Jerry Butler, world renowned as “the Ice Man,” would deserve a spot in the R&B Hall of Fame if only for having sung two classics.
The first, “For Your Precious Love,” was recorded during his relatively brief stint with the Impressions.
This powerful song from 1958 is representative of a style of rhythm ’n’ blues that is sometimes referred to as “deep soul.” It is pure and passionate, and not just any singer can pull it off.
Then too, it featured strong lyrics such as, “They say that our love won’t grow. But I just want to tell them that they don’t know.”
The other classic — among many Butler has given us in his long career — is “He Will Break Your Heart.” This smooth, soul gem beautifully paints a picture with words, which is a credit to its composers, two of whom are Butler and Curtis Mayfield (the third is Calvin Carter).
A prime example: “He uses all the great quotations. He says the things I wish I could say. But he’s had so many rehearsals, to him it’s just another play. But wait! And when the final act is over and you’re left standing all alone. When he takes his bow and makes his exit, I’ll be there to take you home.”
BUT, OF COURSE, there is much more to Jerry Butler than two hit songs, no matter how exceptional.
The song master, who possesses one of the most distinctive voices in the history of Black and American pop music, is closely associated with Chicago. However, he was actually born in Sunflower, Mississippi, although his family did later move to Chicago.
It was in the Windy City that Butler met Curtis Mayfield. Both sang in a church choir. It felt good, so in his teen years Butler joined the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, as did Mayfield.
But like so many other Black singers, the two decided to venture into rhythm ’n’ blues. Hence, the formation of the Roosters who, fortunately, changed their name to something better: the Impressions.
On their first hit recording, “For Your Precious Love,” the group was identified as Jerry Butler & the Impressions. But by 1960 he had decided to strike out on his own. It was like a three for one stock split because Butler, Mayfield and the Impressions would all go on to become legends.
BUTLER’S FIRST solo smash was “He Will Break Your Heart,” which remained No. 1 on the national charts for a remarkable seven weeks.
The public loved Jerry Butler and so did radio programmers.
From that point it was one Top 10 or Top 20 hit after another, including “Find Another Girl” (No. 10), “I’m A Telling You” (No. 8), “Moon River” (No. 14), “Make It Easy on Yourself” (No. 18), “Need to Belong” (No. 2), “I Stand Accused” (No. 3), “I Dig You Baby” (No. 8) and “Lost” (No. 15).
That carried him to early 1968. It was also during this period that Butler teamed up with label mate Betty Everett. They recorded one of the most beautiful ballads of all time, the charm ng “Let It Be Me,” which also went Top 5 on the Pop charts.
That song, by the way, had originally been a pop hit for the Everly Brothers in 1960.
Jerry Butler had never not been on the national charts, but by 1965 the general assumption was that as a recording artist his best years were behind him.
The assumption was wrong because not long after he had an impressive resurgence. The key was starting an affiliation with the prolific producing and songwriting team comprised of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
Two blockbuster, widely critically acclaimed back-to-back albums, “The Iceman Cometh” and “Ice on Ice,” were released, yielding another flood of major hits. (By the way, Butler is called “the Ice Man” because he is always “cool,” no fancy moves, never breaks a sweat.)
By this time Butler had switched from the Vee-Jay label to Mercury.
THE NEW RUN of superhits were among the best material Butler — or anyone else — has ever recorded. Great songs, production and delivery. These include “Never Give You Up” (No. 4), “Hey, Western Union Man” (No. 1), “Are You Happy?” (No. 9), “Only the Strong Survive” (No. 1), “Moody Woman” (No. 3), “What’s the Use of Breaking Up?” (No. 4) and “Don’t Let Love Hang You Up” (No. 12).
In 1971, it was time for another duet. Whereas his previous partner, Betty Everett, was already a known recording artist, her biggest hit being “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss),” Brenda Lee Eager was a newcomer.
The collaboration, the soulful, very pretty “Ain’t Understanding Mellow,” was a huge hit.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Butler signed with Motown in the latter half of the 1970s. That partnership resulted in one Top 10 hit, the somewhat suggestive “I Wanna Do It to You.” He also recorded duets with fellow Motown artist Thelma Houston.
Butler, who has cohosted numerous music fundraisers on PBS, including the popular “Doo Wop” specials, is also very civic minded. In 1985 he was elected to the Board of Commissioners in Cook County, Illinois. He has been reelected consistently but still finds time to entertain.
Jerry Butler, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as a recipient of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award, once said, “I believe that anything that’s worth doing is worth doing well.”
That has been proven for over five decades. — SVH
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