An Interview with Elvin Bishop
by Carl Wiser (Songfacts) Â© January, 2008
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How do you write a blues song? Elvin Bishop was a member of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band before launching a successful solo career, and he's the guy to ask. He talks about what goes into the blues, what it was like being in a white blues band, and how his slide guitar acts as his voice.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I have to ask you about "Fooled Around And Fell In Love." Can you tell me the story behind that song?
Elvin Bishop: Well, I tell you what, the better a song is, the less story there is to it, as far as I can tell. The best songs just come rushing out. I don't know if life squeezes them out of you, or if they're just so right that they take no thought. I don't know. Or if you're given a temporary connection to the flow of the universe, or whatever it is. But that song just damn near wrote itself, you know?
SF: Why didn't you sing on it?
Elvin: I tried to. But we had a guy right there, Mickey Thomas, who has the most amazing voice - he can sing a page out of the phone book and move people. And my voice is very plain. It's better suited for blues. It's been good for me, because it's made my songwriting strong, because to really get over with a voice like mine, which is not a thrill in itself â€“ the quality of the voice â€“ you have to have a strong story and really good words to capture people's imagination. And that tune, I gave it a try. Actually, what happened was the album, Struttin' My Stuff I think was the name of it, and the producer, Bill Szymczyk, said, "We need one more piece of material here. You got anything else laying around?" I said, "Well, there's this tune I wrote the other day." Well, not the other day. I'd actually tried to get a couple of other people to sing it, but somehow it didn't work out. I said, "How about this 'Fooled Around and Fell In Love'?" We cut a track, it was a really nice track. I tried singing it, and I said, "That's not buttering my biscuit, my vocal on this. Why don't we give Mickey a shot at this?" And the producer said, "Well, that's big of you." And I said, "Well, I don't think so. It's just common sense, you know?" And Mickey just tore it up.
SF: So what did Mickey do most of the time?
Elvin: Well, I didn't sing most of the songs. I sang maybe half of them. And the rest of them we had really good background vocals. And Mickey was like the ringleader of that, you know. When I first met him he was singing in a gospel group.
SF: Okay. Let me ask you about one of your other songs. "Stealing Watermelons." What's the whole story behind that one?
Elvin: Sometimes it'll start with a bass line. I think that's how "Stealing Watermelons" started. And sometimes it'll start with a hook line, a vocal hook line, like maybe "Fooled Around And Fell In Love." And sometimes it'll be a melody, and sometimes it'll be a guitar lick, and just any way I can get my hands on a tune, I'm glad to get going with it, you know. It all comes down from someplace above, and it's not like I have total control over the thing. You always read about this in novels, "Well, I get up at 3:00 in the morning and I write 'til 6, and then I have breakfast and take a swim. And then I write from 6 'til 12, and then I take a 2 hour nap, and then I write 300 more words in the afternoon." It ain't like that with me at all. It just comes when it gets ready, you know?
SF: When do the lyrics get written?
Elvin: Well, usually pretty much toward the front. I'll get the strong idea, the hook line, where the song is going, the thought of the song, and then the other verses, and maybe a bridge. It's like hanging clothes on a line. Once you've got that clothesline, you're all right.
SF: There are very many of your songs that are instrumentals. And I'm wondering if there are some songs you set out and you know right away, Okay, this is going to be an instrumental, or some songs that you assume you're going to put lyrics to, and then decide you're not going to.
Elvin: That's an interesting question. I've never thought of it that way. Just some songs have words, and some songs are instrumentals. And there's never any doubt about it from the front for me.
Blues music isn't for everyone: it's a bit mysterious yet very genuine. Elvin makes it work, as he is known for rousing live shows where everyone leaves with a smile. He spoke candidly about what it's like to interpret blues standards and how he approaches his performances.
SF: You were with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band for a long time, and you guys were recording some legendary blues songs, in addition to some of your own stuff. How did you guys decide what songs you were going to record?
Elvin: Especially in those days, and even now I would imagine, it's not totally up to the artist. The producer or the record company has a lot to say over that. But what we had was blues songs in those days. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band really was modeled on our heroes, or Chicago blues guys, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and people like that. Otis Rush, Little Walter. And we were doing mostly their tunes in the beginning. There was this beautiful body of music, the black blues and the white public, and they had never to any great extent met up 'til that time. And we were lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, and be able to do the stuff well enough to put it over. It's sad but true, the white public will accept from young white faces what they will not accept from old black faces. And we didn't do the songs as well as our heroes, but we did them evidently well enough to get people behind the blues, and to get started investigating where it all really came from.
SF: Do you know how, for instance, a song like "Got My Mojo Working" gets recorded, as opposed to any number of other blues songs?
Elvin: Well, just the same way that "Fooled Around" gets recorded. Muddy Waters had a successful record of it, and it's just an attractive piece of material. If you were in Chicago in 1960, as I was, every blues band in Chicago played that tune. And here it is in the 2000s, and half the blues bands you go and see now play "Got My Mojo Working." It's just a good song, you know.
SF: Yeah. Do you know the whole story of the mojo, and what that whole thing means?
Elvin: Yes. It's like voodoo, it's magic. If you've ever seen he first Paul Butterfield album, the album cover, the picture was taken in front of a store that sold that kind of stuff. It's magic charms and lucky oil, and different things, different kinds of powder you can sprinkle around the bed. It's voodoo magic stuff, you know.
SF: You're known for your live performances. As an audience member at one of your shows, what nuances or distinctions should we be listening for?
Elvin: I don't expect people to intellectually understand the music, or to be into the technical aspects of it. Most people are just there to have a good time, and that's what I'm there for, is to entertain them. And in the process, I'm lucky enough to be able to do what I want to do, and get paid for it. And it all seems to work. People seem to like what I like. So it works out great. I had a lot of hard working jobs before I got into music. I worked in steel mills, in the oil fields, in construction with a jackhammer and all that stuff. And it makes me really appreciate being able to do what I want to and to be successful with it, and be my own boss. And you know, those old hard working jobs, you'll never get a round of applause, I don't care how good you do them. So this is good.
SF: Are there any songs that you've written where the lyrics are very personal for you?
SF: What are some of those?
Elvin: My first record, I guess the name of it is "I'll Be Glad," that one, and "Come On Blues," and "What The Hell Is Going On," they were squeezed out of me by life. I had a series of disasters in my personal lifeâ€¦ people close to me dying or being murdered. And it was such a hard, hard-hitting, terrible experience that songs ended up being written about it. And it's good, because it's therapy. It makes you feel a little better about things, you know. I think that's what blues is all about, is recycling bad feelings. It was invented by people who lived in impossible circumstances, and it was part of their way of dealing with it, you know.
SF: "Recycling bad feelings," I never thought about that. Could you speak specifically on any one of those three songs you mentioned?
Elvin: Well, if you listen to them you'll pretty much hear. For instance, "What The Hell Is Going On," it was written after the murder of my daughter, which I found out aboutâ€¦ she disappeared, and for a couple of weeksâ€¦ it was a really terrible experience, nobody knew where she was, kind of suspected the worst but didn't really know. And then I picked up a newspaper on the street one day out of a box, you know, and I read that she had been found cut up in pieces.
SF: That is awful, Elvin.
SF: Any of your older songs have any real personal feelings for you?
Elvin: Well, all of my songs at the time I wrote them indicated my personal feelings. And I'm not the same guy I was 30 years ago. So right now, I don't know. I'm more attached to my more recent songs, you know.
SF: The blues just really interests me, because sometimes it just seems like a series of kind of sexual metaphors in so many of these songs, but other times it seems more genuine than any other kind of music.
Elvin: Yeah. There's a lot of blues that you have to take with a grain of salt, because if it's not being sung by the person that wrote it, there are a lot of blues singers who, well, face it, a lot of it is performed in different states of inebriation. And guys don't remember the words, or they just string together any verse that rhymes without regard to whether it's really building a story or carrying a consistent meaning. They're just there to play and entertain and get paid. But the really well written blues all have a good story and make sense, and will tell you something that you haven't heard before.
SF: What are some of your favorite blues standards?
Elvin: I like a lot of Muddy Waters' old tunes. Like "Long Distance Call." I like John Lee Hooker's stuff, like "Boogie Chillin'," or "Hobo Blues." I like a lot of Lightnin' Hopkins' stuff. I'm so deep into blues, I could name 200 people that I like.
SF: Okay. The last thing I have for you, Elvin, when you're playing live, are there any particular favorites that you like to play?
Elvin: Well, I like all the tunes I play. "Stealin' Watermelons" is fun always. "Rock My Soul" is fun. "Fooled Around" is fun, because I figured out a way to have my cake and eat it too on that one. I play it as a slide instrumental, pretty much, with the guys singing background vocals, and they get the crowd to sing, and it works just amazingly well.
SF: They must know all the words.
Elvin: Yeah, the slide guitar â€“ you know what a slide is, right?
Elvin: I explained the limitations of my voice. Slide is kind of like the voice I never had. I can sing as high or as low as I want to, put as much sustain, as much trebleâ€¦ I learned to play the melody "Fooled Around And Fell In Love" on the slide. It doesn't sound like it would work, but it does, amazingly well. So that's fun.
SF: The voice that you never had. I think the third cut on Gettin' My Groove Back, a song called "Sweet Dreams," it sounds like you're using a slide on that.
Elvin: Yeah, I try to play as vocally as possible. I try to use it as a voice. I think Patsy Cline had a record of it, and a guy named Tommy McLain is the record I really like. It was like a south Louisiana, they called it Swamp Pop in the '70s. He sang a really soulful version of that, it's what I base my version on. Using my slide like his voice.
SF: Elvin, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today.
Elvin: Okay. It was my pleasure.
Thanks to Elvin for speaking with us. His live album Booty Bumpin' will give you a great idea of why he's known for his performances. Learn more about Elvin at his website on Blind Pig Records.
Reprinted with Permission from Songfacts.com Copyright 2008
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