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
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
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
Every night Bishop had
his choice of hearing any of the blues giants of the
time -- Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and dozens of
"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
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
"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
"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
"My wife never gave
me an ultimatum or anything, but -- especially right
after my daughter was born -- I wanted to be a better
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
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.