Key West Version of the Buena Vista Social Club
By Ralph De Palma
With help from family and friends, I was able to talk Coffee Butler out of retirement to help launch my second volume of The Soul of Key West at a December 2015 concert. Since that sold-out concert, “Coffee Butler and Friends” have performed four additional sell-out concerts at the Key West Theater. Photographer Rob O’Neal covered one of the last concerts and commented that “this group was a Key West version of the Buena Vista Social Club”, referring to the 1997 Cuban phenomena.
That was an epiphany – these older Key West performers had much in common with the Buena Vista Social Club in Havana. The comparison is strikingly similar in a number of ways. Both groups of musicians and vocalists were longtime friends. Both groups shared their experience, passion, and love of music without reservation. Both ensembles perform as a unique group, without any of the many talented performers vying for the spotlight, and yes, they are obviously older performers. The comparisons grew even stronger when we started to record an album.
Coffee Butler and Cliff Sawyer were lifelong friends. Clayton Lopez, Mina Lopez-Martin, and Robert Albury were cousins. The Soul of Key West Band was led by older professional musicians who had performed together in Key West for decades. As in Havana, there was no pushing to be the front man. They all enjoyed Coffee’s return. They all sang backup for each other. They did whatever they could do to make the songs better. The band was tight and gave it their all.
On one of my trips to Havana, I visited EGREM studio (Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales) which originally was the site of a former tobacco processing plant. The manager, Raúl Arroyo, gave me a tour of the historic location. We discussed the recording of the historic 1997 Buena Vista Social club album.
Guitarist/composer Francisco Repilado, professionally known as “Compay Segundo”, was eighty-nine years old. He had composed a song, “Chan Chan”, that came to him in a dream. Singer Ibrahim Ferrer and pianist Rubén Gonzáles, both over seventy, were coaxed out of retirement. The beautiful voices of Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa, plus an amazing group of musicians, came together at EGREM for one week of recording.
There were no egos taking over, no jockeying for position – they were playing wonderful music as a perfect ensemble. The album, Buena Vista Social Club, was named after a former club in the Mariano section of Havana that the older musicians frequently attended.
Much like Compay Segundo, eighty-nine-year-old Coffee Butler had written several original songs. He also had a presence on stage, as well as in the studio, that commands a certain respect and love from his fellow performers. Coffee and Cliff’s friends and family asked to participate.
Robert Albury (aka Key West King of Soul) lent his fantastic voice in the studio singing backup for several songs – something he had never done before. Cliff Sawyer, one of the principles, also recorded backing tracks.
Clayton and Mina have been singing together and with Coffee and Cliff for decades. They came into the studio and harmonized brilliantly, as they had all their lives.
Music Director Larry Baeder worked tirelessly charting each song. Several of Coffee’s original songs had never been charted. Larry had Coffee play the songs over and over until he could chart all the music.
Pianist Ericson Holt added beautiful organ tracks to highlight several songs. Coffee performed Holt’s original song, “Moonlight in Memphis”, and Cliff performed Larry Baeder’s original, “The Rain Song”. Life-long friend Paulie Walterson helped Coffee and Cliff learn the new music and also played percussion on two songs.
Dora Gholston recorded backing tracks for “The Rain Song”, which she sings frequently in her regular gigs. Mark Rose, saxophonist and Ken Fradley, trumpeter, added four horn solos and helped on several other songs. Everyone was sharing their experience and wisdom to make the music better.
As we recorded the album titled “A Mother’s Love”, the award-winning producer Ian Shaw got every ounce of talent out of all the musicians.
Everyone brought their “A” game to the studio. Everyone contributed tirelessly. The pay was embarrassingly low, and the hours long, on a shoe string budget. Everyone wanted to be a part of this epic music project.
It was a perfect storm of Key West musical talent coming together for a singular goal, much like the musicians in 1996 in EGREM Studio in Havana. This unique Key West phenomenon will give the community a lasting music tribute to the Key West version of the Buena Vista Social Club.