Key West Buena Vista Social Club
By Ralph De Palma
Since the first sold out concert in 2015, Coffee Butler and Friends have performed four additional sell-out concerts at the Key West Theater.Rob O’Neal covered one of the last concerts for the Key West Citizen and commented that this group was a Key West version of the Buena Vista Social Club, referring to the 1997 Cuban phenomena.
The comparison is strikingly similar in many ways. Both groups of musicians and vocalists were long time friends and in Key West many are family members. Both groups share their experience, passion, and love of music without reservation. Both ensembles perform as a unique group without any of the many talented performers vying for the spotlight and yes they are obviously older performers. The two groups revolved around two octogenarians.
While in Havana the manager of EGREM Studio gave me a tour of the historic location and we discussed the making of the historic 1997 album. The Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales (Enterprise of Recording and Music Editions), aka EGREM was originally named Estudios Arieto, it was founded in 1943 by musician/engineer Ramón Sabat at the site of a former tobacco processing plant in the center of Havana.
In 1996, Cuba was still in the grips of a terrible economic downturn caused by the earlier collapse of the Soviet Union and their withdraw of trade subsidies, during these very difficult conditions, something amazing happened. An American music producer Ry Cooder had scheduled a week of recording at EGREM and the musicians he was planning to use experience visa problems and were forced to cancel. Cooder had to find local Cuban musicians to record. He brought together a loose collection of veteran performers.
Guitarist/composer Compay Segundo was eighty-nine years old and had composed a song that came to him in a dream – Chan Chan. Singer Ibrahim Ferrer and pianist Rubén Gonzáles, both over seventy, were coaxed out of retirement. The beautiful voices of Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa plus an amazing group of musicians came together for one week of recording. All shared their wisdom and experiences, recording with a passion that would take the world by storm. There were no egos taking over, no jockeying for position – they were playing wonderful music as a perfect ensemble. Everyone involved felt a sense that they were accomplishing something special. The album was named the Buena Vista Social Club after a former club in the Mariano section of Havana that the older musicians had frequently attended. The album has sold over 13 million copies.
As we recorded this album, “A Mother’s Love“, the award winning Producer Ian Shaw got every ounce of talent out of all musicians and vocalists. It was clear they all brought their “A” game to the studio. Everyone contributed tirelessly, the pay was embarrassingly low, and the hours long on a shoe string budget. They all wanted to be a part of this epic music project.
Just like Compay Segundo, eighty-nine year old Coffee Butler has written several original songs. He also has a presence on stage as well as in the studio that commands a certain respect and love from his fellow performers. Everyone involved was sharing their experience, and wisdom to make the music better. All of Coffee and Cliff’s friends and family asked to participate. The Key West King of Soul Robert Albury lent his fantastic voice in the studio to sing backup for several songs, something he had never done before. Cliff came into the studio to record backing tracks for a song that he and Coffee often sing together just to give it a little extra boost.
Brother and sister, Clayton Lopez and Mina Lopez-Martin have been singing together and with Coffee and Cliff for decades. They came into the studio and harmonized brilliantly as they had all their lives.
Music Director Larry Baeder worked tirelessly on music charts for each song. The charts were used extensively during the rhythm track recording sessions. Several of the songs were Coffee Butler originals and had never been charted. Larry had Coffee play them in a private session at Coffee’s home, over and over until he could chart the music.
Life-long friend Paulie Walterson helped Coffee and Cliff learn the new music and then played percussion on two songs.
Pianist Ericson Holt brought an older keyboard with a MIDI port to re-record the title song so it could be more easily edited. He also added an original song “Moonlight in Memphis” that Coffee performed, and beautiful organ tracks to highlight several songs.
Talented vocalist Dora Gholston who performs The Rain Song, written by Larry Baeder, regularly at her gigs recorded backing tracks for The Rain Song.
Local Saxophonist Mark Rose and Trumpeter Ken Fradley added four horn solos and helped on several other songs.
It was a perfect storm of musical talent coming together for a singular goal much like the musicians in 1996 in EGREM Studio in Havana. Hopefully this will be a similar Key West phenomenon. To hear the result of this perfect music storm go to our album A Mother’s Love and enjoy.
Coffee has been a part of my life since the Howie days. He is Mr Key West. I love him and his music !
Moonlight in Memphis is a treasure to me personally because my wife is from there.
As an author, I feel a constant pull to return again and again to return to Key West.
I’m returning soon and hope to tell Mr Butler in person how much I love his music!