Elvin Bishop tears it up with his friend and mentor, Little Smokey Smothers at the 2006 Chicago Blues Festival.
Photo:Jennifer Wheeler

Chicago Blues Buddies
Elvin Bishop releases benefit CD to assist his ailing friend and mentor, Little Smokey Smothers
Highlights include live cuts from Chicago Blues Festival, San Francisco and Mississippi shows

By Linda Cain

Once upon a time on the South Side of Chicago, a skinny college kid from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was “square as a pool table and twice as green,” fell in love with the blues while attending the University of Chicago.  The year was 1960 and blues bars were plentiful on Chicago’s South and West Sides. Young Elvin Bishop, who had just begun to learn the guitar, bravely took his instrument to these dangerous joints and “pestered” the blues players to teach him a few licks, but to no avail. It wasn’t until he met Little Smokey Smothers, who was only three years older but far more advanced as a musician, that Elvin’s wish came true. Thanks to Smokey, the earnest Okie found a blues mentor and a lifelong friend.

It has been almost 50 years since Elvin and Smokey first met. Those years have brought two lifetimes of ups and downs for them.  Smothers (who has played with Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Earl Hooker and Junior Wells) maintained a steady but generally low profile on the Windy City blues scene while Bishop gained renown with the Butterfield Blues Band and then struck out on his own noteworthy foray through blues and southern rock and, like many of his Chicago blues cohorts, relocated to the Bay Area in the late ‘60s. Elvin and Smokey have helped each other through hard times and tough losses. Smokey’s health has been in decline in recent years and he has lost both of his legs to diabetes. Elvin has come to his friend’s aid by compiling a CD (with generous assistance from a number of labels and individuals) aptly titled Chicago Blues Buddies, on the Black Derby label, as a monument to his friendship and musical teamwork with Smokey.

Noted blues record producer Dick Shurman, who helped Elvin with the project, explains this worthy cause: “The CD is meant to give Smokey something in life to get excited about now that he’s lost both legs and the world isn’t looking real pretty. That part is definitely working; he’s thrilled with this! The other part is to get him a bunch of CDs to sell or do with as he wishes and give him any profits. He has plenty of financial wolves to keep away, not all medical. Elvin did this totally out of his pocket and isn’t looking to make anything. He had 1,000 copies pressed.”

Chicago Blues Buddies features studio recordings made in Chicago, plus exciting live tracks from shows in Chicago, San Francisco and Clarksdale, MS from 1992-2006, including seven never-released live cuts, plus a fascinating interview with both blues buddies conducted backstage at the Chicago Blues Festival in 1993. During these two decades, Elvin helped reactivate his friend’s career. Prior to that Smokey took time off from music to work construction jobs and raise his family, but the two always kept in touch.

Fishin’ and bluesin’: Elvin Bishop,
Smokey Smothers and Pinetop Perkins perform at the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, MS, for the Clarksdale Jook Joint Jam TV/DVD series, and reminiscence at the fishin’ hole.

Born in Tchula, Mississippi, in 1939, Albert “Little Smokey” Smothers, followed his older brother Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers into the music business at the height of Chicago blues’ golden era. In 1958, Howlin’ Wolf hired the younger Smothers to play guitar in his band.  He stayed three years before starting his own band, Little Smokey and the Pipelayers, which featured a horn section. The versatile group covered blues, R&B, jazz and pop hits of the early ‘60s, and played South Side venues like the Blue Flame, Pepper’s Lounge, the Playhouse and The Regal Theater.

Little Smokey recorded as a sideman with Howlin’ Wolf and his cousin, singer Lee “Shot” Williams. But it wasn’t until 1993 that Smokey made his first solo recording. Elvin instigated and participated in Smothers’ award winning debut CD, Bossman!, on the Black Magic label. The two marked its release with a set together at the 1993 Chicago Blues Festival, which, as one major publication put it, “tore the roof off.” In January 2000, they recorded the Alligator CD That’s My Partner live in San Francisco. In 2006 they reprised their Chicago Blues Festival collaboration, and not long afterward teamed up again for a video and audio recording at famed blues club Ground Zero in Clarksdale, MS.

Little Smokey Smothers: ‘Man, I love your blues. I ain’t heard nobody beat you yet,’ Elvin told him. ‘I should be able to play better, as much as you tried to teach me.’

The bond endures. During a June, 2009 visit to Smokey, Elvin told him, “Man, I love your blues. I ain’t heard nobody beat you yet. I should be able to play better, as much as you tried to teach me,” to which Smokey replied rightly, “Naw, man, you playin’ your ass off!’

Their friendship and mutual admiration is evident on Chicago Blues Buddies. Musically, the two guitarists go together like red beans and rice. The first two tracks, “Remembering” and “Talkin’ Blues,” come from Smokey’s Bossman!  CD and feature the two trading quips, verses, stories, memories and humor about their days together on the South Side. Of course, they take turns letting their guitars speak, too.

For the rest of the CD, Elvin leaves the singing to Smokey, whose mighty, gritty vocals easily rise above the blast of the band’s terrific horn section. The five live cuts (“Smokey Shuffle,” “Crack Head Woman,” “Mother-In-Law Blues,” “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “You Don’t Love Me”) from the 1993 Chicago Blues Festival’s main stage in Grant Park showcase this dynamic pairing of student and mentor, especially when Bishop and his ace band let Smokey take charge. The set brings these blues buddies back to their South Side roots with a rousing performance of vintage electric Chicago blues that has the massive festival crowd jumpin’ and screaming. The Chicago set is followed by a colorful backstage interview with both artists by NPR air personalities Steve Cushing and Chris Heim.

“Roll Your Moneymaker” and “Little Red Rooster” (live cuts from a 2000 show at San Francisco’s Biscuits & Blues club) feature Smokey at his most down-home, gut bucket best, again leading Bishop’s band and relishing his frontman role. Although the two guitarists have very different styles, they flow together seamlessly.

A 2006 reunion at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero in Clarksdale finds an older but energetic Smokey in fine form for “Hello Baby” and “Bye Bye Baby,” clearly having fun and engaging the audience to sing along.

Bishop first heard and met Smothers at the legendary Blue Flame on the South Side (where Smothers also gave Paul Butterfield early band experience). “I kind of overcame my shyness and went up and talked to him. He turned out to be a real friendly guy, invited me over to his apartment. And he sort of took me under his wing and kind of became my teacher as well as my friend and gave me some tips about life in general,” Bishop recalls. The teacher turned out to be strict with some clever tricks up his sleeve, as well.

“He was serious about it, you know. Well, I was too, because I wanted to learn, but he would make me get that stuff right... He would teach me the rhythm part to the tune, and he didn’t care if it took two or three days, he was going to get it through my hard head. And when I finally got it, he’d call in all the neighbors and he’d play the lead and I’d play the rhythm part... Smokey’d get mad if I didn’t get it right. He wasn’t gonna let me slide. I’d learn it halfway, I’d want to go home, he’d say ‘Naw!’ He’d take me over and have them neck bones and beans goin’ on on the stove, he said ‘come here,’ he’d lift up that lid and say ‘smell this!’ and I’d say ‘oh, that smells good!’ And he’d say ‘when you get this part, you can have some.’”

Producer Shurman notes: “Elvin eventually more than got it right, he turned it into something of his own. His style is more jagged and raw than Smokey’s, he features his slide work, and he doesn’t invoke the jazz flavoring that gives Smokey’s playing a liquid smoothness at times, but Smokey gave him encouragement, knowledge and a level of accomplishment to which he could aspire, not to mention a strong shot of wry humor they share in their presentation.”

It’s straight from the heart when Smokey says of Elvin, “He’s a helluva guitar player now. He really came through for me!” Now, as he has so many times over half a century, Elvin has come through once again for Smokey with Chicago Blues Buddies, a portrait of music and friendship of rare and lasting quality.

To purchase the limited edition CD Chicago Blues Buddies and help Smokey, visit www.cdbaby.com or Elvin’s web site www.elvinbishopmusic.com—-or track down Elvin when he plays near you!   


Linda Cain is the owner/publisher/managing editor of the Chicago Blues Guide, www.chicagobluesguide.com, the undisputed sourcebook and keeper of the flame for all things blues in Chi-town. Her review of Chicago Blues: A Living History was published in the May 2009 issue of TheBluegrassSpecial.com.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024