Blowin’ out reeds with Lester Butler
This is one of the more readily available interviews with Lester Butler, but we’re including it here anyway:
Blowin’ out reeds with Lester Butler: Blues harp player/singer says the bad luck made him better
By Fred Shuster, Los Angeles Daily News Music Writer
March 28, 1997
Blues harpist Lester Butler says 13 is his lucky number, even though it spells bad news for others.
“There’s lots of symbolism behind it — bad luck and that whole deal,” Butler said. “But it’s always been lucky for me. All the bad things that happen make you stronger. The 13 thing is where the worst stuff can happen, but you can turn it around, and it actually helps you survive.”
Butler, who sings the blues with conviction and blows a mean Chicago-style harmonica, has been through the music-biz ringer. In the early ’90s, he led the Red Devils, a popular local combo that scored a deal with producer Rick Rubin’s Def American label. The band recorded an EP and a well-received live album titled “King King,” after the then-jumping club.
On Mondays, the Devils played to star-studded, packed houses at the now-defunct La Brea Avenue night spot. ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and Mick Jagger often dropped by. Queen’s Brian May, members of the Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz and Peter Wolf sat in with the band. Angelo from Fishbone would recite spoken word when he wasn’t playing saxophone.
“The Hollywood crowd showed up along with our skateboard punk-rock friends,” recalled Butler, who now leads the five-member Lester Butler and 13. “Then, it was time for the Red Devils to go on tour. But King King was only surviving because on Mondays there would be a line around the block for us.”
King King closed, and the Red Devils weren’t having an easy time on the road, where the band opened for the Allman Brothers and Los Lobos.
“The Devils left for five months,” Butler said. “On the first night in New York, our guitarist slugged our drummer in fun and gave him 28 stitches. Boys will be boys. Before long, the bass player had a broken leg. People were looking at us like, ‘What are these guys?’ The bass guitarist had a leopard skin cast and the drummer was sporting a big Frankenstein scar over his left eye.”
Butler describes the nightmarish scene like it’s something from “This Is Spinal Tap.”
At one point, the Red Devils were called into the studio by Rubin for separate recording sessions with Jagger and Johnny Cash. Butler and band recorded an entire album of blues covers with Jagger that was never officially released, but is available as a fascinating bootleg titled “Nature of My Game.”
“He blew my mind because when I went in, I thought, ‘Oh yeah, Mick Jagger, that old English dude,'” said the 37-year-old Butler. “We were strict Chicago blues guys. But Mick came in and sang the tunes by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Slim Harpo and Elmore James in the actual keys they were written in with all the right nuances. I always loved the Stones, but as a blues singer, Mick really knocked us out.”
With the Cash sessions, various musicians were called in for what eventually became the stark 1994 solo project, “American Recordings.” The Red Devils cut seven unreleased tracks with Cash.
The Devils broke up three years ago due to various differences. Butler’s new outfit, Lester Butler and 13, recently issued its self-titled debut on HighTone. The group — Alex Schultz (guitar), Andy Kaulkin (keyboards), Mark Goldberg (bass), James Intveld (drums) and Butler — appears at a record release party April 10 at Bar Deluxe in Hollywood.
The album is an authentic Chicago-style effort that features several heartfelt Butler originals including “Sweet Tooth,” “Black Hearted Woman” and “So Low Down.” Beck guitarist Smokey Hormel turns up throughout the disc.
“When you’re talking about blues, you’re talking about storytelling,” Butler said. “You have to bring something to the table. You have to have a story to tell.”
Butler has been known to go through a series of Hohner Marine Band harmonicas on stage by blowing the reeds out.
“As far as the L.A. blues scene, you’ve always had to go to Long Beach for gigs,” he said. “But the scene has gotten so much bigger now. We have a major venue on Sunset Strip booking blues. When has that ever happened before?”
Butler began playing harmonica as a child, but began taking it seriously at age 13, when he befriended influential local guitarist Hollywood Fats (born Michael Mann), who died in 1986 soon after he was hired by Phil Alvin for the Blasters.
“Fats stopped me one day, took me under his wing and turned me onto Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson,” Butler said. “I was walking down the alley behind his house near the pool hall where I hung out during high school. Every day, he would hear me play as I walked by. One day, he said, ‘Get over here!'”
Butler admits life as a professional musician can be difficult, but he wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“It’s a hard life playing music for a living,” Butler said. “But on the other hand, I’d be happy being poor and playing music for the rest of my life. Blues, to me, is a sort of healing thing.”
After the Red Devils split, Butler spent the next few years traveling to Europe with local musicians to play the blues in Amsterdam, Paris and London.
“But it’s all good now,” the harpist said. “That’s the thing. When you come through the hard times, you come through them wiser.”