Blues legend has it that, to become a master of blues guitar, Robert Johnson went to a Mississippi crossroads by night and sold his soul to the devil. Elvin Bishop took another route. He went to Chicago and enrolled in a university physics program.
Born in Tulsa, Okla., in 1942, Bishop developed a passion for the blues as a youth, listening to rock ‘n’ roll records and radio.
“I was a teenager when rock ‘n’ roll first came in,” he told Lake Tahoe Action. “That was great, because the alternative was the old-fashioned stuff that was happening before, Frank Sinatra and all that. That wasn’t pretty exciting for a kid. But you get Elvis and Little Richard and Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and all that, and I said ‘ah, this is great.’ Then I heard blues, and I found out that that’s where the good part of what I liked about rock ‘n’ roll was coming from. So then I just went nuts for blues.”
Bishop graduated from high school with a National Merit Scholarship, a proud achievement among his rural family.
“My family was a long line of farmers,” he said. “They went through the Depression, and the idea of an education was very, very big to them.”
Scholarship in hand, Bishop promptly enrolled in the physics program at University of Chicago.
“I was able to go anywhere I wanted to,” he said. “I chose Chicago, because I knew that’s where blues was. School was basically my cover story. At the same time, I was trying to stay cool with the family; I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. But the music gradually took over.”
Bishop threw himself into the city’s blues scene, an unlikely place for a young white man in the early ‘60s.
“This was before civil rights,” Bishop said. “There weren’t any integrated bands and there weren’t any white blues bands. Things were not too advanced socially. They were better in Chicago than they were in Oklahoma though, that’s for sure. The big beautiful body of music, the blues, and the huge white audience had not to any extent met up till that point. The only time a white person was going to see any blues or hear any blues was — blues was considered a small department of folk music, so you’d always have a token blues artist on all the folk festivals.”
It was on Chicago’s blues club circuit that the aspiring musician met harmonica player Paul Butterfield.
“I just went down and got lost in the ghetto where the real blues was at. Then I got together with Butterfield’s band and had a lot of success, so it was the best place I could have been at the time,” Bishop said. “The Butterfield band was great; it was a good stroke of luck for me, because they were all really good musicians. It was, I guess, the first white blues band.”
Bishop left the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1968, striking out on his own with the Elvin Bishop Group. His 1976 hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. He has recorded numerous live and studio albums, and collaborated with artists like B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, the Allman Brothers, and the Grateful Dead.
Bishop’s signature sound is a combination of his Gibson ES-345 electric guitar and his rough, gravelly voice.
“I’ve got a pretty limited voice, so it’s caused me to concentrate on guitar quite a bit,” he said. “As far as the songwriting goes, I’ve got a type of voice that’s good for telling stories but is not a thing of beauty in itself, so it makes me get kind of particular with my words to make sure I have a good, strong story to a song. Basically I’ve just built everything around my shortcomings, which fortunately I have plenty of.”
The pioneering blues guitarist will return to Harrah’s South Shore Room on Saturday, backed up by a lineup of accomplished musicians.
“Our drummer’s name is Bobby Cochrane, he’s a really good singer. He has a deep gospel background,” Bishop said. “Our bass player is a lady named Ruth Davies, she’s a wonderful musician. She was formerly with Charles Brown, a great blues guy who’s passed away now. We’ve got a trombone player, his name is Ed Hurley. He was Albert King’s musical director for many years. Keyboard player named Steve Willis from Tucson, Arizona. These are all really good musicians, and a lot of good singers in the bunch. The other guitar player, we do a lot of two slide harmonies, is Bob Welsh, and he’s a great musician. He’s played with all kinds of good blues people.”
The guitarist has a lengthy history in the Tahoe basin.
“I started playing there a long time ago, about 114 years, I think,” he said. “I’ve seen amazing things at Lake Tahoe. I saw Fats Domino, even back as far as Louis Jordan. I remember sitting there with B.B. King while he played Keno cards. I’ve just always really hit it off great with the people up there.”
These days, Bishop said, he generally plays weekend gigs of his choosing, travelling by plane rather than bus. He spends much of his spare time gardening at his Marin County home in California.
“I’ve been taking this opportunity to get a hell of a head start on my garden. We’ve had all this good weather this spring, this winter, really,” he said.
Bishop will be inducted into the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame on April 13, along with Booker T. Jones and Frankie Beverly.
He is also looking forward to an upcoming performance at an unusual venue.
“I’m doing kind of an interesting thing in May,” he said. “I’m playing at the Library of Congress. It’s a gig for all the congressmen. Have you heard of ASCAP? It’s the American Society of Composers and Publishers. They have an annual thing where they have us put on a performance and schmooze up the congressmen, try to get favorable laws passed for the songwriters.”
Bishop was reluctant to mention any hot-button political issues facing currently facing songwriters.
“I basically don’t get involved in that,” he said.
“I’ve got a type of voice that’s good for telling stories but is not a thing of beauty in itself, so it makes me get kind of particular with my words to make sure I have a good, strong story to a song. Basically I’ve just built everything around my shortcomings, which fortunately I have plenty of.”