Bishop of the blues
Written by DAVID DUPONT Festival Program Editor   
Thursday, 15 August 2013 15:29
Elvin Bishop (Photo provided)
With a half century in the blues, the 70-year-old Elvin Bishop still gets “a little nervous” every time he takes the stage.
It’s a matter of respect for the music. “You have to have an edge to really do it right,” the veteran blues rocker said in a recent telephone interview.
Bishop takes the main stage in the prime time 8 p.m. spot in Saturday’s Black Swamp Festival show on Sept. 7.
Bishop learned about respecting the music from the lions of the blues.
He first heard the sounds of the blues when he was growing up in the Oklahoma countryside. The radio, “my only connection to music,”  beamed in the country sounds as well as early rock ‘n’ roll. Then when he was in his early teens he heard Jimmy Reed’s harmonica cutting through the static. A spark was struck.  “It was all over,” he said. “I just went crazy for it.”
Using second-hand guitars, he tried to learn to play, picking up licks from Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker as well as their wayward sense of phrasing, something that got him into trouble when he first started playing with bands.
A National Merit Scholarship gave him his choice of colleges to attend, and he picked one of the best in the country, the University of Chicago.
It wasn’t the college’s academic offerings that attracted him. What attracted him was the city’s legendary blues scene. “The university was my cover story.”
His major at school may have been physics, but his major in life was the blues.
His classmate in those pursuits was another young, white blues enthusiast Paul Butterfield, who he met on his first day on campus.
At night they explored the Southside clubs that were brimming with the performers who created the modern blues sound., Muddy Waters, Etta James, Otis Rush, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and a legion of others.
With so much music to absorb, academics took a back seat. Once he hit calculus and he could no longer show up just to pass the test, he subtracted classwork from his agenda.
He and Butterfield found acceptance in the clubs. At that time the Southside was “like a big southern town.”
The bluesmen saw in Bishop someone who “wasn’t very good” but was willing to work and learn.
“They were nice to me,” he said. “They were good guys.”
He ended playing with some of them, including Hound Dog Taylor and Junior Wells, and then he and Butterfield along with guitar virtuoso Michael Bloomfield formed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1965. The integrated outfit helped introduce the blues to young white rock fans. By the 1970s Bishop was on his own and scored hits with “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” “Travelin’ Shoes” and “Sure Feels Good.”
He’s continue to travel and record since, though his touring has slowed down.
In the 1970s he moved to San Francisco. He now lives, back on the farm, 50 miles north of the city. He’s happy there with his wife and acres of fruit trees and gardens, and the lure of the road doesn’t pull him out as much.
“I love performing, but the romance of travel has worn off.”
On the day the telephone interview with Bishop he had his day planned out including canning green beans. “I’m a maniac” about gardening, he admitted.
When he goes out he brings a band of veteran musicians for support. Each has an impressive list of past associations, that includes more than few music legends. Band members are: Ed Earley, trombone and percussion; Bob Welsh, guitar and piano; Ruth Davies, bass; S.E. Willis, keyboards and accordion; and Bobby Cochran, drums and vocals.
After 50 years on stage, he said, “I’ve grown a lot more confident. I don’t try to hide behind the bass player.”
“It’s great when things come together,” Bishop said. “I just quit thinking and the music is just flowing through me.”
Last Updated on Saturday, 17 August 2013 07:02

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