FEW BLUESMEN AS AUTHENTIC (AND AUDACIOUS) AS BOBBY RUSH:
Bobby Rush came from Louisiana and Arkansas, fled to Chicago, played the blues, returned to Mississippi, and played more blues. He's toured the world and performed with masters such as Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. Now in his 80s, he's still chugging along, keeping the blues alive with a new album arriving this week.
Rush was a Chicago club mainstay who then became a popular Chitlin’ Circuit blues and soul performer across the Deep South. He went (slightly) uptown and more funky with 1979’s Rush Hour, his great sounding album (that includes some nice harmonica touches by Rush) with Philly-soul record producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. But Bobby Rush has always come back home.
I first encountered Rush--sometimes introduced as “The Pride of Jackson, Mississippi”--at the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival, held on a bayside beach in Annapolis, Maryland. Thinking back to that show, perhaps in 2000, the list of performers was impressive: the Robert Cray Band, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland, Otis Rush, Little Milton, Rush, and others.
My friend John and I didn’t know what to make of Bobby Rush. He seemed less blues, more soul--and all for show. On stage, Rush's female dancers wore tight outfits and turned their backs to the audience, often bending over and shaking their things. Rush made raunchy jokes as he spoke and sang through classics of his like “Chicken Heads” and "What's Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander."
While some of Rush’s antics were sexist no doubt, I looked around to check other spectators' expressions. I saw lots of smiles. Including on the faces of African-American women, most of whom seemed to be in on the joke.
This was my introduction to superstar Bobby Rush.
John and I later saw Bobby Rush perform under a hot tent on Pennsylvania Avenue during a summertime barbecue festival (that’s pork and ribs, not a hamburger, for the uninitiated) in Washington, D.C., where I lived at the time.
We also saw Rush perform solo in a much more subdued, blues-focused performance at Washington’s Hamilton nightclub, just him and a guitar, and harmonica, with a little help on some songs by a young woman singer.
I liked this Bobby Rush better. He’s a gifted, old-school blues harmonica player. It was this Bobby Rush who won a Grammy Award in 2017 for Best Blues Performance for his album, Porcupine Meat.
After the show at The Hamilton, a great venue where I’ve also seen Mavis Staples, the Secret Sisters, and others, Rush was glad to pose for a photo with me, John, and our good friend Sean.
I told Mr. Rush thanks for all the good music and good times. He said, “God bless you, brother!” and wrapped us in his arms.
Somewhere I have a couple of Polaroids to prove these encounters. But I’m only one of many to have posed and cavorted with Bobby Rush.
For a great introduction to Rush and a glimpse of his authenticity--and his importance as a surviving blues and soul man, check out The Road to Memphis, one of Martin Scorsese’s films from The Blues, a 2003 documentary series for PBS. The blues life wasn’t and isn’t glamorous for many performers. Riding an old bus and staying in run-down Howard Johnson hotels ain’t Hollywood. But it’s the truth.
“That’s all I know,” Rush says in his release materials for the new record. “I’m sitting on top of the blues. I’m a bluesman who’s sitting on the top of my game, proud of what I do and proud of who I am, and thankful for people accepting me for what I am and who I am.”
Rush's new album, “Sitting on Top of the Blues,” on the bluesman’s own Deep Rush imprint, (distributed by Thirty Tigers Records), is out August 16, and features some remakes. After a quick listen, I’ve enjoyed some of Bobby Rush’s more roots-oriented records more, but the new album is shimmering and tight. Full of Rush’s funky, feel-good songs, these tracks will serve him well live: “A knife and a fork, and a plate of greens. That’s the way you spell New Orleans,” Rush sings on a resurrected “Bowlegged Woman."He'll even be performing alongside many younger (and white) singers and songwriters in September at Americanafest in Nashville.
The new record is produced by Grammy Award-winning blues guitarist and band leader Vasti Jackson, a fellow Mississippian who worked with Southern soul legends Johnnie Taylor, Denise Lasalle, and Little Milton (whose “We’re Gonna Make It,” later brilliantly redone by Mavis Staples and Donny Gerard, and “Grits Ain’t Groceries” are two of soul's finest jewels).
“Records ain’t selling like they used to, but nevertheless you have to keep going to the grinding mill to get corn ground,” Rush added.
You can’t argue with the real thing.
Here’s to Mr. Rush for keeping the blues flame alive, for putting a smile on so many faces deep in Mississippi and the South, including little towns where many performers no longer play. And for being himself.
Long live Bobby Rush.
Some facts about Bobby Rush (from his publicist):
Born Emmett Ellis, Jr., outside Homer, La., his daddy was a preacher and knew enough about a harmonica to pass along a few riffs to his progeny, who twanged a diddley bow before picking up a guitar around age 11.
The senior Ellis relocated his family to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1948. When young Bobby went professional as a blues musician, he changed his moniker so as to not disrespect his devout dad.
He played with Delta blues guitarist Elmore James among others in Arkansas in the early 1950s before leaving for Chicago.
He played with a young Freddie King on guitar. Luther Allison joined the combo later.
His debut single was “Someday” for the Jerry-O label in 1964. He encored with “You’re the One for Me” for the Palos imprint, a single so obscure that a copy couldn’t be located for inclusion on Omnivore Recordings’ award-winning four-CD box set Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History of Bobby Rush, which spanned his entire career to that point.
Rush then recorded briefly for Chess and ABC records. In 1971, he broke through on the national charts with the lowdown funk grinder “Chicken Heads” for Galaxy Records, which has been featured in the film Black Snake Moan, among other shows and commercials.
Rush signed with Warner Brothers records for his 1974 album, “Get Out of Here.”
He moved back South, to Jackson, Mississippi, where his legion of fans eagerly embraced him. The lascivious “Sue” didn’t chart for him in 1983 on the LaJam imprint, but it blasted out of countless jukeboxes and sold over a million records.
His reputation for spectacular live performances growing exponentially as he did a minimum of 200 shows a year,
He was nominated for his first Grammy for his 2000 album, Hoochie Man,
He’s won 12 Blues Music Awards and 48 nominations, including the prestigious B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award and Album of the Year.
He appeared in the 2014 documentary film Take Me to the River with Terrence Howard, Snoop Dogg, and Mavis Staples. That same year, Bobby joined Dan Aykroyd on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon to perform two songs, marking his first late-night television appearance.
Rush has traveled the world to play the blues--the Byron Bay Bluesfest in Australia, across Europe, Japan, and in America at Bonaroo and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He even became the first bluesman to perform at the Great Wall of China, attracting an audience of more than 40,000 and earning him the title of “China's Ambassador of the Blues."
Bobby Rush on his influences: "I often talk about how I came up and who did I love and who influenced me. I think the first one was my daddy, as a preacher. And the next person was Louis Jordan. I respect Little Walter, because he was a good, slick harmonica player. Sonny Boy Williamson, I like the way he plays harp, and I like the way he delivers his songs and writes the songs."
More from Rush: “I like Howlin’ Wolf because he was good and he was different because of the voice he had. I also like Bobby Bland, the way he kind of squawked with a soft voice. And I like B.B. King and respected B.B. And I like Junior Parker because he was so smooth and slick with what he done. I guess you can find about 20 guys that I like, and when you hear my music, you can hear a little of this, a little of that, a little up, a little down. You put ’em all in a bowl and stir ’em up, you get a Bobby Rush. That’s called a Bobby Rush blues soup.”