Often rabid record collectors will find their recollections on music highjacked by a discussion on their all-time favorite 45s. The sides that can be endlessly spun and always provide that same rush afforded the first listen often don’t so much produce conversation, as they do intense love letters from one individual to another, that if not reciprocated will stop everything dead in their tracks. But then, even on top of those are the 45’s, are those that provide that exhilaration twice, once on the A and once on the B side. Imagine the shock when one of my absolute stunners, the Okeh career of Billy Butler, produces several such dual slabs of magic, with only barely ever denting the charts.
But it was the one hit he did have: Okeh release 7221, a #6 in 1966, that is the point of todays discussion.
Featuring the A side ‘I Can’t Work No Longer’ a worked up redo from the Impressions’ People Get Ready (1965) album cut (most of Billy Butlers tracks are either Curtis Mayfield songs, or songs co-written between he and Curtis), which would provide the hit, while the B side is the beautifully mournful, ‘Tomorrow is a Better Day’. ‘I Can’t Work No Longer’ is magnetic Chicago Soul shuffle, somehow bettering the Impressions versions as its fuller and more polished overall. Both tracks show the Chanters (Billy Butler alternated between the Chanters and the Enchanters during this time so sometimes it can become slightly confusing) wonderful, subtle musicianship, providing color to which Billy can add his remarkably dexterous, smooth voice. His lack of overall career success is often attributed to his brother, Jerry—a man with a voice so icy cool that he earned the nickname ‘Iceman’, hitting first and radio DJs assuming one Butler was enough for their playlists. But as Billy’s Okeh releases show, a good many Northern Soul fans gladly take the younger Butler in preference (myself included).
Okeh was one of the great early pop music labels mostly specializing in ‘race records’ in the 1920s, before being transferred to Epic in 1953 where it became their in-house R&B subsidiary. Eventually, Okeh signed several Chicago Soul artists—chiefly Curtis Mayfield who’d in short time become virtually a one man label all by himself—and it’s often this connection that (as it was also this additional revenue that allowed Oken to bring 1950’s rockers Larry Williams and Little Richard on board for this mid to late 1960’s releases) recalls it to fans now, and is chiefly the reason I love it so (Major Lance and Walter Jackson’s Okeh releases from this time are also essential).
(British label Kent, has done a remarkable service in issuing the complete Okeh releases of Billy Butler, which is shown in the top image. Essential)