Jerry Butler is one of the great soul singers to come from Chicago in the 50's and 60's. As a solo act or with others, he recorded 16 songs that went pop top forty from 1958 to 1972.
Jerry Butler, Jr. was born in Sunflower, Mississippi in 1939 and moved north, to Chicago, with his family at age three. Like others who went on to become notable soul singers, he began in his church choir. He sang with a quartet known as the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, and became life-long friends with another member of that group, Curtis Mayfield. Butler also sang with another local group, the Quails, while Mayfield did the same with another group, the Alphatones. A group comprised of Sam Gooden and brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks, known as the Roosters, recruited Butler in 1957 and a short time later added Mayfield. The group renamed itself the Impressions and in 1958 had a huge hit nationally on the Falcon label (a subsidiary of Vee-Jay) with For Your Precious Love, one that Butler had written himself. Jerry sang lead in his relaxed style and combined with the simple background harmonies it resonated with the record-buying public, and Jerry Butler was on his way.
For Your Precious Love had been released as by Jerry Butler and the Impressions, a decision that had been made by Falcon and which led to divisiveness within the group. Butler struck out on his own. A former member of the Roosters, Fred Cash, took Butler's place in the Impressions. Mayfield continued to write for the Impressions, who had more than a dozen hits (as well as a number of personnel changes) throughout the 60's, including their recordings of It's All Right, Keep On Pushing, and Amen.
Mayfield also continued to write and do arrangements for Butler. Vee-Jay decided to let the Impressions go (they then signed with ABC-Paramount) but signed Jerry Butler to a recording contract. The partnership of Butler and Mayfield turned it up a notch, and shot out of the gate with Butler's first hit as a solo act, He Will Break Your Heart. It went top ten pop in late 1960, and Butler followed with other hits such as Find Another Girl and I'm A Telling You.
Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer had written a song for the forthcoming movie Breakfast At Tiffany's, which was to star Audrey Hepburn, titled Moon River. Mancini and his orchestra recorded his own version of it as did Butler, in his smooth, relaxed style, and both versions rose to #11 on the charts in late 1961. Mancini and Mercer thanked Butler for his efforts which helped Moon River to become Song of the Year. With its success Butler received another boost to his blossoming career.
Butler continued recording records such as Make It Easy On Yourself and Need To Belong on Vee-Jay. He also did some songwriting, and some of his compositions were recorded by artists such as Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, and Count Basie. His stage presence, selection of songs to record, and easy style earned Butler the nickname The Ice Man. Betty Everett was another Chicago-area recording artist, signed to Vee-Jay, who had a top ten hit early in 1964 with The Shoop Shoop Song (It's In His Kiss). Later that year Butler and Everett recorded a duet for Vee-Jay, the second top ten hit for each, Let It Be Me. Following the success of Let It Be Me the careers of both artists went into a temporary decline. Jerry's brother, Billy Butler, had a minor hit in 1965 with I Can't Work No Longer. Vee-Jay disbanded in 1966.
In 1967 Butler moved to Philadelphia to work with the notable writing-producing team of Kenny Gamble and Phil Huff. Butler recorded some songs with them on Mercury that sold well, including Never Give You Up and Hey, Western Union Man. These and other uptempo numbers and strong ballads appeared on two of Butler's late 60's albums, The Ice Man Cometh and Ice On Ice, and helped to establish him in the emerging black album market. His biggest hit single as a solo artist came in 1969 with the million-seller Only The Strong Survive. His final top forty hits of the 60's were Moody Woman and What's The Use Of Breaking Up.
As the calendar changed and music moved into the 70's, Gamble and Huff formed the Philadelphia International label, but their plans did not include Jerry Butler. He recorded some duets with Gene Chandler. In early 1972, Mercury released a duet he had recorded with Brenda Lee Eager (who was the leader of his backing group, the Peaches) titled Ain't Understanding Mellow. It was to be his final top forty single.
In 1975 Jerry Butler signed with Motown and produced (or co-produced) some albums that did well. He recorded duets with others, including Thelma Houston. In the late 70's he went back with Gamble and Huff to record two albums. In 1983 Jerry reunited and toured with some old friends from his days with the Impressions, Sam Gooden, Fred Cash, and Curtis Mayfield. Jerry and his brother Billy started two record labels, Mountain and Memphis, and turned their attention toward helping younger recording artists, songwriters, and musicians to get established. From their Chicago-based company, Butler Music Workshop, emerged such artists as Natalie Cole and Chuck Jackson.
Jerry's old friend, Curtis Mayfield, went on to have some huge hits in the 70's with Freddie's Dead (Theme From "Superfly") and Superfly. In later years Jerry Butler kept his hand in the music business, touring at times with a band that includes his brother Billy on guitar and his wife Annette as a backup singer. He at one time had a beer importing business with Billy and has worked as the host of a number of PBS music specials. Jerry has been active in Chicago-area politics for many years, including serving as a long-time Cook County Board Commissioner.
In 1991, Butler took his place with other members of the Impressions Curtis Mayfield, Sam Gooden, Fred Cash, and Arthur and Richard Brooks in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His most memorable hits include For Your Precious Love, He Will Break Your Heart, Let It Be Me (with Betty Everett), and Only The Strong Survive.
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