Never judge a book by its cover. That’s what your mama said! It’s true of a lot of things in life, and people, too – no more so than Elvin Bishop.
An ageless wonder who’s most comfortable wearing bib overalls, Elvin’s a master entertainer who puts audiences instantaneously at ease with his folksy manner and homespun drawl. “I used to be the youngest guy on the set,” the 77-year-old told Blues Blast in a recent interview. “Now, I’m the oldest one.”
To the casual observer, he appears to be nothing more than a simple man who possesses the gift for gab and the ability to spin songs full of humor and uncanny observations. But looks are deceiving.
A laid-back, jocular man, from first sight, it’s hard to believe that his music pedigree is one of the most amazing of anyone who’s ever picked up an instrument. But it’s true.
As a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the ‘60s, he and his bandmates shattered the racial barrier separating blacks and whites on the stage and recording studio. A fully integrated unit that featured Howlin’ Wolf’s former rhythm section, they won over audiences in Chicago and then the world, sharing the spotlight with Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and others, forever changing the landscape of the blues world.
Trading licks on guitar with the legendary Michael Bloomfield on the band’s first two LPs, Elvin helped lay the foundation for Southern rock, playing double leads that emulated the sound of horns – a sound that became the backbone of the recordings of the Allman Brothers and a host of others across the rock spectrum.
And in the mid-‘70s, he revolutionized mainstream FM radio, too, after he and vocalist Mickey Thomas hit the jackpot with the LP, Struttin’ My Stuff, which was anchored by the monster hit, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” They filled huge auditoriums thanks the success of that entire Capricorn release, inadvertently giving birth to what was commonly known as AOR, the album-oriented format that dominated the airwaves for a decade.
On the whole, those accomplishments are pretty amazing on their own, but even more so when you consider that Bishop – who was born Oct. 21, 1942 in Glendale, Calif. – was raised in a home with no electricity or running water on a farm on the outskirts of Elliott, Iowa. Born into a long line of farmers, none of whom had ever exhibited any musical talent, Elvin didn’t experience indoor plumbing or see TV for the first time until age 11, when the family moved to more hospitable accommodations in Tulsa, Okla.
Don’t be fooled, though. Despite those humble beginnings and the manner in which he still comports himself today, he possesses the brain of a deep thinker and heart of a lion when it comes to expressing himself about societal matters – sharing the social graces and wisdom of two other Oklahoma-born legends: tunesmith Woody Guthrie and actor, vaudevillian and humorist Will Rogers.
Growing up in the Jim Crow era almost walking distance from the area known as Black Wall Street, which has been in the news so much lately, Elvin grew up in a city that was deeply divided racially and possessed deep, horrifying secrets, hiding the memory of the worst race riot in American history – a two-day incident in 1921 that destroyed 35 square blocks of one of the richest, most successful black communities in the nation, taking the lives of as many as 250 people and permanently displacing thousands more.
“It was pretty rough,” Elvin says today. “Tulsa’s a bad town as far as the race relations go. I knew about Black Wall Street, but they never said nothin’ about it in school.”
Like many of his peers, Bishop grew up listening to country music on radio. Jazz appealed to him somewhat, but says his mind didn’t work fast enough to understand it. What really caught his ear, however, was the black gospel, R&B and blues broadcast on the smaller stations that targeted the African-American audience white racists hadn’t managed to wipe or drive out. There was something about those sounds that struck him to the core.
After discovering at school dances how much girls loved singers and guitar players, he says, he went to a pawn shop and bought the cheapest instrument he could find – a Kay or Harmony “with strings two inches from the fretboard.”
His early heroes included Muddy, Wolf, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Albert Collins, Earl Hooker and Little Walter as well as Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles, too. And he started sneaking out his bedroom window at night in an attempt to hear the music he loved at its source – the racially segregated clubs that were thrived in the worst parts of town.
It was a bold move. But sometimes – just sometimes – they’d let him in.
An excellent student, Elvin graduated from Will Rogers High School as a National Merit Scholar, earning a full scholarship to the University of Chicago in the process, enrolling in 1960. The first person in his family to attend college, he planned to pursue a major in physics, taking classes taught by some of the same folks who’d assisted Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi in the bowels of the school’s football stadium as they perfected the design of the H-bomb two decades before.
“I went to the University of Chicago, and my folks were from the Depression,” he remembers. “Education was a big thing to them, you know. And I had a scholarship. Otherwise, I couldn’t have gone because they didn’t have any money.
“For me, though, it was my cover story for my gettin’ to where the blues was.”
In that era, professors weren’t strict about keeping attendance in classes. In fact, it wasn’t really necessary. All you had to do was show up for the tests and pass them – which served Elvin well. He spend most of his time in his room, practicing guitar around the clock and cramming for the tests when he had to. He finally dropped out after proving to his parents that he could support himself by playing music instead.
Bishop still attacks the guitar in the same way he did back then. After experimenting doubling on six-string and harp, he copped his style from Hooker by wearing out the grooves on the slide master’s records before finally getting to see him in person. He’d originally played in conventional tuning, which proved a chore because he’d frequently have to re-tune when changing keys for the next song.
Switching to open tuning and using a slide eliminated the problem, something made even easier by picking up Earl’s technique: playing with a light slide on his pinky rather than the heavier one most artists use on their middle digit.
“Most guys use a heavy slide and use a different finger to support it,” he says. “They just swack…like choppin’ wood. But Hooker, he took time to figure out exact melodies, not relyin’ on how the guitar was laid out. And with the slide on your little finger, you’ve got all the others to do your playin’, which still gives you more than Django Reinhardt (who lost the use of two fingers and a leg in a fire) ever had!”
Elvin had barely unpacked when he dove head-first into the blues community that surrounded him.
“The first thing I did was to make friends with a black guy who worked at the cafeteria,” he recalls. “Within a week, he and I were out in the ghetto, going to the best blues clubs in the world.”
Then, as today, the university was located in Hyde Park on the city’s South Side, an island unto itself surrounded on one side by Lake Michigan and the three others by some of the most dangerous black neighborhoods that had developed in the city during the great migration from the South that followed World War I.
A mile to the north along 43rd Street, Mississippi-style juke joints flourished alongside others that appealed to a more cultured clientele. Dozens more rocked the night away a half mile to the west just beyond Washington Park, a lush, green buffer zone that separated it from clubs that thrived along 51st Street, Michigan and Wabash Avenues and State Street.
The first Chicago band Elvin ever saw was Muddy Waters’ at Pepper’s Lounge, a nightclub owned and operated by Johnny Pepper, who hired the best bands in the city for decades at three different locations in what was known as Bronzeville. It was the same core unit that had dazzled the audience at the Newport Jazz Festival a few months earlier: James Cotton – a rising superstar himself at age 25, Pat Hare or Willie Johnson on second guitar and Francis Clay on drums – a roster and sound that will live on forever thanks to the Chess LP that was recorded that summer afternoon.
The music was everywhere, Bishop says, so much so, in fact, that even though he and Charlie Musselwhite were both working, playing and barhopping in the city for most of the ‘60s, they rarely, if ever crossed paths.
“At the time that I was first there, blues was in its heyday,” Elvin remembers. “It was like hip-hop is today: the live music of choice of the black people. And I’m not exaggerating when I say there were hundreds of blues clubs in Chicago…even more than there were later on.
“Back then, you got in with a certain bunch of fellas that you’d go to the clubs with, and you’d have your own circuit…seven or eight clubs at most that you really felt comfortable and welcome in, ya know, and you had friends there. So you went to those same clubs all the time. And it’s very possible for another guy – Charlie, for instance – to have another totally different circle of clubs.
“I was hanging out at Pepper’s, the Blue Flame, Theresa’s (all close to campus) and…every once in a while if there was somebody I really wanted to see…Magic Sam or Otis Rush or somebody on the West Side…I’d go there, too.
“I managed to see almost all of the hard-hitters in their prime…Little Walter and the others. But I never saw Sonny Boy Williamson, and I never saw Jimmy Reed because they were just in different circuits. And at that time, there were still opportunities to see some of the old, old guys.
“Sleepy John Estes was some kind of relation to Hound Dog Taylor…I played with Hound Dog some on the West Side…and he’d come and visit him now and then. And I was pretty good friends with Big Joe Williams. I used to hang out with him a lot. We used to go to parties together in Hyde Park. He’d get us in trouble — and we had to run!
“Big Joe was totally fearless about hittin’ on chicks – right in front of their old man. He didn’t give a fuck. Sometimes, they’d get mad and we’d have to flee. You couldn’t believe that a man that old and that fat could get over a fence so quick, man!”
Always careful of his surroundings – the South Side was bad, but the West Side was worse, Bishop usually traveled in the company of black friends.
His first paying gigs came backing sax player J.T. Brown, a Mississippi-born tenor sax player who’d worked minstrel shows and recorded on the Bluebird label before relocating to the Windy City in 1950, where his honking horn stylings received worldwide attention through his frequent recordings with Elmore James, others with Wolf and still more with Fleetwood Mac shortly before his passing in 1969.
Bishop remembers making $10 a night, frequently setting up in the back of the clubs because they didn’t have a stage. “You’re right there with the people right in front of you, dancin’ and everything,” he says. “It was a low-level gig, but it was the real deal – and a whole lot of fun.”
Playing with Taylor was an equally interesting experience.
“We played some lowdown places,” Elvin insists. “I remember Hound Dog sittin’ in a chair, his knees stickin’ wa-a-y up in the air – he had these long legs – and playin’ ‘Meet Me in the Bottom’ and all that. It was pretty much a blur to me. I did the best I could, but I was…at the time…like they say…square as a pool table and twice as green.
“There wasn’t anybody in the place that didn’t have a knife scar on their face. You’d go in the bathroom on the breaks to take a pee and one guy’d have a bottle of wine, one guy’d have a bottle of gin, and one guy’d have a bottle of whiskey – and they’d all want you to take a drink.
“I was scared to turn anybody down. By the time I came outta there for the next show, I had a pretty good buzz on.”
Clean and sober for decades, Bishop says that Taylor’s practice habits were pretty problematic, too. “We’d go over to his place to rehearse,” he says, “…he called it ‘rehearsin’’…and he’d send me to the liquor store with $2 for a $3 bottle of whiskey. I’d bring that back, and we’d go over some damned tunes, go to the gig — and just wouldn’t play none of ‘em. But he was cool, man (laughs).”
The person who really took Elvin under his wing back then guitarist Abraham “Little Smokey” Smothers. He was a founding member of the Butterfield band in 1963, and Elvin took his place when Smokey left the group, but their friendship endured for decades. The younger brother of another Windy City mainstay, the under-recorded Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers, Little Smokey worked with Magic Sam, Rush and Lazy Bill Lucas in the ‘50s, retired for a while after Butterfield to work a day job, but subsequently recorded two well-received CDs with Elvin and was also featured in Martin Scorsese’s 2003 TV series, The Blues.
“I remember some interview we did at the Chicago Blues Fest,” Bishop remembers fondly. “We did a gig together, and they asked him: ‘Well, was Elvin hard to teach? Was he a hardheaded student?’ He said: ‘Well, the first thing I had to do was get him off of Johnny Cash!’
“When I came to Chicago, the only blues song I really knew how to play good was ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’” he says. “I’d listened to a lot of the hard-core blues records and stuff, but I didn’t really have a clue how to play it. I had to wait.
“For me, the big eye-opener was seein’ the lifestyle, the words they were singin’. I went: ‘Oh-h-h shit! Now I get it!’ And it wasn’t (in) the clubs. It was goin’ into peoples’ houses and seein’ the life they were livin’…on down to the smell of black cosmetics…like that. It was cool.
“Somehow, I made friends with Little Smokey, and I’d walk over to his apartment…he lived at 42nd and Berkeley (a few blocks from Muddy)…with my guitar on my back. Fortunately, it wasn’t as rough then as the neighborhood got later. And (soul-blues singer) Lee ‘Shot’ Williams lived right downstairs from him.
“When I first got to Chicago, the South Side was more like a big Southern town. It didn’t get that hard edge, the drugs and the desperation until a little bit later. It was real nice until they started tearin’ all the shit down. Smokey and I would sit up there and practice. He’d teach me the rhythm part. And when we finally got it good enough, he’d be callin’ the neighbors to listen to it. That’s the way to learn shit, you know!
“He never got a decent break with his recordings, but he was pretty much universally liked and loved by all the blues musicians in Chicago. We’d walk around the corner to Big Smokey’s. He lived in the basement. He had about eight kids – all of ‘em taller than me. Big Smokey used to ride his bicycle around the neighborhood. He was another one-of-a-kind character. Little Smokey used to love that tune that he did…’I Ain’t Gonna Be Your Monkey Man No More.’”
In the ‘20s and ‘30s, the area he lived in was one of the wealthiest parts of the city, home to wealthy whites and the streets were lined with huge mansions. As the whites fled to the suburbs, the majestic homes they left behind were basically abandoned to the wrecking ball. Only a small cluster of them remain to tell the tale today.
“In the ‘60s, they called it ‘urban renewal,’ and chased all the black folks out of the neighborhood,” Elvin remembers. “But they left some of the electricity on in them old mansions.
“I stayed in a bunch of those old houses, livin’ rent-free and buyin’ that 10-cents-a-can Bonnie Hubbard Pork and Beans, pork chops for 20 cents a pound and Richards Wild Irish Rose – I don’t know how many pints of that shit I drank! I didn’t like Thunderbird, but I did like Richards. Thunderbird tasted like some kinda petroleum product.
“That’s how I got out of the Army, though,” he says with a chuckle. With the Vietnam War raging, he was a prime target even though, at the time, he was touring relentlessly with Butterfield.
“They asked me if I had any mental problems,” he says, “and I put ‘yes’ (on the form). I was tryin’ like hell to get out of goin’. I changed my residence from Oklahoma to Chicago then to New York and back to Chicago. It took ‘em a couple of years to catch up with me.
“They finally nailed me in Chicago. I was gettin’ ready to go the next morning to some camp in Kentucky or Tennessee, and the last thing they did was put ya in with a psychiatrist, ya know. He said: ‘Tell me about your mental problems.’
“I said: ‘Well…I live in a house with six black people, and I have to have a pint of Richards Wild Irish Rose next to my bed to wake up on in the morning (laughs).’
“He just slammed his stamp down (REJECTED!) real hard, and I got out of it like that!”
The first time Bishop recorded a record, he says, he had no clue he was doing so, adding: “It was with Cotton. I didn’t know it at the time – and neither did he. It was in ’62 or so. It was me, Cotton, Butterfield and Billy Boy (Arnold). We did six or eight tunes, and it was just done on a Wollensek (reel-to-reel) recorder by this guy in a building of the University of Chicago that was closed at night. He said: ‘You guys wanna see what you sound like on tape?’
“Years later, it came out on a record…Rare Gems Vol. 1. It still sounds surprisingly good!”
Released as a gatefold, two-LP set on the Roots imprint in 1977, it’s a 22-cut collection that also includes entries from Little Brother Montgomery, Otis Spann, Big Joe, pianist Johnnie Jones, country blues guitarist-turned-minister Reverend Robert Wilkins, Robert Pete Williams, Robert Nighthawk, J.B. Lenoir and Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis.
During that era, Elvin also spent a great deal of the time with guitar legend Sammy Lawhorn, practicing with him regularly and occasionally working with him, too. A former member of Waters’ band, Lawhorn hired Bishop away from J.T. Brown by offering him $12 a night to sit in with him at the Blue Flame, a club located in the Del Morocco Hotel at 39th and Drexel, the place Sammy called home. Brown was furious, but Elvin was ecstatic about his $2 raise.
They were rehearsing one day when Lawhorn told him he needed Bishop to fill in for him at his regular gig, backing Junior Wells at Theresa’s. “Apparently, he got an offer to go south with Muddy, and just told me to go be his replacement,” Elvin says. “He got me up there and rehearsed me on all of Junior’s tunes…where I halfway knew ‘em, ya know…and I went over to Theresa’s for the gig.
“Junior looked at me like…’who the fuck are you,’ ya know. I said: ‘I’m Bishop. Sammy sent me over here to take his place for the next couple of weeks. Junior says: ‘He did!?!’
“He didn’t know a thing about it, took me in the back and tried me on a couple of tunes, and said: ‘Okay.’ I figure that, at that point, he couldn’t do any better.
“Junior was a beautiful guy. But he was dangerous, too. You had to keep your eye on him. I was in Theresa’s one time with folks from the university. This girl had a car. I never had one, and was always lookin’ for a ride. We stopped and picked up Sammy and took him over to Theresa’s, and him and Junior got into an argument – in the phone booth (an old, wooden one with a folding door that stood opposite to the bar).
“They’re in the phone booth (a real squeeze in and of itself), and Junior pulls out his knife. All he could reach was Sammy’s ass because it was so tight. He cuts Sammy, and Sammy comes out of it and says: ‘C’mon! You gotta take me to my house and get my gun.’
“We took him and rode him around for a while, got him some whiskey and settled him down…’til he forgot about gettin’ his gun.”
Now a member of both the Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and an Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Famer, too, Elvin’s been on his own since going solo in 1968, when he also uprooted himself for San Francisco to escape The Hawk – the vicious winter winds whipping off of Lake Michigan – and take advantage of the better paying gigs the Bay Area offered.
A five-time Grammy nominee with close to 20 Blues Music Award nominations and three trophies, he’s currently enjoying his second, lengthy stay at Alligator Records in a career that’s also included stops at Innerview, Line, King Biscuit Flower Hour, BMG, Silverline, Blind Pig, Disky, Delta Groove and Air Cuts along the way.
His most recent work with Big Fun Trio – a lineup that includes longtime partner Bob Welsh on keyboards and guitar and Willy Jordan on percussion and debuted with a self-titled release in 2017 – proves beyond a doubt that he’s still at the top of his game after nearly six full decades in the business.
In fact, Elvin’s songwriting is sharper than ever, mixing wry humor with deep observations about life that cut like a knife, but tempered with a down-home delivery that simultaneously enhances and softens the message. That comes through loud and clear in the title tune of the group’s 2018 CD, Something Smells Funky ‘Round Here, an unmistakable complaint about the goings on in Washington.
“My tunes tend to be on the truthful side,” he says wistfully.
Known for delivering what he terms “a damn good show,” Bishop’s cut his touring schedule dramatically in recent years, going from as many as 300 gigs a year to 50 to 75 before the coronavirus lockdown – primarily he no longer enjoys the rigors of the road and the constant travel.
“They have to get a big-ass crowbar to get me outta here,” he says, referring to the home in Marin County. “This is the first time in 50 years that I’ve been on a regular schedule. I’m gettin’ a lot of sleep and not havin’ to get up at 3 o’clock in the mornin’ to get a flight to the East Coast, and it’s kinda refreshing in a way.
“You miss playin’, the crowds and bein’ able to be around the people. But then again, it’ ain’t all bad. I get to spend a lot of time tendin’ to my garden, which I love. I raise all the usual vegetables and all the Japanese ones, too. I’m also into home canning – I have been for years. I can up three or 400 hundred jars a year. We won’t go hungry. All year round, we got shit to eat.”
Blues fans shouldn’t fret, though. He’s got a real treat in store. Along with Welsh, he and Musselwhite recorded a full CD together for the first time last winter, finishing it just prior to the shutdown. Entitled 100 Years of Blues, Alligator will be releasing it in late September. The title’s the same as a tune they worked up for the first Big Fun CD, on which Charlie made a guest appearance.
“Every few years, me and Charlie end up recordin’ somethin’ together…a tune here and there, and it’s always pretty good,” he says. “That’s what put us into the mind of makin’ an album.
“And, boy, it went easy! It was amazing. I picked out a few tunes I wanted to do, and he picked out a few of his – and we just sat down and knocked ‘em out – one or two takes…pretty much like how old blues records were made. He’s a helluva guy.
“That’s another reason why we decided to do it. Over the years, we hadn’t hung out much together, but we gradually found out that we had a whole lot in common. I was talkin’ to him the other day about how things used to be and I said: ‘Man, I still call it an ‘icebox’ instead of a refrigerator.’ And he said: ‘I do, too!’
“Then we started talkin’ about kerosene lamps, buyin’ 45s that had came off of the jukeboxes in the black part of town – and just all kinds of shit, ya know.”
Elvin promises that he and “Mussel” won’t be holding anything back on the new record. It’s no secret that neither he nor Charlie have any love for the current President, and promise that they’ll be delivering that message loud and clear in one of the new tunes.
Meanwhile, he’s enjoying himself, working in his garden. But he does have another treat that you can enjoy now. He and the Big Fun Trio hooked up with Kid Andersen and drummer Derrick “D’Mar” Martin and recorded a video entitled “Lockdown” that addresses their feelings in the midst of this epidemic. It’s a hoot! Check it out at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRdxUZPZQUw
And be sure to check out Elvin’s music and where – hopefully – he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.elvinbishopmusic.com