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 blues-rock 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.”
Blues through the radio
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 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’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-center.com.