A gifted musician, Annette Butler sang backup for her husband, Jerry, in the later days of his career. Their 1959 wedding was filled with soul and R&B royalty.
A funeral is being planned for Annette Butler, who sometimes sang backup for her husband, former Cook County Commissioner Jerry Butler.
Mrs. Butler, who had dementia, died Sunday at Belmont Village Senior Living in Oak Park, according to their son, Randy. She was 81.
“We married in 1959,” said her husband, who was nicknamed “Iceman” for his smooth, cool vocals. A Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, he formed the Impressions with Curtis Mayfield.
The Butlers’ wedding at Mount Sinai Baptist Church was rich with soul and R&B royalty, according to his autobiography, “Only the Strong Survive: Memoirs of a Soul Survivor.”
The groomsmen included Chuck Barksdale of the Moonglows, and later on, the Dells; Moonglows lead singer Harvey Fuqua, who went on to be an architect of the Motown sound; and singer Wade Flemons, who would later perform with Earth Wind & Fire.
In their later years, Mrs. Butler did backup vocals for her husband on the road and in the studio, he said.
“She just had a multitude of talent but I think she let it all get swallowed up by me,” he said. Still, “She told me I took her to places she never thought she’d go.”
“Two young people from the West Side of Chicago, going to England and Portugal and all those places,” he said.
One of her favorite songs, he said, was the Impressions hit “For Your Precious Love.”
He met young Annette through her brother, Earl Smith, a bass singer and friend. She was a graduate of Lucy Flower High School who worked as a nurse’s aide at what was then known as Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital.
She also was a talented performer with a family group bearing her nickname, the Bunny Smith Trio. She played piano and bass guitar, her husband said. Rounding out the band were Earl, and a sister, Mabel.
He spoke of their romance in moving detail in his autobiography.
To save bus fare when they were courting, he used to walk the 20 mile trip to and from the Smith home.
Lingering at the house one night during a long farewell, he told her he didn’t mind the long walk.
Suddenly, a voice from a side bedroom pierced the night with, “ ‘Kiss her, fool!’
“It was Annette’s grandmother,” Mr. Butler wrote. “… I guess I had overstayed my welcome with Grandma, who probably was tired and wanted to sleep.”
Even as his success grew, Butler sometimes felt unsure of himself. “My poverty-stricken background was the culprit,” he said in the book. “… We were so poor when I was growing up that my mother would boil chicken feet in the water, add a little salt, and that was our meal.”
“One of the things that impressed me about the Smiths was that they actually served chitlins on Wednesday — a weekday!” he said. “At my house, we were lucky to have chitlins served once or twice a year.”
Mrs. Butler loved road trips. Over time, she owned four or five conversion vans, which she’d use to ferry her siblings and mother out west to visit relatives. “She was such a great driver,” her son said.
And, “She was an impeccable housekeeper,” he said.
“She loved her plants and her garden and her hedges,” said neighbor John H. White, who won the Pulitzer Prize for photography when he worked for the Chicago Sun-Times and has taught at Columbia College. “There was this constant kindness and this constant beaming.”
Mrs. Butler and her husband were involved in the production of a monthly publication, “The Word,” focusing on the entertainment industry. She also participated in charitable events including the Mahalia Jackson Foundation fashion show, where she walked the runway to raise money for music and art scholarships.
In addition to her husband and son Randy, Mrs. Butler is survived by their son Anthony, sister Susan Hicks, brother Earl Smith, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Arrangements are pending, Randy Butler said.
“We were two young kids having a heckuva time,” Jerry Butler said, “doing what we loved.”