Interview, Elvin Bishop, Rock and Blues Muse, Kevin Porter

Photo: Pat Johnson

By Kevin Porter

Legendary guitarist Elvin Bishop, a member of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame, has been playing music since 1965 and is still going strong at age 76. His most recent album, Something Smells Funky ‘Round Here, was nominated for a Grammy, his third, and his Big Fun Trio is drawing crowds and rave reviews wherever they play. Bishop’s music is a musical stew of rock, blues, country, and soul, with witty lyrics that take you on a fun journey.

Bishop broke into prominence as one of the twin guitarists in The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and that twin guitar attack led the groundwork for bands like The Allman Brothers Band and Derek and the Dominos. Bishop struck out on his own in 1968, issuing some well-regarded blues/soul albums like Rock My Soul in 1972 before scoring a hit with “Traveling Shoes” in 1974. Bishop’s biggest hit, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” came out in 1976 and went to #3 on Billboard’s singles chart and has been featured in numerous TV shows and movies. After a recording hiatus of several years, Bishop returned to the blues in 1988 and has released twelve albums since then, including his latest Something Smells Funky ‘Round Here. Bishop kindly talked to us by phone from his home in California.

Kevin Porter (KP): Congratulations for your Grammy nomination for Something Smells Funky ‘Round Here. I know our readers really liked it, too.

Elvin Bishop (EB): Yeah. I got lucky there.

KP: How did the title song come about?

EB: I am not really a political guy, but just something about Trump I really don’t like. So, it just squeezed itself out.

KP: Did you have any particular goals in making the record or was it just in reaction to what’s happening in Washington, D.C., and it poured out from there.

EB: I have a tendency to write about whatever’s on my mind, and that happened to be it at the moment. Bruce Iglauer (President of Alligator Records) hurried up the project, at least ahead of a couple of other things he had lined up. It’s kind of funny because I can only imagine what some of my southern rock fans think of that tune (laughs). But people in California love it.

KP: Did you start with the lyrics, or did you take a lick and build a song around that?

EB: I kind of got a little groove going and started up with the lyrics. Once you get a strong central idea, it’s kind of like hanging clothes on a line, verse-by-verse.

KP: Are you still playing with The Big Fun Trio?

EB: Yeah. That and I also do some gigs with my old band. We’re doing a couple of cruises next year.

KP: When you say your old band, is this with the horn section?

EB: Yeah.

KP: So, you’ve got two things going on now?

EB: Well, I’m kind of a realist, and if I’m going to be playing for people that are going to know me more from my southern rock days, there’s only a certain amount of those songs that you can do and make them sound right with a trio. We’re doing the Rock Legends cruise, so that’ll be the old band. And, we’re doing the Blues Cruise, and they usually let me do both the old band and the trio.

KP: How did The Big Fun Trio get formed?

EB: Just jamming with a couple of guys and it came out good. I’m kind of a democratic guy and I like to have happy people around me and I dish out the solos pretty generously. After a while, it got to a point where I was doing too much standing around. With the Big Fun Trio, you have to be totally involved all the time. It’s a clean sound, and you have to experiment to make it sound full. The main trick of it is to get two guys that are really good to play with.

KP: It’s an interesting combination to play with. You’ve got Willy Jordan playing the cajón (a hand-played Peruvian drum box). How does that work without your traditional bass line? I take it your keyboard player does that?

EB: Well, like I say, you’ve got real talented guys. Bob Welsh can play anything. On some of the tunes, he plays a baritone guitar, which has a lower range than a regular guitar. He’s also the only guy I’ve found who can play a bass line and the slide harmony part simultaneously.

KP: Wow. That sounds like that would take some dexterity.

EB: The guy is great. He’s a good guy to have in the band because a lot of the bands I’ve been in, you rehearse like a dog and then you go to the gig and half of them forget it. One guy starts sliding, and the other guys start saying why should I work so hard. But, he’s a great influence. Give him the idea, he takes it home and works on it and comes back and has it better than you. Gotta love that guy.

KP: Is it hard finding gigs for The Big Fun Trio? It sounds like you have to target it more than you do for the larger band.

EB: I don’t know. They seem to keep coming in. I’m 76 now. I’ve got a nice home, I go fishing, I have a big garden and have a real nice wife and I’m close to my daughter, so I don’t like to go out and be gone for a month. I’d rather fly out for the weekend.

KP: Tell me about playing with Willy Jordan. I really liked on the album how you and Willy switched vocals back and forth. Does he bring some stuff in and you bring some stuff in and you figure it out?

EB: Yeah, pretty much. I’m the idea guy, but these guys help out and Willy is such a great singer – he can sing anything. He puts so much emotion into it and he’s got a great spirit. He’s not only a great musician but he’s an EMT, one of those guys that rides in the ambulance and I guess he’s registered with the state. He was playing a gig the other night at Berkeley and a guy in the crowd had a heart attack, and Willy jumped off the stage and gave the guy CPR and saved his life.

KP: Wow! That’s an interesting combination – an EMT and a gigging musician. You don’t see that too often.

EB: He’s an interesting guy.

KP: I was kind of tickled to see “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” get a little revival with “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie. Was it a surprise to you that it came back after all of these years?

EB: For some reason, it’s been in twenty-some movies. I asked my lawyer, “Ain’t people getting sick of this?” and he said, “No, the more exposure it gets, the more valuable it becomes.”

KP: I read somewhere that that was one of the easiest songs you ever wrote – that you wrote it in about twenty minutes.

EB: I don’t know about that. Basically, what I said about hanging clothes on the line – I got the central idea and the lyrics quickly, but it took some time to get the verse.

KP: How did you start playing guitar? I know you grew up in Oklahoma.

EB: Oklahoma has always been a mixing pot for music—Bob Wills, Charlie Christian and Lowell Fulson, are all Oklahoma guys. I had a rough time growing up. My family didn’t have much money and there was nobody musical around, but I fell in love with blues on the radio. After midnight, the radio stations in Tulsa would close down and you’d get blues stations from Nashville and Mexico and Louisiana and all kind of places – the radio stations with 50,000 watts. We didn’t have any money. I got interested in guitar, but I didn’t know anything about guitars. I got this cheap guitar that had strings two inches up on the finger board and I thought, “Damn, this is hard. This hurts my fingers. I don’t see how these guys do it.” Then I’d go to one of the high school dances and see all the girls gathering around the guitar player and it was hormone time! I figured, better get back on the guitar. It took a few years, but I stuck with it. Things really opened up when I went to Chicago.

KP: You went to the University of Chicago on a scholarship, right?

EB: That was my cover story for getting someplace where I heard things were much cooler and knew there was a lot of blues there. My family didn’t have a lot of money, and that was my ticket to get out of town. I was lucky to get that scholarship.

KP: Is that when you met Paul Butterfield?

EB:I met him on the first day I was in Chicago.

KP: Was he playing harmonica someplace?

EB: Nope. He played just a little, but he was mainly playing guitar. And then he took up the harmonica and in about six months, he was off into the stratosphere. He was a genius on the harmonica.

KP: How did the Butterfield Blues Band get formed?

EB: At first, we were playing acoustically, we were going around playing parties and stuff. We played in different combinations, both acoustic and electric. In Chicago at that time, you played from 9:00 at night until 4:00 in the morning and until 5:00 on Saturdays, so after midnight, everybody was glad to get some help, no matter how big of a star they were. It was a great school for music because you were motivated to learn everybody’s tunes in order to make a good impression. It was pretty fluid employment because you were making about $10-$11 per night on average, and if someone offered you got $12, you were gone.

KP: How’d you guys hook up with Michael Bloomfield?

EB: I think a record producer put him with us.

KP: What was it like playing with him?

EB: It was a good thing for me. I was what they’d call in Chicago, “square as a pool table and twice as green.” I just barely learned enough to play with an electric band. I always had good feeling, but I didn’t have much technique. Bloomfield was a very experienced musician. He had been playing since he was a teenager with all kinds of bands, and it was a great learning experience for me. He’d get us to play horn parts on the guitar and things like that.

KP: I was going to ask you about that, how you would play horn parts on the guitar. I mean, you’d literally get the arrangement and figure out the horn part on the guitar?

EB: Yeah. Different ones. Or approximate it until it sounded good. He was a great guy. I know he used to blow the hippie’s minds. I remember when we used to go to the Fillmore in San Francisco. You know the tune, “East West” that we used to do?  In the middle of that, he’d do a fire eating act. He had this big thing, it looked like that mallet they play the kettle drum with and he’d put lighter fluid on it and light it up. Then, with an exotic beat behind him, he’d make a production of fire eating. I’d say, “Man, aren’t you afraid you’re going to burn yourself?” He’d say, “No, as long as you keep breathing out, you’re alright.”

KP: When you got to Chicago and started playing with those blues guys, that must have been a learning curve.

EB: It was rough in spots because I didn’t have anybody to play with back in Oklahoma. None of the other guys in my school were interested in the blues. So, I’d sit there and learn a few – my first two heroes were John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I always had the beat and I always had the feeling, but I didn’t worry about chord progressions because those guys just changed chords when the feeling strikes them. I got to Chicago and started playing with bands and guys would laugh at me because I couldn’t keep track with the 12-bar progression. It took me a while to catch on to that. I often heard, “These musicians will never play with you because you don’t got no time.” My parents also were never in favor of me playing music.

KP: They wanted you to finish school.

EB: Well, my folks went through the Depression, and that was a BIG thing. I come from a long line of farmers, maybe one uncle went to college, there were farmers as long as I could see. But, when I started bringing home TVs and stereos and things like that, they started lighting up when they saw what I could do.

KP: I understand when you play slide guitar, you put the slide on your little finger and that you learned that from Earl Hooker.

EB: Yeah, Earl Hooker. I noticed that he didn’t have to tune his guitar. Tuning is hard for me, especially in the days before tuners. I’d stick the harmonica in my mouth and tune with that because I could hear it and tune with that. Earl Hooker could play slide, though, and played it beautifully, and he didn’t have to change his tuning. He just worked with what was there. Most guys who play slide are pretty much just hacking at it, to be honest with you. They put the slide on their middle finger because it’s easier to control and support it with the other fingers on either side. To do it with your little finger, it takes a lighter slide and it takes a little more work to get used to it. Then you gotta figure out where the notes are on the guitar. It really makes you think. That’s where it came in handy. I was used to figuring out what notes vocalists were really singing and what horn players were really playing and most guys just tune the guitar with an open chord and they hit the slide with that chord or they get a piece of it. That’s why I have high respect for guys like Derek Trucks. People try to dismiss him as sort of a Duane Allman, Jr., but he’s more than that. He’s really the guitarist of our generation, I’d say, or his generation.

KP: You played with Paul Butterfield for a while then you went off on your own – that’s quite a progression going from Oklahoma to Chicago – being green as you said – and going solo. At the time, I realize it was a long time ago, what started you thinking about going solo?

EB: When you’re a so-called sideman in Chicago at that time, like I said, you’re responsible for a lot of playing time. The good thing is that you can make progress quick because you’re playing five or six shows a night. We played the same club seven nights a week. The band leader, whoever that is, is glad to get a break and let you do your own tunes. You do two or three tunes that you really like and the idea starts creeping in that these are going over good with the audience, and what would happen if I were able to choose all the tunes I like. After a couple of years, you just got to do it. It depends on whether you have any ambition or not.

KP: Are you thinking of doing another album down the road?

EB: Definitely.

KP: Are you thinking of doing it with Big Fun again or would you go back with your horn section? What’s your thinking at the moment?

EB: I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m just going to try to write some dynamite songs and take my time and put out one hell of a record this time. I started thinking of one last night that’s going to be pretty good, I think.

KP: How far along are you at this point?

EB: I have a studio in my house. We’ve done the last five albums there. But, I’m not very far along, I’ve got maybe one or two tunes written.

KP: What can people expect from an Elvin Bishop concert?

EB: A good time. A damn good time.

KP: I remember when I saw you, you would engage the audience and tell stories. Is that still the case?

EB: Yeah, when the mood strikes me. I just kind of eyeball the situation and do what I think is going to work. It’s my job to please the people and I understand that.

KP: My last question is whether there’s anything else that you’d like our readers to know that we didn’t talk about.

EB: Well, when we get in front of the people, we’d be glad to see them. And guarantee them a good time and have fun.

KP: That sounds great. I so appreciate you taking the time and taking as much time as you did.

EB: It was very painless. It was fun talking with you.

KP: Take care, Elvin. I appreciate the time.

EB: Back at you! Bye-bye.

 

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