George Butler spearheaded the venerable jazz label's controversial shift into the commercial mainstream, helming now-classic fusion and funk sessions decried by purists but embraced by subsequent generations of acid jazz enthusiasts. Born September 2, 1931, in Charlotte, NC, Butler studied at Howard University before earning a master's degree in music education from Columbia University. During the early '60s, he went to work as an A&R executive for United Artists Records, and was instrumental in the 1966 formation of its Solid State Records jazz subsidiary. After United Artists assumed stewardship of Blue Note in the wake of a rapid-fire series of mergers and acquisitions, Butler co-produced several dates with longtime exec Francis Wolff -- following Wolff's death in March 1971, Butler took complete control of the firm, and with 1972's Donald Byrd release Black Byrd scored a huge chart hit by embracing the sensibilities of contemporary funk and R&B. The album, co-produced by siblings Fonce and Larry Mizell, established the slick, shimmering formula that defines myriad Blue Note dates from artists including Bobbi Humphrey, Ronnie Foster, and Gene Harris, all touted by the Butler-masterminded "Blue Note Hits a High Note" marketing campaign. At the same time, Butler also oversaw an acclaimed reissue effort that finally brought to light dozens of unreleased sessions from the label's creative heyday.
In 1978, United Artists executives Artie Mogull and Jerry Rubinstein secured a loan from EMI Music and acquired UA from financial services conglomerate Transamerica. Less than a year later, EMI foreclosed and phased out the Blue Note imprint, forcing Butler to jump ship to Columbia Records, now home to several of Blue Note's flagship acts as well. Appointed vice president for jazz and progressive A&R, Butler was instrumental in convincing Miles Davis to return to the studio after a five-year absence from recording -- in addition, he helmed hit fusion efforts for acts ranging from Bob James to Billy Cobham to Grover Washington, Jr. However, his most significant Columbia achievement was signing onetime Art Blakey trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, effectively launching the so-called "Young Lions" renaissance credited with reviving creative and commercial interest in traditional jazz sensibilities. Butler later produced sessions for Young Lions including Marsalis' brother Branford, Terence Blanchard, and Donald Harrison, and during his Columbia tenure signed Harry Connick, Jr. and Nnenna Freelon. Butler remained with Columbia until retirement -- in the final years of his life he suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and in the autumn of 2005 moved to a retirement home in Hayward, CA. In January 2008 Butler went missing, and spent more than 30 hours in rain and cold weather before police finally found him tangled in raspberry bushes above a creek bed -- he never recovered from the physical trauma, and died April 9 at the age of 76.