Walking into Starbucks to meet Rosemary Butler, I am astounded by the people sitting around her, casually sipping lattes while fixated on their cellphones. Don’t they know they are in the presence of rock royalty? Forgive me if I’m starstruck, but this is Rosie, the queen of all background singers. Rosie: the voice on Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty and Stay. The voice that wailed You’re No Good with Linda Rondstadt and harmonized with Bette Midler on The Rose. This is a woman who backed up Etta James for crying out loud, who has sung with Paul McCartney and performed for Princess Diana and Prince Charles.
She brightens when she sees me, her megawatt smile wide and beaming. Her huge blue eyes reflect a youthfulness and innocence. My bass-playing friend Chazz aptly describes her as, “the Goldie Hawn of music.”
As one of six children, Rosemary grew up an army brat, moving often. Her father’s career took them all over the country, molding her gypsy spirit. At twelve years old, while spending months in a full body cast, she sought solace by banging away on an old guitar. Little did she know this little hobby would one day take her around the world.
Rosie never attended her high school prom but she had a good reason: her all-girl band The Ladybirds had an opening gig for The Rolling Stones. After the gig, the boys in the band ventured up to the girl-band’s hotel room. “They came to our hotel room thinking, ‘hmmm, a girl band. This’ll be easy,’” she muses, “but we were little virgins. We had our flannel nightgowns on and we were like, ‘um, we’re really Beatles freaks.’”
The guys continued to stand outside their door smoking cigarettes, waiting for the girls to come to their senses, but the girls kept that door shut. Days later, while everyone came back to school sharing their prom mementos, Rosie sold the cigarette butts the Stones had left outside her door. “That’s when I knew that my life was going to be different.”
Fresh out of high school, Rosie set out for the road — a life that taught her to expect the unexpected. In the early 70s, Rosie’s band Birtha was on tour with a traveling music festival. The many artists on the bill usually ended up staying at the same hotels. Arriving at her hotel after a long sweaty bus ride, she decided to take a swim. Moments after she plunged into the pool she came face to face with an enormous python.
“I was screaming my ass off,” she says, “and then I hear ‘Don’t worry –he’s very tame.’ And there’s Alice Cooper sitting by the pool. He says, ‘Haven’t you held a snake before?’” He then casually draped the seven-foot snake around her neck.
A chance meeting in a coal-mine town set Rosie’s career as a background singer in motion. Rosie met a blues singer named Catfish Hodge, who asked her to sing on his album. The other singer on the session that day was a fiery redhead named Bonnie Raitt. “Bonnie and just I hit it off like a couple of old sailors. Cause you know, there aren’t many girls in the business. And then she asked me to sing on her record.” Rosie and Bonnie dubbed themselves the Fugawee Sisters, “You know,” she says, “like where the fugawee, who the fugawee, what the fugawee doing?” She laughs at the memory. “Bonnie was my door opener. Through her I met Jackson, the Eagles, Linda Rondstadt and just so many people.”
After that, Rosemary’s career took on a life of it’s own. Things began to happen. It’s wasn’t something she’d planned or pushed for but she says it was, “more like I was a fireman waiting to slide down the pole.”
Rosemary and Bonnie next sang together on Jackson Browne’s Here Come Those Tears Again– a song about Jackson’s wife who had just committed suicide.
Later when Rosemary was on tour with Jackson, every night as they would perform that song, the audience would cry. After months of reliving this heavy and somber experience, her fellow background singer Doug Haywood, in a moment of comic relief, started to sing the song in a George Jones style, “Here come those steers again.” The two of them sang it that way for the rest of the tour, cracking up on stage while the audience was crying, and of course everyone would look at them like they were crazy. “We thought it was hilarious,” she said, “but it finally broke the spell.”
Another time on tour with Jackson through the Midwest, they were fed nothing but chicken every day for three weeks, so they rewrote a few of Jackson’s tunes to reflect their misery. Unfortunately, Fountains of Chicken and Running on Chickens never got any airplay.
In the late 70s, when rock stars made political statements and took a stand for what they believed in, Rosie was (literally) standing right behind them. Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown and James Taylor were just a few of the artists who comprised MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) and Rosie sang with all of them. If she’d had any illusions that the road life would be a glamorous one, the No Nukes tour in ’79 set her straight. Touring as an activist was a far cry from touring as a rock star. The band would often be picked up for gigs in a VW van held together by gaffers tape. They performed anywhere from Madison Square Gardens to a flatbed truck.
That tour was so far outside the norm, it sometimes took surreal turns. The artists of MUSE were working directly with Native American tribes whose land was being threatened — the government wanting to mine their ancient burial grounds for plutonium. At one concert in the Black Hills of South Dakota, while the show was in full swing, it started to rain and they had to stop. Rosie, Jackson, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash and the band were all crammed in a tiny trailer in back of the stage waiting for the deluge to end.
Meanwhile, the tribal elders, who had been fasting and smoking the peace pipe for a week, gathered beside the stage and began to chant. The sound of their voices became louder and louder until the rain could not be heard. Rosie remembers, “They just kept chanting and chanting and then the rain stopped. We all came out of the trailer and we looked around, and there were seven rainbows all around the sky. It was a miracle.”