More cowbell: Elvin Bishop is still ‘Raisin’ Hell’ with his blues buddies
June 8, 2011
Not having a great voice, Elvin Bishop said, can be “a blessing in disguise,” because it forces greater detail to songwriting and storytelling. Working nearly 50 years in the music business spawns more benefits, like collaborations with peers who are great singers.
Bishop teamed up with two of today’s greatest singers on his album released May 17, 13 live tracks from last fall’s Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise on the Mexican Riviera. John Nemeth and Finis Tasby each sing lead on four songs. Along with Bishop’s regular band, guitarist Chris “Kid” Andersen and saxophonist-singer Terry Hanck perform on Delta Groove Music’s “Elvin Bishop’s Raisin’ Hell Revue.”
“I got to thinking about guys I would cross paths with every now and then but never really got to play with enough,” Bishop told Lake Tahoe Action. “I thought I would try and set it up so we would for a week, and it was a ton of fun. … I didn’t know when I’d get to see that combination of musicians again so I figured I’d try to talk them into recording it live, and they did.”
The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise annually travels the Mexican Riviera and Caribbean, bringing aboard about 30 different bands and artists who perform all week on the ship’s five venues. Stopping at destinations ports – this reporter can attest – is actually almost a distraction from the incredible performances, which include late-night jams with musicians from different bands getting together onstage.
“The blues cruise is a pretty special thing,” Nemeth said. “There’s really nothing like it out there. All these fans and all these musicians just kind of coexist on the boat. As a musician, it’s a great gig because you get to see all of these bands that you never get to see. And all these bands are like ships passing in the night. On the blues cruise everybody gets to see everyone play and you get to see more than one show, you get to jamming with the musicians. It’s a fantastic thing.”
The spirit of the blues cruise is heard on the new album, the fourth for the 68-year-old Bishop in a little more than three years. Nemeth appears on three of them.
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The most attention-grabbing song on the record is “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” Bishop’s greatest hit single, which in the 1970s was sung by former Tahoe resident Mickey Thomas. Nemeth sang the tune on the ship.
“It’s unbelievable,” Bishop said. “Some of the reviews have been saying, ‘We didn’t think anybody could sing that song after Mickey Thomas but Nemeth topped him.’ Most people don’t have the nerve. If you’re going to cover something that’s really well known and already ingrained in people’s consciousness, then I think you need to be careful to make sure you’re making some kind of improvement.”
An Idaho native who now lives in San Francisco, Nemeth has three albums with Blind Pig Records. A true-blues road warrior, he often performs in the Tahoe region.
Bishop found out about Nemeth at a Marin County show at Angela Strehli and Bob Brown’s Rancho Nicasino. Bishop’s former guitarist “Mighty” Mike Schermer (now with Marcia Ball), had suggested Nemeth open for Bishop, who liked what he heard.
“Nemeth’s impressive and he just does it like it’s nothing,” Bishop said. “He just reels it off. … But I like the way he plays harp, too. He just kind of does what’s necessary. It’s the same taste driving both of them, the vocal and the harp.”
While Nemeth is part of the new generation of blues singers, the 71-year-old Tasby is a patriarch.
“Finis, man, there’s just nothing to not like about him,” Bishop said. “He just opens up his mouth and the blues comes out. He’s so solid and it’s the real deal. He’s had all that great seasoning. He’s played with Jimmy McCracklin and Lowell Fulson and Freddie King, and I think he played with Percy Mayfield too, so it don’t get no better than that.”
A Dallas native, Tasby began his career as a drummer and then became a bass player, most famously with Z.Z. Hill and Freddie King
“I wasn’t really interested in trying to do anything else until after I left Freddie,” Tasby said by telephone from his Southern California home. “Freddie died on me. That’s when I got more interested in trying to sing. Other than that, I was just a musician.”
Tasby’s explanation for his enduring voice comes with a caveat: This is not recommenced for others.
“I smoke Newport menthol cigarettes,” he said. “It seems like the menthol helps me a lot. I could be wrong but that’s how I look at it.”
The new album opens with “Callin’ All Cows,” a Bishop hit from the 1970s, a tune he hadn’t played in decades.
“My daughter is 23, and a lot of the younger people these days they not only keep up with the modern music they go back and get at some of the old stuff,” Bishop said. “They’ll go back and get Hendrix or Van Morrison or The Beatles or something, and she got ‘Callin’ All Cows’ off of iTunes. She said ‘Dad, this was a great tune. You ought to do that.'”
The original arrangement is in the southern rock style that for a few years made Bishop a commercially mainstream success. The new version is more country, and it sounds like it includes fiddle, but it’s actually two slide guitars.
“We got a new guitar player in Bob Welsh, whose just great,” Bishop said. “To be honest with you, I haven’t had a guitar player who could keep up on slide that good. And I got to thinking.
“Two slides – I would have done more of it but the results are kind of unpredictable. Sometimes it sounds like a steel guitar or something if you play slide harmony and sometimes you can almost get it to sound like horns. We do a thing called a slide sandwich. We’ll put the trombone on the bottom and my slide in the middle and the other guitar player playing the high note on top. And it has a real neat little ring to it. I think it had a good spark that night. It’s something the crowd liked a lot.”
The trombonist is Ed Early, who is in Bishop’s touring band, which plays Saturday, June 11, in Harrah’s Lake Tahoe South Shore Room. Steve Willis is the keyboardist, and Bobby Cochran, a lead singer on “Rock My Soul,” is the drummer.
The new album celebrates the diverse styles Bishop loves: blues, gospel, soul, doo-wop and country.
A gem is “The Night Time is the Right Time,” the Nappy Brown tune made famous by Ray Charles. The vocals are a duet with Lisa Leu Andersen and Nemeth.
“Elvin’s got a good knack for picking great songs for me to sing,” Nemeth said. “Songs that I would never even think to sing myself.”
Hanck, who sings “Cryin’ Fool” on album, became a solo artist after he played in Bishop’s band from the 1970s and ’80s.
A native of Norway, Andersen moved to the United States to join Hanck’s band. He later played guitar with Charlie Musselwhite. He’s now with Rick Estrin’s Nightcats, replacing “Little Charlie” Baty in May 2008. Andersen at his Greaseland Studio produced Hanck’s “Look Out!” to be released on Delta Groove Records on June 21.
Tim Parsons: I see you will be reunited with former Tahoe resident Mickey Thomas on next October’s Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise.
Elvin Bishop: We actually did a concert on the same bill as Mickey in Florida about a month ago and it was really great to see him. The guy hasn’t really changed a bit. He still looks great and sounds great and he’s just a real nice fella, so that’s something to look forward to.
Q Most people remember you breaking into the national scene with “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” but wasn’t “Travelin’ Shoes” your first big hit a couple of years earlier?
A They were sort of trying to give us a hit for a few years before “Fooled Around” came along for us. This is back in the days when it was still possible to have so-called local hits and “Travelin’ Shoes” was played in markets, not towns, but what they called markets. The southern rock thing was about the only time they had a commercially accepted category that they could stuff my ass into, you know. Because otherwise I’m too different of a dude. I don’t exactly fit any kind of mold they’ve got in mind, you know. Yeah, that was kind of a hit and “Sure Feels Good” was kind of a hit and then “Fooled Around” hit good and big.
Q You are being a bit self-deprecating. Every musician I interview says they want to have their own unique sound. You straddle a fine line between blues and country, then you put gospel in it, and that’s Elvin Bishop.
A Wow. You got it just about right there. That’s great. Thank you.
Q What kind of influence was Smokey Smothers?
A A good big one. I don’t take influence in the way of actually learning somebody’s licks or the exact way they sound. It’s just sort of, I kind of seem to soak up some of the feeling. I’ve never been good, but I have tried, I’ll admit, to play like certain people but I just never had any sort of luck at it and that’s a blessing in disguise, I think. Just like not having a great voice is a blessing in disguise if you’re a songwriter because it makes you have to work harder on your story and the quality of the songs you write to get across to people. But Smokey was the first guy to really take me under his wing when I went to Chicago and I was just starting out. I didn’t have much of a clue and he kind of showed me the life that went with blues. I’d heard the records and I knew blues to that extent but I didn’t know the life it was sprung out of and what all was really involved in the feeling and the exact meaning of the words. And he taught me all that stuff. He would have me over to his house a lot and he was just real nice to me, when I was nobody and he didn’t have to be. He was just one of those guys when you fall together and you hit it off. And we were friends for about 50 years, I guess.
Q You had an academic scholarship at University of Chicago. Did you pick that school because it was the nation’s blues hub?
A When you’re 17 years old and you’re trying to please your parents and you’re trying to stay cool with everybody and you don’t know what’s going on. But then I had this real strong attraction to blues kind of took over and in Oklahoma you couldn’t really get much accomplished because there was such strict segregation and blues was black people’s music. It was like rap music today. It was the living music of black people in the South and in Chicago, at least, maybe not in New York and places like that, but I was really in love with it. I knew that things were cooler in Chicago or at least that’s what I’d heard. There were two big colleges there I got a scholarship and I could go wherever I wanted to. I was real lucky. But the pressure from the family was, man, don’t blow this because there’s never been anything but farmers in our family and you got a chance at that big education deal. And so it was either Northwestern or University of Chicago and luckily I chose University of Chicago. It turned out to be right in the middle of the south side of Chicago. It was ground zero for Chicago blues. Within a week I was in the clubs meeting friends, black dudes that worked at the cafeteria at the college and they were taking me out to the blues clubs. First blues band I ever saw was, check this out, personnel: Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, James Cotton, Pat Hare on guitar and the bass player I don’t remember his name. But I thought these blues bands are pretty cool.
Q Well, I guess so! The last we spoke, you talked about your time with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I’d like to move ahead to the present time. You have just released your fourth album in a little more than three years. What explains all this productivity? Are you starting to think about your legacy?
A A good thing about blues, or music in general, is that it ain’t like football. You don’t pass your prime at 30 and have to retire. Blues is a simple music. You don’t need a lot of technique to play it but you do need to an understanding of an exactly how to place the few notes you do play and that comes with an understanding of life. And I don’t know, I flatter myself. I have a better feel for things as I go along with more experience because I am not one of these guys who is gonna recede back into the woodwork with age and sit on the couch. I like to stay busy and just live. On the other hand, I’m making concessions. I’m 68 years old. Most people are retired by now but I don’t want to do that but I don’t want to do 200 and 300 days on the road like I used to. The romance of travel has worn off. I still enjoy the playing, but a lot of times the other 23 hours of the day can be a little bit of a drag if they’re not handled right. What I do is basically fly out somewhere and play for the weekend and have the rest of the week to hang with the family, fool around in the garden and all that. I just think I have more time to think about things than when I was working more. When you’re working every day and doing the traveling and stuff you know all your time is taken up with mechanical bull—- in just defending yourself against the world and trying to stay in decent shape.
“Elvin is one of those blues guitar players who has a great groove and a great presence in the song. He shapes the tune. When you listen to a song that has Elvin playing on it, if you’re a real blues listener, you know it’s Elvin Bishop. Just like you will know if it’s B.B. King or Buddy Guy.
“As far as Elvin’s legacy goes, he is one of the very first guys – white blues musicians. He was good enough to be embraced by the local musicians (in Chicago). If it wasn’t for a guy like Elvin Bishop, there might not have been that many American white blues players. He was a very integral part in bringing blues to the masses.
“He was one of those guys who took everything and combined it together in the late ’60s. He was a guy so deeply rooted in blues that he had a passion for ’50s vocal music and doo-wop. From Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, he brought that into the music, and he brought funk, like James Brown. He brought zydeco into his music. In my mind he was one of the very first guys who created this sound that had all the most integral parts of American music and put it all together. If you listen to any one of his solo records you hear it.
“He’s one of those guys who reshaped music and sort of changed blues, too. Kind of opened blues up to not just 12-bar-blues-based bands. That opened up the genre.”
– John Nemeth