by Michael Buffalo Smith
"Elvin Bisop's sittin' on a bale of hay
He ain't good lookin' but he sure can play." - Charlie Daniels
Elvin Bishop grew up on an Iowa farm, and his family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma when he was just ten. He moved to Chicago in 1960 after he won a National Merit Scholarship to the University of Chicago, where he studied Physics. In Chicago, he met Paul Butterfield and joined his band, with whom he remained for nine years. In 1968 he went solo and formed the Elvin Bishop Group, also standing in for Mike Bloomfield on The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.
Through the years, Bishop has recorded with many other blues artists including Clifton Chenier and John Lee Hooker. In late 1975, he played guitar for a couple of tracks on Bo Diddley's The 20th Anniversary of Rock 'n' Roll all-star album.
During the early 1970's Bishop was signed to Capricorn Records, and became a staple of Southern Rock jams, appearing with Charlie Daniels, Dickey Betts, Marshall Tucker Band and more. In 1976 Bishop released his most memorable single, "Fooled Around and Fell In Love", which peaked at #3 in the U.S. charts, written about his love affair with the late Jenny Villarin, the mother of his late daughter Selina Bishop. The recording featured vocalist Mickey Thomas and drummer Donny Baldwin who both later joined Jefferson Starship.
The eighties and nineties were filled with a string of excellent albums, including several for Alligator Records. In 2002, GRITZ witnessed an amazing performance by Elvin at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
His new album, released this week, is an all-star affair called The Blues Rolls On. We spoke to Elvin from his home in California.
Well hello Elvin. I’ve been wanting to speak with you for over 20 years, so it is great to finally hook up.
The pleasure is mine, Michael. Where are you located?
I’m in Upstate South Carolina. Greenville. I grew up around some of your old buddies in The Marshall Tucker Band.
Oh, really? They were all good fellas. I heard that George (McCorkle) died recently.
He did. He was a friend of mine. What a great guy. Cancer got him.
Oh, that’s bad. I am so sorry.
Me too man. But I guess that’s one thing we all have to do at some point.
Yeah, it’s like a fella told me, he’d never seen a hearse with luggage on top.
I want to jump back a few years. I always loved your pickin’ with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. How did you first connect with Paul?
Well, that was real exciting for me, because I came from Oklahoma to Chicago and landed right in the middle of the Chicago blues scene at its height. It was a beautiful thing. I met Butterfield the first day I was in Chicago. I was walking around in the neighborhood and I saw this white guy sittin’ on some steps drinking a quart of beer and playing blues on a guitar, and we fell together right away. He was a natural genius. He didn’t play much harp when I first met him, but shortly after that he took up the harp and within about six months he just took off like a rocket and he was about as good as he was ever gonna get. He just developed that fast, you know? I was there right when his band started up. I had played in a few other bands before that, Hound Dog Taylor and Junior Wells were nice enough to let me play with them for a while. So the I guess Butterfield couldn’t do no better so got in his band and we just did it.
I love some old Hound Dog Taylor.
He was a great guy. He just got up there and went for it. He wasn’t an educated musician, and a lot of what he did was technically wrong, but he put so much enthusiasm into it that people just liked it, you know.
How did you end up working with Delaney Bramlett and getting into that scene?
You know, I don’t remember exactly how we got together. I just remember thinking it was a good idea, and I thought he did a pretty good job producing my album. That was back during the time when the record company put you with a producer. They said, ‘how about Delaney,’ and I said well, I think he’s my type of guy. Yeah, that worked out good. And I always liked Bonnie. How’s she doing?
She’s great, and she has a great new album out called Beautiful, produced by Johnny Sandlin.
Johnny Sandlin! Now there’s another name. He’s a great guy. Do you talk to him?
Yes, from time to time.
Please tell him I said hi. He’s a good guy. Where does he live?
He’s in Decatur, Alabama.
Oh. Great. I’d like to see him.
You sang “Drunken Hearted Boy” with The Allman Brothers Band during the legendary Fillmore East tapings. What do you recall about those shows?
I usually tell people if you remember a particular night from the seventies then you must not have had much fun. (Laughs) But I do remember that one. We used to get together and jam all the time. It was kind of a jamming time, you know. It was the Fillmore East in New York City, and I remember that I went over there after my gig, which was somewhere, and then they had a bomb scare, and they made the people go outside and stand on the street for an hour and a half or two hours. And the thing was, that thing was going so strong, nobody left. Then at 2 AM they let them all back in, and we ended up jamming until five or six o’clock in the morning.
From those days until just a couple of years ago, I never saw the Allman Brothers. Our paths just never crossed. Then a couple of years ago I got invited to jam with them during their Beacon run. I went over there, and they were just real nice. We actually opened up one of their shows, just me and Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes. That was so much fun, and I loved playing with them so much. Warren told me that when he was 16 he played “Struttin’ My Stuff” in a bar band.
This new record is called The Blues Rolls On, and the theme of the whole thing is about how music flows from one generation to another. I said man, these guys are the perfect example, I’ve got to ask these guys. I didn’t figure they’d have time to do it, but they ended up doing it, and they were just sweet guys and put their heart and soul into it. I think they did a fantastic job.
I’ve been a Warren fan for a long time now, and I love Derek too. He sounds a little like Duane Allman....
Yeah, a little. He plays in the same tuning.
I was going to say, he also plays Coltrane riffs on his guitar, as well as Django Reinhardt.
Yeah, you’re right. But a lot of writers don’t bother to get that far into it to see that. They’re always looking for a pigeon hole to put you in, so they don’t have to go to the trouble of thinking about who you really are, you know. They’ll say “He’s the new Duane Allman,” but he’s so much more than that. I’m a slide guitar player, and I know how difficult it is to play that fast and that clean at the same time. Derek is a bonafide monster. (Laughs)
Can we jump back to the seventies for a minute? I wanted to ask about your days at Capricorn. That whole era and scene produced the biggest part of my favorite Southern Rock music.
We used to have a lot of fun just hangin’ out and carrying on and going crazy, especially with Toy (Caldwell). (Big Laughs) We got known just minutes before the Tuckers did. The Capricorn thing was rolling. We had a gig in Sacramento sometime during the early seventies and Marshall Tucker was opening for us. They got into town a day early, and Toy and George went to some club downtown, and they told them that Toy was Elvin Bishop and George was Johnny V, and they rolled out the red carpet for them and they drank free all night long. They had a great time. (Laughs)
We went fishing the next day, me and Toy. We hit it pretty hard back then and we had a hangover. It got to be a little past noon and we’re out in the boat. Toy kept on saying “Boy, I’m hot. It’s just too goddam hot.” I looked over at him and I could tell he was doing it on purpose. He just started slowly leaning over and just fell out of the boat. He let himself fall in the water. (Laughs) He paddled around a little bit and then got back in the boat and said “Man I feel a lot better.”
Toy was hilarious.
He had those one liners for all occasions. He wouldn’t just say “I’m hot.” He’d say “I’m hotter than a fresh fucked fox in a forest fire.” (Laughs) That’s him ain’t it?
(Laughs) For sure. Who are some of your personal favorite guitar players?
My number one guy is Earl Hooker. He’s my favorite slide guy. He’s the guy that I kind of took after. He would never put his guitar in a special tuning like most slide players do. He played in normal tuning. If you put the slide on your little finger it leaves three fingers to play chords and other stuff along with your slide. And if you’ve got three fingers you’re doing better the Django Reinhardt. (Laughs) He tried to play like a human voice, and he did play like a human voice. He’d play a Ray Charles song and you’d close your eyes and see Ray Charles. He just nailed it so perfect with his sound and his touch and his phrasing. He’d play way up past the frets, just whistling like a bird.
I always loved Otis Rush and Luther Tucker, Albert Collins. One of the blessings I had was that I never had the talent to imitate anyone very well, which forced me to get my own stuff. If I could have sounded just like Albert Collins I sure would have. As far as newer guys, I love Derek and Warren, Kid Andersen from Norway, and I like this guy Rusty Zen. I like Ben Harper.
Tell me a little about the new album. All of these great players, BB King...
I came up with the idea, but I didn’t want it to be on of these things where you take it home and it’s got a list of names on the front and you play it and say 'this ain’t as good as I thought it would be.' You know, where some guy just ducked in and did it cause he said he would. Where they don’t put much into it, or the material’s not matched up to the person. I tried to match guys with material that I thought would mean something to ‘em. The guys just came out and went above and beyond the call of duty and put their heart and soul into it. It was like a big adventure. I knew that CDs are going out of style and it could just be a total loss, but I just said to hell with it, I wanted to do it and it sounded like a good idea. It was hard to line up.
I recorded the B.B. King track at my house, and I had to catch him where he lives in Las Vegas to record his tracks, so I carried the track up there. I got up there and B.B. and I just sat around for an hour or two bullshitting. He was telling me about when he and Roy Milton would go out to the Negro League baseball games, maybe Sachel Page would be pitching, and they’d play before the game. I said “Man, you guys had a ball didn’t you.”
On the way to see B.B., I was at the Oakland airport going through security, and I had a jar of jam - see, I make home made jam and I raise a big garden and can vegetables and stuff- and B.B. loves my jam, so I was bringing him some. I forgot all the new rules and I had it in my carry on. So there was a black guy named Elvin there. He took the jam out and says “Is this home made jam?” I said, “Well, yeah.” He says, “It looks delicious, is it any good?” I said “They tell me it’s pretty tasty.” He said “That’s great, but you can’t carry it through.” He stuck it under his table here on a shelf. He didn’t toss it into the trash, you know. I tried to cop a plea. I said, “Oh please, that’s for B.B. King. Can’t you make an exception in this one case?” He looks at me, thinking for a minute and says “Well, you tell B.B. King that the thrill is gone, and so is his jam.” (Laughing)
Bottom photo by GRITZ photographer Jill Smith, Whitehorse Mountain Music Festival, Washington, 2002.