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Number 4 (Spring 1995)

Interview with Mark Naftalin

           "Mark Naftalin [is] the best piano player I know. His school of playing is very similar to the way I play. And in blues, next to Ray Charles, I've never heard a better blues pianist. Mark and I have very similar tastes, and also we're into a lot of improvisation." -- Michael Bloomfield, Guitar Player Magazine, August 1971.

           With The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, or simply as Bloomfield and Friends, Mark Naftalin and Michael Bloomfield were musical partners and friends from the mid-'60s on. Mark was also active during that time period performing and recording with a broad range of artists including James Cotton, Lowell Fulson, Nick Gravenites, John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal, Percy Mayfield, Van Morrison, Mother Earth, Otis Rush, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner and many others.

           From 1979-1983 Mark hosted a series of concerts and radio shows known as "Mark Naftalin's Blue Monday Party," featuring over 60 blues artists.

           Today Mark is active performing in solo appearances as well as in an on-going partnership with guitarist Ron Thompson. He is the founder and producer of the Marin County (California) Blues Festival, now in its fifteenth season. His weekly radio show, "Mark Naftalin's Blues Power Hour," is heard on Monday nights over KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco.

           We recently spoke with Mark about the early days in Chicago, memories of Michael and the Butterfield Band, and the new live Butterfield Blues Band CD.

           Bloomfield notes: How did you end up in Chicago?

           Mark Naftalin: I ended up in Chicago because I went to college there. I was still a kid, but I had been playing for a long time. I had played in a blues style with a band in Minneapolis, Johnny and the Galaxies, so I was on the lookout for musical opportunities. I heard there was a guy named Elvin Bishop around who played blues, and my first meeting with him was during my first year in Chicago, the spring of 1962. We got together in a dormitory basement where there was a piano and we jammed. It did not turn into an ongoing day-to-day connection between us at that time but that is, in fact, where we first encountered each other.

           I went to The University of Chicago, and there was something that happened there that became known as the Twist Party. This was the Twist era. It was a Wednesday night event, and it started out with a few people playing records in one of the dormitory lounges there, and somehow it became an institutionalized thing and it began to grow and more people became involved, and it became a kind of happening.

           At some point musicians began to appear and play live instead of playing records. I remember at that time I purchased an electric guitar and got a little amplifier. I used to go over to the scene and there'd be some playing going on and I'd go over and play, mostly bass lines on guitar.

           Musicians started to show up, and I remember Mike Bloomfield showed up on at least one occasion, with a band. This was still in the dormitory, the New Dorm it was called, right in the lounge when you first walk in, not a very large or especially appointed space, just some couches and what have you.

           I remember my interchange with him. I didn't know him, I was just sort of hanging around there, and he was playing some of the fastest licks I'd ever heard in my life, and so I said to him, "How come you play so fast?" and he said "Because I practice a lot." And then years later when I got to be friends with him I recalled that to him and he said, "Oh, that was a lie."

           So I don't at this moment know if it was in fact a lie, or an accurate reflection of what he did and how he explained what he did. In any case one doesn't play with that kind of fluidity without first practicing a lot, that's obvious.

           I had no further contact with Mike until he showed up in New York City with the Butterfield Band, although the guitar and little amp that I bought ended up belonging to him. When I got tired of them I sold them to Mike through an intermediary, Mark Dorenson, who lived in the same apartment building I lived in. So I knew where the guitar and amp went but I still didn't know Mike. He later regretted getting rid of that stuff because that amp was like a two-watt amp built into an attache‚ case and it had the truly overdriven sort of John Lee Hooker-esque rasp to it.

           Anyway, the Twist Party grew, in my second and third years there, it became a little bit larger event, moved over to a neighboring building, which is called Ida Noyes Hall, which served as the Student Union. It wasn't really much of a Student Union by the standards of the Big Ten. I went to the University of Minnesota Grade School and High School, so I was very familiar with the University of Minnesota campus, and the Student Union there was a massive structure. This wasn't anything like that, but it did have this little ballroom in there, and so that's where the Twist Parties ended up. They started charging a dime at the door, and black people, neighborhood people from around there starting attending.

           The University of Chicago is right in the middle of the Southside, and the neighborhood itself is a black neighborhood, and there did turn out to be a mix of black and white people at these events, which of course is very good, and that was also true among the musicians.

           Butterfield started coming in -- at this point this would have been 1962 and 1963 -- and he had teamed up with Elvin, and they were performing in the first formations of what was to become the Butterfield Blues Band. They used to come in with a couple of guys known as the Wilson Brothers; they were the rhythm section. They would play there and it was great; it was wonderful music. There was an acoustic piano there and I used to play along with them, not to any great audible effect -- unamplified acoustic piano playing with an electric band doesn't really cut too much -- but I was, in a sense, a part of the music when I did that, and I always looked forward to doing it. It was always very enjoyable, and a good experience. It's part of learning.

           Later on when I was going to school in New York, in January or February of 1965, Paul and Elvin showed up with the rhythm section they first recorded with, Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay, and they played at the Village Gate, I think it was. I went to hear them and it was some of the best music I'd ever heard in my life, a very pure form of Butterfield -- it was all Butter. Then they came back through in the summer and played at the Cafe Au Go Go -- by this time Mike was part of the band - and I played along with them, once again on an unamplified acoustic piano. Paul said it was OK to play so I just banged it out and played along, and it wasn't too long after that that I was actually taken into the band.

           Bn: When was that?

           MN: September ninth was the date, I'll never forget it, because it was a very important date to me. I had been in school in New York for one year at the Mannes College of Music studying composition, and I had spent that summer trying to get involved with professional music. I had taught myself Fender bass and I was trying to get myself into a band as a bass player because I didn't see much of a market for keyboard players -- it was the Beatles era -- and I got a couple of gigs that way.

           The Butterfield Band came to town. They were working on their record and I went by the studio. They had already recorded one whole album which they had rejected for release, and they were still trying. They said they might try some organ at the end of the session, but I wasn't patient enough to hang out, so I went home.

           I did go back the next day and Elvin was late, so they put me on his track and ran the tape and we played something. Actually that song was released on the first album -- "Thank You Mr. Poobah"; I play a solo on it. If your consummate B-3 organist is Jimmy Smith, this won't really fill the bill at all. I don't think I'd ever touched a Hammond organ in my life prior to that time. I really didn't have any concept of it, but I wanted to play. I did what I could with it under the circumstances, and Paul seemed to like it, the other guys seemed to like it, and they invited me to keep playing.

           When Elvin showed up he had to share his track with me. If that bothered him he never said so. If I'd been in his position I don't think I would have been too crazy about it, but as the case may be we went on making music and they went on playing the music they had been playing except with organ added, and they never asked me to stop. By the time the session was over eight songs had been done of the eleven that are on that first album.

           During the course of the session Paul invited me to join the group and asked if I could go on the road to Philadelphia with them that weekend, and I said sure. Had it not been for that I would have gone back to school. I already had my degree -- I was simply studying because I wanted to learn. That's the best way to study, of course.

           So that certainly is a real Cinderella story. It set me on a course in my life that I'm still on. Or you might say I was already on that course, musically, because I didn't pick up my feeling for blues music or my knowledge of blues music and artists following that moment -- I'd been real involved with it already for a number of years, that was my thing. I was already a stylist, although I certainly improved vastly during my time playing with those great musicians. After two and a half years in that band I had been on recordings, I knew people in the music business, I had some reputation, and was able to proceed with other professional activities -- more recordings with different groups and players.

           Bn: Were you at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when the Butterfield Band backed up Bob Dylan?

           MN: I wasn't there because I hadn't joined the Butterfield Band yet, but Mike told me that, as he put it, Barry Goldberg schlepped his organ all the way out to Newport hoping to get the gig with Butterfield, and didn't get it, and Barry ended up putting together a band with Steve Miller.

           Mike says that during the course of that fateful recording session I described he told Paul, "You didn't hire Barry so you had better hire Mark." I will never know if that is apocryphal -- if that is in fact what was said -- because both people are gone now. I'd be curious to know because if in fact Mike did say that I can say I sure do appreciate it, because there was nothing in the world I would have liked to do more than to join that band.

           Bn: Why did you leave The Butterfield Band?

           MN: I left in 1968 during the time the fourth album was in preparation. I had several reasons. One of them was that I was weary of being on the road, which I had been professionally for over two years -- it seemed like a long time then although it seems like a short time now. I had experienced what it was like to live out of a suitcase and it wasn't something that attracted me as a lifestyle.

           Also, I was eager to work on my music and my chosen instrument, which is piano. I continue to play other instruments, and I don't say that I love piano more than other instruments but it always was my main instrument. I love playing organ, I love playing accordion, and I play some guitar, and a few other things. I wasn't playing any acoustic piano with Butterfield except on recordings, only organ and electric piano, and I felt a strong urge to work on piano. As I proceeded in life I did that and I worked on other areas of music such as writing, composing songs with lyrics as well as instrumentals, vehicles for improvisation.

           Bn: How was the Mother Earth experience different from the Butterfield Blues Band?

           MN: It would be difficult and unfair to compare any group of musicians with the Butterfield Band as I first encountered it, with Paul and Mike, and Elvin, and Jerome and Sam. The Butterfield Band had changed somewhat after Mike left, and there was a broadening of musical possibilities within the group.

           What I did with Mother Earth also covered somewhat of a broad range. It was a good opportunity for me. I was co-producer of the album and did some of the arranging. The people I was playing with were good, soulful people, like George Rains, Bob Arthur, and Toad Andrews. They could have stepped into the Butterfield Band and done the gig, so in that sense it wasn't as different as some other gigs I've done, like touring with David Cassidy.

           Bn: Are you familiar with the recordings of Mike with Big Joe Turner that surface from time to time?

           MN: I play on those. Those are from several different shows. Those were bootlegged by the guy who made the tapes. The difference between him and me, with respect to releasing documentary recordings, is that I understand that I own the tapes, but am required to secure the rights. Releasing those bootlegs was an insult to Mike. There was no editing or artistic control. A lot of that's not his best playing, in my opinion.

           The guy that bootlegged those tapes started out as a friend of ours but somewhere along the line decided that being a gonif was the name of the game. People like Nick and me, that are good people, don't feel very good about people like him, that are just bloodsuckers.

           Bn: We understand you are preparing a CD release of never-before- available live Butterfield Blues Band recordings.

           MN: I'm preparing an album from tapes I own. In order to release the tapes legally and ethically I need permission, which I have received, from the company that had the contract with Butterfield when the recordings were made, which is Elektra, and from the other musicians.

           It's nine songs -- some are longer songs -- and it's about forty-eight minutes long altogether. Mike's on four songs. It's more than anything a tribute to Paul Butterfield. It covers the time when Mike was in the band and the first year after his departure.

           The name of the album is Strawberry Jam. The title song is a composition of mine that Paul plays beautifully on that was never recorded in the studio. I wrote the song and the horn arrangement. Butterfield blows harp notes on this that are unbelievable -- you don't know what to compare it to. I must say I gave him a vehicle that he could express his soul on.

           I also have a number of recordings of the band that are not on the album. I have about ten reels of tape. I had to go with what I had in terms of putting together a package that would fit well together. There are a number of things in this collection of tapes that would be very exciting for Bloomfield fans and perhaps some of them will reach the marketplace in the future, if I can make the necessary legal arrangements. I have three versions of "East-West" among the tapes, they are approximately 12 minutes, approximately 15 minutes, and the longest one is closer to 30 minutes. Individually or collectively they might suggest more of what the song really tended towards, perhaps more than what was heard on the East-West album which I considered to be a rather pale rendition of what the tune really was. It was a very exploratory wild experience in concert that extended as it developed into performance times of an hour or more.

           Bn: Can you tell us about the other recordings available on Winner?

           MN: Besides the new live Butterfield recording, there are three releases. One of them is a 45. One side is the theme music I use on my radio show, it's five instruments all played by me. The other side is a piano solo recorded during one of the "Blue Monday Party" radio shows. The other two releases are albums, Just Like A Devil by Ron Thompson, and Percy Mayfield Live, and are also from the "Blue Monday Party" radio shows.

           I'm very proud of both albums. Ron is an extremely powerful artist, and is a walking encyclopedia of blues guitar, acoustic and electric.

           The Percy Mayfield recording is something I'm especially proud of. My friendship with him was one of the most meaningful relationships that I was ever involved in. The value of it lingers on, day after day. It always will. He was a great artist and a great person. Just to be with him was an experience. To me as a blues pianist there is no deeper, fuller way to express one's art than in conjunction with a great blues singer. Although I've grown and matured in the twelve years since those recordings were made, in some ways I may never show myself better. I may never play with a better blues singer. So I'm eager for people to know about that release. If they're interested in me I'm sure they won't be disappointed. And even if they're not interested in me, I can't imagine any blues fan is going to be disappointed. Everybody that hears it loves it.

           Bn: Would you share some of your feelings about playing music with Mike?

           MN: I can say I had the sense right away when I started playing with him that our minds were working well together and we seemed to have the ability to hear each other and to go together in music, whatever that may depend on. And beyond that we became very good friends, quickly after I entered the Butterfield Band. We hung together a lot when we were both in the band. And when I left the band, I migrated directly to the San Francisco Bay area and hooked up with Mike. We played together for years, at home and on the road, often as Bloomfield and Friends, or the Bloomfield/Naftalin Band, or the Bloomfield/Gravenites/Naftalin Band depending on the situation.

           In terms of time periods, a lot of excitement was concentrated in the early days of the Butterfield Band. When Mike was with the Butter Band there was something going on there that was unbelievable and it was never really captured again with that band, although the band went on to do some great things. That time was an excellent expressive opportunity for me. I enjoyed the band, after Michael left as well as before. But I wish there were more of the music that the band made when Mike was still with the group available to the world -- there wasn't that much of it recorded.

           As for later with Mike, we played a lot of blues. We played a lot of gigs, two-people gigs, gigs with a variety of rhythm sections. We had a lot of fun playing together. There were hundreds of gigs with a lot of good music. I loved him and felt his music very deeply.


More Info

           Look for the April 1995 issue of Guitar Player Magazine which includes a Mike Bloomfield lesson.

           The September/October 1994 issue of 20th Century Guitar features a cover story on Michael Bloomfield.

           Check out Kim Lembo's new CD Blue Heat (Blue Wave #125) for her version of "Killing My Love" written by Michael Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites.


Thanks to Toby Byron, Felix Cabrera, Juliet Choi, R.S. & Alicia & Will Douglas, Russ Dugoni, Dave Fimbres, Landon Furlong, Ward Gaines, Rich Galuppo, Ferda Guzey, Nick Hubbard, George Jones, Tom Ordon, Sue Windsor and S. Wolkin
© 1995 Jan Mark Wolkin & Neal McGarity

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