A product of the "Great Migration," George "Wild Child" Butler (1936-2005) left his native Alabama for Chicago, Illinois, where he became a noted blues performer and harmonica player in that city's blues tradition. He referred to his personal style as "the swamp sound," which was characterized by his gutsy baritone growl.
Butler, the youngest of nine children, was born on October 1, 1936, in Autaugaville, Autauga County, to a Beatrice Butler, a sharecropper; his father was not present in his life. He displayed musical talent from his earliest days: at age five, Butler began singing at parties thrown by his family for their friends. Indeed, it was his habit of crawling across the floor and pulling at the skirts of the women guests at these parties that earned Butler his ubiquitous, lifelong nickname, "Wild Child." Butler's youthful mischief passed, but his musical talent blossomed. When he was 12, Butler fashioned a makeshift harmonica out of a can of Prince Albert tobacco and quickly learned to play the instrument. Perhaps as a result of this self-education, Butler played the harmonica upside-down for his entire career.
Butler lived most of his childhood in Alabama, save for a few years in the 1940s when he lived with his sister and mother in Chicago. In the mid-1950s, Butler returned to Chicago, following the path of the "Great Migration" that brought millions of African Americans to the urban North and that made Chicago the center of blues music in the 1950s. Butler quickly began playing around the city's bustling network of blues venues, as well as in Detroit with stars like John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck "Rice" Miller). Butler also occasionally performed in Alabama as well. In 1963, he made his first recording of two tunes he wrote—"Aching All Over"/"Down In The Chili"—for Sharp Records, a small independent label based in Montgomery. Despite the early promise, Butler's tenure at Sharp was unfulfilling and unprofitable. In 1968, he left the label to begin recording for Jewel Records, with whom he recorded 20 tracks. While working for Jewel, Butler also recorded several tracks at Chess Studios, the legendary Chicago recording house that produced many of the key recordings in Chicago blues and early rock and roll. By 1968, Chess was past its prime, but Butler was able to record with a group of marquee sidemen, including Jimmy Dawkins, Willie Dixon, and Big Walter Horton. Jewel surprisingly never released any of the sides Butler recorded at Chess. Instead, the label leased them out to other labels, including Charly Records, which finally released an album's worth of the sessions under the title Open Up Baby. Butler claimed that he received no payment under this arrangement.
Although his recording experiences had been negative, Butler remained popular on the performance circuit. By the late 1960s, he was performing frequently in the musically rich corridor between Houston, Texas, and New Orleans, Louisiana. He even played on a few sessions with Houston native Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins during this period. The journeyman musician occasionally made a few recordings, including an album for Mercury Records, Keep On Doing What You're Doing, which produced his signature song, "Gravy Child." In 1977, Butler released Funky Butt Lover on the TK Records label featuring Pinetop Perkins and Jimmy Rogers. It was popular enough to be reissued later by blues imprint Rooster. Butler, however, made most of his money and his fame touring, both in the United States and abroad. In 1981, he and his wife Elaine resettled in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, across the border from Detroit.
He kept up his active performing schedule, and continued to record on a variety of independent labels. His releases include Lickin' Gravy, released first on MC Records in 1989 and re-released in 1998, two releases on Bullseye Blues, These Old Men Blues (1991), Stranger (1994), and Sho' 'Nuff, released on APO Records in 2001. When asked about whether he would ever modify his classic sound for the sake of potential commercial success in a 2001 interview, Butler was quick to rebuke the notion.
Butler's link between the larger blues tradition and his personal place within it reflected his ability to distinguish himself as an artist and performer while placing his music within a continuum of sounds, songs, and musicians. Butler remained a true believer in the "rootsy" blues that was his trademark up until his death from a pulmonary embolism in Windsor, on March 1, 2005; he was buried there shortly thereafter.
Although George "Wild Child" Butler is perhaps not as famous as many of his contemporaries, his life and work is as much a
testament to the continuing power of blues traditions as any of his more well-known counterparts.
Gaughan, Jerry. "The Swamp Harp King." Bassharp.com, January 6, 2007. [See Related Links]
Santelli, Robert. The Big Book Of Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Charles L. Hughes
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Published March 1, 2010
Last updated February 8, 2013