Elvin Bishop & Little Smokey Smothers: That’s My Partner!

Elvin Bishop & Little Smokey Smothers
That's My Partner!

I’m under the influence of that time capsule again. Here is a quick history that happens to be a true story. Elvin Bishop was raised on rural farms (some without electricity or running water) in predominantly white communities where in those times socializing with blacks was discouraged. He first heard the blues as played by Jimmy Reed and broadcast from Louisiana on his radio in Oklahoma. Elvin won a National Merit scholarship and in 1959 migrated north to Chicago to go to college. He landed in the middle of blues heaven at the time, so he headed straight out to the blues clubs, sometimes managing to sneak in because he was under age. He was soon befriended by Smokey Smothers, who had started to play guitar soon after he’d migrated north to Chicago from Mississippi. Within a few years of his arrival, by the late ’50s, Smokey was playing guitar for Howlin’ Wolf. Smokey and Elvin were just a few years apart in age but worlds apart in terms of playing the blues. Smokey caught Elvin trying to play a Johnny Cash song on the guitar and remembers, “I got him away from that. I said we gotta play the blues.” He showed Elvin the ropes and taught Elvin blues guitar.

Within a few years, Elvin left his physics studies behind and devoted himself to playing guitar full time. When the group Elvin started playing with were ready for the stage, Smokey landed them their first gig. That group became the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a white urban blues band. Elvin sometimes poked fun at his own roots by calling himself “Pigboy Crabshaw.” And the rest is history. As Charles Sawyer says, “It was Paul Butterfield who slit the membrane between the two cultures, the membrane, semi-permeable though it was, which had kept Mainstream America from meeting the most important component of our nation’s musical culture.” The Paul Butterfield Band became history when the group splintered apart within a few years, and in 1968 Elvin once again migrated, this time to San Francisco to be close to what was becoming the center of the musical universe. By 1969, Elvin as a high-energy solo act was now earning respect in Bay Area blues clubs and big bucks, too, probably keeping every penny of that $25-65 a night he earned all to himself, having no band members to split the take with. Until he found his way into the bigger concert halls like the Fillmore. In those days, dress was casual and Elvin frequently would perform onstage wearing his country-boy overhauls and plaid flannel shirt.

Smokey stayed put in Chicago, challenged to raise his family on what he could earn playing in clubs, there was not too much money to be made then, sometimes only $7 and $8 a night. When he was playing with Howlin’ Wolf, he was making $12. For more than 20 years, Smokey set aside playing professionally to earn a living as a construction worker and longshoreman to support his family. Now he’s back to music. As Smokey and Elvin had stayed in touch all those years, Elvin played on Smokey’s first record and here they are together again, recorded live over a three-night standing room only series of dates in a club in San Francisco.

“That’s My Partner” is the first song on That’s My Partner!, and if people are to be regarded by how they act and what they do, then this is more than a press publicist’s dream. The 12-song CD also includes Smokey covering Magic Sam’s “Roll Your Money Maker” and Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster.” Smokey and Elvin throughout provide the two-guitar “attack” made so famous by the Butterfield Band, a “going-for-it, forward-leaning, shuffle feel.”

Elvin kicks into “Slow Down” with a fuzzed out rowdy blues strut that evokes memories of Henry Vestine’s guitar work for Canned Heat’s “Amphetamine Annie.” Just my mentioning “Canned Heat” might make some readers wince, they were a ’60s white blues group. But you must remember Canned Heat were genuinely fueled by their love of the music and like blues scholars, searched out and studied rare blues records. “Slow Down” is a song with a message, too, a humorous spin advising people of the inevitable dangers of too long a hardy party. There are some things attached to the blues life that aren’t so good for people in the long run, and better to lay those things aside early on. Elvin says Smokey plays “modern Delta,” but the roots are still there for “Stomp,” an instrumental that has the heavy tom-tom syncopation that gets back to the old “stompdowns,” those historic get togethers with live music where the dancers were especially physical. There’s not just guitars and rhythm sections here, but a good use of horns and stuttering squealing saxophone played as it should be. The record is an enjoyable romp, but I’m sure not quite the barn stormer as hearing them perform this live onstage.

The music was the magnet that drew people together not only long enough to see similarities in each other, but to engender respect and to render mutual aid and assistance. If I happen to believe that music is by nature periodic, I can find some proof here. In a way, the music seems to have come full circle, and now is going back to how it was before. The music went from “the chit’lin circuit” into the mainstream and now it’s back in small clubs again, sometimes as bluesman Nick Gravenites says as “an adjunct to dining.” But in between times the blues gave me a kind of legacy that I can fall back on when the mainstream of today gets too unbearable and threatens not just intrusion but engulfment. I am sometimes unnerved by seeing only middle-aged white guys playing the blues on the televised Grammys, and I do occasionally worry that young audiences will believe the blues as they are seeing it is strictly speaking a white invention. So here’s my chance to point people in a different direction. Now that nearly every single record that has ever been recorded is available on CD, people if they choose can more easily search out the roots. But be sure to go to those clubs, too, or they might disappear completely.

I always admired Nick Gravenites, because he seemed to call things as he saw them, and this is how he remembers that era of yesteryear: http://www.bluespower.com/a-ngbtb.htm