Coffee Butler – a true Key West legend
The following words cannot do justice to the talent of this amazing human being. The City of Key West honored him by naming the new amphitheater, the Coffee Butler Amphitheater. The honor was well earned.
Lofton Ambrose Butler was born in Bahama Village in 1928 into a family of musicians. His uncles and cousins all played music. Lofton had a young friend that kept mispronouncing his nickname, “Loffy”, and calling him Coffee instead – and the legend began.
Bahama Village was then, and is now, the center of music in the Keys. It was also the home of the segregated Fredrick Douglas High School. It’s hard to believe now, but Jim Crow was alive and well in Key West.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and gave many young black ball players new hope. Coffee was a star shortstop in high school and he was torn between baseball and “Miss Ellen” Welters Sanchez’s piano lessons.
Miss Ellen, as Coffee still refers to her today, had written a song, “The Beautiful Ilse of Key West”. In November 1948, after defeating Dewey, Truman returned to Key West for a vacation. Mayor Maitland Adams held a ceremony renaming Division Street to Truman Avenue. Coffee Butler performed Miss Ellen’s song for the President of the United States.
Coffee began performing with his father, Duke Butler’s nine-piece band, Duke and the Royal Aces at the Imperial Café and the Cuban Club on Duval Street. After graduating in 1948, he tried out with the Negro league’s Kansas City Monarchs. Eventually, he played in the Florida/Cuba League for the Palm Beach Rockets, traveling between Miami, Tampa, and Cuba in 1950 and 1951.
He was drafted in 1952. After he returned from the Army, Coffee met the love of his life. He married Virginia “Martha” Carpentier in 1957. Martha was a big reason for his long success and stable life, keeping him well grounded in his Key West roots. After 54 years of happiness, Martha passed away in 2011. Coffee cried his eyes out, literally. He had to see a doctor in Miami for a clogged tear duct in his left eye. Martha’s favorite song was “Let Them Talk.” Coffee had always played her song almost every gig.
Miss Ellen’s influence paid off. From 1954, Coffee Butler has been the premier music entertainer in Key West. He was referred to as the Key West Louie Armstrong. He started as a trio, Coffee and the Cups, playing throughout Key West. Coffee had a long-time solo gig at Howie’s Lounge located at 100 Duval Street. One famous Key West musician said that Coffee Butler always reminded him of Sam, the pianist in the movie Casablanca. The legend grew.
Coffee encountered many famous folks during his performances. Tennessee Williams once came into the Bamboo Room with Tallulah Bankhead. Tallulah approached Coffee, sat on his piano, and struck up a conversation. Coffee told her how he loved her movies and her deep sexy voice. The flamboyant Tallulah purred, “If you made love to me, you would have been dead a long time ago.”
A close encounter with the Beatles also figures in Coffee’s story. On September 10, 1964, the Beatles left Montreal, en route to a concert in Jacksonville, Florida. Hurricane Dora forced a detour of their flight to Key West. The Beatles stayed at the old Key Wester Motel on South Roosevelt. They were jamming all day with a number of different groups. After Coffee finished his gig at the Bamboo Room, Herb Rosenburg took Coffee to the Key Wester. Coffee was asked to join in and played an old Fats Domino tune, “Blueberry Hill.” A large crowd was forming and the late hour caused the local police to ask that the music end. Beatles drummer Ringo Starr yelled, “Let the man play.”
Coffee once told me a story of how back in the 70s, a new guitar player in town came into Howie’s Lounge one night. He asked Coffee if he could play a few songs during Coffee’s breaks. Coffee liked the young man and agreed to let him play. The new guitar player in town was Jimmy Buffett.
Coffee helped his Uncle Bill Butler rekindle The Junkanoos, with their special Latin and Bahamian rhythms. The group featured percussionists Charles Allen, Kenny Rahming, Joe Whyms, and Alvin Scott. Harry Chipchase played trombone. Edwar Weech played saxophone, even though he had lost parts of his fingers in the Army. They appeared often at the Florida Folk Festival in Tallahassee performing for the Governor from 1977-1991.
Later, Coffee had solo gigs at the Casa Marina and became a fixture at Allan Merrill’s Hukilau on North Roosevelt (the current Homeland Security Office). One of his favorite gigs was playing with Jim Holt, Jack Holt, and Jack’s wife Sheryl Lynn. He also performed with musicians Hector Barossa (saxophone), Buddy Chavez (drums), Bobby Lowe (bass), and Duke Yannacone (drums).
Coffee retired from performing in 2005. His cousin, Clayton Lopez and I helped coax him out of retirement to perform at my book release party for the Soul of Key West, Volume II, December 20, 2015. The show sold out weeks before and was a huge success with five fantastic vocalists: Coffee, Clayton & Mina Lopez, Robert Albury (aka Key West King of Soul), and the smooth voice of Cliff Sawyer. The group performed four additional sold out concerts.
Nothing lasts forever. If you want to hear this legend, he will be performing ‘probably’ his last gig – “Coffee Butler and Friends” at the Key West Theater, January 17th. Tickets are available through Rams Head Productions or at the ticket window of the Key West Theater from Wednesday through Friday noon to 6 PM. This show will definitely sell out. “Play it again Sam.”