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 1970s. 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 will be celebrating the release of her new album, You Just Watch Me, with a show at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club on Sunday, giving Santa Barbara a chance to hear one of the best voices that's out there. Tickets are available by clicking here.
Butler took time on Thanksgiving Day to answer the following questions by email.
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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 on keys and vocals, Maitland Ward on guitar and vocals, Randy Tico on bass and Mike Stern on guitar and 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 on drums, Lee Sklar on bass, David Lindley on guitars, who I toured with along with Jackson Browne, some with James Taylor, some with Linda Ronstadt and Mike Finnegan on organ, who tours with Bonnie Raitt. There is a duet with Kenny Loggins, and Browne sings harmony with me on one song. Photos by Henry Diltz, artwork by John Kosh, who did 12 of Ronstandt's covers and the famous photo of The Beatles crossing Abbey 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 50 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 among 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 who really stand out to you?
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 1950s and '60s, and I was singing and playing bass with my all-girl bands in the late '60s 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 Times 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 with whom you've worked?
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 Dec. 1 at SOhO in Santa Barbara, and at SOhO on Dec. 22 we'll have Kenny Loggins as our special guest. We will play at the Russ and Julie's House Concert on Jan. 11 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.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.