Elvin Bishop’s latest release, Booty Bumpin’, captures the blues legend at home in front of a live audience, doing what he does best; stirring up a party with a bluesy stew of slide guitar and groovin’ rhythms. With a set featuring both old favorites and recent triumphs, the album exemplifies why Elvin has become one of the most respected and beloved artists to come out of the 60’s blues-rock explosion.
Growing up in the 1940s on a farm in Iowa with a loving but non-musical family, Elvin seldom heard music as a kid. “This was before TV,” Elvin says, “and on the radio you got a lot of Frank Sinatra and ‘How Much Is That Doggie In the Window’ type of stuff.” The family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, when Elvin was 10, in 1952. Tulsa was “totally segregated,” says Elvin, “I mean, hard core.” However, “the one thing they couldn’t segregate was the airwaves. When rock and roll started up, in the mid-’50s, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard showed up on white radio.”
And then, late one night when Elvin was 14 or 15, the atmospheric conditions a little rough, Jimmy Reed’s harmonica came cutting through the static from WLAC in Nashville, and Elvin Bishop’s life was changed. The song was “Honest I Do.” “That piercing harp came through, cutting in like a knife, and I said, ‘Oh, man, that’s it.’ I found out that blues was where the good part of rock and roll was coming from.”
And about that time, he started trying to play guitar. “I wanted to play it from the beginning,” Elvin says. “I kept trying and then quitting it. Hurtin’ my fingers, playing those old pawn-shop guitars with the strings two inches off the fret board. Nobody I knew played.” But he kept after it. “Not being able to dance, and seeing how the musicians did with the girls, and loving the music, I finally stuck with it.”
Hooked on the sounds emerging from the radio, Elvin had to find out where they were coming from and who was responsible. When he was awarded a National Merit Scholarship in 1959, he could have gone to pretty much any college he wanted, but chose The University Of Chicago, because that’s where the blues were. And so he landed in the middle of one of the richest and most vital scenes in blues history. “Any night of the week you could hear Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor, Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Bobby King, Eddie King, Little Smokey, Big Smokey, and a whole ton of people you never heard of.”
His first week in Chicago, he came across Paul Butterfield, who was sitting on some steps drinking beer and playing blues on guitar. “We fell together right away,” says Elvin. “I was amazed to find other white guys into blues.” After playing with a lot of different people, including J.T. Brown, Hound Dog Taylor and Junior Wells, Elvin hooked up with Butterfield to form the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band, with bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay, who’d been Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section. Producer Paul Rothchild of Elektra Records encouraged them to add guitarist Michael Bloomfield. “I’d met Bloomfield before, in a pawn shop,” says Elvin, “when I was looking for guitars. We got to talking. He got a guitar out, started playing circles around the world.”
In 1965 the Butterfield band went into the studio and recorded The Paul Butterfield Blues Band album, which turned out to be a sea-change record for thousands of rock fans and musicians. An integrated band playing blues music in 1965 was unheard of. It introduced a lot of people to the blues, and to the musicians who had influenced the Butterfield band. After several more albums with Butterfield, including the pivotal genrebending East West, Bishop took off on his own. “I wanted to stretch out, see how far I could take it on my own,” says Elvin. Bishop had visited San Francisco with the Butterfield band during the Summer of Love in 1967. “I loved the people, the weather, and not having to watch my back all the time.” And like several other Chicago musicians he ended up moving to the Bay Area.
The 70’s saw Elvin hit the charts with solo tracks like “Travelin’ Shoes,” “Sure Feels Good” and what would become his biggest hit, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” with a powerful vocal by Mickey Thomas (later of Jefferson Starship). During the 1980’s, Elvin spent most of his time on the road, “entertaining the people and maybe having a little too much fun myself.” Later in the decade he hooked up with Alligator for a number of excellent albums that grew right out of his blues roots.
On Gettin’ My Groove Back (2005), Elvin’s first Blind Pig release and first solo album in seven years, he mixed his signature good-time party atmosphere with tracks that dealt with personal grief and social concerns. Blues Revue commented that the album was “one of his most creative yet” and went on to say “If Groove’s tone is a bit darker than that of Bishop’s previous work, attribute it to the deepening of a well-established artist’s outlook. In addition to plenty of his trademark wit, listen for textbook examples of inventive rhythm guitar interplay and effective band arrangements. Bishop’s groove hasn’t gone anywhere.”
Highlights abound on the new live offering, Booty Bumpin’. The mood is set on the opening instrumental, “Stomp,” where thundering drums, swirling accordion and Elvin’s powerful slide guitar all combine to create a down-home vibe that lands somewhere between New Orleans and Chicago. The crowd favorite “Stealin’ Watermelons” is punctuated with bursts of trombone and funky clavinet, while Elvin heads straight to the heart of Crescent City R&B with a rendition of Allen Toussaint’s “I’m Gone.” The band takes the opportunity to stretch out several instrumentals, including the title track, featuring harmonica from Bishop’s Blind Pig label mate John Németh, and the slow burning “Blue Flame,” with fellow Bay Area guitarist Daniel Castro. Elsewhere, Elvin keeps the spirits high with “My Dog,” and digs deep into the blues with Roy Milton’s “Keep A Dollar In Your Pocket.”
In an age where music is often sterilized in the studio for mass consumption, Booty Bumpin’ captures Elvin Bishop’s brand of easy going blues and delivers it unfiltered, raw, and honest, with the same crowd pleasing manner that’s been delighting audiences for years. For those who haven’t been able to experience his show in person, it will bring some of that live magic home. For the countless who have been along for the ride, Booty Bumpin’ will only confirm why Elvin Bishop has and will continue to rank as one of the most engaging performers on the blues scene today.