Born: October 21, 1942 in Glendale CA
When one thinks of blues guitarists, Elvin Bishop's name is seldom brought up in conversation. Although beloved as an elder statesman of the blues, his musical contributions to the music have often been overshadowed by some of the stellar talents that he's kept company with through the years. Perhaps if Bishop's vocals had been as solid as his fretwork, he'd be considered in a different light, but there's no denying his importance and influence on the evolution and popularization of blues and blues-rock music.
50,000 Watts of R&B
Born in California in 1942, Elvin Bishop spent his early years on a farm in rural Iowa that was lacking in such modern niceties as electricity and running water. At the age of 10, he moved with his family to Tulsa, Oklahoma where Bishop later attended Will Rogers High School. Growing up in this strictly segregated community, Bishop had little exposure to African-American music and culture until he tuned in WLAC from Nashville on his radio one night.
Nashville's legendary WLAC-AM was a 50,000 watt clear channel radio station that featured DJs like John R and "Hossman" Allen spinning soul, blues, and R&B records into the ether. On a clear night, the station's powerful signal could be heard across most of the U.S. as well as parts of Canada and Mexico. It was on WLAC that a young Elvin Bishop heard Jimmy Rogers' lonesome harp wailing away on "Honest I Do," the song sparking his interest in the blues and prompting the teenager to pick up a guitar and teach himself to play.
Sweet Home Chicago
Bishop won a National Merit Scholarship in 1959 and chose to attend the University of Chicago, ostensibly to study physics. In reality, the young guitarist chose the Windy City so that he could continue his education in blues and R&B music. Arriving in Chicago in 1960, he discovered a vital music scene where, as Bishop describes in his official biography, "any night of the week you could hear Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor, Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Bobby King, Eddie King, Little Smokey, Big Smokey, and a whole ton of people you never heard of."
Bishop dropped out of college after a couple of weeks to play music, meeting up with Howlin' Wolf guitarist Smokey Smothers, who taught Bishop the rudiments of blues guitar. The first week he was in town, Bishop had met Paul Butterfield sitting on a stoop, drinking beer and playing blues on his guitar. The two men became friends, working their way around Chicago's South Side blues clubs, sitting in whenever possible. They would be accepted by the older artists for their talent, energy, and enthusiasm for the music.
Paul Butterfield Blues Band
In 1963, Butterfield and Bishop were offered a gig as the house band at the North Side club Big John's. Recruiting bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay from Howlin' Wolf's band, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was formed. The city's first multi-racial blues quartet quickly made a name for itself through their hard-driving live performances, and they soon came to the attention of producer Paul Rothchild. With the addition of guitarist Michael Bloomfield, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was signed to Elektra Records.
Bishop would provide an essential element to the Butterfield Blues Band's sound, performing with the band for five years, appearing on their first four recordings, and performing at notable events like the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. While Bishop was somewhat overshadowed by fellow guitarist Bloomfield's rising star before he left to form Electric Flag, Bishop would move into the guitar spotlight for The Resurrection of Pigboy Crenshaw as Butterfield took the band into a more R&B influenced direction with the addition of a new rhythm section.
Bishop decided to break with the Butterfield Blues Band and Chicago when he moved to San Francisco in 1968 to launch a solo career. Forming the Elvin Bishop Group, the new band quickly scored a deal with Epic Records that would result in a handful of album releases during the early 1970s. Bishop and his band was a fixture of the Fillmore West club in San Francisco, performing on bills with artists like B.B. King, the Allman Brothers Band, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, among many others. During this period, Bishop also recorded with talents like John Lee Hooker, Clifton Chenier, and Bo Diddley.
With his career failing to get any traction with Epic, Bishop signed with the Georgia-based independent label Capricorn Records in 1974. Although Bishop's Oklahoma-bred roots-rock twang would seem to distance him from the "Southern rock" label, his association with the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band would place his Capricorn releases in the same category as those artists. Bishop scored a minor hit with the song "Travelin' Shoes," from his 1974 album Let It Flow, but the release of Struttin' My Stuff the following year would yield his signature hit, "Fooled Around and Fell In Love."
Back To The Blues
Bishop released the rushed, mediocre Hometown Boy Makes Good! in 1976. A raucous live album, Raisin' Hell would follow in 1977, and Bishop would end his tenure with Capricorn with a decent studio effort that would be underpromoted and overlooked. Bishop would spend much of the 1980s touring and performing without venturing into a recording studio.
Bishop resurfaced in 1988, signing with Alligator Records, performing an invigorating hybrid of roots-rock, blues, and country music that played to the guitarist's strengths. Alligator released Big Fun in 1988, and Bishop would deliver three more studio albums for the label, culminating in 2000's acclaimed That's My Partner!, a live album capturing red-hot performances by Bishop and his mentor, Smokey Smothers, in Chicago.
The Blues Rolls On
In August 2000, tragedy struck when Bishop's ex-wife and daughter were brutally murdered in California. The guitarist retreated from public life for a while to grieve, and wouldn't reappear until 2005 with the scattershot Getting' My Groove Back for Blind Pig Records.
Bishop returned to the studio for 2008's The Blues Rolls On, the guitarist calling on five decades in the business to enlist friends like B.B. King, Warren Haynes, and George Thorogood to play on the album. Now in his late 60s, Bishop continues to tour sporadically, mostly performing at blues festivals, still thrilling audiences with his underrated slide-guitar gymnastics.
Recommended Albums: The all-star revue The Blues Rolls On is a good showcase for Bishop's blues chops while Struttin' My Stuff is the best of the guitarist's "Southern rock" albums.
Elvin Bishop – Select Discography
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- Feel It! (Epic Records, 1970)
- Rock My Soul (Epic Records, 1972)
- Let It Flow (Capricorn Records, 1974)
- Juke Joint Jump (Capricorn Records, 1975)
- Struttin' My Stuff (Capricorn Records, 1975)
- Hometown Boy Makes Good! (Capricorn Records, 1976)
- Raisin' Hell (Capricorn Records, 1977)
- Hog Heaven (Capricorn Records, 1978)
- Big Fun (Alligator Records, 1988)
- Don't Let The Bossman Get You Down! (Alligator Records, 1991)
- Ace In The Hole (Alligator Records, 1995)
- The Skin I'm In (Alligator Records, 1998)
- That's My Partner w/Smokey Smothers (Alligator Records, 2000)
- Getting' My Groove Back (Blind Pig Records, 2005)
- Booty Bumpin' (Blind Pig Records, 2007)
- The Blues Rolls On (Delta Groove, 2008)