By Bruce Sylvester
He’s just released The Blues Rolls On (a cross-generational collaboration reaching from B.B. King to the school-age Homemade Jamz Blues Band), and his crops are thriving.
“I’m a maniac about food,” says Bishop. “I’ve already got my green beans and tomatoes canned and dill pickles made. I’ve got peaches and all kinds of jam and about 10 varieties of peppers. One of my favorite home products is the pepper sauce I make. I keep the farm going year round. There’s a little jungle in my greenhouse.”
Bishop was born in Glendale, Calif., in 1942, and grew up on his family’s farm in Iowa with neither running water nor electricity.
“Electricity came to different parts of the country at different times,” remembers Bishop. “There was a little pump in the kitchen and a big pump in the yard. We took baths in big metal washtubs in the yard. My mom baked bread all the time on a wood-burning stove. When we moved to a town in Oklahoma around 1953, she bought a loaf of sliced bread in a store, and I don’t believe she ever baked another loaf of bread in her life.”
Undiagnosed vision problems kept Bishop from becoming a good hunter, so he developed a taste for fishing. Oklahoma radio led him to the blues. Winning a National Merit Scholarship as a high school senior was his ticket to University of Chicago’s physics program and, better yet, the nearby South Side’s blues scene.
“The first thing I did was make friends with the black dudes who worked in the cafeteria,” says Bishop. “For $2, we’d go out any night of the week and see the classic Chicago blues guys: Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Hound Dog Taylor, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells. We’d go in a group of five or six so it was relatively safe. It could have been scary if you didn’t do it right, but I always hung out with guys who knew what was going on and what to avoid. We’d have one really good-sized fellow in case the shit broke out. I’ve always had good common sense.”
In Chicago, he joined the nascent Paul Butterfield Blues Band, one of the earliest ’60s bands to fuse rock and blues (“Shake Your Money Maker”).
“I met Butterfield my first day in Chicago,” says Bishop. “He was sitting on some steps, a white guy playing blues guitar. I just gravitated right to him ’cause I hadn’t seen much of that in my life. Soon after that, he picked up the harmonica, and within six months, he was basically as good as he was ever going to get. He just rose like a meteor; he was such a genius on the harmonica. When he started, he was doing stuff like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee numbers. He was great at it, but I don’t think he ever recorded any of it. His hard-core blues was the best he ever did, to my mind.”
Bishop always packed a collapsible fishing rod when the band toured, even playing 1965’s Newport Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan (backed by Butterfield) controversially turned to rock.
“I was with Butterfield there, but I didn’t even see Dylan’s show,” says Bishop. “I was on the other side of the festival grounds splitting a half pint with Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb, who were more my line of interest.”
After Mike Bloomfield left The Butterfield Band, Bishop became lead guitarist for the troupe’s third LP, The Resurrection Of Pigboy Crabshaw (Elektra, 1967), whose title referred to Bishop’s alter ego, Crabshaw. (“It just popped out one day. It’s foolishness and doesn’t mean anything. I wouldn’t dignify it with a Latin term,” says Bishop)
On lead, his slide guitar skills grew.
“You take a piece of metal or glass or plastic or even animal bone or put a cylinder around your finger, so instead of pressing the strings down with your finger, you rub the thing along the string, and it produces a smoother sound, a more singing sound,” explains Bishop. “Different people use slide for different sounds.”
But Bishop wanted more than a lead guitarist’s role.
“In those days, as a band member, you got to do one or two songs that were close to your heart, and you couldn’t help but think, ‘Wow. What if I got to do all songs that are close to my heart?’ You balance that against the realistic thought of whether you could make it fly,” says Bishop. “That’s what gets you going in forming your own band.”
His band’s 1969 debut, The Elvin Bishop Group (on the Bill Graham-affiliated Fillmore label), had a characteristically funny pig drawing, attributed to Crabshaw, on the cover. Soon, he brought in the late soulful Jo Baker, the first of various powerhouse vocalists he’d hire.
After three Fillmore discs (all reissued by Sundazed), he took the group to Phil Walden’s Southern-fried Capricorn label, showing where his off-stage heart lies with his droll compositions “Watermelons” and “Fishin’” on 1974’s Let It Flow.
His sole Top-40 releases ever were 1975’s Struttin’ My Stuff and its #3 single, the hook-happy pop number “Fooled Around And Fell In Love.”
“It just popped out,” says Bishop. “I picked up the guitar and started playing some chords, and the words came out. I never can tell how a tune’s going to be born. Some of them stretch out over months before you get them together, and some others, like that one, are delivered on a plate.”
Vocalist Mickey Thomas (a future duetist with Grace Slick in Starship) and keyboardist Phil Aaberg (who’d go on to record New Age piano for Windham Hill) attest to the range of abilities in Bishop’s bands.
A 10-year hiatus from domestic releases ensued between 1978’s Hog Heaven and 1988’s Big Fun (both on Alligator).
“Basically I was having too much fun,” says Bishop. “I got into drinking and dope. I always kept a good band, and I traveled all that time, but I just didn’t give a damn about taking care of business. I finally straightened up. I stopped drinking 19 years ago and haven’t had one drink since or any dope. I don’t even miss it. On the other hand, I quit smoking cigarettes, and every time someone walks by me with one, it still smells good to me. I think it’s a heavier addiction than alcohol. I quit smoking a few years after I quit drinking, and said, ‘I’ll get a can of smokeless tobacco to help me taper off the tobacco.’ Fifteen years later, I was still doing the Skoal. I finally got rid of that. I’m thinking about tobacco right now, and my mouth is watering. I’m not in any danger of relapsing, but it goes to show how deep it gets its hooks into you.”
Out of the blue, tragedy struck in 2000, when his 22-year old daughter Selina and ex-wife Jennifer Villarin were murdered by Selina’s deranged boyfriend, who thought he was a warlock. From his Gettin’ My Groove Back (Blind Pig, 2005), it’s easy to interpret “Come On Blues” as an attempt to find solace in the blues, while “What The Hell Is Going On” moves beyond its sociopolitical lines to advise, “Don’t let your children out of your sight.”
“What The Hell” later became a moment of seriousness on his live Booty Bumpin’ (Blind Pig, 2007).
As for his new The Blues Rolls On, “I figured I’d try to do a disc that shows how the music flows from one generation to the next,” says Bishop. “All the tunes represent that. I tried to pick out old, interesting tunes that haven’t been done to death. I didn’t know how hard or how easy it was going to be. I didn’t want it to be one of those records where you see all these great names on it, and you take it home and listen to it and say, ‘Shit. It don’t seem like he was feeling that one,’ or ‘It doesn’t seem like that material matches that artist,’ or ‘It sounds like he did it only because he said he would.’
“Everybody’s got a reason for being there. I thought of George Thorogood for Hound Dog Taylor’s ‘Send You Back To Georgia,’ and it turns out that early in George’s career, he’d opened for Hound Dog a lot. Neither of them is musically trained. They play things that are technically wrong, and they make people like it. They just get up there and go for it.
“‘Yonder’s Wall’ seems like the perfect example of how a song goes from one generation to another. Butterfield learned it from Elmore James. Here, it’s by Ronnie Baker Brooks (who’s the son of Lonnie Brooks, who was Guitar Junior when I met him in 1961) — that’s three generations there. The guy who researched the publishing for me said there actually was an earlier version by Arthur Crudup in the ’40s. I’d never heard it. You know that phrase, ‘Your man went to the war.’ All four of those guys are talking about different wars.”
Bishop’s offstage life is on an even keel. “My daughter’s 20 and studying at [Universiety of] Cal-Berkeley. I have a real nice wife. She’s Japanese-American, so I raise a lot of Japanese vegetables. I learned how to read and write Japanese so I get seed catalogs from Japan. I’m about five miles from a good catfish lake.
“Everything that happens is a surprise to me still. Music, politics, behavior of a woman — it’s all a surprise to me.”