band. They still perform, Mattie says. "It's more laid-back, but [Jerry's] stage has always been a laid-back stage."

Kent agreed on Butler's stage manner. "I don't think Jerry was a jump-around guy," he said. "He'd come out in a tuxedo and do his thing and you loved him. By the time he was through, everybody was on their feet."

As a performer with a lover-man, soul-singing public persona, Butler's lasting appeal is based on a penchant for remaining steadfast, even in the face of unrequited love. Mattie says her brother has always been a romantic. "He loves to talk about love and the feeling of love, and he really does love a lot of people—genuinely." And steadfast he has been, especially in his marriage to his wife, Annette—which has lasted for more than 50 years—although he insists on privacy. He made little mention of his marriage and their two sons in his autobiography, for example.

"It was not supposed to be an exposé," he said. "You know, it's an unusual kind of reputation to have, that you've been married for a long time in show business and politics. Nuff said."

"His wife has been very ill," Suffredin said, "and he has been so attentive. It's a real testimony to the marriage."

"You know, I have lived well. My wife probably would say I could've lived better," Butler said, punctuating the humor with that low, rumbling chuckle. Then he playfully quoted Frank Sinatra in saying he earned "more than I expected, but not as much as I deserved."

"Did I make 40, 50 million dollars? No. Did I keep one or two? Yes. The old guys on the street used to say, 'It's not how much you make. It's how much you keep.'"



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