Most blues fans are aware of the good-time party side of Elvin Bishop. And there’s plenty of that on his latest record, Gettin’ My Groove Back (Blind Pig). But on it you’ll also hear things that might surprise you.
“Come On Blues” is a startling solo track where guitar and vocal release torrents of pain. “What the Hell Is Goin’ On” is a musical question for a world that at times seems to be spinning out of control. Bishop says those songs are therapy, plain and simple.
“I guess I just took the approach of the old blues guys and wrote about what’s in my life,” he said. In the years since his last studio effort, Elvin’s daughter and ex-wife were murdered in a twisted extortion plot. He pours all of his grief into “Come On Blues.”
“I kind of surprised myself on that one,” he said. “I just did it the once, and that’s all I’m ever gonna do it. I thought, well, I guess I could sing this better, but then I thought, ‘It’s reality. Just leave it.’” It’s a tribute to Bishop that he was able to pull that much emotion out of his voice, his ’59 Gibson ES-345 and Fender Vibrolux with the vibrato turned up. It’s a truly transcendent performance that will send a chill down your spine.
If you’re a fan of the party stuff, don’t worry – there’s plenty of that here, too. In fact, this may be the best blend of the two styles ever achieved on a Bishop record during his long and storied career. But was it planned?
“I think the one time when the media knew what to do with me or had a pigeonhole for me was in the ’70s with the Southern rock thing,” he said. “Aside from that, I’m just a different dude, and they never quite know what to make of me. So I said, ‘Hell, that’s the way it is. I’m just gonna let the songs come out the way they want to.’ And, that’s how all my records, including this one, come out.”
Bishop says that long career has made him feel blessed when it comes to the music world. “Man, I’m the only guy in the world who’s played with Lightnin’ [Hopkins], John Lee Hooker, Muddy [Waters], Little Walter, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Albert Collins, Albert King, B.B. King, Bloomfield… I’ve just been so lucky with the people I’ve had a chance to play with.”
As most fans know, Bishop headed to Chicago from Tulsa and sat, literally, and learned at the foot of many of the traditional bluesmen. “Tulsa had hardcore segregation when I was there. But when I got to Chicago, all the blues guys were really nice to me. Like Otis Rush; he sat me down and gave me pointers. Smoky Smothers would have me over to his house.”
Those memories highlight his ’60s days, and Bishop feels an affection for his ’70s “Southern rock” days, too. “I got to jam with some great musicians. Duane, Dickey Betts, Charlie Daniels, Toy Caldwell. All those guys. I loved Toy’s sound. He was never a household name, but he should have been.”
In addition to recording, Bishop still hits the road. “I don’t road dog it like I used to. I like to hang out with my wife and daughter. I raise a big garden… I’m close to a big fishin’ lake. It’s kinda like the old blues guys. You’d talk to them and they farmed or drove a tractor during the week, and then played some juke joint on the weekend. So I basically fly out and play every weekend. That keeps it fresh. It’s like a party for me and the audience.” His band is a bit unique, too. “I’m the only guy in the world who’ll do three-part harmonies with trombone, accordion, and slide. And, it works! And it doesn’t sound a bit like polka!”
He still takes out his ’59 345 on the road. “I’ve been wanting to retire it and keep it at home, but I just have never found anything else that sounded anywhere close to as good. I’ve used it for 15 years on the road, and I figure that’s borrowed time, because the average life expectancy, as far as I can see is about five years before either the airlines or the thieves get it.” There is hope, though, for getting it off the road. “I happened to meet Henry Juskiewicz, the boss man at Gibson, at a party with the Grammys. He told me to Fed Ex the thing to their Custom Shop, and they took all the measurements and analyzed it, figured out what parts were used originally. So they’re making me one. If it comes out half-way decent, I’ll take that on the road instead.”
When he started in the ’60s, Bishop played a Fender Telecaster, but didn’t like its tone or feel – plus, it kept popping strings. So he traded it to blues guitarist Louis Myers. “He said, ‘The problem is you’re just as square as a pool table and twice as green! You don’t know what you’re doin’. If I had that guitar, I wouldn’t be breakin’ strings.’
“He had a [Gibson] ES-335, and I guess we both probably had a few drinks. I told him we should trade. So we did. The next week, he comes back and says, ‘Every time I hit this damn thing, I break a string. I want my 335 back.’ I said, ‘Nah. Too late.’ Bishop has been been a Gibson guy ever since. As for amps, his Vibrolux stays in the studio, while a Fender Stage 1×12″ combo hits the road. He prefers to not take tube amps out on the road because “They’re just too much trouble.”
Asked if he had ever talked to Charlie Daniels about the “He ain’t good lookin’ but he sure can play” line from his 1975 single “The South’s Gonna Do it Again,” Bishop laughs.
“Charlie’s too big to fool with. I kind of just let him say what he wants to.” – John Heidt
Photo: Courtesy Blind Pig Records
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.