Liverpool’s music community lost one of its great pillars recently when Tony Butler sadly passed away following a short illness. For almost two decades Tony presided over The Zanzibar with gruff authority, with warmth and a depth of passion that belied his caustic wit. The thoughts of all of us at Bido Lito! are with Tony’s family and friends at this time.
Tony was one of those behind-the-scenes operators who didn’t seek out public praise for what he did, but, to those who knew him, he was a true hero. Over the years, he gave a helping hand to thousands of musicians who passed through The Zanzi. Though not all of those musicians who cut their teeth on gigs at the club – and it was always a club, not a bar – had direct interactions with Tony, they benefited massively by it just being there; a place where they could be themselves and perform. But those who did form lasting relationships with Tony picked up huge amounts of inspiration from his steely determination. It’s been heartwarming to read all the recollections and tributes to Tony written by scores of these musicians since his death, reflecting on the various ways in which he dished out guidance, cajoled and encouraged them, and dished out the odd affectionate kick up the arse when needed.
I didn’t have too much direct contact with Tony over the years – he treated our requests to review shows at the club with immense scepticism, which, ironically, probably stood us in good stead. But we were always aware that he had respect for what we were doing and wanted us to succeed; because, if Bido Lito! was successful then that only meant good news for the city’s musicians, which he really did care about. You’d be damned if you thought you’d get an ad out of him, however.
The Zanzi was Tony’s domain, his spiritual home. There was pride in its independence, and its walls and floor resonated with prestige. They still do. In time, we will probably come to view The Zanzibar alongside The Cavern and Eric’s in terms of its impact on Liverpool music culture, in particular for The Bandwagon years in the early 2000s that spawned groups like The Bandits, Tramp Attack, The Basement, The Coral and The Zutons. It was also a home for musicians like Howie Payne and Edgar Jones, who went on to have great success in the music industry. Tony Butler was this scene’s godfather.
There was a touching moment on the day of Tony’s funeral when his last journey passed outside the club, with the arrival of his coffin being met by a rousing round of applause on Seel Street. It felt like a final goodbye – and also like the baton was being respectfully passed on. The best way of respecting Tony Butler’s legacy would be to ensure that The Zanzibar remains – as a venue, a club and a playground to the city’s future musicians. I hope we’re all up to the challenge.