“I been in the blues all my life. I’m still delivering ‘cause I got a long memory.”— Muddy Waters
Half a century has passed since the blues bands of Chicago rocked the smoky clubs and bars crowding the Southside and street players set up to play curbside on Maxwell Street on Sunday afternoons. The blues that migrated north from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago defined a generation in the cultural life of black Americans, and eventually, those very same blues musicians and their songs inspired a new generation of younger, paler players to play the blues, culminating in one of the most potent cultural and artistic awakenings in modern history. In Clarksdale, Mississippi they still call it the boogie disease.
Much has been written about those days and the characters that created the blues in Chicago, and while we are all familiar with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, James Cotton, Willie Dixon, Earl Hooker, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and John Lee Hooker, most of us have only experienced these legendary players through their recorded music, photographs and surviving film footage. By the time aspiring young white musicians discovered the true roots of the music they were chasing, many of the original Chicago bluesmen had passed away, or were approaching the end of their careers. While the blues would be fervently embraced by young white Americans, it was clearly not born from the life experiences of white America in the segregated ‘60s. To understand how the blues transcended color to create a musical revolution in pop culture, we must look back to Chicago, a club called Big John’s, and how a green kid from Tulsa boarded a bus for Chicago with a small handful of chords and wound up in one of the greatest blues bands of all time…
A skinny kid from Tulsa, Oklahoma named Elvin Bishop played guitar in the band that would fully integrate Chicago blues into American life in the mid ‘60s. The spark was ignited at Big John’s, where Paul Butterfield first formed the band as a quartet with Sam Lay and Jerome Arnold, lured away from Howlin’ Wolf, and Butterfield’s friend Elvin on guitar. In 1964 Michael Bloomfield joined the band, which achieved notoriety at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 for their own brilliant set, and for backing Bob Dylan in his first electric perversion of “Maggies’ Farm,” leaving die hard folkies scalded and writhing in horror in front of the stage. After several attempts at recording a live album, Mark Naftalin joined the band on keyboards and the Butterfield Blues Band LP debuted on Elektra in 1965. Hailed as a landmark blues record, the album’s lasting influence on musicians and the public’s awareness of the blues far surpassed its chart position at 102 among the Top 200. Simply put, the Butterfield album is a classic record that inspired musicians and bands around the world for decades in their pursuit of rock & blues.
The Butterfield band released East-West in 1966, featuring blues standards and the 13-minute instrumental title track that explored Indian raga themes mixed with jazz-fusion and extended blues-rock solos by Bloomfield and Bishop. “East-West” deftly captured the full, freaky psychedelia of the Fillmore that inspired ‘acid rock’ with bands like the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service jamming deep into the night while stoned and tripping Fillmore patrons dreamily nodded their approval.
Now, before we proceed, we urge you to log on to YouTube, type in Paul Butterfield Blues Band Driftin’ Blues Monterey 1967, and watch and listen to Paul Butterfield, Elvin and the band cast a spell on the crowd. On this song Bloomfield sat out with Elvin doing the honors on guitar. It’s a beautifully shot film and excellent sound recording featuring great shots of the band and audience, and a wonderful performance.
Alright, cue that video up now if you can, turn up the volume and watch it twice. We’ll wait…
Uh, huh. Leaves you wanting more, doesn’t it? We’ll not see the likes of the Butterfield Blues Band again, ever. Times have changed, there is no concentrated blues scene left in America to rival the southside of Chicago, and if two young guys like Paul Butterfield and Elvin happened to cross paths on the street today, one or both of them would likely be jacking off with their cell phones instead of sitting on a stoop playing guitar and drinking a quart of beer.
You see, many of us no longer live in the moment in America. There is no time to simply hang out for the perpetually over-scheduled. Texts and emails have replaced conversation. Last week on Pawley’s Island South Carolina we watched two upwardly mobile couples in their late 20s come to the beach, spread out their blankets and chairs, take a bored ten minute perfunctory walk and return to relax and surf the Net on their cell phones. No talking. No reflecting on the soothing sound of the ocean waves breaking on the beach in perfect rhythm as they have for millions of years. No quiet contemplation… Never mind the earnest pelican squadrons dive bombing offshore, the scurrying sand crabs, curious sandpipers, the blue horizon, or the placid expanse of sea reaching to Africa… Sadly, we have acquired the habit of not really being where we are, too often existing in a colder digital space void of the real world and all the sensory sensations it offers. Connected, yet entirely disconnected. We point out these facts of contemporary life to honor what earlier generations and musicians like Elvin Bishop have created in their lives, and to reinforce the idea that art and culture cannot be created on a smart phone, iPad or a PC. Art and culture require social human beings to interact, and when we do, miraculous, beautifully human things can happen that are entirely unique to us. Like the blues.
The ‘60s are often poorly portrayed today by people who didn’t live them. Yes, there were problems— Watts burned, there were riots in Chicago and marches on Washington to end the war, and many young lives were needlessly lost— draftees who were too healthy or lacked the connections to obtain a deferment, two brothers who wished to make America and the world a better place, and another brother who simply wanted us to learn to love each other. But there was also a higher consciousness at play in our culture among the young, in part encouraged by the drug culture that inevitably turned on itself at Altamont, but also in terms of spiritual thought. The 1971 book on spirituality, yoga and meditation by Ram Dass titled “Be Here Now” has never seemed more poignant and instructive than it is today. Having studied with Timothy Leary at Harvard and experimented with psychedelic drugs, Ram Dass was left unfulfilled, embarking on a spiritual journey in which he was instructed to always remember to ‘be here now.’ Such was the spirit of San Francisco for a moment, the site of ‘love ins,’ ‘be ins’ and ‘happenings’ no less. It was far fuckin’ out, man, and Elvin Bishop was right there, all up in the middle of it.
Elvin eventually put his own band together in San Francisco and launched a solo career that is still going strong today, but this is a story best told by the man himself. And so it is with great joy and reverent appreciation that we are honored to introduce you to Elvin Bishop from his home in the country, far, far from the streets of Tulsa, somewhere in Northern California. Enjoy…
TQR: Did you grow up playing in bands as a teenager in Oklahoma, Elvin?
Naw, when I came out of Oklahoma I knew a handful of chords— a small handful. The thing was, there was nobody in my family that was musical and I didn’t know anybody that played music in Tulsa. I didn’t have any money, my dad was kind of chronically unemployed, and I worked a lot in high school. I always got my guitars in pawn shops and I didn’t know the ropes, so I wound up with these Harmony and Kays with the strings two inches off the fret board. I was always thinking, “Damn, I don’t seem to be making much progress… This guitar playing sure is hard.” Just mashing the strings down kept my fingers messed up and I’d give up for awhile. Then I’d go back to school and they would have a dance and I’d see the girls all gathered around the guitar players and I’d decide I needed to go back to work on the guitar. I finally stuck with it.
TQR: Were you a good student? You received a National Merit scholarship to the University of Chicago, and I think you are probably the first guitar player we have ever interviewed that did that.
I was and I wasn’t— it would kind of go in waves. I’d get all ‘U’s’ one semester which was unsatisfactory, and the next semester I’d get all ‘E’s’ for excellent. I was a good test-taker and the scholarship was based on standardized test scores.
TQR: What led you to go to the University of Chicago? Don’t tell me that you chose that school because you wanted to become immersed in the Blues…
That’s what I’m gettin’ ready to tell you. People said it was unusual that I would be interested in physics, but I had always been good at math and you had to have a major, so I just chose physics. Basically, college was my cover story for going where the blues was. It was frustrating in Tulsa because they made it real hard for you to associate with people of other races. This was the late ‘50s— there was white and colored everything, and no black people in my school. I remember when I left for Chicago at the Greyhound bus station there were separate waiting rooms, restrooms and drinking fountains.
TQR: And I would imagine they weren’t playing Muddy Waters on the radio in Tulsa either.
You could hear it. If you knew which stations to listen to, you could get it. White people just didn’t know anything about blues. The only way you could hear it was if you went to a folk festival, because blues was considered a small aspect of folk music.
TQR: What was your first month in Chicago like?
Man, it was like being thrown in the middle of heaven. It was the luckiest thing that ever happened in my life. Blues was like rap is now. It was the living music of the black people. There were maybe over 200 blues clubs in Chicago because there were over a million black people in the city at that time. I got there in 1960, and within the first week I made friends with the black guys that worked in the cafeteria at the University, and they were taking me out to the blues clubs. The University of Chicago is located in a place called Hyde Park, which was an island in the middle of the South Side ghetto. Hah! Please don’t throw me in the briar patch! It was unbelievable.
TQR: And there was a scene on Maxwell Street, too…
That was on the near Northwest side, and it was a happening thing, too. It was the biggest flea market in the world and ever since the 1920s people had been playing music on the street there on Sundays. They would run a long cord and somebody would let them run a cord into their house for $2. If your bicycle got stolen during the week you could go to Maxwell Street and buy the parts to put it back together on Sunday.
TQR: When you were being taken down to the blues clubs, had they been integrated at that time? Growing up in Indianapolis, we knew the neighborhoods where the juke joints were, but the idea of walking into one of them was unimaginable.
Well, I was the only white guy in those clubs many times. There were a few white people that were interested in it— some of the academic people from the university were interested from a sociological angle I suppose, but also guys like Butterfield and Bloomfield and Barry Goldberg… Within a week of arriving in Chicago I saw my first blues band. The black guys that worked in the cafeteria were so nice to me— Louis Johnson, A.D. Mosby, and a lot of guys I only knew by their first name— X.L., Andrew, Clarence… These guys took me down and we’d go in a group. I never went by myself and not with a $100 bill hanging out of my pocket, as if I had one. The first blues band I ever saw was… dig this personnel— James Cotton, Willie Big Eyes Smith, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Pat Hare and a bass player.
TQR: Were you able to fully appreciate the fact that you were seeing history being made at that time, living in the epicenter of American blues?
No. We were just trying to please ourselves. Our heroes were the blues guys, and just the idea of being able to play that music and get paid for it… You know, when you’re a young guy gettin’ high and chasing girls is number one on the agenda. It all fits in together and it was a beautiful thing. As far as the larger implications, I don’t know how many guys have come up to me over the years and said that the Butterfield Blues Band got them started into music.
TQR: And also exposed an entire generation to music they would have otherwise never grasped at the time.
Yeah, the blues presented this huge body of beautiful music that a white audience of 200 million people had never heard. We were just lucky enough to be standing there with enough talent to deliver the goods.
TQR: And incredibly, the music being played in Chicago was the same music that inspired many of the British musicians that launched the British Invasion as well as the explosion of a harder rockin’ style from players like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. It was all connected with roots in Chicago blues. Who did you meet first? Was it Butterfield?
Yeah, I met him the first day I was in Chicago. It was just a huge coincidence. I was walking around looking at the neighborhood straight from Tulsa, square as a pool table and twice as green, and I see this guy sittin’ on some steps playing a guitar and drinking a quart of beer. That’s how we met.
TQR: How did your initial exploration into the Chicago music scene unfold?
I just did what musicians do when they are starting out, and I soaked it up from all directions 24 hours a day. Anybody that looked like they knew anything I didn’t know I’d learn from. My horizons kind of exploded when I actually found guys that I could look at their hands and see how things I’d heard on records were played. I’d hang out with the black guys, and you know, you didn’t have to go to class if you could pass the tests. I would go out into the ghetto and get lost for weeks at a time hanging out with guys. I learned what the words they were singing meant and how they fit with their lives and culture. I started playing in bands in Chicago as soon as I could. I had a hard time at first because I had never played in bands in Tulsa and I would try to play along with records by Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, who I became friends with later, but I wasn’t aware that there was a certain sequence you had to play the chords in. It just looked like they changed when they got ready, whenever the feelin’ told ‘em, so I had to learn how to change with them. That was a little difficult, but I just plugged away and got through it. I had to change from using a thumb pick to a flat pick, and now I’ve gone back again. Freddie King was the only guy I knew that used middle fingerpicks. You know that high sparkling sound he gets sometimes? That’s from middle fingerpicks. I played with a bunch of little bands before I got with Butterfield. We used to play acoustically— me, Butter and Nick Gravenitas at parties. Butterfield was an amazing character. When I met him he didn’t play harmonica— just guitar. He decided he’d learn how to play harmonica and within 6 months has was as good as he was gonna get. He was a natural genius on the instrument.
TQR: Who did you play with prior to the Butterfield Blues Band?
I played with a bunch of different bands that never made any records— the Southside Olympic Blues Team, Salt & Pepper Shakers, Larry and the Crowd Chasers… and I played with some known blues guys like Hound Dog Taylor, Junior Wells hired me for a couple of weeks, and I played with this old honkin’ sax guy from the ‘40s named J.T. Brown… It was a matter of gettin’ gigs to play. Butterfield got a gig at this place called Big John’s on the North Side of Chicago, and that’s where blues really crossed over to the white people. It was the right time and the right place, so he put the band together for that and it really took off.
TQR: How did you meet Bloomfield, and did he already have his chops together on the guitar?
It was in his uncle’s pawn shop. He came from a very wealthy family. I don’t know about now, but back then if you’d go to a restaurant or a diner and you looked at the sugar dispensers that you used to pour sugar into your coffee or the salt and pepper shakers, there was a ‘B’ on the bottom. His father owned that business. Bloomfield was working behind the counter at his uncle’s pawn shop, and oh, yeah, he was already fully formed. He had been playing since his preteen years and had taken lessons from jazz musicians and he knew how to play old-fashioned pop music. He was a real musician.
TQR: He was also a true music historian. I remember seeing him in the mid 70’s when he was touring solo and it was kind of disappointing. We wanted to hear him play the Les Paul of course, and he was playing acoustic rags from the ‘20s for the most part, and a little blues, but all acoustic. He seemed to be a little hyperactive.
Oh, yeah, he loved all that music from the ‘20s, and that might be an accurate description— the most negative way of looking at his personality. It was rough on him because his mind worked so fast all the time that he had trouble sleeping. Clapton had a great description of him as “playing music on two legs.” He introduced me to a lot of R&B with horns, and we actually fashioned a lot of our playing after horn parts. When we were playing at the Fillmore a lot he actually had a fire eating act that he did in the middle of “East-West.” He used to get one of those mallets for a kettle drum, dip it in lighter fluid, lean back and slowly eat the fire. You talk about hippies with some blown minds… I asked him how he did it and he said as long as you didn’t inhale you were OK.
TQR: I was just listening to “Got a Mind to Give Up Living” and it is very clear that the sound of that recording doesn’t sound like anything being recorded today. There is a haunting mystery to that music that has largely been lost. How did you record back then? Were you hanging mikes in a room to get the sound of an ensemble?
I don’t know about hanging mikes in a room, maybe a little bit, but there just weren’t as many tracks. I was so ignorant of recording techniques back then that I couldn’t even tell you how many tracks we had. Very few things happened in one take, but the only form of ‘cheating’ we had was splicing tape. I think East-West may have been recorded on both coasts and spliced together. The things is, when you do it that way, playing everything all the way through from start to finish as a performance, you put the musical sound in the hands of the musicians and take it out of the hands of the engineers. This ‘fix it in the mix’ shit where you record everything separately and mix it together always struck me as like throwing a Ming vase on the floor and saying “Don’t worry, we’ll put it back together better than it ever was.”
TQR: How has your gear evolved over the years?
I never got past the three knob stage. I fooled around with pedals and wah-wahs in the past and I’ve always found it wasn’t something that worked for me. I started out with a little black Princeton and that worked fine because we were playing small places, you know? Then I got this guy, Owsley, the guy who made the LSD during the Summer of Love in San Francisco, and he was an electronics genius. He modified my Princeton, and I remember doing this one gig with a band called Blue Cheer. They had a wall of Marshall amps and everybody said I kicked their ass that day with my Princeton. It got to where it wouldn’t work anymore, and I took it to a repairman in San Francisco and he called me up and said, “I can’t figure this shit out at all. I can’t do anything with this.”
TQR: What kinds of guitars were you playing in Chicago?
Basically anything they would give me for free from endorsements. I played some 335 knock offs… I had a Telecaster I was playing at Big John’s and all the blues musicians would come to sit in. Louis Myers came in and I was complaining to him that the threaded steel saddles on my Telecaster kept breaking strings, and he said, “Aw, you just don’t know what you’re doing. If I had that guitar I wouldn’t never break a string.” We were both drinkin’ a little bit and he had this real nice stereo Gibson ES-345, so I said, “I’ll bet if you had this guitar the same thing would happen. Why don’t we trade and see?” He said, “Shit, I’ll do that,” so we traded. That guitar just suited me— a 1959 ES-345, the fingerboard felt great and I could get a great sustain out of that 3rd string. A week later he came back and told me we needed to trade back because every time he hit a string on that Telecaster it would break. I said, “I told you so!” I should have been nice about it and traded the ES-345 back, but I just loved it so much that I told him no.
TQR: And that was it for you. Search over. That was Red Dog, but didn’t you also have an ES-345 you called Brown Dog?
Yeah… In those days my saying was, and it usually came true, that the life expectancy of a guitar was about 5 years. Either the airlines or the thieves would get it. I was playing somewhere every night and flying around a lot. The baggage is terrible now but it was worse then. Sometimes you would open up the case and there would be nothing but a jumble of wood and strings in there. I’d always just do the best I could and go scour the pawn shops and sometimes I’d be lucky enough to find another Red Dog and sometimes I wouldn’t. As far as the original guitar goes, we played a festival way up in the sticks in Canada, there was bad weather, the equipment guys got drunk and they didn’t lock the back door of the van. I just figured it was lost, but somebody found it, and ten years later I was playing in Vancouver and a guy brought that guitar back to me, but it was in pretty bad shape. The one I have now is an original ‘59 ES-345 just like the first one.
TQR: Let’s jump to San Francisco. You ran out the string in Chicago and moved west. Why?
Well, the reason I quit the Butterfield band is because of a natural phenomenon that you experience as a sideman. You get to do two or three songs that are close to your heart and you begin to think about what if I got to do all songs that were close to my heart, and that overcomes all the objections, financial and otherwise. You forget about the security, hopefully you can make it on your own, so you say fuck it, I gotta do it.
Around 1968 I’d say half the main blues guys in Chicago moved to California because of Bill Graham. He created the opportunity. He was a great organizer and a hard-nosed businessman, but he also realized he was in a really loose social scene. He looks at it and he sees that all his customers were on acid. He realized they would dig any kind of music he could give ‘em, and he was gonna give them some great stuff— crack this shit wide open and expose them to stuff they needed to hear. Along with Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead he made them listen to Albert King and Charles Lloyd, Ravi Shankar, and Paul Butterfield, and B.B. King, so all of a sudden there was good paying employment for blues musicians. His model was so successful that it spread all over the country and ballrooms were opening everywhere. So in ‘68… shit, I could name James Cotton, Steve Miller, Luther Tucker, Butterfield, me, Bloomfield, Magic Sam… All kinds of guys moved there because they got out here the first time and the weather was way better— you didn’t have that Hawk, which is what they called the wind in the winter in Chicago that would cut you down. The weather was nice, the girls were friendly, and there was work. Nothing not to like. I started making records and things continued to get better and better, I got to travel all over the country and things were good.
TQR: How did your career come together in San Francisco?
Well, Bill Graham took me in and managed me, I got a band together and things steadily got better, and then the Allman Brothers were booked into the Fillmore. I’d been sitting in with them for a while, ever since we had met out on the road and we hit it off pretty well. We were all at a party one night and Dickie Betts took me and Phil Walden from Capricorn Records into a room and Dickie told me to play some of my songs for Phil. The next day I was signed to Capricorn and for the first time in my life there was a commercially approved slot that they could stuff my unusual ass in, and that was southern rock.
TQR: After you signed with Capricorn it seemed as if you really hit your stride. When I moved to Atlanta in the ‘70s I remember “Struttin’ My Stuff” being played on the radio all the time. Being new to Atlanta, where the girls looked different in a fine way and everybody talked different, that song kind of defined what was going on in southern rock with that strong guitar hook, funky beat and chorus… “I’m Struttin’ My Stuff Ya’ll!” Wet Willie was doing a lot of the same kind of music. But you had been a blues guy… Where did that come from?
It was always there. I grew up in Oklahoma, and southern rock is just country and blues mixed together. I had been concentrating on blues, but growing up in Oklahoma you get country just by breathing. It isn’t anything you have to really think about or study.
TQR: Do you remember how “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” came to you?
Yep. It just popped out. I was hacking away on the guitar and I came up with some changes I liked, started singing some words, I got the hook line and wrote a couple of verses… You get the idea and it’s just like hanging clothes on a line. The good ones take no time at all. You get plugged into the universal flow for a few seconds and that’s all it takes.
TQR: I read a story about when you were cutting the record, you were trying to sing the song and listening back to the vocal you said, “That won’t butter the biscuit.”
Yeah, I knew I wasn’t doing it justice and that song needed someone with a strong voice. That’s when I got Mickey Thomas to sing it. He was in my band, but when I met him he was in a gospel group. There was this black guy named Gideon whose father had been a preacher in Philadelphia, and he had been on the road with all these great gospel groups like Sam Cooke and the Soulsters and the Mighty Clouds of Joy… He formed a gospel rock group and he would go through the South looking for singers. His dream was to have a multi-cultural group— he would get Japanese guys and guys from the Philippines… He found Mickey Thomas in Cairo, Georgia, and this guy Gideon was a friend of mine. So I wound up hanging out with Mickey and he joined my band. He is a wonderful singer and meeting him was one of the true pieces of good fortune in my career.
TQR: Swerving back to gear if we may, guitar players are reading this and by now they are probably wondering what kinds of amps you may have used. You said ‘Fenders’…
I used Super Reverbs, Princetons in the studio. One time I got disenchanted with tube amps because I couldn’t keep them going on the road, and I switched to the most tube-like sound I could find with a solid state amp, and the Fender Stage Lead was OK for a while. These days I use a Super Reverb or a Vibrolux. Do you know who Tab Benoit is? He called and suggested Mickey and I cut a record in his studio so we went down to Houma, Louisiana and I think it turned out to be a damn fine record if I do say so myself. It isn’t out yet but I’ve played it for some people in the business who don’t blow smoke and they seem to agree. Anyway, back to amplifiers… This friend of mine is a fuckin’ genius. He just makes shit. If something doesn’t suit him, he makes something better. He got tired of getting his speakers reconed, so he cut the bottom out of a Coors beer can and glued it in the middle of his speaker and it worked like a champ. He got this little no-name 20 watt amp… somebody got drunk at a party and had thrown a hammer through the speaker, and he found the amp at the dump. He pulled it out, threw the guts away and saved the speaker. He brought the speaker to my studio, didn’t tape it up or anything, and we ran the Super through it and we got the unholiest sound you have ever heard. I worked up this funk groove in E with an open string thing playing through that speaker, sent it to Mickey and he cut a vocal— it’s called “Swamp Water.” Check it out when it’s released.
TQR: What do you use in your home studio?
I’ve got an old Vibroverb that has a great sound. The speaker is partially broken, so I don’t take it out on the road because it sounds just right the way it is and I don’t want it to get any more broken. I have a Super here, and a little Blues Junior amp that’s good for the studio when you don’t want to get to loud.
TQR: Do you miss the fidelity of the recordings of the past?
I do. Vinyl and tape sure sound better than MP3s. You know, ASCAP does this annual gig at the Library of Congress that I played this year where they get the songwriters to a do a show for the congressmen and senators to schmooze them up to pass more favorable laws regarding royalties. They asked me to say a couple of words, and I told them that when I first heard this guy from Napster say that he just wanted to “share the music,” I thought, “Man, why don’t you share something that belongs to you rather than something that belongs to me?” When I was teenager and you would play records on those big Wurlitzer juke boxes with their 15” woofers … What a sound that was. But you can’t fight it. You don’t want to sound like an old fart complaining about everything.
TQR: Yeah, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Call me Mr. Guilty. Who were your biggest influences?
My ears are pretty wide open. Where my styles comes from is not being able to imitate any of them well. I was just kind of forced back on my own devices. I always loved John Lee Hooker and B.B., all the great ones, you know. As for now I love Derek Trucks. I think he is what you might call a musician of a generation. Some people try to dismiss him because he uses open E tuning and plays slide as if he were some kind of ‘Duane Junior,’ but he’s way more than that. I like hundreds of guitar players, really.
TQR: What are some of your favorite jams and collaborations from the past?
I had some great times with Albert Collins. Some pretty good ones with B.B., but sometimes he would turn it into a test. If you thought a little too much of yourself he would call a fast shuffle in C sharp so you’d be struggling to keep your hand from flipping into C or D. He’s a beautiful guy. My wife doesn’t know all that much about music but she has asked me how he can only play one note and you immediately know who it is.
TQR: I’ve read that Clapton wound up jamming with you and B.B. during his first trip to New York. What was the scene like during the ‘60s in the Village?
Oh, yeah, that was really a jammin’ time and the scene of many crimes… We used to have jam sessions with B.B., Buddy Miles, Clapton, Hendrix… We would jam at Cafe Au Go Go, The Genesis, Cafe Wah?… I remember Bloomfield running in in between shows at the Cafe Au Go Go and he had heard this guy named Jimmy James at Cafe Wah? and he said, “You gotta hear this guy— it sounds like cars crashing into trains and shit!” Hendrix came over to our place and jammed, and I saw him at Monterey when he burned his guitar. He impressed me as a great player, and you could tell he was a nice guy because he was considerate, he didn’t try to dick in on your solo or try to hog things, and when he wasn’t playing a solo he did a nice job of backing the next guy up. We had some good jams with a lot of people in New York. We always had a good rhythm section and it was real cool.
TQR: The Newport Folk Festival… the first time Dylan played with an electric band— your band…
You know, playing with Dylan is one of the few things I’ve been accused of that I didn’t do. When they played with Dylan I was at the other end of the fairgrounds splitting a half pint with Mississippi John Hurt and Manse Lipscomb. These were guys I was more interested in hanging with. I missed the Dylan thing and the big fight that Grossman had back stage. I have also had a lot of people tell me they saw me at Woodstock, but I wasn’t there, either (laughing). I was at Monterey, and that was an amazing festival— not only with Hendrix carryin’ on, but it was the first time Otis Redding was exposed to that kind of audience, and I remember him comin’ out in a continental suit and saying he was gonna do a song for “all you flower people,” like it was a dirty word or something. It was also the first time I had the opportunity to fully appreciate Janis Joplin. I had seen her in San Francisco with Big Brother, and she had started out with some pretty raggedy hippie bands, but she wound up with a pretty good R&B band later. You don’t get it from the records, but seeing her live could give you chills.
TQR: Did you get to play with Magic Sam in Chicago?
Yeah, man. I was pretty good friends with him. He was a good guy, and we did a benefit for him when he died. He had eight kids, and he died young in his early 30s. He is one of the greats, for sure. He was one of the first guys I saw in Chicago when I was 17, and at that age you aren’t even supposed to be in those places. I got thrown out of one of his gigs three times, until I finally found the dressing room and they let me stay in there. I also loved Otis Rush… My favorite slide player of all time was Earl Hooker, and I was pretty close to John Lee. I would bring him collard greens out of my garden, or bring him fish if I caught a bunch. One time we were out on the road doing this little review up and down the East Coast— me and John Hammond and some other people and I called John Lee in his room and said, “What are you doing John?” He said, “I got me some chicken.” I said, “Is it good?” And he said, “It’s so good I ain’t even goin’ to eat it. I’m just goin’ to lay here and kiss on it.”
TQR: Based on some of your album photos showing you hanging out on the bed of a pickup truck with a hound dog, I’m guessing you live out in the country somewhere in Northern California.
That’s exactly it, and I’m looking out at my garden right now. To be honest they have to use a crow bar to get me out of here sometimes. I’m lucky because I’m in the fortunate position to not have to do anything I don’t want to do. If it looks like fun and it pays good, I’ll head out on the weekends… TQ