Ask 64-year-old Elvin Bishop about his four-decade career in the music business, and his response is humble to say the least. “I’ve been in the right place at the right time a lot in my life,” he says. “I’ve just been lucky, you know?”
Sure, there’s some good fortune in Bishop’s story. But luck, after all, is the residue of design—and as the late 1950s were giving way to the early 1960s, the young Elvin Bishop was thinking hard about his future. A top student at his Tulsa, Oklahoma, high school, he wanted to attend college, but only if the school would feed his appetite for the blues. As a teenager, the music had captured his imagination the night he flipped on the radio and heard the cutting harmonica work on Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do.”
“It just struck me,” he remembers. “It’s where the good part of rock and roll was coming from.”
Bishop selected the University of Chicago, located on the city’s South Side, and arrived on campus in the fall of 1960. And he soon found out—much to his surprise—that he wasn’t the only young white college kid with a zeal for the blues.
“The first day I was in Chicago,” Bishop remembers, “I was walking around, checking out the neighborhood, and I saw this guy sitting on some steps drinking a quart of beer and playing blues on a guitar. I was amazed. I go over there and start talking to him, and it was Paul Butterfield.”
Butterfield—then a budding harp master—was part of a nascent scene of young musicians, including Bishop and Michael Bloomfield, who would regularly make musical pilgrimages to the gritty clubs and taverns on the city’s South and West Side neighborhoods. Bishop remembers meeting the legendary guitarist and future bandmate one day while guitar shopping.
“His uncle had a pawn shop on Clark Street, on the North Side,” Bishop remembers. “Michael was working behind the counter. I went in there looking for guitars. It was probably 1961 or ’62. He was kind of a smartass, you know. I went in there and got a guitar down off the wall and started playing a few licks, and he said, ‘You like blues?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah,’ and he says, ‘Well look at this!’ He grabbed the guitar and just started playing circles around me.”
The three young men would eventually make music of their own, most famously as members of the integrated Paul Butterfield Blues Band—the band also featured bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay, former Howlin’ Wolf sidemen who’d been hired by Butterfield. The band’s eponymous debut came out in 1965, and the collective would go on to up the ante even more with 1966’s groundbreaking East-West.
“Chicago was just incredible then,” Bishop remembers of those exciting days in the early '60s. “ There were blues clubs everywhere, and any night of the week, you could go see any of them: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Magic Sam. They were all young and strong, and you could see any of them for two dollars.”
While the likes of Bishop, Butterfield, and Bloomfield were frequenting blues clubs, they weren’t the only ones interested in the music. Across the Atlantic Ocean, a crop of young British guitarists were seeking out blues albums—and they were listening very closely to what they heard. And when they developed their own sounds and styles, a number of them, including Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Jimmy Page, had one thing in common: the Gibson Les Paul.
Their interest in the instruments eventually helped spark a vintage guitar craze, but the idea wasn’t exactly original; the guitars’ remarkable tone and sustain were already well known to artists like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, who’d made good use of them since they first appeared in the early 1950s.
For that matter, plenty of other electric bluesmen—in Chicago and beyond—had also crafted their sonic templates with Gibson instruments. Aaron “T-Bone” Walker, the father of modern electric blues, used an ES-5 way back in the 1940s; the great Freddie King was known to use as an ES-345; slide master Earl Hooker, perhaps the most underrated guitar player of his time, recorded with an SG Standard; and no list of bluesy Gibson guitar-slingers would be complete without the immortal B.B. King and his ES-355, Lucille.
Today, Bishop carries on the tradition of the old-school legends. His workhorse axe is a 1959 ES-345 that he calls “Red Dog.”
“It’s got a unique sound,” Bishop says of his vintage axe, which is displayed on the album cover of his latest album, the live Booty Bumpin’. “I can’t find another guitar that sounds anything like it. I don’t know if it has anything to do with about 40 years of cigarette-smoke seasoning, or beer spilled down in the pickups, but it sure has its own sound. I’m even writing a song about it!”
Gibson SG Standard
Gibson Les Paul Standard