The blues still feel good to gui­tarist Elvin Bishop

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

As a high school grad­u­ate in Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, in the early 1960s, Elvin Bishop earned a Na­tional Merit Schol­ar­ship, al­low­ing him to at­tend col­lege any­where in the United States. He chose the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago, with plans to study physics.

“I re­ally just wanted to get to Chicago be­cause that was the only place a white kid from Ok­la­homa could get ex­posed to the blues,” Bishop says.

He achieved that goal on his first day in the city.

“I was walk­ing around the neigh­bor­hood to check things out,” Bishop re­mem­bers. “I saw this young white guy sit­ting on an apart­ment steps play­ing blues gui­tar and drink­ing from a quart of beer. I thought, ‘This is my kind of fella.’”

The young gui­tarist was Paul But­ter­field. He and Bishop, along with Nick Graven­ites, went on to form The Paul But­ter­field Blues Band in 1963. By then But­ter­field had switched to har­mon­ica, and Bishop played gui­tar. The band has since been rec­og­nized as one of the ear­li­est pro­gen­i­tors of blues­rock and jazz-fu­sion.

Work­ing with But­ter­field, Bishop met and played with leg­endary blues mu­si­cians, in­clud­ing Muddy Wa­ters, John Lee Hooker and B.B. King.

While Bishop con­tin­ued study­ing physics, mostly for his par­ents’ sake, he hit a road­block with cal­cu­lus. He be­came an English ma­jor be­fore aban­don­ing school al­to­gether for a life in mu­sic.

The lure of the blues proved too pow­er­ful to re­sist.

“The blues ap­peals to peo­ple who want some­thing more than just what’s fash­ion­able,” Bishop says. “Blues is se­ri­ous mu­sic for peo­ple who want to con­nect to deeper things, and it was cre­ated by peo­ple liv­ing un­der im­pos­si­ble cir­cum­stances.

“I guess if you could sing about those sit­u­a­tions strong enough and well enough, it would help you get through them.”

As­pects of the blues have changed over time, but the mu­sic’s core re­mains much the same, Bishop says.

“There is a cer­tain feel­ing and tonal­ity that runs through the whole thing,” he says. “Tech­no­log­i­cal changes, like mov­ing from acous­tic to elec­tric, have changed things … but it al­ways has been the type of mu­sic that sneaks over into be­ing pop­u­lar.”


Bishop was in­tro­duced to the blues on late-night ra­dio broad­casts dur­ing the 1950s.

“We had one of those big wooden ra­dios, the kind with a 78 rpm turntable in it,” he says. “In Tulsa, ev­ery­thing closed up at mid­night, so I used to tune in sta­tions from all over the U.S. and Mex­ico.

“One night I was lis­ten­ing to WLAC out of Nashville, and I heard ‘Hon­est I Do’ by Jimmy Reed. It was like a re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Bishop took his blues “les­sons” from a va­ri­ety of peo­ple who played the Chicago clubs and what once was called the “Chitlin’ Cir­cuit,” an un­af­fil­i­ated col­lec­tion of per­for­mance venues through­out the East, South and Mid­west where African-Amer­i­can per­form­ers could play in rel­a­tive safety. Every per­former Bishop met left him with some­thing.

“The per­son that taught me the most was Lit­tle Smokey Smoth­ers,” Bishop says, re­fer­ring to a Chicago blues­man who played with Howlin’ Wolf. “He was a great mu­si­cian who took me un­der his wing and taught me a lot of stuff.”

Bishop learned slide gui­tar tech­nique from Earl Hooker, con­sid­ered “a mu­si­cian’s mu­si­cian” by his peers. Hooker wore his slide on his lit­tle fin­ger rather than his mid­dle fin­ger, Bishop says. The dis­place­ment left him with three other fin­gers avail­able to play var­i­ous chords and notes, pro­duc­ing richer, more ver­sa­tile mu­sic.

“But it was Otis Rush who taught me to pay at­ten­tion to what the singer was do­ing note-wise,” Bishop adds. “Aretha Franklin just didn’t hit a C note. She slid up to it, slipped back down and then put a lit­tle tremolo on it.

“That’s what we tried to do with our gui­tars.”

Bishop was play­ing with But­ter­field when he heard Louis My­ers, co-leader with his brother Dave of the Chicago blues band The Aces, per­form­ing on a Gib­son gui­tar. Bishop con­vinced My­ers to trade his Gib­son for Bishop’s Fender Stra­to­caster, and he hasn’t looked back.

“The Fender to me was just a piece of wood with some wires and I couldn’t


Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio per­forms Aug. 17 at the Sharon Lynne Wil­son Cen­ter for the Arts, 19805 W. Capi­tol Drive, Brook­field, as part of the cen­ter’s sixth an­nual Gui­tar Fes­ti­val. Tick­ets are $35–$60 and can be pur­chased at the cen­ter box of­fice, by call­ing 262-781-9520 or go­ing on­line to wil­son-cen­ do noth­ing with it,” Bishop re­mem­bers. “The Gib­son just felt good in my hands and I have been play­ing a ver­sion of that same gui­tar ever since.”

The blues still feel good for Bishop.

“The blues have made me aban­don all other ca­reer choices in my life,” Bishop says. “I have never been the type of guy who plans things out. I al­ways go by how some­thing makes me feel.

“And the blues make me feel good,” he adds. “Real good.”


Elvin Bishop.

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