Lofton "Coffee" Butler was born and raised in Key West. Family and friends called him Loffy except for one friend that kept mispronouncing Loffy as "Coffee." Soon the name "Coffee" stuck. Later, when he was playing at the Hukilau, the owner’s girlfriend said that story had to be embellished. She came up with the line that Coffee got his name because he was so stimulating.
Coffee's uncles, Bill and Oliver Butler, played saxophone, as did most of the Butlers. After attending Francis Xavier School, Coffee studied music at Fredrick Douglas High School and learned to play the piano. His favorite musicians were Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. Torn between music and baseball in his early life, Coffee was encouraged by Ellen Sanchez, his high school music teacher, who saw his potential and tried to encourage him to pursue music. In the Jim Crow era, baseball, she felt didn't provide the opportunity that music would ultimately provide. Sanchez wrote a song "The Beautiful Isle of Key West” which Coffee sang to Harry Truman during the dedication of Truman Avenue.
In the late 1940's Coffee and his father, "Duke" Butler, formed “Duke and the Royal Aces” and played
the Imperial Cafe and the old Cuban Club. The band grew to nine performers, but the Korean War and the draft soon dwindled their numbers to a quartet or even a trio, which became "Coffee and His Cups.” Their first big gig in Key West was at Johnny Neebo's Starlight Club on Duval. Many other clubs featured the band, including the Bamboo Room on today’s Applerouth Lane.
Coffee was an outstanding shortstop and revered Jackie Robinson, who joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Coffee wanted to follow a career in baseball. 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..
Coffee was drafted in 1952. When 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 fifty four years of happiness, Martha passed away in 2011. Coffee cried his eyes out. He still sees a doctor in Miami about his troubled left eye. Martha's favorite Coffee Butler song was "Let Them Talk.”
Coffee encountered many famous folks during his performances . Tennessee Williams once came into the Bamboo Room with Tallulah Bankhead. After listening a while, 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."
An encounter with the Beatles also figures in Coffee’s story, although he doesn’t make much of it. On September 10, 1964 the Beatles were in Montreal enroute to a concert in Jacksonville, Florida. Hurricane Dora detoured their flight to Key West. The Beatles stayed at the old Key Wester Hotel on South Roosevelt, now the Hyatt Windward Pointe. They were jamming all day with a number of different groups. After Coffee finished his gig at the Hukilau, Herb Rosenburg took Coffee to the Inner Room at the Key Wester and Coffee joined 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 said, "Let the man play.”
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 an explosion while serving in the Army. They appeared often at the Florida Folk Festival from 1977-1991.
Coffee later went solo with gigs at the Casa Marina and became a fixture at Allen 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 said the owner of Howie's Lounge wanted to take him to Las Vegas and open a bigger venue. Coffee remained in Key West rather than moving to the big city to become a star because he remembered what happened to his good friend Fats Navarro and, he says, he "didn't want that to happen to me.” Fats Navarro, a legendary Key West trumpeter, succumbed to heroin at 27. Navarro left Key West after graduating from high school and became a huge sensation in New York before his life and meteoric career were cut short.
At the Tennessee Williams Theater in 2005, Coffee, who was retiring from performing music, sang with his good friend Cliff Sawyer. Coffee, named the "Minister of Music" years before in one of the original Conch Republic celebrations, passed the title on to Cliff.
Check out the Key West music scene and my new book "The Soul of Key West" released November 22, 2013. Its the story of our contemporary Key West Music.
THE SOUL OF KEY WEST
This is the first book about the Key West Music scene. The story is told by 46 musicians along with over 200 color photographs - available at:
Ralph De Palma website link: http://www.rwdepalma.com/shop
Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/The-Soul-West-Ralph-Palma/dp/061587889X/