Released in 1956 on the King label, Everybody Dance the Honky Tonk features the stunning guitar work of Billy Butler—along with the great Clifford Scott on sax, and, of course, master of ceremonies Bill Doggett on Hammond organ. The album features all three versions of the bar-band classic “Honky Tonk”—which Billy Butler co-wrote—and other timeless performances, including a great remake of Doggett’s “Big Boy.” (I suspect the original version of “Big Boy” might have had the equally notable Bill Jennings on guitar, and—boy o’ boy—that’s a “must hear,” too.) Butler has a Charlie Christian-inspired style infused with great Charlie Parker be-bop lines and a raw blues mentality. He brings a melodic fire and grace to every solo. Though a great solo artist, Butler was an equally great sideman who worked with Benny Goodman, King Curtis, Dinah Washington, Fathead Newman, and others, and also played in the pits of New York City’s Broadway productions of the late ’60s.
Aside from the iconic “Honky Tonk” solo—where he exhibits his masterful tremolo, soon-to-be classic guitar turnarounds, and 64th-note doublestops—the most important thing I learned from Butler was that you can play advanced harmonic statements over fairly simple changes while avoiding the trap of sounding like you’re forcing things. Sometimes, I hear folks “name drop” bop lines over swing blues that sound as out of place as someone reciting Shakespeare during Die Hard. But Butler never does this. His melodies come from the heart, and his harmonic statements always sound “right.” It’s just amazingly lyrical stuff that swings hard and is easy to relate to. That said, I find some of his lines very challenging. Sometimes, I have to painstakingly renegotiate the left-hand fingerings numerous times before settling on a fingering I’m comfortable with. It’s almost like the guitar equivalent of playing 3D chess!
Back in the “Cassette Age,” I turned on my musician pal, Marc Baum, to Everybody Dance the Honky Tonk, and the cassette froze in his car stereo on Play for more than a year. Marc told me he never got tired of listening to it. I hope those who haven’t heard Billy Butler’s great guitar playing will feel the same way after discovering this record.