Elvin Bishop’s musical biography is no secret to anyone who has followed blues or rock over the past 40 years. Taken under wing by legendary bluesman Little Smokey Smothers in the ’60s, Bishop found a wide audience as guitarist in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and in the ’70s scored a Top-10 radio hit with “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” Along the way, he’s carved out a niche all his own, playing an appealing mix of rootsy rock ’n’ roll, R&B and barroom boogie, steeped in the heavy blues he learned from Little Smokey all those years ago.
So when a bunch of close friends who also happen to be consummate musicians are sequestered together, as they were at sea on the 2010 Legendary Blues Cruise, what else were they to do but unite forces to create some truly exemplary music? Thankfully the tapes were rolling, and the musical experience was saved for posterity. Delta Groove Music will release the resultant Raisin’ Hell Revue live album on May 17, 2011. And with the good vibes of a ship full of fellow music lovers to buoy the band, you can really hear that everyone was having a great time.
Over the course of their featured performance, Bishop shares the vocal mike with four hard-hitting pros: blues veteran Finis Tasby (Lowell Fulson, Freddie King, Clarence Carter, Z.Z. Hill), fast-rising harmonica man John Németh (Anson Funderburgh, Junior Watson), Norwegian blues guitar star Chris (Kid) Anderson (Charlie Musselwhite’s band), and Bishop’s long-time band-mate and Bay Area legend, saxophonist Terry Hanck. They work their way through a strutting, soulful set of blues and R&B with the powerful grace of a veteran working outfit, perfectly highlighting the strengths of everyone involved. And it really is a “revue” in the classic sense of the term — various band members representing a wide array of styles move in and out of the spotlight, all presided over by the good-humored and congenial master of ceremonies Elvin Bishop. We’re treated to swinging up-tempo R&B, lowdown blues, rootsy rock ’n’ roll, and a touch of gospel; even a fantastic reworking of Bishop’s smash hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” is included featuring the wonderfully gifted and dynamic vocalist John Németh.
Born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Elvin Bishop didn’t have much exposure to live music as a youngster. But his family had a radio, and in between the pop schmaltz and the C&W that ruled the airwaves in the 1950s, that radio could sometimes catch the legendary R&B programming beamed throughout the southern part of the U.S. at night by Nashville radio station WLAC. That station introduced Bishop to the classic records of Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and once his ears had been hooked, there was no turning back for young Elvin. He soon got his first guitar and on his own began scratching out the basic outlines of the blues, R&B and rock ’n’ roll that had captured his imagination.
By the time he was preparing to go to college in the late ’50s, Bishop had earned a National Merit Scholarship, allowing him to go to almost any school he chose — and there was only one choice on Elvin’s mind, the prestigious University of Chicago, which just happened to be located on Chicago’s South Side, ground zero for much of the urban blues Elvin had been studying only from a distance. He arrived in Chicago in 1959, and before long crossed paths with a kindred spirit in Paul Butterfield. Together, they explored the ghetto blues clubs in the black neighborhoods surrounding the university campus at a time when blues giants like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Howlin’ Wolf could be found playing in neighborhood joints on a weeknight. Elvin soaked it all up, gaining impromptu lessons and invaluable stage time in front of discerning audiences, and forging a fluid yet powerful guitar style of his own.
By 1963, Bishop and Butterfield were ready to graduate — not necessarily from the university, but certainly from their apprenticeship under Chicago’s blues elders. Recruiting Howlin’ Wolf’s former rhythm section of Sam Lay on drums and Jerome Arnold on bass, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was born. In 1965, after adding Mike Bloomfield and Mark Naftalin to the lineup, their revolutionary debut LP was released, kicking open the door for virtually all the young white blues bands that followed.
Bishop remained in the fold for three albums with the Butterfield band, including their innovative East-West release (on which Bishop and Bloomfield’s intertwining guitars helped set the stage for the Allman Brothers Band among many others who followed), before venturing out on his own. Elvin released four well-received albums on Epic Records in the early ’70s before joining Capricorn Records for a couple of LPs and experiencing his biggest pop success, the national hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” from his 1976 album Struttin’ My Stuff.
As popular musical trends evolved, the recording projects tapered off, but road work kept Elvin busy through the ’80s, and by the time he hooked up with Alligator Records in 1988, he was returning to his bluesy roots. And that fertile territory has been his focus ever since.
Delta Groove Productions president Randy Chortkoff has been a fan and follower of Elvin’s music through all the many phases of his career, beginning with Butterfield in the mid ’60s, so when the opportunity arose to bring Elvin into the Delta Groove fold, Chortkoff jumped at the opportunity. The result was Elvin’s Grammy-nominated 2008 CD The Blues Rolls On, a project supported by an all-star cast of blues royalty, among them B.B. King, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, George Thorogood, James Cotton, Kim Wilson, Tommy Castro, John Németh and Angela Strehli.
The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that “ . . .he’s as lively and sharp-witted as ever. No purist, he bends a variety of styles to his irrepressible personality.”
And now, with the new Delta Groove release Raisin’ Hell Revue, Bishop and crew invoke deep blues while at sail on the deep blue sea.