AFTER a period of relative quiet, the news came recently that Jerry Butler, certainly one of the stalwarts of soul music, had pacted with Motown Records. The development came as something of a surprise to Jerry's many fans mainly because the idea of matching "The Ice Man" with "The Motown Sound" seemed somewhat strange. But Jerry was glad to take some time out recently to talk with B&S about his recent activities and about how the whole thing came about.
"Well, my contract with Mercury was up in January — we'd been with the company since 1966, a total of about eight years. And I knew then that I wanted to move on. We'd had some very interesting offers — I was considering working again with Gamble & Huff and possibly joining Curtis Mayfield's new affiliation of Curtom with Warner Brothers. Before I made a final decision, I became aware that Motown were also interested in us doing a deal so I checked it all out. Well, you know Ewart Abner is now the President of the company and we go back a long way — in fact, it was Ewart who signed me to my first contract back with Vee Jay nearly two decades ago! So we've always had a strong personal relationship. It seemed almost like we'd gone full circle when Ewart suggested that we might team up again with me joining the company. So, after taking everything into account, I felt that this was the best thing for me to do — and so far, I'm more than satisfied that it was the right thing."
One of the problems that one might feel would face someone of Jerry's stature joining a company as large as Motown is the danger of getting lost in the shuffle. "You know, that is a danger that confronts an artist with any company he may join. After all, the number of independent companies left is so small. But it's not quite such a problem for me since I am, in a sense, a hybrid within the organization. Plus my approach to recording is somewhat different to what most of the artists adopt. I am more involved creatively and whilst a lot of other artists basically lean on the producers, I work more with the producers. You have artists like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye who are, of course, totally involved in their own thing and I like to think that I have something which is a little unique within the company. I feel it's like me joining a superstar team and coming in as a player!"
Jerry has been working constantly since signing with the company "in an effort to come up with the right formula — the right chemistry." He anticipates having an album release with Motown before the end of the year and is hoping for a single by August or September. "Right now, I've done sessions with Mark Davis. Plus we will be doing some things with Woodford & Ivey and I believe Hal Davis has some things he wants us to listen to. In a sense it's easier for us to work together because many of these guys are familiar with what I can do. We may not have worked together before but they've heard my records, they know my style. So it's not like we're dealing with an unknown quantity!" Jerry says that the marriage should bring a mixture of "Jerry Butler and the 'Motown Sound' — although that is so diverse now that it can't be reduced down to one particular thing."
"The Ice Man's" fans will be aware that Jerry instituted a writers workshop back in Chicago several years back and he says that the workshop will most decidedly still exist and that "now we're working with Motown, we have a whole new market to work for. After all, we have a large number of artists now at our disposal who may be interested in our material. The actual workshop is run by my brother, Billy Butler and Henry Blackwell and it basically evolved from the whole idea that the song is basically the main thing for any artist. And I found that a lot of material I was being offered just wasn't what I wanted. Through word of mouth more than anything else, people got to know that I had formed the workshop in Chicago and it has spawned a lot of successful writers. Both Charles Bevel and L.T.D. came out of there and although the venture may not have been as successful in financial terms as yet as we hoped, I am still happy that it has given exposure and prominence to great writers like Terry Callier and others. Aside from that, I have been collaborating with a guy named Mike Sutton over at Jobete so we will probably be coming up with some things."
Commenting briefly on the eight years he spent with Mercury, Jerry said: "As good as it was, it could have been better and then, as bad as it was, it could have been worse. We had a very good period from 1968 through to '71 and then things tended to take a bit of a nosedive. I guess it's just one of those situations that arises and you come to the situation where it's just best to split." Amongst the sessions Jerry had during the latter period with Mercury were the ones that produced his "Power of Love" album, with Johnny Bristol. "Johnny was fine to work with but the basic problem there was that he recorded in a different manner to how I usually do it. He had the rhythm tracks down and I had to sing — sometimes the keys were different. You know, I can sing in different ways and I guess we just didn't really have it all together in that sometimes the rhythm tracks weren't right for my voice. But I have to say that working with Johnny was a fine experience and he's a fine talent."
Jerry's basic future plans call for him to go back on the road around July for concerts and nightclub dates. That, of course, will be as soon as he's completed his sessions at Motown. On a closing note, we couldn't resist going backwards and asking Jerry exactly how he'd got that tag "The Ice Man". "Well," he explained genially, "that was originally given me by Georgie Woods, DJ at WDAS in Philly. It was because back then, I really wasn't like the other guys — Joe Tex, James Brown and The Isleys — jumping around, sliding on the stage and all. I just used to stand there and sing. And Georgie said I was cool. Next thing, it was cool as ice. Hence 'The Ice Man'!"
Ice man or nice man, whichever, Jerry Butler is set on the road back to the top of the charts now that he's with Motown and we all wait with bated breath to see the results of those first sessions. With Jerry's talent, those results will be well worth waiting for!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.