Around the age of 13, he began playing the trumpet professionally and left school to tour with a band. (He never went back.)
He blew his horn in a relaxed jazz style, with lyrical ideas and a big, pure tone that helped to enhance the bands of others, namely Bob Crosby [1937-40], Artie Shaw [1940-1941], Benny Goodman [1941-1942], and Les Brown .
Over the next few years, Butterfield recorded about a dozen sides for Capitol, and received credit on the label as "his" orchestra. On the two of those records which entered the Billboard popularity charts, My Ideal and Moonlight in Vermont, he played solos but vocalist Margaret Whiting was given top billing.
A versatile pre-bop trumpeter with a beautiful tone, Billy Butterfield could play pretty ballads and heated Dixieland with equal skill. After early experience in the mid-'30s with the bands of Austin Wylie and Andy Anderson, Butterfield became famous while playing with Bob Crosby's Orchestra (1937-1940), taking the main solo on the original version of "What's New," and making numerous records with both the big band and the Bobcats. In 1940, he was with Artie Shaw, participating in the famed Gramercy Five sessions and taking a classic solo on Shaw's rendition of "Star Dust"; in addition, Butterfield can be seen and heard playing "Concerto for Clarinet" with Shaw in the film Second Chorus. After stints with Benny Goodman (1941) and Les Brown, Butterfield spent time in the military, and then led a lyrical (but commercially unsuccessful) big band (1945-1947). He worked mostly in the studios during the 1950s and '60s, occasionally emerging for Dixieland dates with Eddie Condon, and was a key member of the World's Greatest Jazz Band (1968-1972). In later years, In the 70s he worked with Joe ‘Flip’ Phillips and toured extensively, usually as a solo. Much admired by fellow musicians, and eventually attracting the kind of attention from fans he had always deserved, Butterfield enjoyed a late flowering of his career although suffering from emphysema.