By Ralph De Palma
The story behind the release of “A Mother’s Love” by Coffee Butler and Cliff Sawyer.
After entertaining Key West for over five decades, legendary Key West entertainer Lofton “Coffee” Butler retired from music and entertaining in 2005. In 2014 I wanted to interview him for my new book The Soul of Key West, Volume II. I walked up the narrow pathway to the small Stock Island home. Our meeting was set up by Roosevelt Sands and Clayton Lopez both cousins of the legendary Key West entertainer. After greeting a middle-aged lady at the front door, I was introduced to well-kept octogenarian with a bright gleaming smile that practically lit up the room.
Coffee was a little hesitant during our first interview. He had never heard of the Soul of Key West, Volume I, and he was naturally concerned about this stranger in his living room asking a lot of questions.
I brought a copy of my book as a gift. As he looked through it, he saw the bio and photos of his best friend Cliff Sawyer, and he smiled. I tried to put him at ease, so naturally we started talking about music. Music had consumed his life for over 60 years.
While interviewing Coffee for my book, The Soul of Key West Volume II, we became friends, I returned to his home to follow up several additional times, and he later agreed to perform at the book release party (The Studios of Key West, 12/19/2015).
The show sold out well in advance, and we had a waiting list for tickets. We included local talent and cousins Clayton and Mina Lopez, and Robert Albury, along with Coffee’s best buddy Cliff Sawyer. We attracted a number of talented musicians that all wanted to perform with Coffee. The sound was terrific, and the performance was well accepted by the audience. There was no question we would schedule another concert soon. We all felt there was an unfilled musical void in Key West for Soul music, especially Motown music, mixed with Al Green, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and others.
Coffee Butler is a Key West treasure. The first concert was recorded and videoed. I had always hoped to record a new album of his music. Now, after three years of live performances, we have put together an album of music from Coffee Butler and Cliff Sawyer. The album release party was held on Sunday, November 25 at the Key West Theater, in celebration of Coffee’s 90th birthday.
Coffee Butler had only been recorded twice earlier in his five decade career. After some searching I came to the realization that neither of those recordings could be reproduced as the masters had been lost. We need to capture this Key West music legend for several reasons but most importantly so there would be viable record for future generations of Key West music lovers of this homegrown superstar.
I began the process of putting together a group of private investors to fund the recording. They all new Coffee and Cliff and agreed to help the project. We decided to record Coffee Butler and his life-long friend and world class vocalist Cliff Sawyer. It seemed almost natural, because the two spend a good deal of time together almost every day and in the past performed together frequently.
Award winning music producer Ian Shaw agreed to produce the CD. We would use the band from the previous five sell out concerts and they were all excited to participate and probably would have helped for free. Every musician in town wanted to help. We got superb vocalists like the King of Key West Soul Robert Albury to record backing tracks for the music.
The project developed a life of its own. Each step of the recording process required some unique elements. Coffee Butler was 89 years old when we began the process we didn’t know how much physical exertion he could withstand. Cliff Sawyer 74 years old and while in reasonably good health had other issues. Both men surprised us along the way.
They withstood hours in the hot studio environment. They learned two original pieces of music for the album. Coffee laid down some great piano tracks. Cliff’s vocals amazed everyone. Everyone new they both sounded great on stage in live performances but when in the studio with quality controlled conditions and recording equipment they sounded fantastic.
One song was written by another Key West legend Ellen Welters Sanchez who taught Coffee Butler and most of Key West how to play the piano until her passing at 105. It was written especially for Harry Truman who used Key West as his Winter Whitehouse. Harry Truman loved a waltz, so Ellen wrote “The Beautiful Ilse of Key West” as a waltz. She had her favorite piano student Coffee Butler play and sing this song at the dedication of Truman Avenue in Key West in 1952. Coffee Butler continues to sing this song at every gig he performs.
It had to be recorded on the album, but the waltz just did not seem to fit. Producer Ian Shaw said it sounded like a German drinking song with a little too much oom-pah-pah. We made it work with some cool trumpet by Ken Fradley, and some additional percussion from good friend and neighbor Paulie Walterson, it was “New Orleans’uped” a bit. I am sure Ellen Welters Sanchez would approve.
One other song written by Coffee Butler has an amazing story. A good friend who was a bartender at Sloppy Joes had just broken up with her boyfriend and was a complete mess. The boyfriend was equally affected and wrote her a very poetic love letter trying to get back together. She was so taken by the letter that they did get back together and she showed the letter to Coffee Butler. They read it together and a both agreed this had to be a love song and that became “Our Eternal Love” written by Coffee Butler and a friends boyfriend.
Recording this legend has been the most fulfilling project I have ever completed. I know you will enjoy it as much as I do. Please take a listen to the tracks and I’m sure you will agree.
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