Elvin Bishop still fooling around with blues musicWritten by Vicki L. Kroll | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Six-packs and Red Dog — that’s what Elvin Bishop was chatting about.
That would be containers of tomato plants and his 1959 Gibson guitar, of course. The amazing ax man is an avid gardener.
“This isn’t natural born tomato country like where you are; tomatoes like it where it’s too hot to sleep at night. Here, I live eight miles from the Pacific Ocean. The cool air comes rushing in every night; even if it’s 90 in the daytime, it gets down to 50 at night and the fog comes in. Tomatoes don’t particularly like that stuff,” Bishop said during a call from his northern California home.
“You can’t grow heirloom tomatoes here, basically, if you raise them from seed like I do most of mine because the diseases get them. It has to be ideal conditions for those things to work. You have to go to the nursery and look at that little stick that’s in the six-pack and you have to get the one that has half the alphabet on it to make it work here.
“But I found a way to cheat. I’ve been planting the crafted tomatoes,” he said.
Bishop has had a history of make-it-work moments since he first heard the blues.
“I was born in 1942, so the first 12 years of my life there was no rock ’n’ roll; it was pretty grim, you know, ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window’ and Frank Sinatra and all that. And then rock came with Elvis and Chuck Berry and Little Richard and this is great.
“And then I happened to hear blues, and that was like a bolt of lightning. I said, ‘Wow, this is where the good part of rock is coming from,’” the singer-songwriter recalled.
Bishop said he was 14 when he got his first guitar.
“We were kind of poor, so I bought my stuff at the pawn shop. And I didn’t know any better, so I’d get the ones with the strings way up off the neck of the guitar. King Kong couldn’t have made any chord on that,” he said and laughed.
His real education began when a National Merit Scholarship served as his ticket out of Oklahoma and to the University of Chicago, where he met harmonica player and singer Paul Butterfield. The blues fans hit the clubs and watched their idols.
It was Little Smokey Smothers, former guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf, who befriended Bishop.
“This was right on the edge of when civil rights was getting ready to kick in, and most people, black or white, didn’t have much experience with people of the other race at all,” Bishop said.
“But Smokey, when I met him, we just fell right together and none of that seemed to apply. We just became really good friends, and he helped me as much as he could. He was a great guy, a very patient teacher and just a good-hearted person.”
About the same time, Bishop found his first Red Dog.
“I was playing a Fender Telecaster, and it just didn’t suit me. It didn’t feel right; I couldn’t get a good sound out of it. And then I got that Gibson and it has that big, warm, full sound with good sustain,” he said.
From 1963-68, Bishop played guitar for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. After going solo, he dabbled in rock and had a 1976 hit with “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” which featured vocalist Mickey Thomas, who later joined Jefferson Starship.
But the title of one of his songs says it all: “The Blues Rolls On.”
“Blues is for people who want their music to have a real meaning and be connected to the understanding of life,” he said.
Bishop will play the main stage at 8 p.m. Sept. 7 at the Black Swamp Arts Festival in Bowling Green. See the lineup for the free three-day event at blackswamparts.org.
Fans can hear some new music.
“I’ve got one tune we’ll be doing called ‘Dancin’’ that’s kind of like — man, what would you call? — a Cajun pop tune or something,” the guitarist said. “And I’ve got another one called ‘Can’t Even Do Wrong Right,’ that’s a blues thing.”