Senior Spotlight: 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 healthcare as the longest-serving member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
There was a time, back in the late 60s, when Jerry 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. 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.
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’ 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 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 southside 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. Butler spent most of the 60’s 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.”
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’ 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. In those years, his greatest songwriting success arrived in part by accident: “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” which he co-wrote with Otis Redding. “I’ll give you a Michael Jordan, now — he co-wrote 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 70’s soul just as Motown dominated the 60’s.
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 70’s. 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.'”
Although he briefly considered a move to Los Angeles when he signed with Motown in the 70’s 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.
Today, Butler is the longest-serving member of the board, whose main responsibilities are governing Cook County’s courts, jails and healthcare. 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.
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 70’s. Their younger brother, Billy, who also had his own career in music, joined them in the 80’s to form the Iceman Band. They still perform, Mattie says. “It’s more laidback, but [Jerry’s] stage has always been a laid-back stage.”
“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.'”