Interview: Elvin Bishop – Bishop Of Blues

He’s spent more than 50 years in the music business and was an important cornerstone of the blues scene that emerged from 1960s Chicago. Bob Hewitt meets Elvin Bishop to talk guitar.

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Photography Bob Hakins

Elvin Bishop is most famously associated with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band – and his fellow guitar ace Michael Bloomfield. The band’s rise to prominence, as one of the first truly racially integrated blues acts, came at a crucial point in the 1960s. White audiences were just starting to listen in significant numbers to blues music and delve into the timeline of the black musicians who had previously been neglected by mainstream record companies and radio stations.

There is little doubt that bands such as Butterfield’s and The Rolling Stones played a major part in that long-overdue cultural awakening. Musicians who had struggled to be heard beyond specialist blues radio stations were suddenly thrust into the spotlight on the world stage. Names such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Otis Rush went from playing ghetto blues clubs to big festival stages.

Bishop moved from Oklahoma to Chicago’s south side in 1959 thanks to a college scholarship. It was an ideal grounding for him to build up his six-string skills, not only with his new friend Butterfield but also alongside legendary bluesmen John Lee Hooker and Billy Boy Arnold.

1963 saw Bishop and Butterfield hook up with Howlin’ Wolf’s former rhythm section – Sam Lay on drums and Jerome Arnold on bass. A little later, Mark Naftalin joined the band on keyboards, followed by the legendary Bloomfield on guitar.

This gave birth to The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, who would go on to thrill blues fans across the USA and beyond. People still talk about the freeform guitar playing of Bishop and Bloomfield on the classic East-West album’s title track, and their intertwining guitars influenced the likes of The Allman Brothers, who in later years Bishop would work with.

It was during this period that Bishop fell in love with a certain Gibson ES-345 after trading in his Fender Telecaster. He called that first guitar ‘Red Dog’ – and the name continued onto all the 345s that followed.

Bishop quit the Butterfield band after five years and three albums to pursue his own vision, and he has released a catalogue of recordings under his own name over the past 40 years.

Since releasing his 2014 Grammy-nominated album, Can’t Even Do Wrong Right, Bishop has been inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and The Blues Hall of Fame. He has also won The Living Blues Award for Best Album in 2014, and a host of other prestigious accolades.

With his band, Bob Welsh and Willy Jordan, Bishop releases his latest album The Big Fun Trio this month with guests Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson and Rick Estrin sharing harmonica duties.

Featuring some classic straightahead rocking blues, Bishop scatters hilarious lyrics throughout the tracks of both recent albums – hence the title of his latest release. He says: “Every time I pick up my guitar something new comes out of it!” Not bad after a 50-year career that has seen him play alongside Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Eric Clapton and a host of other guitar luminaries.

In 1988, Bishop first signed up with the legendary Bruce Iglauer – founder of Chicago’s Alligator Records. Iglauer told G&B: “Elvin Bishop brings warmth, sense of humour and reverence for blues tradition to all the music he creates.

“He is an iconic figure in the blues, and we are proud to have Elvin on our label as an artist and a friend.” When G&B catches up with Elvin at his California home, we start out by asking about his enthusiasm for gigging – and his passion for gardening…

Q. You’re obviously still enjoying getting out there and playing…

“Well, take a look at BB King and John Lee Hooker – they played right up until they died! My wife wants me to quit, but I told her it isn’t football, you don’t have to retire at 30. My body is going to wear out before my mind does.

“There’s more happening for me now than ever, I think. I’m playing lots of festivals and they put me in The Blues Hall of Fame, too. I put in my time playing over 300 gigs a year. I was a maniac for a long time, like BB King you know? But now I have a lovely wife and a beautiful place out here in the country with a nice garden.

I have lots of flowers and fruit trees, I grow everything from seed and I bottle up over 400 jars of fruit a year, so they need a big-ass crowbar to get me out of here! But I go places, and right now I have a new CD on Alligator Records with my trio and I’ve done some gigs with [blues harp ace] Charlie Musselwhite at folk and jazz festivals – just for fun.

“I’m in a good position, because I’m enjoying doing gigs and festivals with my band, and I’ve been writing and publishing my own work for over 50 years. There’s not much financial pressure going on. If a gig pays well and sounds like fun, I’ll do it; if it doesn’t, I’ll pass on it.”

Q. As well as your newer material, do the crowds still expect to hear the classics from the Butterfield era?

“It’s hard to figure. Because I’ve had such a long career, there are a lot of people who come to see me now, ’cos I guess we’re getting to the age when they get sentimental or something.

Sure, they saw me with The Butterfield Blues Band in the 1960s, but there are also the folks who got onboard when there was a viable commercial category for me in the 1970s with Southern rock. For the last 20 years or so, I’ve played the blues circuit – actually, I’ve always played as much blues as the traffic would bear. I know what I’m up there for, and if I don’t play for the people I won’t be asked back, because I entertain people for a living, you know?

“I’m pretty well known in blues circles – and if I ‘eyeball’ the crowd, I get a feel for what they want. I think I’ve improved with age, and if you do something for 50-plus years and don’t improve, then shame on you!

The thing I like about blues is this – it’s for people who want more out of their music. To a lot of people, music is in the same category as hairstyles or clothing trends, but blues is for people who want to connect up with real life.”

Q. Who do you enjoy listening to from the younger blues players – the torch bearers for the future?

“I’ll tell you who is a great guitar player, and that’s Derek Trucks. That guy can play blues or gospel… anything. Also, Kid Andersen, from Norway, is one hell of a guitarist.”

Q. Let’s talk a little about your early days…

“I was born in California, but we moved to Iowa, where I grew up on a farm, pretty primitive as there was no electricity or running water. When I was about 11 we moved to Oklahoma, with indoor plumbing and everything!

“I was attracted to the electric guitar, and what got me going was attending dances and seeing all the girls going crazy for the guitar player. When you’re adolescent, hormones rule!

“No one in my family was musical, and I didn’t know anyone who played – also, we had very little surplus money. I went to the local pawnshop, looked for the cheapest guitar they had – usually a Kay or Harmony, or something with strings two inches off the fingerboard. Not knowing any different, I bought one of these things, got it home and found the guitar damn hard to play.

I’d try to get people to show me stuff, but my fingers would hurt and I’d give up, until I went to the next dance then realised I’d better get back on it!

“I learned a few chords, and got interested in blues after hearing it on local radio. But Oklahoma was segregated – black people had the blues music, and I was not allowed to hang out with them whatsoever. I did make some moves in that direction, by sneaking out of the window and going to the clubs in the black part of town. Sometimes they would let you in – but most times not, as they could get into a lot of trouble.

I’d heard that Chicago was a lot cooler on the social side and I knew that’s where the blues was. I got a scholarship, which meant I could go to any college I wanted, so I enrolled at the University of Chicago.

There were literally hundreds of blues clubs in Chicago at that time, so the first thing I did was to make friends with a black guy who worked at the cafeteria in the college. Within a week, I was out with him in the ghetto, going to the best blues clubs.

“I got into the music real quick – I was practising practically 24 hours a day, and figured out what type of guitar to buy. I’d go over to friends’ houses, and they would invite me in – I made friends with a lot of musicians.

Just being able to see their hands on the fingerboard helped me to improve really fast. I’d been listening to blues music for a long time, but being able to find out what the words of a song meant – and the lifestyle that went along with it – was something else.”

Q. How did you manage time for study and music?

“I was lucky back then, because at Chicago University you didn’t have to go to class all the time as long as you could pass the test at the end of term. I would spend the week before a test studying non-stop – then pass.

I didn’t really want to blow the educational thing, because it meant so much to my family. They’d been through the depression, and most of my family were farmers so no one had the opportunity to go to college.

It would have been an unpopular decision to drop out of college to pursue music, although I eventually did. The family could see I was making some money, so they forgave me!”

Q. What guitar did you settle on at that point?

“I think I was playing a Gibson Les Paul Junior to start off with, but when I got together with [Paul] Butterfield, we were given Fender guitars and amplifiers. I kept the amp, but sold the guitar right away – a Telecaster doesn’t suit me, it just feels like a piece of wood with some strings, and the neck is too slick.

“Then I got lucky. I met Louis Myers [guitarist with Little Walter’s band, The Aces]. He came along to a gig one night, and I was having terrible trouble with the bridge on my guitar, I was breaking a lot of strings. Louis had a Gibson ES-345 and he let me try it.

I told him it felt good – not slick and lacquered like my Fender. He turned to me and said, ‘You’re just square as a pool table and twice as green – there’s nothing wrong with that Fender guitar’. I laughed at him and he said, ‘You’re just hitting the strings too hard – if I had that guitar I’d never break a string’.

“We’d been drinking quite a bit, so I said to Louis, ‘Oh yeah, so why don’t we just trade then?’. He turned to me and replied, ‘All right, I’ll show ya… and I won’t break any strings on it!’.

Well, he came back the following week and wanted to trade back, saying, ‘Every time I touch this Fender a string pops’. If I’d had an ounce of decency in me I’d have traded back – but I’d fallen in love with the 345 so that was that.”

QIs that the original Red Dog, and do you still have it?

“Yes, it was – and no I don’t! Thanks to the way the airlines were back then, and the fact that I used to drink a lot in those days, you became exposed to thieves.

I’d lose a guitar every four or five years, but at that time they didn’t cost much so I’d go to the pawnshop and pick up another just like it. The one I have now is way over borrowed time… I’ve had it 15 or 20 years and recently looked online to check how much it was worth, so I’m more careful now!”

Q. So what do you take on the road now?

“I tried to get the Gibson Custom Shop to make [a 345] for me, and they said, ‘Yep, we can do that’. They built a guitar for me, and it was just perfect… for Chet Atkins or someone like that, you know? It just wasn’t a blues guitar at all, although it was really nice and perfectly balanced all the way across – it just didn’t feel like my other one.

Eventually, I shipped my old 345 to them and they copied it pretty good. That’s the one I take on the road these days – and my original stays at home!”

Q. How would you sum up the past 50-plus years?

“Well, Mike Bloomfield was like ‘music on two legs’, you know? So playing alongside him was great. Everything that has happened has been a total surprise to me – we were in the right place at the right time.

We had this big, beautiful body of music called ‘the blues’ – and the majority of the white population of the USA hadn’t met it yet. The only way white people heard blues music in those distant days was maybe at a folk festival.

There may have been a ‘token black artiste’ because blues was considered a small department of folk music. The blues is all about expressing yourself, it’s not something you’re obliged to play… just play what you feel.”

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