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Elvin Bishop: Back To The Blues

After living in Iowa and Oklahoma for most of his young life, Elvin Bishop first journeyed to Chicago in 1960 in search of the blues. During that time, the Chicago scene was unusually vital: On any night of the week, fans could wander into a club and see most of the all-time greats. It was there that Bishop learned from legends such as Paul Butterfield and Hound Dog Taylor.

Bishop is still active — he's played the blues for 45 years — and on his new album, The Blues Rolls On, he's joined by B.B. King, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, George Thorogood and many more. He spoke with Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon about his early career and his love of playing the blues.

"Without exaggerating," Bishop says, "there had to be at least a hundred blues clubs in Chicago on the South Side and the West Side. Any night of the week, you could go and see Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf or Little Walter, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Hound Dog Taylor, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, any of those guys and a lot more for two bucks a night."

Bishop admits that times then were different, especially when it came to the audiences at blues concerts.

"I'd go to places and I'd most likely be the only white guy there," Bishop says. "Now, you'd go to a blues concert and there's no black people there."

A Changing Culture

Bishop attributes much of the difference in popularity to a changing dynamic of black culture.

"The blues sprang out of the Mississippi Delta, and then it moved up to Chicago," Bishop says. "It was the music that expressed the lifestyle that was going then with black people. And then the other music came in, you know, and kind of kicked blues out. It didn't really express the culture that was going on anymore. But I fell in love with the music as I first found it, and I've stayed in love with it."

Bishop says that he first came to find and love the blues while living in Oklahoma in the 1950s, in a time and place where the only way to find new music was through listening to AM radio.

"The mixing of the races was totally discouraged at that time in Oklahoma," Bishop says. "It was before the civil-rights thing happened. [But] they could not segregate the airwaves. I heard it on the radio and just fell in love with it, went crazy. See, I was born in 1942, so for the first part of my life, way up into my teenage times, there was no rock 'n' roll. The best you could do was Frank Sinatra and 'How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?' And then Elvis and Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis came in, and that was great. And then I heard blues and said, 'Oh! That's where the good part of rock 'n' roll is coming from. That's it.'"

Close To The Blues

Inspired by the sounds he was hearing from the radio, Bishop decided to attend the University of Chicago to be closer to the blues. He recorded and toured with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and his own projects featured his legendary slide guitar and impassioned stage presence.

Bishop says that the goal of his latest album, The Blues Rolls On, was to revisit classic songs and collaborate with blues players of today. One such song was "Send You Back to Georgia," which features George Thorogood.

"I thought George was a lot like Hound Dog Taylor, because he just goes for it," Bishop says. "A lot of the stuff is what you'd call 'not musically correct,' but he just stands up there and plays it wrong and makes people like it.

"The idea of the tune was to take some of the songs from the old guys that really helped me out a lot, that I was lucky enough to be around when I was first starting out," he says, "and try to connect it up with some of the artists of today that I thought had a logical connection — a feeling to show how the blues flows from one generation to the other."

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Transcript

CD, Host:

B.B. King, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes. There is one song that Elvin Bishop performs alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "OKLAHOMA")

ELVIN BISHOP: (Singing) Way back in 1960, Muddy Waters was young and strong. And Mighty Wolf was howling and carrying on. About a hundred dollar, bad ass dudes, tearing up the South Side, West Side too. I got to Chicago, jumped off the Greyhound bus. I say, whoa, East-Siders are really kicking up a fuss...

: The song is called "Oklahoma," an autobiographical look at the Chicago blues scene when Elvin Bishop arrived there in the early 1960s. He's been playing the blues for 45 years and joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks very much for being with us, Mr. Bishop.

BISHOP: Thank you. How is it going?

: Just fine. And at the risk of making this sound like an MTV feature where people go back and talk to old musicians from the 1960s, so what was it like? Or can you remember? And I don't mean in terms of dimentia, just in terms of what was going on.

BISHOP: Well, you are right in the respect that there's probably a few souls missing holding some of that information. But 1960, when I first came to Chicago looking for the blues, actually, from Oklahoma, it was unbelievably happening. There - without exaggerating, there had to be at least a hundred blues clubs in Chicago on the South Side and the West Side. And any night of the week you could go and see Muddy Waters or Howlin Wolf or Little Walter, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Hound Dog Taylor, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, any of those guys and a lot more for two bucks a night. It was totally different than it is now. There were - I'd go to places and I'd most likely be the only white guy there. Now you go to a blues concert and there's no black people there. And so that's how it was different.

: How did you find the blues in Oklahoma?

BISHOP: Well, the mixing of the races was totally discouraged at that time in Oklahoma. It was before the civil rights thing happened, and they could not segregate the airwaves. I heard it on the radio and just fell in love with it, went crazy. I had - see, I was born in 1942, so for the first part of my life, way up into my teenage times, there was no rock 'n' roll. The best you could do was Frank Sinatra and "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?" And then Elvis and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis came in, and that was great. And then I heard blues and I said, oh, that's where the good part of rock 'n' roll is coming from. That's it.

: Boy, I'm really intrigued by something you said. And I don't want to save it for later in the interview. You said, when you first went to Chicago blues clubs, you were often the only white guy, and now you play the blues in blues clubs and the audience is white. What happened?

BISHOP: Well, it's just - the blues was - sprang out of the black culture, I guess, in the Mississippi Delta, and then it moved on up to Chicago. It was the music that expressed the lifestyle that was going on then with black people. And then the other music came in, you know, and kind of kicked blues out. It didn't really express the culture that was going on anymore. But I fell in love with the music as I first found it, and I've stayed in love with it.

: You've got several very powerful blues musicians on this CD, so let's listen to a cut, if we could. George Thorogood plays with you on this one, "Send You Back to Georgia."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SEND YOU BACK TO GEORGIA")

BISHOP: (Singing) Well, my mama told, and your daddy too. As soon as you get what you want man, just wait she's going to do. I'm gonna send you back to Georgia. It's where you belong. Yeah. Hang around here, baby...

: What made you put this one on this album?

BISHOP: Well, the idea of the tune was to take some of the songs from the old guys that really helped me out a lot when I was - that I was lucky enough to be around when I was starting out, and try and connect it up with some of the artists of today that I thought had a logically connection, you know, a feeling. To kind of show how the blues flows from one generation to the other. And I thought that George was a lot like Hound Dog Taylor because he just goes for it. And a lot of the stuff he does is not what you'd call musically correct, but he just stands up there and plays it wrong and makes people like it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SEND YOU BACK TO GEORGIA")

: I want to ask you about a story that was brought to my attention about you and B.B. King. And it involves a jar of jam.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: Yeah, that really happened.

: OK. So you were in Las Vegas. Explain this to us, if you could.

BISHOP: Well, I was in Oakland, actually. A project like this needs real famous guys. You got to kind of - you can't tell them when to be available. You got to catch a crack in their schedule, so I did - we did what we call cutting in track. That means making the backup part of it with a base and drums and a piano and a guitar and all that in my studio in Northern California, and then I was taking that track to Las Vegas where B.B. lives to get him to put his part on.

And B.B. likes my homemade jam. I'm a big gardener and I make a lot of jam and hot sauce and stuff like that. And I was going through the security line at the Oakland airport, getting ready to get on the plane for Las Vegas, and the guy behind the thing says - he pulls the jam out of my bags and says, is this homemade jam? I said, yeah. He said, it looks delicious, is it good? I said, well, they tell me it's pretty tasty. He said, that's too bad because you can't take it through. Instead of throwing it in that wastebasket like they usually do, the stuff they take away from me, he stuck it under his chair.

: Ooh...

BISHOP: Dirty dog. But he was - I tried to cop a plea. I said, man, please, can you just one time make an exception? This is for B.B. King. And he says, well, you tell B.B. King that the thrill is gone and so is his jam.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: He actually said that.

: Well, let's listen to the two of you playing together, if we could. OK? "Keep a Dollar in Your Pocket."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "KEEP A DOLLAR IN YOUR POCKET")

BISHOP: (Singing) Now when you ask somebody to let you have a little dough, they'll say, well, I'm sorry. But that just means, no. Keep a dollar in your pocket. Keep a dollar in your pocket. You will find in the end, a dollar, your best friend. Oh, yes, oh, yes.

: Lots of times when an artist has famous friends and they're featured on an album - I mean, to be absolutely candid with you, you know, they pluck a note or two, just enough to get their name on the cover.

BISHOP: Yeah.

: But you really let your friends be featured on this one.

BISHOP: Well, this album had a pretty strong theme to it, I thought, and I just decided to stick to it absolutely, as opposed to trying to use somebody just for the name value.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "KEEP A DOLLAR IN YOUR POCKET")

BISHOP: (Singing) Oh, that looks like B.B. King coming.

BISHOP: I thought of the Roy Milton tune because I knew this was a guy that was popular back when B.B. was starting out, and I thought there might be a connection there. It turns out they have played shows together. He was telling me about how they would go out and play at the baseball field for the Negro League Games, maybe (unintelligible) might be pitching but he and Roy Milton would play right there at the baseball park.

: Good. This is great. So you grow your own food.

BISHOP: Yeah, as much as possible. I was just canning some applesauce last night.

: When you are on the road, is this a big imposition for you to have to walk into some place else, so even if it's a Four Seasons?

BISHOP: I don't road-dog(ph) it like I used to. No two and 300 days a year, you know. I just basically fly out somewhere on the weekend, and I stick some - you know, maybe a pint jar of green beans and a pint of applesauce and some jam in my bag. And I'm still eating home stuff.

: Mr. Bishop, been a pleasure talking to you. Good luck with this new album.

BISHOP: Thanks a lot. I really enjoyed it.

: Elvin Bishop's new CD is called "The Blues Roll On." He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. And to hear more from Mr. Bishop's new CD, you can go to our Web site, npr.org/music. Should we have a home canning site, too?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "KEEP A DOLLAR IN YOUR POCKET")

BISHOP: (Singing) Keep a dollar in your pocket... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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