“No one had a left hand like him,” trumpeter Steven Bernstein told the Times when Henry Butler died recently, of cancer, at 69. “It was so strong and fast, and he had such control…the tone, the dynamics, the speed. He did all these things that were so fast that no one else could do them. If you looked at his hands, they were blurs.”
Washed out of New Orleans after Katrina, Butler wended his way to New York where he teamed up with Bernstein and the Hot 9, a glorious collaboration on his last CD, Viper’s Drag. On Jelly’s “King Porter Stomp” he showcases that left hand in roaming high poetics. Likewise “Buddy Bolden’s Blues.”
Butler was an anchor of the New Orleans piano tradition, that line of impressionists that ran from Jelly to Fess, Fats and Booker, Allen Toussaint, Art Neville, Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr. and the reigning supremos, Tom McDermott and Jon Cleary, to name the most obvious.
Butler melded the left hand wizardry with a voice of deep power that scaled near-falsetto heights. Of his many recordings, the standouts begin with “You Are My Sunshine,” which cowboy singer Jimmy Davis, later the worst governor of modern Louisiana, made famous. (Davis was not the composer; he purchased the song rights and earned a fortune from it.)
“Sunshine” is one of those rare songs with simple, universal lyrics to traverse country, pop and blues designations. “You’ll never know dear/ How much I love you/ Please don’t take/ my sunshine away.” Ray Charles did a blow-out version of gospel echoes. Henry sang it in piano-pulsing blues, with a moan for the departed lover to give you chills of deja-vu from swamp slog of broken love.
It’s on Henry Butler PiaNOLA Live (Basin Street) which includes “Let ‘Em Roll” and “Something You Got” for those with the contagions for dance, and Henry’s take on “Tipitina.” He transforms the Professor Longhair classic with a 3-minute 23-second overture (my Dell timed it), of unrelated melody, equal parts rhapsody and boogie prancing till he hits the melodic button and then a belt of his own deep blues: “Misery and trouble! All because you ain’t right now, you gone and left me ‘n a happy home.”
On another magisterial CD, Homeland, he does “Ode to Fess” which takes the “Tipitina” melody and unspools a paean:
Oh Professor, oh Professor
You brought me so much joy
I loved your music
Since I was a baby boy.
Butler was blind; he grew up in Calliope housing project, learned Braille, attended a school for the blind in Baton Rouge, and as a voracious reader with a transcendent talent for music studied under Alvin Batiste at Southern and earned a Masters at Michigan State.
He was a mainstay at the Jazz and Heritage Festival, and one of the most exciting keyboard artists on stage in these parts. I got to know him in the late 90s. We had several phone conversations after century’s turn in which he voiced a disapproval of certain local politicians to make me wish I’d taped him for posterity.
The wit he brought to music extended to his idea of vision. With a little help from friends he took photographs, a good number of which can be found via the internet. Henry, you were a prince.