Charles William Butterfield was born in Middletown, Ohio and attended high school in Wyoming. Although he studied medicine at Transylvania College, he preferred playing in bands, and he studied cornet with Frank Simon. He discontinued his studies after finding success as a trumpeter.
While with Bob Crosby, he initially played third trumpet behind the legendary Charlie Spivak and Yank Lawson. When those two left Crosby to join Tommy Dorsey's band in 1938, Butterfield was given the opportunity to solo on a song written by Crosby bassist Bob Haggart, initially titled "I'm Free." When lyrics were added, it became the well-known standard "What's New?". Crosby's version, featuring Butterfield's brilliant performance, is regarded as one of the great recordings of the Big Band era.
On October 7, 1940, during his brief stay with Artie Shaw's orchestra, Butterfield performed what has been described[by whom?] as a "legendary trumpet solo" on the hit song "Star Dust". He was also a featured soloist in the small group from Shaw's band, the Gramercy Five. Between 1943 and 1947, taking a break to serve in the United States armed forces, Butterfield led his own orchestra. On September 20, 1944, Capitol recorded the jazz standard "Moonlight In Vermont", which featured a vocal by Margaret Whiting and trumpet solos (both open and muted) by Butterfield. The liner notes from the CD Capitol from the Vaults, Volume 2, "Vine Street Divas" indicate that, although Billy Butterfield & His Orchestra were credited with the song, it was really the Les Brown band recording under the name of Billy Butterfield because Brown was under contract to another label at the time.
Butterfield was married to singer Dotty Dare Smith.
Butterfield died March 18, 1988, in North Palm Beach, Florida. He was 71.