Elvin Bishop

Photograph by Josť Luis Villegas

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Elvin Bishop

By John Orr

Elvin Bishop started in the blues as a college student in Chicago, one of only about five white guys in the windy city who spent any regular time among a sea of black faces in the amazing blues scene of the early '60s.

``All those guys, Muddy Waters and others, were just up from the South, young and strong, at the peak of their powers,'' Bishop recalls. ``It was great.''

Bishop joined some other young players, including legendary harp player and singer Paul Butterfield and monster guitarist Mike Bloomfield, and keyboardist Mark Naftalin (who lives in San Francisco now and stays busy as a producer and on the radio, but still plays the occasional club gig), to form the Butterfield Blues Band.

That band was the first to take a shot at proving that the soul of blues wasn't restricted to black people. And prove it they did, starting a trend that continues to this day, and keeps the blues alive. (In fact, the old Butterfield albums, in CD format, have an amazing following. Check out, for instance, 1968's ``The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw,'' and Bishop's brilliance therein.)

These days Bishop runs his own band, and puts on one of the four or five best shows in the blues.

One of my favorites among his modern albums is ``Don't Let the Bossman Get You Down,'' and it's full of monster guitar licks, great splashes of ``Daddy Ray'' Arvizu's saxophone, and Bishop's mostly good-humored lyrics, shouted out with a big wink, as on the title tune:

Well I don't mind working, I need the check!

Sometimes it'd be nice if I could get a little respect!''


The following was first published May 10, 1991

By John Orr

ELVIN BISHOP called from the Classic Jukebox in Roseville at 11 p.m. Wednesday. He'd just finished a set, and used 40 minutes of his 45-minute break to tell me a little about the blues. he talked until it was three minutes until show time -- his last set before he'd hit the road back to Lagunitas, where he would have to be up early Thrusday morning to greet a plumber.

On stage, he's as rowdy and loud as a riot, in a completely good-natured fashion, and more fun than a box of puppies.

On the phone Wednesday, he was quiet, gentle, concerned about the feelings of his wife, Cara, and his family. He has two daughters, Emily Miko Bishop, 3, and Selina, 13, who lives with her mother in Marin County.

From the time he was 18, one of the handful of white faces seen in chicago's blues nightclubs in 1960, Bishop was a hard-partying guy, always either playing or listening to someone else play. He was a key part of the Paul Butterfield Band in Chicago, along with Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield and keyboardist Mark Naftalin. Since then he's had a moderately successful and musically influential solo careeer.

But these days, when Bishop isn't shouting the blues and singing his tunes on nightclub or festival stages around the world, he pretty much hangs out at his one-acre place "way out in the sticks. I'm kind of a home-lovin' guy. It might seem like I tour a lot, but I stay at home more than half the time.

"The last thing I want to do is go hang out in some smoky nightclub. I'm more interested in being a dad and a husband and growing my fresh vegetables and catching some fresh fish and breathin' that fresh air."

Bishop spend his last year of high school listening to blues on the radio. "There was very little of that sort of thing -- blues music -- among white people in Oklahoma then. I remember there were 'white' and 'colored' drinking fountains and restrooms at the bus station when I left for college. This was 1960."

Once he got to Chicago, though, Bishop made a beeline for the blues.

"It was fantastic. Chicago was really happening. There must have been 200 blues clubs."

Every night Bishop had his choice of hearing any of the blues giants of the time -- Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and dozens of others.

"All these guys were just up from the South, they were young and strong and in their prime in those days. It was just poppin'.

"Not many white guys were interested in knowing blues in those days. It was a break for me, becasue I was a kind of a novelty for the musicians. I'd get 'em a sandwich, a half-pint, whatever they wanted, and get them to show me licks. I guess you could say I was in the right place at the right time."

The Butterfield band was the first aggregation of American white guys to play pure blues, and helped the music cross over to larger audience.

Bishop left Butterfield in 1968, moving to the Bay Area, where he has remained, and eventually started mixing country and rock with the blues. In the process he was a key player in starting a new sub-genre, Southern rock.

These days bishop is back to his brand of personalized blues, with a new album just out, "Don't Let the Bossman Get You Down."

One of his favorite on that albume is "Devil's Slide," which Rolling Stone magazine calls "a gorgeous instrumental."

"To me it sounds pretty pure," Bishop said Wednesday night. "I'm not trying to entertain anybody -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- I'm just kind of indulging myself; it's something I wanted to do."

That's the kind of playing, of course, his fans come to see. And they come to see him be the food-old-boy entertainer he's known to be. He may not drink anymore, but it's always a party when he gets up on stage with that big old Gibson 345 guitar. He doesn't just pick and strum; he wrestles with his guitar, strangling the fret board and shaking the whole instrument to pop out every last drop of music he can find. It's a great show, and a better one since he stopped drinking.

"Just over two years ago I went into this outpatient program, three days a week," Bishop recalled. "I wanted to quit, but couldn't by myself. That kind of scared me. I went in there; they gave me some good talking to."

His marriage was also a factor.

"My wife never gave me an ultimatum or anything, but -- especially right after my daughter was born -- I wanted to be a better daddy.

"George Thorogood gave me a good line -- he helped me a lot; he encouraged me. He said, 'The world's got enough drunks; it doesn't have enough good guitar players.'"


Update

I took my then-fiancee, now wife, Maria, to see Elvin Bishop perform in San Rafael in January of 1997. I wanted her to see one of the greats. Bishop looked great and sounded great. The man is taking good care of himself, eatin' them home-grown veggies and fish he catches himself. If you get a chance to go see him sometime, do so.