Jerry Butler - Biography

By Nick Castro


Known to soul fans as The Ice Man, Jerry Butler has become one of the most legendary names and voices in the genre. Getting his first success with his group, The Impressions, before Curtis Mayfield took over, Butler was soon scoring hits on his own throughout the 60's and 70's, such as "Only the Strong Survive", "Hey, Western Union Man" and "He Will Break Your Heart (He Don't Love you, Like I Love You)". More recently, Butler is known for his political work in the Chicago area, although he is can still be seen with some regularity, performing as a singer too, especially on the PBD television specials promoting doo wop and soul music.


Although Mississippi is Thomas' birthplace, he spent his formative years in Chicago's infamously violent and overcrowded Cabrini Green housing complex. Butler's family, like many black families at the time, headed north to escape the terrible racism and injustices of the south, often to find that the segregation and hardships were not so different in the big cities. the young Butler took refuge in the church, and was soon singing in the choir, where he met fellow singer, Curtis Mayfield. the two hit it off and were soon singing together in a group called the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, and had a sound reminiscent of other popular gospel groups of the days, such as the Pilgrim Travelers and the Soul Stirrers. The group soon switched to secular music and were known as The Roosters, before finally settling on the name, The Impressions, by the late 50's.


It was during these early years that Butler wrote the song, "For Your Precious Love", which he and the group felt had potential to become a hit. They did not have the money to record the song themselves, so they began soliciting record labels to record the song for them. They finally found a taker with the label VeeJay Records and the song was released in 1958. It became a big hit for the group, eventually going gold.


Butler soon decided his career would be better served if he went solo. He had a success when he released the song "Lost" and he soon released the album Jerry Butler, Esq. (1959 - Abner). The album finds butler trying to appeal to the adult pop vocal crowd more than the soul and r&b market, that would become his base. He quickly followed up with the song, "He Will Break Your Heart", which went to number one on the r&b charts, and then with the album, He Will Break Your Heart (1960 - VeeJay). This newest album was a success and Butler sounds more at home in more r&b oriented format, although he would successfully stray in many genre throughout his career. Also, though Butler had split from the Impressions and Mayfield taken over, they were still friends and even co-wrote the title track together, as well as the songs "The Gift of Love", "Thanks to You" and "I Found a Love".


The next year, 1961, Butler continued to find success with the songs "Find Another Girl" and "I'm a Telling You". VeeJay followed up with the album Aware of Love (1961 - VeeJay). once again Mayfield was working with Butler, both as a co-writer and as a guitarist and backing vocalist. For the next few years, Butler would release a slew of albums and would manage to remain afloat, but was lacking the hits he had scored with his early works. He was finding work though as a songwriter as well as recording artist.


In 1966 Butler left VeeJay and signed with Mercury records, and this marked a shift in his sound and career. It was at Mercury that Butler began to work with famed songwriters and producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, who were also working with fellow labelmate, Dionne Warwick. After a few slow starters, Mercury finally released the album everyone knew Butler was capable of making, the now classic The Iceman Cometh (1968 - Mercury). The album contained the hit singles "Hey, Western Union Man" and "Only The Strong Survive", both of which went to number one on the r&b charts. The Gamble and Huff production team was proving successful and Butler was back on top. The Iceman Cometh has become one of the most important soul albums of the late 60's. It was during this time that Butler also scored high with the song, "Never Give You Up" and "Are You Happy".


Mercury followed up on The Iceman Cometh with the album Ice on Ice (1969 - Mercury). Butler scored another hit with the song, "What's the Use of Breaking Up?", which he co-wrote with Gamble and Huff, as was the case with the majority of the material on the album, which is consistently strong. Butler's relationship with Mercury as well as with gamble and Huff was proving very successful and the label would release a large number of Butler's albums throughout the next few years, including Spice of Life (1972 - Mercury), Power of Love (1973 - Mercury) and The Love We Have, the Love We Had (1973 - Mercury). Once again, Butler co-wrote most of the material with Gamble and Huff.


In the mid 70's Butler signed and released a number of albums with Motown records, including Love's on the Menu (1976 - Motown), Suite for a Single Girl (1977 - Mercury), Thelma & Jerry (1977 - Motown) and It All Comes Out (1978 - Motown). It was during this time that Gamble and Huff formed their legendary Philadelphia International label, where butler released his album Nothing Says I Love You Like I Love You (1978 - Philadelphia International).


By the end of the 70's, Butler's career began to slow down and soon he began to set his sights on local politics. In the 80's, Butler became the Cook County Board Commissioner where he has created a bit of controversy for raising the sales tax in Cook County. Butler was inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of Fame in 1991, along with the other original members of the Impressions.


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