It’s full steam ahead, no slowing down, for living blues legend Elvin Bishop.
Last month, to celebrate his 74th birthday, Elvin Bishop joined Charlie Musselwhite for two rare Midwest performances, including one at Blues Masters at the Crossroads in Salina, Kansas.
This Thanksgiving weekend, Bishop will entertain a holiday crowd in the snow-capped Sierra at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe. Saturday night’s show is at 7:30 p.m. Early next year, he joins Tommy Castro and The Painkillers for a show at Crest Theater in Sacramento.
Bishop wore the triple crown at the 2015 Blues Music Awards, winning honors for Best Song, Best Album and Best Band.
“One of these days it will be all over and I’ll have to go but I try not to let me down because everybody’s in the same boat,” he sang on the album, “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right.”
Bishop’s shows are indeed upbeat affairs that celebrate a storied career that began in the early 1960s with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. During Bishop’s last appearance at Harrah’s, he played songs from his new record as well as his popular songs from the past, such as “Travelin’ Shoes,” “Rock My Soul” and “Juke Joint Jump.”
“We might as well try to squeeze some fun out of our miserable old lives,” the homespun Bishop remarked about halfway through a 15-song, hour-and-a-half set.
Bishop is a 2015 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. In 2016, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
He talked about the early days a couple of years ago in an interview with Tahoe Onstage.
Bishop said he met his future bandleader on his first day in town as a University of Chicago student. Paul Butterfield strummed a guitar and drank a quart of beer on the steps of his home when Bishop approached, drawn to the 12-bar riffs as if it was from the Pied Piper of Hyde Park. A native of the segregated South who mostly knew the music from Nashville radio station WLAC, Bishop was surprised and happy to meet a fellow blues enthusiast. Naturally, they hit it off. Bishop makes friends as fast as the Windy City’s wintertime “Hawk” blows off Lake Michigan, chilling its residents to the bone.
A couple of white kids getting Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section – drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold – to join their band isn’t so improbable when Bishop tells the story.
“Blues guys didn’t make that much money,” Bishop said. “It was a very fluid scene there. A lot of changing of personnel because if you made 10 or 11 bucks at one gig and somebody else offered you $12, there you go. That was the kind of money that was being paid. Butterfield, he got a job at Big John’s on the North Side of Chicago and it paid more than the South Side and West Side blues clubs. Not a whole lot more, but somewhat more.”
Butterfield was a harmonica savant, mastering the instrument in six months. The group picked up guitarist Mike Bloomfield and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band became popular playing music that more closely resembled that hometown’s sound than what the Brits had brought.
“I don’t think the British Invasion was even on the radar of the blues guys,” Bishop said. “It was not something they were conscious of or interested in.
“I think the real-deal blues guys and the British Invasion are a different phenomenon.
The Rolling Stones helped, actually. The one decent thing they did in their lives was, in all of their interviews, they would pump up the blues guys.”
Mick Jagger sang praises, while Bishop witnessed the lives the bluesmen were singing about.
“I met Magic Sam when I was just a fan at about 18, maybe,” Bishop said. “He was playing at some big dance. I went there and I got kicked out of the place twice for being underage and I finally went around back and I got into the dressing room and Magic Sam let me stay and we became friends.
“He was as big as stars went in those days. He wasn’t like being Mick Jagger or something. He was well respected by the musicians and he was well liked by the people. Those guys, they were stars in that respect, but they were also just members of the community.”
Bishop also befriended Otis Rush, who had a demeanor that often kept many away.
“He was a different dude but he was really nice to me,” Bishop said. “I used to go over to his house and he would sit down and give me lessons or show me stuff. I’d go over there and he was real cool with it. First thing, he would go over to the kitchen cabinet and get this bottle of Old Grand-Dad and pour us both a shot, and we’d down the shot and then we’d sit down and go over some licks. He was just a cool guy.”
Although a country blues icon once stayed at his house, Bishop didn’t get any lessons from Mississippi Fred McDowell.
“I did from his records later but I wasn’t good enough at the time to catch any,” Bishop said. “I was just happy to be around him, talking to him like that.”
Bishop’s most influential mentor was Little Smokey Smothers, who played guitar with Butterfield before Bishop joined the band. Their bond was unusual, considering the times.
“This was right on the edge of two cultures,” Bishop said. “The civil rights thing hadn’t happened yet and the divide down South where I was from was so drastic and so hard core that when you finally got a chance to associate with people of the other race on equal terms, only certain people could handle it well.
“People never got used to certain people, (some) were just positively were bad at it. Smokey Smothers was just one of those guys that we just fell together like a couple of brothers. Just wasn’t any problem.”
In the late 1960s, music promoter Bill Graham did what the British Invasion could not: Turn Americans on to the blues. He put blues artists like B.B. King and Albert King on showbills at the Fillmore West in San Francisco and Fillmore East in New York with rock bands the Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company and Santana.
“Graham was the one who really caused it to cross over big time,” Bishop said. “He started using blues acts at the Fillmores and all of the other kind of hippie venues throughout the country followed Graham’s lead.”
Bishop in 1968 decided to move to Northern California, citing more gigs and “the lack of the Hawk.”
After he moved to California, he donned overalls and let his Oklahoma country roots sprout along with bushy hair. His casual and carefree style resonated. The amiable Bishop was embraced by the country music family as he was by the Chicago bluesmen. His homespun blues-country-gospel style was all his own, but for a while was categorized in the 1970s as Southern rock, and that’s when he had a slew of commercially successful records and a Top 40 hit song, “Fooled Around And Fell In Love.”
Saxophonist Terry Hanck was a member of the Elvin Bishop Band during its most commercially successful period from 1977-87.
“I went from playing in a club with three people who didn’t care, to all of a sudden doing the same thing at the Oakland Coliseum for a Day on the Green with 55,000 screaming people who loved it,” Hanck said before a recent appearance at Harrah’s Tuesday Night Blues.
Bishop’s latest band has remained intact over the last several years. It includes trombone player Ed Early, a one-man horn section and backing falsetto singer on gospel tunes, speedy guitarist Bob Welsh, keyboard-accordionist Steve Willis, Bobby Cochran, a soulful singer who plays drums, and double bassist Ruth Davis.
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