ELVIN BISHOP: STILL RAISINí HELL ON STAGE

By Paul Freeman [Dec. 2011 Interview]

Blues-rocker Elvin Bishop has been raising hell on stage for nearly 50 years. And for half of those, heís been doing it clean and sober. Along with his exuberance, thatís a big reason for his longevity.

The Oklahoman was born in 1942. Picking up a guitar, Bishop immersed himself in blues, R&B and rock Ďní roll.

He went to college in Chicago, a blues hotbed. There, Bishop met many of the blues greats, including Little Smokey Smothers, who became a mentor, as well as Muddy Waters, Magic Sam and Otis Rush.

He also hooked up with Paul Butterfield. Bishop played with Butterfieldís group for five years.

In 1968, his own Elvin Bishop Group signed with Grahamís Fillmore Records. In 1976, he had a massive hit with ďFooled Around and Fell In LoveĒ from his ďStruttiní My StuffĒ LP.

Bishop, a Marin County resident, has survived quite well. His latest album is the rousing, ďRaisiní Hell Revue.Ē He has just shot a live DVD, at the Club Fox in Redwood City, Ca.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
Where did the fascination with blues and R&B begin?

ELVIN BISHOP:
Iím from Tulsa, Oklahoma, originally. I was in high school like in the 1950ís. A long time ago. I heard it on the radio, was what happened. This was back before civil rights and integration and all that. And Oklahoma was a fairly hardcore Southern type city. So the radio was the only chance you were going to get to hear it, really.

PCC:
What about the music grabbed you? The honesty, the storytelling?

BISHOP:
I donít know, just the sound of it. First of all, I remember when there was no rock íní roll. It was all just like the Frank Sinatra type stuff and ĎHow Much Is That Doggie In The Window?í That was what you heard on the radio. Then when Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino came in, that was really great. That happened when I was a young teenager.

And then, the first time I heard the blues I just went, ĎWow, this is where the good part of rock Ďní roll is coming from!í And that was it, you know?

PCC:
And deciding to go to college in Chicago, was that because it was a blues mecca?

BISHOP:
Yeah, the education was a little bit of a cover story, you know? Just to keep the family happy.

PCC:
Was that an amazing atmosphere for you?

BISHOP:
Oh, yeah. I didnít really know what school to go to. I was lucky I had a scholarship. I could go just about anywhere. I chose the University of Chicago. It turned out to be in a neighborhood called Hyde Park, which sort of like an island in the middle of the southside ghetto, which was where the blues was happening then. This was 1960 and blues was like the living music of choice. Itís like rap is now for the black people. And there were hundreds of blues clubs and all the great blues musicians were in their prime. It was just the luckiest place in the world for me to end up.

PCC:
Hooking up with Paul Butterfield, was that just a case of like minds finding one another?

BISHOP:
It was another huge accident. I was living in a dormitory the first year. And I was out walking around the neighborhood to see what was going on. I saw a white guy sitting on some steps, playing a guitar, drinking a quart of beer. And it was Butterfield. And there werenít hardly any other white people that were into blues at that time. So we fell right together.

PCC:
You were able to meet a lot of the blues greats. Which of them had the most direct impact on you?

BISHOP:
A guy named Little Smokey Smothers, who just passed away earlier this year. He was originally from Mississippi, as most Chicago blues guys were. He kind of took me under his wing and really helped me a lot.

Within the first year, I was really lucky to get to meet Muddy Waters and Magic Sam, Otis Rush, a bunch of really great blues guys.

PCC:
Did that give you a perspective on spending a lifetime in the music?

BISHOP:
Well, I donít know. I wasnít thinking in those terms at that time. I was like 17 or something. And when youíre 17, youíre not thinking of a lifetime of anything. It is what it is, as they say. And I just wanted to play that music. And that was as far as I could see. The guys were really nice to me. It was great, because I knew blues from records only and I got a chance to meet the people and stay with them and see how they lived and everything, and just to see what the words on the records meant.

PCC:
After studying with the greats, were you conscious of wanting to create your own style? Or was that just a slow, natural process?

BISHOP:
Well, it was something I always wanted to do, but it took quite a while to happen. I guess, like you said, it just happened naturally.

PCC:
During that era were people open to something different, musically?

BISHOP:
Well, I think that the blues and the white public were overdue to meet. I think that it was lucky getting involved with the Butterfield Blues Band, because there was such a high caliber of musicians in there and it was so on fire for blues that it was kind of like the perfect vehicle to help cross it over.

Itís kind of sad, but true. You know how people are. They were much more willing to accept blues from young white faces than they were from old black faces, just to be honest with you.

And then, one of the main things that I think got blues crossed over was Bill Graham. The combination of a very perceptive, smart guy like Bill Graham and big audience stoned out of their minds on LSD. He just kind of eyeballed them and said, ĎThese people will accept just about anything. Let me try and put some real good stuff in there.í Heíd come up with Albert King, Ravi Shankar and Charles Lloyd or Rahsaan Roland Kirk and B.B. King and, God only knows, Aretha Franklin or something. And it just really opened up a lot of peopleís minds.

PCC:
And so, for a lot of that music, it was just a matter of getting the exposure, giving people a chance to discover it?

BISHOP:
Thatís what I think. Yeah. Which wasnít really happening, in the natural course of things at the time.

PCC:
What about your magical connection with the Red Dog guitar?

BISHOP:
I donít know if Iíd call it a magical connection. It just turned out to be the type of guitar that suited me. So I stuck with it. I really love it, the Gibson 345. Itís got that nice, full, sustained, fat sound that I like.

PCC:
ďFooled Around and Fell In Love,Ē you didnít know instantly that this was a song that would be huge for you?

BISHOP:
No, everything thatís happened, in life, as well as in music, has been a total surprise to me. Iíve never been able to plan things out and get them to come true. I just sort of do the best I can and hope somebody else likes it.

PCC:
Having such a huge hit, was that a mixed blessing, in terms of raising expectations?

BISHOP:
Well, I didnít have any expectations in the first place. Iíve written hundreds of songs. And you keep throwing stuff against the wall, somethingís going to stick eventually. I wouldnít say itís a mixed blessing. Itís a lot better to have a hit than to not have one, as far as making life a little easier on you. Itís not just making more money. Itís the money lifting you out of the situation where you have to do things you donít want to do, just to survive.

PCC:
From the ĎRaisiní Hellí CD, it sound like youíre still having as much fun as ever, making music.

BISHOP:
Iíve always felt lucky. Iíve felt blessed to be able to make a living doing the music, because, before I got into music, I did a lot of hard work. I grew up on a farm and I worked in the oil fields and I worked in the steel mills in Chicago and construction and stuff like that. And it sure makes the music seem easy.

PCC:
Whatís been the greatest challenge as far as sustaining the career in music.

BISHOP:
I donít know. Itís all been good. The one struggle I had was cleaning up my bad habits. I got to the place, Iíd say around the late Ď70s, and part of the Ď80s, where, to be honest with you, I was having a little too much fun, with the drinkiní and the drugs. And quittiní that was a little harder than I thought it would be. But I eventually did it. Itís been like 23 years ago.

PCC:
And what was the key to turning that around? Was it your own determination?

BISHOP:
Yeah, just keeping at it until I got it accomplished. I had a little bit of help here and there, a couple of good examples set for me. Iíd never seen anybody playing blues that didnít drink. Until, finally, Albert Collins showed me that it was possible to cut down on the drinkiní and still play real good. And a guy named Luther Tucker. He played on a lot of Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson records, Chicago blues stuff.

PCC:
So the life outside the music, around the music, is a little tamer these days?

BISHOP:
Well, yeah. Iím not out there raisiní hell and stuff. [Laughs] But it was amazing. I thought, ĎWell, you wonít be able to get the intensity in the music. You wonít be the same. And youíre going to be around places where people are drinkiní and doing drugs all the time.í I thought, ĎHow are you going to handle all that?í The first gig I did, I said, ĎHey, this is way better.í I could hear the stuff so clear. I can see somebody else drink or smell a glass of whisky or a beer and it donít move me at all. I donít want it. The hardest thing is, when I smell a cigarette - itís been about 20 years since I had one - it still smells good.

PCC:
The rewards that make it all worthwhile, have those changed over the years?

BISHOP:
The main thing is, itís its own reward, just the feeling of being able to play the music. It just makes you feel good. It does me, you know?

PCC:
Still lessons to be learned in music, for you?

BISHOP:
Yeah, all the time. Basically, the farther you go along, the more you realize you donít know. Iím just glad that people appreciate what Iím doing, that people like my music, because thereís all kinds of music in the world, so the fact that I can entertain people with mine makes me feel real good.

PCC:
Are you confident that blues will always be alive and well?

BISHOP:
No. I donít know. Albert Collins said, every 10 years, a generation of blues fans is born. But I donít know if thatís true anymore. It kind of looks, to be honest with you, like blues is heading for a place in American music like jazz has now, where itís almost like a classical form. Not like classical music, but itís just not the music of choice of a big body of young people these days, it doesnít seem like to me.

PCC:
So itís becoming more of an historical form?

BISHOP:
Historical - thatís the word I was looking for. Thatís why youíre a writer.

PCC:
So does that notion disturb you? Or itís just the way of things?

BISHOP:
Why get disturbed? Thatís just whatís happening, you know?

PCC:
Do you view yourself as a preservationist, as well as an entertainer?

BISHOP:
I donít know. I wouldnít ascribe any idealistic motives to what I do. Itís just, like I said, I try to play the music I like and hope somebody else likes it, too.

For the latest on this artist, visit www.elvinbishopmusic.com