Rosemary Butler made her name singing backup for Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, but she’ll be performing tunes from her own album at McCabe’s on Sunday night
By Bliss Bowen
There’s a sound that at least partially defines Los Angeles “soft” rock from the 1970s and ’80s, one dominated mostly by singer-songwriters: Warren Zevon, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Rosemary Butler…
If that last name isn’t familiar, her voice almost certainly is.
Rosemary Butler sang with all of those artists, as well as Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Rodney Crowell, the Doobie Brothers, Nicolette Larson, Little Feat, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Boz Scaggs and Allen Toussaint, among others. It’s Butler and Michael McDonald bringing gospel-y soul to Raitt’s 1977 album “Sweet Forgiveness.” It’s Butler answering and echoing Browne like an earthbound angel in distress on his classic hits “Here Come Those Tears Again” and “Running on Empty.” She toured with Browne, Rosanne Cash, Raitt, Ronstadt and James Taylor for years, and lent her voice to numerous commercials too.
Butler’s all-consuming love of music flared while growing up in Fullerton, where she’d scoot out of her family’s tract home to knock on the door of Fender’s nearby factory. “I would sit on the knee of the people who were making the guitars,” she says.
By high school, she was playing with an all-girl band: “The same night that everybody went to the prom, our band opened for the Rolling Stones on their first American tour. They came to our hotel room to knock on the door,” Butler says, and, “when they left we took their cigarette butts to high school to sell them.”
After that Butler sang and played bass in a harder-rock group, Birtha, who toured Europe with Three Dog Night and B.B. King.
Butler credits Raitt with opening the doors that led to Butler becoming the It Girl of background singers.
“Bonnie and I got along like two old sailors,” she says. “At that time there weren’t too many girls out there on the road. She introduced me to Jackson Browne and some of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt and J.D. Souther, just tons of people. Then she introduced me to James Taylor and it started mushrooming.”
Singer-songwriter Dan Navarro remembers first becoming aware of Butler’s vocal prowess in 1978, while backstage for Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” tour.
“What I noticed then was a vocal quality that was crisp, clear and nimble,” he says. “She could do just about anything, with a sweet-spot overdrive that was more Aretha than Dusty…
“Eric Lowen, my late partner [in Lowen & Navarro], and I hired Rose a couple of times to do backgrounds on song demos, and she always hit the marks and lifted every song she sang on. The skills involved in singing backup are no less advanced than the skills necessary to pull off lead singing [which have as much to do with stage presence and engagement as sheer vocal chops] but are much more subtly applied.”
In 1983, Butler switched up to front woman with a slick pop-rock album, “Rose,” and tours through Europe and Japan, where she earned a gold record. That engendered an opportunity to record a session with Raitt and Etta James. “They couldn’t use their names because of labels and stuff,” she recalls with a laugh, “so they said we were the Fugawi Sisters.”
Butler has remained best known as a background singer and, more recently, vocal coach. (She’s made two excellent “Warm Up & Jam” CDs for singers.) But with support from staunch fans, she’s finally recorded another solo album, “You Just Watch Me,” which features a strong R&B vibe and old running mates like organist Mike Finnigan, drummer Russ Kunkel, guitarist David Lindley and bassist Lee Sklar, plus guest appearances by Browne and Kenny Loggins.
“I got really pumped for this record and I was very, very thrilled to have the opportunity to do it. It just felt very natural. I felt like, ‘Yeah. I’m home,’” she says.
Butler seems to relish belting out Delbert McClinton’s “Never Been Rocked Enough,” but she also turns tender with a heartfelt reading of Dan Fogelberg’s anti-nuclear “Face the Fire” and memorable, inventive interpretations of the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved” and the Tina Turner hit “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”
“I like the blues, but I don’t like blues that are depressing,” she says. “Bonnie Raitt always comes out a victor at the end of a blues song; she may have been done wrong but she picks herself up, and by the end of the song she’s OK. I like that kind of twist to the blues for me. I don’t like to play the victim lyrically.
“A song has to have a melody that I love, and allow itself to have room for a singer to take some liberties,” she continues. “My own style is just a combination of working with all these different people. I don’t know that I sound just like anyone, but I probably have lots of colors in my voice from singing with them.”
Rosemary Butler and her band perform at 8 p.m. Sunday at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $20. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit rosemarybutler.com.