Soul singer Billy Butler dead at 69
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Billy Butler’s voice was a beguiling mix of strong and plush.
That’s no surprise, when you consider two of his biggest influences were Curtis Mayfield, the soul giant whose purr was a featherbed for the ears, and his big brother, Jerry “Iceman” Butler, who sang with the luster of a pearl and the grit that made it.
The creator of an exuberant 1960s Chicago soul sound whose compositions were recorded by Al Green, Isaac Hayes and Bobby “Blue” Bland, Billy Butler died of cancer March 31 at a Chicago nursing home. He was 69.
A recording artist, songwriter, musician, arranger and producer, he wasn’t as well-known as his brother. Bad luck and timing made stardom elusive. “Billy was the guy who would have a hit record just as the record company went out of business,” said Jerry Butler, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
Still, “Billy Butler contributed some very fine songs to [the] 1960s R&B canon,” Lee Bey said on his Rivet Radio podcast, “Soul Closet.”
Mr. Butler got interested in music when he was about 12, according to “Only The Strong Survive,” the autobiography of Jerry Butler, who would form the Impressions with Mayfield. Billy Butler used to listen to them rehearse.
“When I first heard Curtis playing the guitar,” Billy Butler said, “I wanted to play just like that.”
His big sister Dorothy gave him a box guitar she got at a pawn shop, and “Curtis tuned it for him, and I sent him to Chicago’s Cosmopolitan School of Music at Lyon and Healy to learn how to play,” Jerry Butler wrote.
“He was a gifted guitar player,” said his sister, Mattie Butler.
But “What they were teaching me was not what I wanted to play,” Billy Butler said in the book. “They were teaching me classical guitar . . . what I wanted to play was rhythm and blues.”
Curtis Mayfield “taught Billy some of the ‘moves,’ I guess you would call it, and he said Billy was the only one who could play exactly like him,” said Jerry Butler, now a Cook County commissioner. For 27 years, Billy Butler accompanied his singing brother on guitar.
The Butlers grew up in public housing at Cabrini Green at 1117 N. Cleveland. They came from a religious family with roots in Sunflower, Mississippi. Their father, Jerry Butler Sr., worked for Chicago’s Streets and Sanitation department. Their mother, Arvelia Agnew Butler, looked askance at the blues and called the radio stations that carried that music “devil stations,” according to Jerry Butler.
Back then, people would excitedly gather at anybody’s house with “a black-and-white TV with two channels,” Jerry Butler told the Sun-Times. The kids were allowed to watch the TV show “Hit Parade,” and they learned how to write songs by reading “Hit Parade” magazine, he said in his autobiography. “The magazine printed out the sheet music of songs performed on the show. It helped us learn how not only to sight read but how to structure songs as well.”
His little brother formed the Enchanters while he was still at Wells High School. They evolved into the Chanters and had a 1965 hit with “I Can’t Work No Longer,” which Bey called “a pleasant little riff on Sam Cooke’s ‘Chain Gang.’ ”
In 1966, Mr. Butler had another hit, “Right Track,” a steppin’ classic that’s been dubbed a “floor-filler” for getting people up and dancing. With the lyrics, “I gotta keep on steppin’, never looking back, I believe that I’m on the right track’’ it had an infectious sound that fit in with “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “Dancing in the Street” by Martha Reeves & the Vandellas and Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Allright).” An international hit, it was especially big in England, Jerry Butler said.
Billy Butler wrote “Bless Our Love,” a song recorded by “Duke of Earl” Gene Chandler, and the Butler brothers co-wrote “I Stand Accused,” a single by Isaac Hayes.
Mr. Butler also formed another group, Infinity.
In his later years, he wrote many gospel songs and hoped to release a CD of those works, said his daughter, Yolanda Goff. “He always enjoyed writing love songs,” she said. “His last music gospel music was a serenade, a love for God.”
Mr. Butler also is survived by two more daughters, Kiwana Butler-Lewis and Doris Butler, and five grandchildren.
Services have been held.