An Interview with legendary Elvin Bishop, an artist who has been travelling the Blues road longer than most

"I would wish that people would stop being so greedy, and start sharing with each other! Don’t make it so hard for the people in the bottom!"

Elvin Bishop: Real, Pure and Original !

Elvin Bishop has been travelling the Blues road longer than most.

Stops along the way include his work as a founding member of the groundbreaking Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the early ‘60s, recordings with legends such as Clifton Chenier, John Lee Hooker, and The Allman Brothers, and Pop success with his own 1976 smash hit “Fooled Around and Fell In Love”. Bishop’s long and varied career has included plenty of side trips along the way as well, from deep down gutbucket Blues played in smoky South Side Chicago taverns, to raucous roadhouse R&B, to good time Rock & Roll on concert stages and festivals around the world. And at every stage along the way, he’s instilled all of his music with passion, creativity, and a healthy helping of wisdom, wit, and good humor.

                                                                                 Photo by Joshua Temkin

Road work kept Elvin busy through the ‘80s, and as time went by his journey led him back to the Blues that were at the root of all his musical endeavors. And that fertile territory has been his focus ever since.

Delta Groove Productions president Randy Chortkoff has been a fan and follower of Elvin’s music through all the many phases of his career, beginning with Butterfield Blues Band in the mid-1960s, and when the opportunity arose to bring Elvin into the Delta Groove fold, Chortkoff jumped at the opportunity. Bishop continues to rock the house in his fifth decade of performing, his latest studio album - 2010's Red Dog Speaks - and the live set Raisin' Hell Revue earning the guitarist critical accolades and some of the largest audiences of his career. As shown by the recently-released That's My Thing DVD, his first video release, Bishop still brings it on stage.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Nice to meet you! Have you ever travel in Greece?

No, but you know, when I was in school, I started to take Greek lessons, the old Greek! All I remember is “enhe archea” (are ancient).

You know, have a lot of Greek Bluesmen in USA. Like Nick Gravenites, Johnny Otis…

Oh, yes! Johnny Otis… He was great! I knew him! He was a great, great man!

I’d like to start with your first years. When was your first desire to become involved with Blues?

My first years… I got interested in Blues in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the late 1950s. I was hearing Blues on the radio. But I couldn’t really… I only knew a couple of cords of the guitar. I didn’t know much! When I got to Chicago, I started hung in out with the bluesmen and sort of progressing! And that was 1960. I started getting good because I could hang out with the guys, go to their houses and see where their hands were on the guitars!

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues?

I think only a certain kind of person likes Blues. It’s for people that… You know the price of music, that occupies most people’s lives, is kind of superficial! You know what I mean… It’s like… pretty young people are in there with their closing friends, and their hairstyles and something to dance to. You know, it’s just like… background for the party and stuff like that! Whereas, people who like Blues, like to have a music talking about life, you know, about something that’s real!

                                                                                       Photo by Chris Tuite

What experience in life makes a good bluesmen and songwriter?

I don’t know if it’s all experiences. The experiences help a little, I guess, but it also depends on the type of person you are, you know… What’s your life as a person! I don’t know. The answer to this question is “I don’t know!”

How do you describe Elvin Bishop’s sound progress?

This is what I’m not good at. This is more what guys like you are better at, describing it! And just let me apply it. That’s the best way to do that!

The question, more specifically, is what characterizes your music philosophy?

God… you are asking the deep questions today! I don’t think, so much, about things like philosophy, or something like that. It’s not much of a theory to it! It’s just that, I always did what felt good to me, and hoped that somebody else liked it!

Let’s go to the early 60s. Before you start recording, for the first time, with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, you were jamming with all the great guys like Hound-Dog Taylor and many others. Which are your favorite memories?

It was just great to be able to jam with my heroes and actually meet them, you know! Before, they were just guys on the record, like mythical figures. So when I was able to actually meet those people… Now, here is what happened to Chicago: Over 100 Blues groups! And every day, they would start playing around 9:00 in the evening and they would play until 4:00 in the morning, or 5:00 on Saturdays! So, even the really good and well known musicians were glad to see somebody to come and jam with them, towards the latest part of the night! It was like taking a rest, you know! But, this made the young musicians progress a lot. Because, you knew that you were going to go around and jam with different guys! You would learn their tunes; you would sit down, in the afternoons, and learn the tune they were using! This sounds good, when you’re set in! So, if you had any ambition, you could make pretty fast progress, that way. Also, it was a big, important agency! Because, when a guy had an opening, in his mind was “Oh, what about this guy that sat with us the other day?” you know. It was all good! Blues at that time was what Hip Hop is now! It was a living music, describing the life that was happening then!

Yes! I’m very lucky, because I have interviewed Little Smokey Smothers back in Athens, Greece twenty years ago…

You did? Oh, my man!

He told me he had gone to Greece! Yea! He is a beautiful guy, ha?

You know, Little Smokey Smothers helped me when I was first starting out. He was one of the main guys that helped me a lot! He would go over to the South, and he would have a song in his mind, and he would teach me the rhythm of the guitar! Once I learned that, he invited the neighbors in and I played the rhythm and he played the lead on it! We showed it to the neighbors… Boy that was big fun!

What memory makes you smile from Little Smokey Smothers?

Oh, just a minute, you know! He was great! He was a character! We were at Belgium, one time! It was a little bit… you know, he didn’t like Europe too much! Because he couldn’t find a hot hum and green sauce, and stuff! So, sometimes when we went to the grocery store to get a loaf of bread and some meat, to make sandwiches, he said to somebody “How many “ruffles” costs that? How many “ruffles” do you want?” !!! I don’t know, he probably thought that all European countries have the same money!  

In the ‘70s you were recording some Southern-Rock-Blues songs. What are the leads that connect the legacy of Blues with Southern Rock music?

Well, in Blues, I like the fact that you really got to be a pure Blues player! I think that you had to grow up in a certain part of Mississippi, picking cotton and apply all the mirrors, and stuff like that, you know! Not being exposed to anything else, just about everybody else! Even the South had been exposed! I come from Tulsa, Oklahoma where Country music is in the air! I love Gospel music, and I love Blues, and that is the recipe for Southern Rock music; those little things right there! So, in that particularly recording situation I got into, I was encouraged to do that. That’s how that happened! Actually, this was the one and only time that they ever had a commercial category that I fit into! All the rest of the time, I was sort of a different type of dude; nobody knew how to describe me! But, you know, a lot of my favorite musicians haven’t been straight Blues; like Ray Charles or Jerry Lee Lewis. They had all the different elements in their music, like Gospel, Country and Blues. What I really like, is to hear a guy that can do any of these kinds, natural! So, that’s what I shipped for!  

Honestly, what is the feeling you miss most nowadays, from the past; from ‘60s and ‘70s?

Well, Blues have a slightly different feeling from the ‘50s or the ‘70s! And I think that that’s because it was before the days of gangs and drugs! You had to know how things were in Chicago, to be able to visualize this! I would say in late 1960s and on, everything, sort of became harder, edgy and more desperately; almost hopeless! All the basses played harder sounds, songs sounded angry!

                              Paul Butterfield Blues Band - Photo by William S. Harvey

What advice would you give to new generations, and what is the best advice you ever took?

Well, the best advice I ever got, as I look back home, was something I didn’t wanted to hear at the time. It was from this Jazz musician, more known for playing rough Southern, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, have you ever heard of him?

Great jazzman, played several  saxophones simultaneously!!

We were at some place, and he came in; and I told him: “I really loved what you played, and I hope to sound more like you as get better!”  He said: “Well you don’t have control of your instrument yet, but you will if you keep to it!” So that was it! My advice to young people is “Do what you want to! Don’t let anybody tell you what to do, or what music to play!”

Do you know why the slide guitar is connected to the South culture? What are the secrets of slide?

Well, I don’t think there are secrets to slide. It’s just that there are many different ways to approach slide. A lot of guys tune their guitars to an open tuning… Are you a guitarist?

I’m not guitarist but I have Gison 345 stereo, 62’s model, like yours!

Oh, that very nice! So, a lot of guys tune their guitars to open E or open G. You can, right away, get a fairly decent sound, instead of playing straight across! And that’s a little trap that some guys cannot pass! My favorite slide player was Earl Hooker! He didn’t retune his guitar! He was playing in standard tuning, and he went bouncing on it! He took his influence from singers and saxophone players! He would search and found the right notes to play, and he had a beautiful tone! And that is much harder, you know, than just playing the open cords! Because you have to get the note you’re playing to range, and make sure that nothing else would strange around and get out of the range! You, sort of, have to use your other fingers to get it right!

                                                                                        Photo by Jen Taylor

Do you believe that there is a mission or a trend to miss-appreciate the name of Blues?

As far as a conspiracy, or something like that… I don’t know! There are always people trying to make money! That’s the thing about blues, that you get a realistic aspect of life! You know, you’re talking about human beings, you must expect flaws and errors!

When we talk about Blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past, from Robert Johnson to Kings and your generation. Apart from the old cats of Blues, do you believe in the existence of real Bluesmen nowadays?

Yes, you hear some, every now and then! Also, there are some of the old guys left! I’ve played with James Cotton a few times last year, which was great! There are some of the young people, as well, that have a good feeling! There is a young guy that you should have an eye on, called Markey Snacks!

Fifty years on the music. How has the music business chanced over the years since you first started?

Oh god! It’s really harder these days! I really feel for the young people starting up these days, because it’s very difficult for them to begin except if they are awfully lucky! There are not the record labels that they used to be, not the radio stations that they used to be, not as many places to play as they used to be! There is, on the other hand, internet which we didn’t have. But, it doesn’t seem, to me, to be doing the musicians a lot of good! It seems to me that internet is better for the business people than it is for the musicians!

What do you like to do in your spare time? Do you have a hobby?

Yeah! I am a gardener, a big gardener! I grow vegetables, flowers and fruits and stuff like that. I also do home canning! I can up about 400 jars per year! I, also, love fish and Japanese food!

You have worked with many musicians, from BB King and John Lee Hooker to Bo Diddley, and many others! What’s the greatest experience you have gained?

I guess… The first time I met BB King was a big thrill! I’ve being enjoying his music for years, thinking I would never get a chance to meet him. So, when I did… He was really a gracious, beautiful guy! And we stayed friend for… until now! Forty plus years! We were, also, good friends with Albert Collins, and another guy, that you might not be familiar with, but he was a great guitarist, Luther Tucker!

Luther Tucker was a great man, he used to play with my good friends Patrick and Robben Ford!  

Wow! You know your stuff really good! Well, I’m very glad talking to someone who knows our stuff!

Oh, yeah! I’m going to see Fords! We are doing a guitar thing together, a guitar workshop type of thing! Here is something interesting; I played at Robert Ford’s High School Prom! When he was graduating, in the early ‘60s! He was from a little town of California, called Ukiah.

What are the reasons for this white Blues Boom at early ‘60s?

I guess that’s just when the white people found out about it; about this huge, beautiful body music, the Blues! It was a huge topic, and they didn’t know about it, almost! The only way, for a white person, to hear any Blues in the early ‘60s was at Folk festivals! Blues was considered as a small part of Folk music. Guys like Red Belly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee used to play at Folk festivals! And then it started crossing over! I think that, maybe, Paul Butterfield’s band had something to do with it! But, what really made Blues cross over to the mainstream, was Bill Graham. The guy that did the “Fillmore West” in the Fillmore East, you know the promoter! He realized that he had a huge audience of people off stoned LSD… and that they would accept what he re-gave them! So, he said “I’m going to give them something good!” He introduced to a lot of other people, not only Blues, but also Jazz, Indy music, R’n’B…  From the 1968 and on, Blues started to be heard in places outside from Chicago and Mississippi. Bill Graham crossed over the mainstream!

Which is the incident of your life that you would like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

In a painting…? Maybe a picture of me with a great, big watering can, doing my gardening! I don’t know! Or, maybe my daughter, she was a better marvel!

(Interruption with the dog’s barking. Elvin Bishop’s dog is called Spot)

Don’t worry, I have a puppet too. Her name is Rosemary! Which dog is your favorite, Red Dog (Elvin's guitar nickname) or Spot?

I don’t know! I love them both! “Rosemary”… cool!  So, how are things in Greece?

If you know, we have problems with the econimic crisis!

Yes, all over the world! I was reading something about Spain… They have 20% unemployment! It must be hard for the people!

Are there any good Bluesmen, where you are, in Athens?

Yes, there are! I have worked with many like Magic Slim, who died today (20 February)!

He died?! Oh, my friend… Too bad!

Do you remember anything funny from your recording time all this years?

Ha-ha… yes, I remember! Charlie Daniels was playing with me on a song, once! He was playing pedal steel. I think it was my first Capricorn album, at the official song. So, he was pouncing up and down in this folly, iron chair! But, you know he was a pretty huge guy, then! So the chair went to pieces and he felt on the floor!

Well, there is a recording for you to check out: We were James Cotton, Butterfield, Billy Boy Arnold and me. We did an acoustic thing together. We didn’t actually know if we were going to do a record. It was just a guy there, taping us! That was back to Chicago in 1963! So what came out was pretty good! And then Cotton, Billy Boy and Butterfield made this song called «Three harp boogie», and Cotton sang «Digging my potatoes». I’m so glad I was able to work with those people for so many times!

                                                                                    Photo by Stuart Brinin

Which are the best moments of your carrier and which are the worst?

Well, I can’t think of any bad moments! Every morning when I wake up, I steel feel so glad that I don’t have to go to a day gob! I think that the trick of life is to find something that you really love to do, and talk somebody in to pay you for it! It just couldn’t be any better! It’s wonderful, you know! I come from a long line of farmers. And, there is nothing wrong with farmers, except that there is a lot of god-dame work! Whereas as a guitarist, it’s much better, there is no comparison! People work so hard! I know all about hard work, because I have worked in steel mines, oil fields… And those guys, even if they work 17 hours a day in hard working jobs, will never get around of the applause that I get every night! So, it’s a great job! You get a lot of appreciation on what you do a lot of joy out of what you do, you make people happy… And you just couldn’t ask for anything more!

What does “Red Dog” mean to you?

It’s just my guitar! Old, red 345! I have been playing with her forever!

..and one last thing. Give one wish for the music and one for the world.

About music…! I think music will take care of herself! People love music, so she will always be here! About the word, I would wish that people would stop being so greedy, and start sharing with each other! Don’t make it so hard for the people in the bottom!

Elvin Bishop - Official website

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