The Ice Man Cometh

Today is the birthday of Chicago soul singer (and latter day Democratic politician) Jerry Butler. At age three Butler moved from Sunflower, Mississippi to Chicago as part of the midcentury migration of blacks from the rural south to the urban north. He grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing project and sang in a church choir with the extraordinarily talented Curtis Mayfield.

Butler and Mayfield began singing secular music together in various groups as teenagers,. Elsewhere in Chicago Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls were treading a similar path, from gospel to secular music, giving Chicago its own new sound. By the time Butler turned 19 in 1958, he and Mayfield had their first hit with the Impressions’ “For Your Precious Love” (cowritten by Butler with two other members of the Impressions). Joe McEwen writes:

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“For Your Precious Love” was a landmark record. Unlike the harsh South Side blues, which had been transported to Chicago by grown men, “For Your Precious Love” was the music of a new generation that had spent its adolescence in the city, synthesizing music from such diverse sources as the Soul Stirrers, the Ink Spots, the Dells, and, of course, the blues. The song can almost be considered the first soul record: in years to come, it provided the inspiration for more fervent performances by Solomon Burke, Jackie Wilson and Tommy Hunt.

Butler and Mayfield went their separate ways, then teamed up again for Mayfield’s superb “He Will Break Your Heart.” Butler continued writing and performing. His efforts materialized in a second flourishing as the Iceman in his collaborations with Philadelphia’s Gamble and Huff. By 1969 and “Only the Strong Survive,” “Moody Woman,” and “What’s the Use of Breaking Up,” writes Joe McEwen, the Gamble-Huff production style had been perfected.

Written by Butler, “Only the Strong Survive” (video above) derives from Butler’s seminal, humorously titled album “The Ice Man Cometh” in 1969. Elvis Presley quickly paid the song the sincerest form of flattery upon his return to serious recording in Memphis that year. Like so much of Butler’s work, “Only the Strong Survive” itself survives and stands as something of an inspiration in its own right.

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