Butler was born in Sunflower, Mississippi in 1939. The mid-1950s had a profound impact on Butler's life. He grew up poor, having lived in Chicago's Cabrini–Green housing complex. Music and the church provided solace from the poverty of the slums he lived in, and difficulties of a predominantly segregated society. He performed in a church choir with Curtis Mayfield. As a teenager, Butler sang in a gospel quartet called Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, along with Mayfield. Mayfield, a guitar player, became the lone instrumentalist for the six-member Roosters group, which later became The Impressions. Inspired by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, and the Pilgrim Travelers, getting into the music industry seemed inevitable.
Butler's younger brother, Billy Butler, also had a career in the music industry, including playing guitar with Jerry's band, until his death in 2015.
Butler co-wrote the song "For Your Precious Love" (which is ranked No. 327 on the Rolling Stone magazine's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time) and wanted to record a disc. Looking for recording studios, the Impressions (the original members of which were Butler, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Gooden, Fred Cash - who left early on, and later returned - and brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks), auditioned for Chess Records and Vee-Jay Records. The group eventually signed with Vee-Jay, where they released "For Your Precious Love" in 1958. It became The Impressions' first hit and gold record.
Butler was dubbed the "Iceman" by WDAS Philadelphia disc jockey, Georgie Woods, while performing in a Philadelphia theater.
He co-wrote, with Otis Redding, the song "I've Been Loving You Too Long" in 1965. Butler's solo career had a string of hits, including the Top 10 successes "He Will Break Your Heart", "Find Another Girl", "I'm A-Telling You" (all written by fellow Impression Curtis Mayfield and featuring Mayfield as harmony vocal), the million selling "Only the Strong Survive", "Moon River", "Need To Belong" (recorded with the Impressions after he went solo), "Make It Easy on Yourself", "Let It Be Me" (with Betty Everett), "Brand New Me", "Ain't Understanding Mellow" (with Brenda Lee Eager), "Hey, Western Union Man", and "Never Give You Up". His 1969 "Moody Woman" release became a Northern Soul favourite and featured at number 369 in the Northern Soul Top 500. Butler released two successful albums, The Ice Man Cometh (1968) and Ice on Ice (1969). The Ice Man Cometh garnered Butler three Grammy nominations. He collaborated on many of his successful recordings with the Philadelphia-based songwriting team, Gamble and Huff. With Motown, in 1976 and 1977, Butler produced and co-produced (with Paul David Wilson) two albums: Suite for the Single Girl and It All Comes Out in My Song.
Tony Orlando and Dawn revived "He Will Break Your Heart" in 1975, with a new title, "He Don't Love You (Like I Love You)", and it was more successful than Butler's original, going to number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Subsequently, Butler and Wilson produced an album with Dee Dee Sharp-Gamble with Philadelphia International. In 1981 with "Breaking and Entering" / "Easy Money", from Sharp-Gamble's album Dee Dee, Butler/Wilson's production spent four weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart.
Butler continues to perform while serving as a Cook County Board Commissioner since the 1980s. As Cook County Commissioner, Butler voted to uphold a historic 2008 Cook County sales tax increase, which remains the highest in the nation. As a result, the Chicago Tribune encouraged people to vote against him in the 2010 elections. Butler, however, won reelection in March 2014 with over 80 percent of the vote.
In recent years, he has served as host of PBS TV music specials such as Doo Wop 50 and 51, Rock Rhythm and Doo Wop, and Soul Spectacular: 40 years of R&B, among others. He has also served as chairman of the board of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. In 1991, Butler was inducted, along with the other original members of the Impressions (Curtis Mayfield, Sam Gooden, Fred Cash, and Arthur and Richard Brooks), into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Most recently, blues rock duo The Black Keys covered "Never Give You Up" on their 2010 album, Brothers.
He currently resides in Chicago with his wife, Annette, who is one of his backup singers on the road. He has two sons, Randy and Tony, and a grandson, Jeriel.
Since his 1991 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Impressions, several music writers and critics have stated that Butler also deserves a second induction as a solo artist, based upon his successful career as a recording artist and songwriter after leaving that group.
NB. * no R&B chart published during the chart runs of these singles