Ventura Fairgrounds, Ventura, California – is Elvin Bishop the infamous Pigboy Crabshaw? Well, many agree he is the guitar and the soul behind the birth of country rock – and he’s also one of the most instrumental instrumentalists in the spread of electric blues. One thing for sure, if he was the person resurrected as the fabled Pigboy, then we can all rejoice because he is still one of the best blues guitarists alive and he’s still hitting the summer circuit and ‘cording his chops back at Alligator Records!
Bishop, born in Tulsa in 1942, was already hooked on hot licks and slinging a soulful guitar by the time he left Oklahoma in 1959 on a National Merit Scholarship to attend the University of Chicago in the early 1960s. Situated in the middle of the Windy City’s south side ghetto, he was close to the music he loved.
The first thing he did when he arrived was to make friends with the guys in the cafeteria. Within minutes, he was locked into the local blues scene. Bishop soon drifted away from his physics homework and embellished his blues learnings with the help of noted guitarist Little Smokey Smothers as his six-stringed mentor. He also joined forces with blues harmonica player Paul Butterfield, and together they started electrifying the traditional blues with formation of the revolutionary Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
True, electric blues was around before WW II, but Butterfield, Bishop and accompanying guitarist Mike Bloomfield cranked up their amps and backed themselves up with genuine Chicago African/American bluesmen and proceeded to wake up the white college kids to the new power of the blues. They slammed the crowds with traditionals, soul ballads, jazz progressions and screaming psychedelic jams that found dueling guitar harmonies laid on top of a wet horn section. The town was rockin’ to the sounds of the new kids, and it occasionally led to hard feelings.
At the ’65 Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan teamed up with the Butterfield Blues Band for a controversial set that had many a traditional musical lover realize the electric guitars and overdriven amps had arrived, and the times…well, they were a-changin! It wasn’t the first, or the last time the band would generate critical fame…
No stranger to the power of the blues, Bishop had grown up listening to the blues greats on the AM band of the family radio. Late night broadcasts brought him inspiration from Chicago, Nashville and Freeport.
His heroes included the likes of Jimmy Reed, Leadbelly, and Muddy Waters. He wasn’t born in Chicago, but he sure made his mark there…
Bishop moved west to the San Francisco area in the late 1960s, where he soon became a regular at the Fillmore jam sessions before trying his hand at a solo career. His solo hits include his famous “Travelin’ Shoes” and equally popular “Fooled Around and Fell In Love,” and he still makes sure to play the old favorites in today’s concerts. But he’s still creating, and his rambling, story-telling stage presence is as relaxing and spirited as it ever was. His extensive discography includes 15 solo albums (his latest, Ace In The Hole, is on Alligator) and the guy just keeps on screamin’!
Elvin had just finished his first of two sets for the Saturday night performance, shocking the crowd by catching a foot on one of the stage monitors and falling face-first on top of his favored “Red Dog,” a ’59 Gibson ES-345 he considers his number one.
As the crowd gasped in disbelief, Elvin bounced to his feet, visually scanned his guitar with a quick rotation of the stage-worn instrument and exited, Stage Left.
Back in the trailer behind the stage area, I found Elvin working on a sizable gouge on the back of his hand. The keyboardist’s wife was offering her medical skills to help him stabilize what could have been a show-stopping calamity, but the cut was on the back of his hand, and while painful, it would take a lot more to keep this trooper from churning the crowd into another foot-stomping frenzy during his second set.
Vintage Guitar: Was that somebody’s cord you tripped over out there or what?
Elvin Bishop: No, I tripped over the monitor, I sure didn’t see that thing…
Keyboardist’s wife: I’m a nurse, Elvin. Do you need stitches?
You got a staple gun?
Well I’ll tell you, the whole day’s been like this. Not only do we not have a road manager, but our bass player’s sister is getting married so we’ve got a guy whose never played with us before on bass, too. He’s subbin’ real good, though.
Well, he’s probably heard a couple of your songs over the years.
Not doin’ any worse than I have been all day! Say, is this magazine that big newspaper-lookin’ one? That’s a cool thing. You know, I was on a B.B. King tour last summer and I had never seen that thing before and J. Geils turned me on to it. I love it! The only thing is, I can imagine a lot of wives not liking it, cause it’ll do nothin’ but lead you into sin. It took me about a month of scheming to get the 345 in there to get it past the “finance committee.” But there’s always a way. That magazine ain’t nothin’ but an invitation to sin…it’ll make you spend all your money!
Recognition noted…what we’d like to know is what kind of guitars you’re into now. I couldn’t help but notice that you were putting a couple of Gibson ES-345s through their paces during your first set.
Yeah, I’ve got a ’59 ES-345 that I’ve had for a long time, must be 10 or 12 years. I’ve always kept a 345 if I can. It’s just the perfect guitar for me. It’s got the perfect feel, it’s got the big, warm, sustained sound, you know? I love it. But I don’t want to keep taking it out on the road, so I’ve been on a concentrated search for another spare. I’ve had Gibson go back and get the plans, and the Custom Shop built me a new 345. That was the other one I’ve been playing. It’s supposed to be just like the original, you know? I don’t know if they don’t have the same materials they used to use, or that it lacks the 40 years of beer-and-cigarette seasoning my old one has seen, or what. But whatever it is, this new one ain’t close! But it’s a beautiful guitar, and they did a good job on it.
But I just don’t want to take that old one on the road anymore. I just want to keep it at home and use it in the studio. It’s living on borrowed time and I know damn well, because usually you figure five years and the airlines or the thieves will get to it. That’s been the average life expectancy of those guitars with me!
So anyway, I had one custom-built up for me, and then I bought another ’59 down in Texas. I don’t know if you know these guys…see if I can summon up the name for you…It’s a vintage guitar shop up in Austin, down on Commerce Street, or maybe it was Commercial, but it starts with a C. Oh yeah! It was One World Guitars. His name was Gary, he was a hell of a nice guy. He gave me a real good price on it.
I’ve also got an old Martin I use on stage, I think it’s a 00-18 or something. Anyway I’ve got it rigged up with a Dean Markley wooden pickup for my acoustic sets. It’s a little beat up, but it’s got a lot of character.
So what was your first guitar?
I started out with pawn shop Kays and Stellas. You know, the guitars with the strings an inch and a half off the neck! Well, I gave up two or three times before I finally said, “Yeah this may just hurt my fingers,” but nobody else in my family played, and you can’t find anybody in the neighborhood, you know. I was just stuck with a burnin’ desire to play the blues. Like Bob Seeger said, “Workin’ on a puzzle without any clues,” you know?
Who were you listening to back then?
When I started out, all I could find was guys playin’ folk music. This was the late ’50s, you know? And wherever folk music would cross the blues, I would get somebody to show me about that. Some of these guys, remember, they were playin’ in coffeehouses. Little guys wearin’ beards and all. Some of them might be playin’ Leadbelly or Big Bill Broonzy or something like that you know, and then I heard real blues like Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters! I had one of those old radios…looked like a refrigerator! And Tulsa is flat and we got WLAC, Nashville, and a station in Freeport, and a station from Mexico and I really got into blues. I started going into the black part of town and hanging out at the record shops and buyin’ the used ones off the jukeboxes from the colored joints. Then I got to Chicago and all hell busted loose!
You got a moniker for your number one guitar?
Where do you call home when you’re not on the road?
I’ve settled into Marin County, up north of San Francisco. I’m pretty much tryin’ to have my cake and eat it too. This summer, we’re pretty much just going out on weekends. I kinda took charge of my own bookings because I started feeling like I was being undervalued. You know, l’ve found that with over 47 odd years of experience that if you stick with just one agency, you’re limited to their contacts and it’s in their interest to book you for low money when they can’t get good money. And a lot of times they don’t have the nerve to ask for the good money!
I finally just said, “I’m worth a lot more than this,” and contracted about five different agents, some specializing in fairs, some in rock festivals, and some that work different parts of the country. I said, “Don’t even call me unless you get X dollars”, and I jacked it way up! So far I’m getting away with it! I’m working every weekend and making twice the money I was before, and I get to spend the week back home with my family! I’m five miles from a good fishin’ lake, I raise a big garden, got a beautiful wife and kids. No complaints! Every once in a while I fall over and cut myself up (referring to the stage monitor incident), but that’s what I get for quitting drinking! When I was drunk, I never fell down…or if I did I didn’t feel it!
What about amplifiers? Looks like you’re running some solidstate up on stage…
Yeah, I like the tube amps, but they’re kinda not roadworthy enough. Just the sight of these big husky guys at the airports that don’t seem to know their own strength tossin’ them around, you know? So I’m using the Fender Stage Lead now, or the numerical successor, the 112, I think. And this is the closest sound I can get to the tube effect I like.
I’ve got a Vibrolux I use in the studio, but I’m not really what you’d call a vintage guy. I really don’t get fanatic about everything being genuine. Just like J. Geils, he’s the opposite – he’s really heavy into the vintage thing, but I just want it to sound good. That’s all I care about.
J. Geils bought up a lap steel, and the guy was gonna charge him like $50 for a knob – a real knob – that was missing. There was a plastic one on it that worked, and I said, “That’s good enough man,” and he says, “well…okay,” so I kinda talked him into it. But a month later he called and I said, “You snuck around and sent back there and got that $50 knob, didn’t you?” And he said “Yeah!”
Sometimes the quest for material perfection does go a little beyond functional need! Any particular string info you can pass on?
.010, .013, .017, .032, .042, .052…
What’s the latest addition to your discography?
Ace In The Hole, Alligator Records. Got another one I’m gonna get started on next month.
Do you have a favorite song you look forward to each show?
I like ’em all! What I try to do in life is have my cake and eat it, too. I just kinda look at the different things I’m interested in, and the things it looks like the public is interested in. You know, where we meet. And that’s where I concentrate. The rest of the stuff, I do at home. If we both like it, we’re there!
Elvin Bishop and Red Dog, his favorite axe, a late-’50s Gibson ES-345. Photo: Preston Gratiot
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’97 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.