Interview: Rosemary Butler

When Jackson Browne assembled the band for his 1977 landmark live album Running on Empty, he chose some of the best musicians in the business. For backing vocals he chose Rosemary Butler. The rest, as they say, is history.

By that point, Butler already had a notable career in music. She was in the all-female band the Ladybirds, which opened for The Rolling Stones in 1964. She later joined the all-female hard rock band Birtha, which released two albums in the early 1970′s. And she had sung backing vocals for Bonnie Raitt and Warren Zevon. She went on to sing backing vocals for many other notable artists including Linda Ronstadt, Ringo Starr, James Taylor, Little Feat, and many more. Butler just released a new album You Just Watch Me.

This interview was done by email for a preview article for her concert at SOhO in Santa Barbara on 12/1/13, with answers received on Thanksgiving Day, 11/28/13. (L. Paul Mann photo)

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at your upcoming performance in Santa Barbara?

Rosemary Butler: Rosemary Butler and her smokin’ hot band playing New Classic Rock, Americana, Blues, and R+B. George Friedenthal keys and vocals, Maitland Ward guitar and vocals, Randy Tico bass, and Mike Stern guitar, vocals, and my engineer and co-producer with me on my new CD You Just Watch Me. The first set – songs from this CD played for the first time live. Second set – some of the hits I sang background on over the years.

JM: Can you tell us a bit about your new album?

RB: Russell Kunkel drums, Lee Sklar bass, David Lindley guitars, who I toured with along with Jackson Browne, some with James Taylor, some with Linda Ronstadt and Mike Finnegan, organ, who tours with Bonnie Raitt. There is a duet with Kenny Loggins, and Jackson Browne sings harmony with me on one song. Photos by Henry Deltz, artwork by John Kosh, who did 12 of Linda Ronstandt’s covers and the famous photo of The Beatles crossing the road. Songs by Wendy Walkman, Phil Everly, Dan Fogelberg. Our version of songs that I sang backgrounds on that became hits. “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, and “What Will I Be Loved”.

JM: If you don’t mind going back in time a bit, almost fifty years ago your band The Ladybirds opened for The Rolling Stones during one of their first U.S. tours. What were your impressions of them at that time?

RB: We were Beatles freaks at the time and had never actually seen long-haired English rock stars off the stage before. We were from Orange County and still in high school. It was our prom night and here we were with the Rolling Stones on their first American Tour standing at our door. We didn’t let them in. The next day at school, everyone was comparing their prom pictures, we were selling them cigarette butts that the Stones smoked. I knew my life was going to be different right then.

JM: The Ladybirds and your later band Birtha were amongst the first all-female rock and roll bands. What was the good and bad about being one of the first to do this?

RB: The Good: We could really play, sing and write songs, record and tour. The Bad: They thought we should go topless, we never did.

JM: You have sung backing vocals with an amazing list of artists. Are there any that really stand out to you?

RB: Bonnie Raitt was my door opener and introduced me to Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and Michael MacDonald.

JM: In your opinion, did the recent documentary 20 Feet From Stardom accurately capture the world of backing vocalists?

RB: 20 feet from Stardom was mostly from the 50’s and 60’s, and I was singing and playing bass with my all girl bands in the late 60’s and 70s. They seemed to focus on black female background singers. I sang with most of those girls and David Lindley many times on one session or another over the years. They were Pioneers.

JM: What are your favorite memories of the tour that resulted in Jackson Browne’s album Running On Empty?

RB: It was thrilling to watch Jackson becoming a major star, and watching the audience responding to his songs for the first time and falling in love with him and his music.

JM: Is there one nugget of wisdom from your work as a vocal coach that you’re willing to share?

RB: You have to be like a fireman, always ready to slide down the pole and fight the fire. You must be ready for your opportunities, so train and network.

JM: Have you been in touch with Linda Ronstadt since she announced that she has Parkinson’s disease?

RB: Linda and I speak regularly. Her book, Simple Dreams, is on the New York Bestseller List. What a brave soul she is. I love her.

JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about your career, or perhaps the artists that you’ve worked with?

RB: I have never regretted choosing my life as a singer on the stage and in the studio instead of marrying and having children. I do love to teach children. Some of them sang with Andrea Bocelli on his Christmas CD and TV special and toured with him and are very young and talented.

JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future?

We will be playing December 1st at SOhO in Santa Barbara, and at SOhO December 22 we’ll have Kenny Loggins as our special guest. We will play at Russ and Julie’s House Concert January 11th in the Thousand Oaks area. They are celebrating 18 years of of hosting house concerts, and it is where I met my executive producer, Kevin Wachs.

[From a previous discussion:]
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

RB: Follow your heart, and practice. And get a community of like-minded people around you. I think that music is about sharing with other people. That’s why you have to have to have so many different instruments and singers and stuff together. It’s very important to surround yourself by other people that are doing their music that inspires you, and you inspire them.


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