Monday, September 15, 2008

Elvin Fooled Around And Had A Hit - The Early Years

I can recall hearing the song ‘Fooled Around And Fell In Love’ quite a lot when I was around 7 or 8 years old. The slow temp R&B number was a mainstay on commercial radio at the time, and it’s one of those songs that more than thirty years on sounds just as sweet.

The song was credited to one Elvin Bishop, though as I’ll explain later Bishop wasn’t the singer on ‘Fooled Around And Fell In Love’. That’s not to say that the man himself didn’t have a legitimate claim on being the artist behind the hit, having already established a career spanning more than a decade as a gifted blues guitarist and songwriter. Born in Glendale, California, Elvin Bishop grew up on an Iowa farm with no electricity or running water, before moving to Oklahoma at age 10. He listened to early blues artists on the radio, including an early fascination with harmonica player Jimmy Reed. He won a University scholarship in 1959, aged 17, and started playing guitar during his college years, soaking up the Chicago blues scene. His first steps on the guitar were under the tutelage of Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Smokey Smothers. It was whilst attending the University of Chicago (studying physics) that he would strike up another musical partnership that would change the course of his life. One of Bishop’s classmates was blues singer and harmonica player Paul Butterfield. The pair struck up a friendship and started jamming together at campus parties and the like.

Butterfield and Bishop honed their craft on the thriving Chicago blues circuit, jamming alongside the likes of South Side blues legends Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf. Butterfield often showed the initiative on these impromptu jams, but Bishop’s confidence was growing by the day and soon the duo were performing as an act in their own right under the names the Salt & Pepper Shakers and the South Side Olympic Blues Team, at legendary venues like Big John’s on Chicago’s North Side. Bishop was also cutting his teeth as a guitarist on Chicago’s folk circuit, taking the first tentative steps as a songwriter along the way. After dropping out of University Bishop moved to New York for a brief time, during which he worked at a department store where reportedly his job was to break toys (for manufacturer’s discounts - there’s something for the resume).

In 1963 Paul Butterfield formed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which in time would become the U.S. equivalent to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, in terms of serving as an invaluable environment for up and coming blues players to fine tune their skills. The initial line-up featured two former players with Howlin’ Wolf’s band, in bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay, with Elvin Bishop (who’d chosen a life in music over professional toy breaking) invited to join on guitar. Over the next year or two the line-up expanded to a sextet, with the additions of rhythm guitarist Mark Naftalin and future guitar hero Mike Bloomfield. They signed to Elektra Records in 1965, releasing their eponymous debut album late in 1965. The opening track ‘Born In Chicago’ announced the arrival of a genuinely classy blues act, who would prove one of the key players in the American blues revival of the 1960s. They made a seminal appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where they not only played their own set but then backed folk legend Bob Dylan on his notoriously documented premiere electric performance (but hardcore Dylan traditionalists shouldn’t hold that against them).

In December 1966 they released the album ‘East - West’, broadening their sound to include jazz and Indian music into the mix. Soon after Mike Bloomfield left to form the psychedelic outfit Electric Flag, paving the way for Bishop to take over lead guitar duties for Butterfield. 1967 saw Billy Davenport step in for Sammy Lay on drums, and the addition of a full brass section, signalling the arrival of soul/R&B music into the mix for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. After the release of the album ‘The Resurrection Of Pigboy Crabshaw’ (Pigboy Crabshaw was Bishop’s countrified alter-ego) in early 1968, Bishop decided the direction of the band no longer suited the path he wanted to follow.

Following Bishop’s departure from the band, Paul Butterfield led his Blues Band through until 1972 when they disbanded. Butterfield then put together a new outfit called Paul Butterfield’s Better Days who recorded several more albums through the 70s. Butterfield recorded his final album with 1986’s ‘The Legendary Paul Butterfield Rides Again’, but he died in May, 1987.

Elvin Bishop welcomed his new found freedom as a solo artist post Butterfield Blues Band, forming his own backing band and settling in to playing regular gigs in and around Mill Valley, California. Among his backing musicians were a Boston folk trio Jo, Janice And Mary, with Jo Baker staying on for the long term. During this period Bishop also filled in for an ill Mike Bloomfield, jamming with blues impresario Al Kooper at the Fillmore, and playing on Kooper’s 1968 album ‘I Stand Alone’. This led to owner Bill Graham signing Elvin Bishop to a recording contract with Fillmore Records, with the debut album ‘The Elvin Bishop Group’ released in 1969. Bishop handled both vocals and guitar duties, but it was his work on the guitar that shone through. The album also featured an inkling of the cheeky good time humour that would be a trait in Bishop’s recorded and live work over the course of his career. Over the next few years he performed regularly on the same bill as blues legends like Eric Clapton and B.B. King.

He recorded one more album on the Fillmore label with 1970’s ‘Feel It!’, again credited to The Elvin Bishop Group, which focused more on a soul/R&B rock feel than straight blues-rock, with Jo Baker handling most of the lead vocal duties. Bishop then moved across to Epic and released ‘Rock My Soul’ in 1972, this time under the moniker of The Elvin Bishop Band, with Bishop himself handling more of the vocals. The album was produced by Delaney Bramlett of Delaney & Bonnie fame. The same year Bishop played slide guitar on John Lee Hooker’s album ‘Never Get Out Of The Blues Alive’.

Here’s Elvin doing what Elvin does best - making great music and having fun!

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