Featured Interview – Elvin Bishop

His latest album may be titled Can’t Even Do Wrong Right (Alligator Records), but whether it’s through the proper alignment of the planets, hard work or just plain ole good living, it seems like Elvin Bishop has sure enough managed to do a lot of things right in 2015.

Especially when considering that in a six-month stretch from early May until late September of this year, Bishop probably needed a wheelbarrow to tote all the awards and accolades he accumulated.

At the 36th annual Blues Music Awards (BMAs) in Memphis, Bishop took top honors in the Band of the Year, Album of the Year (for Can’t Even Do Wrong Right) and Song of the Year (for the title track) categories.

Then, at the 2015 Blues Blast Awards in Champaign, Illinois, Bishop garnered Contemporary Blues Album of the Year, as well as Male Blues Artist of the Year.

Not a bad trick for an old dog who is now into his sixth decade of playing the blues.

“I don’t know what’s in the air, but this has been my lucky year. I’m amazed,” Bishop recently said. “But I’m kind of a realist. I got nominated for a lot of awards early in my career and I learned there’s two things that you don’t want. You don’t want to be nominated in the category with an old person – which I have become – and you definitely don’t want to be nominated in the category with a guy who just died, because you can forget it then. I was always happy to see the old guys win and I’d clap for them, but in the back of my mind, there was always this little voice that said, ‘I didn’t see too much wrong with my record.’ But that must be what these guys that are in the category with me now are thinking. I think the voters look at me and say, ‘Look at that old son of a bitch … he might not be here next year, so we better give him something this year.'”

Bishop’s big year really started in earnest back in April, when The Butterfield Blues Band was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“Yeah, that was a Hell of a thing, wasn’t it?” Bishop asked.

This long overdue invite couldn’t have happened to a more deserving group (Paul Butterfield – harp/vocals; Mike Bloomfield – guitar; Elvin Bishop – guitar; Mark Naftalin – keys; Jerome Arnold – bass; Billy Davenport – drums; Sam Lay – drums), one that has long been a watershed unit. Not only did The Butterfield Blues Band perfect the template for mixing blues with the modern sounds of rock – basically creating a template for blues/rock that is still being followed today – it also inspired about a billion harp and guitar players in the process and also managed to make the ‘old-fashioned blues’ sound downright cutting edge at the time.

“It was a great apprenticeship for me; I was lucky to be in that band. The whole band was just in the right place at the right time,” said Bishop. “There was luck involved and there was talent involved and it was the right thing to happen at that time.”

Maybe the most important thing The Butterfield Blues Band accomplished – intentional or not – was the way that it set a shining example for the Civil Rights movement in a very turbulent time for this nation. Because in the early and mid-60s, there sure were not may inter-racial bands to look up to. And not only that, but a vast majority of music lovers here in the United States wouldn’t even give blues music the time of day.

“It was really at a crossroads. The blues is a great big beautiful thing and at that time, the general white public in America had never really – to any extent – got together. The mixing of the races of any kind was really not encouraged where I came from in Tulsa, Oklahoma. People think, well Oklahoma was not like Alabama or Mississippi was, but in a way, it was worse. In the ’20s, they had race riots there and bombed the black Baptist church … it was ridiculous. Civil Rights was just getting ready to happen – it was kind of swelling up – and the time was just right to have the white public become aware of blues. It’s such an attractive music and is such an electric and strong thing. We were lucky to be at the right place at the right time. I don’t think we were as good as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Magic Sam and those guys, but we were able to play it strong enough to be able to deliver it, you know? It was mostly just a matter of the music speaking for itself.”

There easily could have been some highly-explosive fireworks set off when Arnold and Lay left the Wolf’s band to become the rhythm section for The Butterfield Blues Band. But even though the big man could have resorted to violence – or at the very least held a grudge – against the Butterfield camp for lifting his bassist and drummer, Bishop said there was never an issue with Howlin’ Wolf.

“No, you have to understand it wasn’t like that (stealing Arnold and Lay away from Howlin’ Wolf). The Chicago blues scene in those days was very fluid. It was a beautiful thing and set up in such a way that the musicians didn’t get rich, but it sure encouraged a lot of improvement and made the music thrive,” he said. “In Chicago in those days, you started (playing) at 9 p.m. and went to four in the morning; five on Saturdays. I don’t care if you were Muddy Waters, or who you were, at about two in the morning, you would be glad to see any kind of help you could get, you know what I mean? That meant there was a lot of sitting in going on and it was like a big employment agency. You could go from club to club sitting in and guys would hear if you could do a decent job on their music. If you could, they’d put it in the back of their mind and the next time they needed someone, they might call you. That encouraged all the musicians who wanted to improve themselves and get better gigs to learn everyone’s tunes, so they’d be ready when their time came. This led to a lot of musical progress. Not only that, but the pay was so pitiful. The average sideman would make about $10 or $11 a night. And if somebody offered you $12, you were gone.”

He originally hit the big city to study at the University of Chicago in 1960 as a National Merit Scholar. However, it didn’t take long before those studies included jamming and hanging out with legendary characters like Little Smokey Smothers and the one-and-only Hound Dog Taylor.

“I remember we used to play these really low-down places on the west side of Chicago like on west Madison and Roosevelt Road. We’d be right down on the floor, they wouldn’t even have a bandstand. He’d (Taylor) be sitting in a chair and he had those ole long legs and he’d be playing ‘Meet Me in the Bottom” and his knees would be sticking way up over the chair,” laughed Bishop. “His pants would be hiked up way over the top of his socks and he’d be stompin’ his foot and he had that ole rapturous grin and he’d just go for it. We’d rehearse at his house and he was some kind of relation to Sleepy John Estes. I remember Sleepy John coming by there one time. He used to send me to the liquor store and he’d give me some money, but it would never be enough to cover what he wanted, so I’d have to kick in some more. He’d get his half-pint and he’d be happy and we’d rehearse. Then we’d go to the gig and not play any of the tunes we rehearsed. He was a Hell of a guy.”

With the resume that Bishop has crafted since the early 1960s -compiling an amazing back catalog of songs that his fans know by heart – it would be really easy for him to just tour in the spring and summer and play his hits instead of hitting the studio to create new music. But apparently, Bishop is not wired that way and he just simply cannot turn off the switch that controls his songwriting.

“I have come to the realization that I don’t have to (make new albums on a regular basis), but yet I wake up in the morning and the first thing on my mind is ‘I’ve almost got this tune, what’s the perfect way to say this or that?’ I’m working on a couple of new tunes right now that I think are going to be pretty good,” he said. “I don’t know, but it (songwriting) seems to be something that’s important to me and that’s what I do … I guess it’s my identity, because I do think of myself as a songwriter. So I guess I better go ahead and do some.”

Bishop has long been known for his propensity to garden and to grow a good bit of the food that he and his family consumes. In a way, his musical career could also be viewed in terms of gardening, as it has largely been self-sufficient and self-contained. It really hasn’t seemed to matter a whole lot about which record labels he’s been on throughout the years, because Bishop has managed to nurture his music his way, playing the music the way he wants, instead of being influenced to play it as wanted by a board of executives.

“You know, I just kind of hook up with whoever will put up with me,” he laughed. “But all of my songs are written with my limitations in mind. I don’t have much other choice than to be true to myself. I just write stuff that minimizes my weak points and maximizes my strong points, you know?”

Things are vastly different in the way that music is not only made in 2015, but in the way that music is consumed, as well. When Bishop was finding his way onto the national scene, if you were not tethered to a major record label, there was a very likely chance that your music would not be heard outside of your own immediate surroundings. Technology has radically altered the landscape so much these days that a certain level of technical knowledge and ability may be more valuable than any kind of record company allegiance is.

“A young Elvin Bishop in these days would know a Hell of a lot more about computers and about the tech world than I do. He would have found a way (to make it). It was never any kind of technical knowledge that I had, it was the burning desire (to play music) that got me over,” he said. “I mean, billions of people do have that desire, but only a few of them are going to make it. I really feel for the young artists coming up today, because it’s hard to get your foot in the door.”

There are plenty of other mine fields that the up-and-comers must find their way around in the 21st century, things that Bishop didn’t have to plot his way around.

“We had radio that multiplied things by ten thousand and they don’t have that anymore; it’s all fragmented. And there ain’t the clubs to play in anymore and there’s no fuckin’ record stores … I just don’t see how it happens these days,” he said. “When young guys go out on tour now, to fill up those Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, they’ve got to take low, low dough. You’ve just got to be young and have gettin’ high and chasin’ chicks be enough for you these days. You sure ain’t gonna’ make any money until you get good and going.”

In addition to his place in the pantheon of blues music, Bishop is also rightfully viewed as one of the founding fathers of the genre that became known as ‘southern rock.’ In the early to mid-70s, that blending of country, rock and the blues (along with plenty of jazz) was a major force, so much so that Capricorn Records was a major player in the industry and was home to acts like Bishop, The Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels Band (CDB) and Wet Willie – to name just a few. He’s even been name-checked in songs by the CDB on “The South’s Gonna Do It” (‘Elvin Bishop sittin’ on a bale of hay; he ain’t good lookin’, but he sure can play’) and Molly Hatchet on “Gator Country” (‘Elvin Bishop out struttin’ his stuff with little Miss Slick Titty Boom’). While there are a few notable exceptions these days (Blackberry Smoke quickly comes to mind), there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of younger bands trying to make a name playing southern rock.

“I don’t know why that is. I do know that when I came up, I was one of those guys – and evidently there were a whole lot of other guys – that loved a variety of American roots music. If you listen to Ray Charles or Jerry Lee Lewis, you hear a mixture in their music. There’s gospel, there’s country, there’s blues and it’s all mixed up and that’s a beautiful thing to me,” he said. “I know one thing for sure – it’s (southern rock) the only commercial category that anyone ever felt comfortable stuffing my ass into. I was lucky it came along, but gosh, any musical trend, if you want any kind of prediction or any kind of true assessment of, you’ll have to ask somebody else, because it’s always a total surprise to me.”

It may be hard to fathom today, what with music pouring out of telephones, computers and every television set on the planet, but at one time, you really had to seek music out, instead of music finding you whether you wanted it to or not. That makes finding and falling in love with the blues much easier now than it was back in 1963.

“Now, people have so many more options. The minute they pop out, they’re exposed to music of every genre. There’s all this stuff on the computer and various radio stations and TV and all that. I’ll tell you something, when I first started out, I lived way out in the country and we didn’t have any electricity – I’m takin’ bout in the ’40s. Not only was there no TVs and no computers, we had a radio that had a battery that weighed about 10 pounds and It worked when the weather was right,” Bishop said. “I came up listening to the birds and animals, more so than any kind of recorded music. Now, it’s so radically different; kids are bombarded with music from the time they’re about one year old. When I came up, to hear any blues at all, you had to actively seek it out. Your main exposure to music those days was through the radio … at least until you got old enough to go out to clubs and dances.”

Back in those days – in Oklahoma – that meant listening to plenty of country music.

“You really did listen to what everybody else in your race listened to, and for me, that was country music. That music is just in the pores there (in Oklahoma), you don’t have to practice that,” he said. “But you know, that must have been the same case with black people in the south with blues … they listened to their stations. Everything was segregated back in those days, except for one thing – the radio. That was the one thing they couldn’t segregate. That’s how a few white people found out about the blues.”

Bishop is about as respected as an artist can be and glancing back on everything he’s done since he first hit the mean streets of Chicago, playing the beloved blues that oozes from the core of his very being, it seems like there’s not a heck of a lot of territory for the man to conquer. Could that mean that retirement is eminent for the 72-year-old and Red Dog (his ever-present 1959 cherry-red Gibson ES-345)?

“I’ll probably be like B.B. (King) and they’ll just have to drag my ass out of there. My wife thinks about me retiring, but I tell her – shit, it ain’t football and you don’t have to retire when you’re 30,” Bishop laughed.

Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2015

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