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Interview: Elvin Bishop Tops Metro Fountain Blues Lineup

In Music
Blues legend Elvin Bishop remembers the first time he heard the Chicago sound.

Blues legend Elvin Bishop remembers the first time he heard the Chicago sound.

If there’s an unofficial theme that dominates this year’s Metro Fountain Blues Festival, it’s the power of the Chicago blues sound. And indeed, the Chicago sound did literally bring power to the blues, turning the acoustic Delta tradition up to 11 with amps and electric guitars.

But to headliner Fountain Blues headliner Elvin Bishop, Chicago blues represents an even greater power. It’s an electrical force of nature, and he remembers the first time it struck.

“I heard some by accident one night, driving from Memphis, Tennessee,” says the Oklahoma-raised Bishop. “I heard it on the radio, and it went through me like lightning. I don’t know, I just went crazy for it.”

The man he heard on the radio that night was Jimmy Reed, who released his first album in 1958, when Bishop was 16 years old. Though less well known than fellow Chicago bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Reed had as much lasting influence as any of them, influencing Elvis, Van Morrison, the Yardbirds, and many more. He was practically an obsession to the Rolling Stones, who have covered many of his songs.

He hooked Bishop, too, and after that, Chicago was like a beacon. He was a National Merit Scholar finalist in high school, and went to the University of Chicago on a full scholarship to study physics. Now, however, the truth can be told.

“It was kind of my cover story,” admits Bishop of his esteemed academic career. “It was my ticket to Chicago. Gradually the music just crowded it out.”

How could it not, considering that within three years Bishop had met up with fellow student Paul Butterfield, and begun meeting blues heavyweights like Waters and Wolf. For five years, Bishop played guitar in the Butterfield Blues Band, whose 1965 debut record would decades later be named one of the 500 greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone. He released two more albums—and played the Monterey International Pop Festival—with the band, before beginning a legendary solo career that has lasted almost half a century.

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