Bishop was born in Glendale, California, the son of Mylda (Kleege) and Elvin Bishop, Sr. He grew up on a farm near Elliott, Iowa. His family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, when Bishop was ten. There he attended Will Rogers High School, winning a full scholarship to the University of Chicago as a National Merit Scholar finalist. He moved to Chicago in 1960 to attend the university, where he majored in physics. In 1963, he met harmonica player Paul Butterfield in the neighborhood of Hyde Park and joined Butterfield’s blues band, and remained with them for five years. Their third album, The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw, takes its name from Bishop’s nickname. During his time with the Butterfield Blues Band, Bishop met blues guitarist Louis Meyers at a show. Bishop convinced Meyers to trade his Gibson ES-345 for Bishop’s Telecaster. Bishop liked the Gibson so much he never gave it back and has used it throughout his career. Bishop has nicknamed his Gibson ES-345 “Red Dog,” a name he got from a roadie for the Allman Brothers Band.
In 1968 he went solo and formed the Elvin Bishop Group, also performing with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper on their album titled The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. The group signed with Fillmore Records, which was owned by Bill Graham, who also owned the Fillmore music venues.
Bishop sat in with the Grateful Dead on June 8, 1969 at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. He opened the second set with the lengthy blues jam, Turn on Your Lovelight without Pigpen or Jerry. He played two more songs with the Dead, The Things I Used to Do and Who’s Lovin’ You Tonight.