Blues for life

The Butler Twins moved to Detroit in 1972 from Florence, Ala., the birthplace of legendary blues composer W.C. Handy. Matter of fact, the area where they grew up was called "Handy Hill."

"We had a shack for a school," said Curtis. "Couldn't go to school when it rained." The sorry condition of the school prompted the principal to write W.C. Handy, a rare breed of Southern black man who possessed a considerable amount of money for the time. The letter asked, point-blank, for help. Handy answered the call. "He came and built a whole new school. Brand-new from the ground up. It was the only modern school" in Florence, which vexed the city's white population no end. Who would have ever thought that in pre-civil rights Alabama, a run-down black school could actually be rescued by a bluesman?

It couldn't have been too many years later when Curtis' mother bought him his first guitar, a Sears Silvertone, for $65. She paid for it with steady $2.50-per-month installments. And this from a woman who didn't particularly care for the blues. But, now, Willie Butler — folks called him "Butch" for short — that was another matter.

"My father was a guitar-playin’ man. He was the man," says Curtis.

To hear Curtis and Clarence tell stories about their father is like being at the movies and watching the whole scene unfold on screen. Take the story of the young guitar slinger who challenged their father to a showdown. Just walked up to the door and asked for Willie Butler. Thing was, the kid was real good on guitar and he knew it. But he didn't have Willie's experience. So when he showed up that one day, putting Willie on notice that he wanted this battle, Willie asked the kid, "You sure you wanna do this?"

"Yeah. I'm sure," said the kid.

See, everywhere the kid went, no matter how well he could play, somebody in the audience would be likely to say, "Willie can do that." The more he heard about this guitar player named Willie, and the more he heard folks say that Willie could do anything he could do, only better, the more his ego would itch and burn. He became determined to settle the matter once and for all.

So the deal was this: whoever won the battle got to stay in town. The loser had to pack up and move along. Wasn't enough room for the both of them in Florence. Willie agreed. Willie won, but not by a huge margin. Experience made the difference, which it almost always does with the blues. The kid, true to his word, moved on to become head guitar slinger in a nearby town.

And years later, Clarence and Curtis Butler moved on to Detroit to carry on the blues imparted to them by their father. Clarence, a harmonica player, got a job working at Ford. Curtis, a guitarist, got one working at Chevrolet. It was what they had to do to cover the bills, but it was hardly what they looked forward to when they woke up every morning. The Butler Twins had been playing the blues since they were kids, and they didn't come to Detroit to stop. Well, actually there was that one dry stretch for Curtis.

"I was out of it for about 20 years," during which time Curtis got married and had children. "Now? Kids gone. Wife left." He smiles slowly. " I'm back to the blues."

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