Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 8 December 1939, Sunflower MS) Soul singer. Moved north to Chicago with his family at age three; had a background in church typical of many soul giants. He met Curtis Mayfield with the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Both also sang in smaller secular units, Butler in Quails, Mayfield with Alphatones; Butler was recruited '57 by the Roosters (Sam Gooden, brothers Richard and Arthur Brooks), recruited Mayfield, renamed group Impressions, and scored a no. 11 pop hit with 'For Your Precious Love' '58, an influential combination of the restrained Butler style with sparse background harmonies for a haunting neo-doo-wop feel. The Falcon label's billing of the group as 'Jerry Butler and the Impressions' led to a rift; ex-Rooster Fred Cash replaced him (but Mayfield continued to write and arrange for Butler). Vee-Jay took over Falcon, signed Butler as single, let the Impressions go (in temporary decline); 'He Will Break Your Heart' (no. 7 '60) was the first fruit of Butler/Mayfield partnership, then 'Find Another Girl', 'I'm Telling You' (top 30 '61), 'Moon River' (no. 11).

Vee Jay executive Calvin Carter had suggested 'Moon River', but Butler had had his doubts; Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer wrote the song for the film Breakfast At Tiffany's, and thanked Butler for helping to make it Song of the Year. But Butler told Ted Cox in the Chicago Reader (April 7 2011), 'It's a waltz, and black people don't waltz.' 

So Curtis and I...we mess around with it. And I said,'Let's put it in 4/4 time. [That stretched in out] So we speeded it up. And fortunately when we sped it up it took on a sort of Latin feel. Well, the big dance at the time was the cha-cha, and so people couold do the cha-cha to 'Moon River'--my version. They couldn't do it on Mancini's version, and they couldn't do it on all the other versions that were out there.

He wrote solo too, contributing to books of Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding (co-wrote 'I've Been Loving You Too Long'), Count Basie, others. His mellow ballads and cool stage style earned him the nickname 'Iceman' (and the time he filled a hall with his baritone, not batting an eye when the hall's power was lost). He had a no. 5 duet '64 with Betty Everett on 'Let It Be Me'. He went to Philadelphia '67 on the collapse of Vee-Jay; he worked with the Gamble and Huff writing and production team on Mercury (Butler's idea), returned to hit form with 'Never Give You Up' and 'Hey Western Union Man' (top 20 '68-9). Albums The Iceman Cometh and Ice On Ice (both '69) established Butler in the newly realized black album market, with a balance of ballads/up-tempo numbers. The Gamble/Huff/Butler partnership ended when G&H formed the Philadelphia International label; they asked him to come along, but Butler did not want to leave Mercury, and nobody could have known how successful G&H were going to be. 

Butler duetted with Gene Chandler on Gene & Jerry--One & One '71, and on a single with Brenda Lee Eager, leader of his backing group the Peaches ('Ain't Understanding Mellow' no. 21 '72). He signed with Motown '75 and a series of tasteful LPs sold respectably, including duets with Thelma Houston (Thelma & Jerry '77); he was back with Gamble and Huff at the end of the decade for two LPs; he founded Fountain and Memphis labels with singer brother Billy ('I Can't Work No Longer' no. 60 pop chart '65); they ran the Butler Music Workshop in Chicago for young singers/musicians/writers (grads included Natalie Cole, Chuck Jackson). He ran a singing career in tandem with importing beer; his style could be likened to cool glass of lager, refreshing the fans other singers can't reach. He was inspired to enter politics by Harold Washington's election as Chicago's mayor in 1983, and in 2011 was the longest-serving member of the Chicago Board of Commissioners, and unusually modest for a politician.