The air was thick with termites when Bobby Rush took to an outdoor stage in New Orleans for one of his first live performances in over a year – an unnaturally long break, the result of the pandemic shutdown, in a career that would take the world by storm. War II had begun in the wake.
It was early May, and the swarm was so bad that the blues musician weaved insects into his song: “Somebody come get these damn bugs.” He later walked to the ground in front of the stage, determined to continue his performance in the dark, beyond the reach of termite-attracting lights.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Rush said a week later by phone from his home in Jackson, Miss. “I could barely play my guitar.”
Rush has relied on practical fixes, often in unsanitary conditions, his entire life. His first guitar was a diddley bow that he made from grass strings attached to the side of his childhood home. Much later, Rolling Stone named him “The King of the Chitlin Circuit”, an acknowledgment of the years he spent touring a network of small clubs for black artists and audiences, primarily in the South, 1973. He adapted himself to the Silver Eagle Trailway bus.
on the heels of his victory second grammy In March, and on the verge of publishing a memoir in June, Rush, now in his 80s, is enjoying a moment of recognition. A lesser-known figure than many veterans, including Elmore James, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King, whom he regarded as friends and mentors, Rush is one of the last remaining black blues musicians to have tackled the horrors of Jim Crow-era racism. experienced and participated, though tangentially, in the post-war flowering of the genre.
“Me and Buddy Guy may be the oldest blues singers around,” he said in October, during the first of several talks, this one via video conference. Rush sat on the edge of a couch at his son’s home in Jackson, leaned in to peek into a laptop screen and uttered a quip used on stage: “If I’m not the eldest, I’m the ugliest. I am.”
He wore the same New Orleans Saints baseball cap over his jerry curls during a personal interview at the Grammys Museum in Cleveland, Miss., a week later. Speaking through a mask, he reflected from a dressing room chair about the “overwhelming” feel to outweigh so many contemporaries. He was there to accept the Crossroads of American Music Award, a one-of-a-kind achievement of a lifetime.
“I know many of these cats,” he said. “I have lived history.”
Scott Billington, a veteran producer who has worked with many blues musicians, including Rush, said that the vocalist, guitarist and harmonica player is actually among the last of the breed to die. “Bobby is almost unique in the world of blues today, because he has connections that go back so far,” he said. “He’s made this transition into a kind of iconic American man.”
Rush believes the racial awakening triggered by the killing of George Floyd, and reinforced by the pandemic, positions him well to reach a public primary to hear the blues with new ears. “I think what we thought was not ahead,” he said of the suggestion that Floyd’s murder represented a step back in the struggle for racial justice. “I’ve been keeping my feet on my neck all my life.”
Rush’s MemoirsI’m Not Studdin: My American Blues Story, written with Herb Powell and due out on June 22, is candid about a number of things that have received him so many standing ovations in recent years.
“I understand enough to know they’re not applause because I’m a household name,” he writes. “What they stand for is that I’m still here, doing it my way.”
For most of his career, Rush tailored his show—a mix of soul, funk and blues, with bawdy storytelling—to audiences that were “99 percent black.” They went decades without ever cracking down on a wider, predominantly white audience, which brought fame (if not always luck) to the biggest stars of the blues.
This began to change around the turn of this century, when Rush starred in “The Road to Memphis”. series of documentaries About the Blues, executive produced by Martin Scorsese, which aired on PBS in 2003. Rush was, or was about to be, a senior citizen by then. His book offers three possible birth years – 1940, 1937 and 1934. Rush claimed not to know the answer.
“All I know is that in 1947, I was plowing the field with a mule,” he said.
Rush was born as Emmett Ellis Jr. in northwest Louisiana. His father, Alice Sr., was a preacher and sharecropper; His mother, Mattie, a mixed-race housewife, passed out for white people. Rush, the sixth of 10 children, said his mother acted differently when the family moved to the city.
“There were times when I was in public, she was not my mother. She was my midwife, and my father was her driver,” he said. “It was a strange situation.”
Rush’s family moved to Sherrill, a small town in the Arkansas Delta, when he was still a child. By his early teens, Rush was regularly rocking music clubs in nearby Pine Bluff, a center of Black culture and commerce.
In his book, the Arkansas Delta years are when Rush becomes a character in the history of the blues. It was here that he befriended Elmore James, learned to wear his hair like Big Joe Turner, absorbed Sonny Boy Williamson’s harp playing, and first saw the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, the black vaudeville group he briefly joined. Had happened.
Arkansas is also where Rush fell in love with places where African-American culture had grown apart from the South, and changed his name. “At the juke joints we decided to separate. Being itself dense with its own grooves,” he writes. “There was freedom in these places.”
Rush joined the Great Migration North when he moved to Chicago in the early 50s. He got a job pumping gas, and started a family with his first wife, Hazel. As a musician, he turned his wheels.
He was in Chicago for more than a decade before cutting his first single, “Someday”, which was released in 1964. He bought a hot dog cart to park outside the clubs where he played – and made more money selling hot dogs. In 1969 he opened Bobby’s Barbecue House.
He was a knowledgeable, prolific networker. Rush’s book is filled with music and life lessons drawn from legends like Waters, Jimmy Reed, and Little Walter, a neighbor who taught him the basics of tongue-blocking, a harmonica technique. In his memoir, he remembers explaining to the harp player, “That’s how you get it dirty—make them bend the notes.”
Rush was eventually more successful at living the blues in Chicago than playing them. The chapter in his book where he learns that Hazel was cheating on him—including a police officer who jailed Rush for a night to be with him—is one of several where he Feels inferior to his more successful friends.
“His feelings of inadequacy were hidden behind the hurt of infidelity,” he writes. “My position in the world felt small.”
Part of the hurt came from discovering that racism in the North was comparable to what he knew in the South. The memoir includes a story about a gig at a small theater outside Chicago in the 1950s, where he and his band were forced to play behind the scenes. The job was offered to him by a black musician friend. In one of our interviews, Rush said that he wished he could go back in time and ask a friend, “Why do you recommend me a place where I get to play behind the scenes? Why do you think that I would do that?”
Raw vulnerability was at odds with Rush’s physical presence. He stands over six feet and is fit for a man of his age who, along with a taste for dapper clothing, changed into a tuxedo to record a solo acoustic performance at the museum – making him easily into the role of a Slipping allows eminent, sometimes cheeky bluesmen. (He often claims to have made about 400 records; his memoirs list 67, including singles in the discography.)
Powell, Rush’s co-author, said the musicians softened as they reflected on the pain they experienced—including the deaths of three of their four children, from complications of sickle cell disease—during the book’s interview. .
“When we began to see his formative years, it created a bond between us that allowed the sensitivity – unusual for a man of his age – to come through,” Powell said. “He cried a little, which was beautiful.”
The way Rush talks about matters of the heart indicates greater emotional complexity than many of his songs and his stage shows. In our first conversation, he discussed the inspiration for the song “Porcupine Meat”, which a casual listener might assume is little more than sex. The truth is deeper.
“I loved her more than she loved me,” she said. “I wanted to leave her, but I was afraid she’d find someone better than me, and I wouldn’t find anyone to compare her to.”
Rush moved to Jackson from Chicago in 1983 to be closer to family and black fans who frequented Black-owned juke joints, where he found a loyal audience—and better money.
“A black man will pay another black man what he is worth,” he said.
Rush continued to play live, finding ways to reach new ears. Kriston Ingram, 22-year-old blues guitarist and singer, was in grade school in Clarksdale, Miss., when she first heard Rush’s music coming from the windows of her neighbor’s house.
“I just loved his style,” Ingram said in a phone interview. “He was the first person I heard to bring funk to the blues.”
In the mid-90s, while playing a blues festival in the Netherlands, Rush realized a vaudeville-inspired show that delighted the juke joint crowd did not go along well with a large, predominantly white blues audience. Guitarist and longtime collaborator Vasti Jackson was in Rush’s band at the time. “His talk was more about talking, telling stories, comedy,” Jackson said. Jackson recalled advising Rush, “To get this kind of audience, you have to make it raw.”
Rush eventually took Salah to heart. In 2016, producer Billington convinced them to record what would become the album “Porcupine Meat” with a group of New Orleans musicians.
“Chorus after chorus he never repeated himself. There were one great idea after another,” Billington said of Rush playing the harmonica during the session. “The sound of his playing has so much depth and authority that you can call it contemporary. Can’t mistake anyone else in the blues.”
“Porcupine Meat” won Rush’s first Grammy, a validation of his turn toward an original blues sound.
Scott Barretta, a blues historian based in Greenwood, Miss., compared Rush’s success to white audiences, which had been compared to Big Bill Bronzie’s second act in the 50s, following the transition from urban to folk-blues and white. Flavor makers Studds Terkel and Alan Lomax.
One difference, he said, is that Rush has been “able to have a foothold in both markets” — something Rush calls “crossing over, but not crossing out.”
The past 16 months have been good for Rush, even though he started contracting a fever with him, so he wondered, “Will I make it out alive with this thing?”
Rush’s battle with what he believes was Covid-19 – he was never tested – made news not long before he was set to promote the August 2020 release of “Rover Than Raw”. This single is a collection of acoustic blues songs, a mix of originals and standards by Mississippi blues legends such as Howlin’ Wolf, Skip James and Robert Johnson.
Rush performed a sample of the songs for the last time at the museum, tossing his feet to keep up the rhythm. Asked if there is any club that was keen to play when the pandemic is over, he said Blue Front Cafe, in Bentonia, Miss., the oldest surviving juke joint in the state. it’s small.
“I’ll probably have to play outside,” he said. “I don’t mind playing the juke joint, but I’m older than him now.”