Several years ago, just before Rush was awarded a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail at his birthplace, Philadelphia, MS (which is about 25 miles from where I live), I wrote an article for the local newspaper, The Union Appeal. I am reprinting it. with a few edits, as this week's post:
Most knowledgeable music fans consider Mississippi to be the home of the Blues. The state played a key role in the creation of Rock & Roll. In fact, most modern music, especially Rock & Roll, R&B, Country, and Pop, was influenced in some way by the Blues.
Even though Blues music is most often associated with the Delta region of the Magnolia State, one of the genre’s living legends, Otis Rush, was actually born and raised in Neshoba County. An extremely expressive guitarist, specializing in slow-burning, minor-key blues, Rush also possesses one of the most soulful voices in the blues. Artists such as the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, and Eric Clapton count Rush as a huge influence on their music.
The stereotypical image of a bluesman is of a down-on-his-luck musician who can’t seem to catch a break whether pursuing his craft or living his life. Otis Rush’s story fits that image pretty closely.
Rush was born Otis Boyd (he took the name Rush when he started performing) in 1934, near Philadelphia, and was raised on a plantation-style farm. In the late 1940’s, while in his teens, Rush paid his sister a visit in Chicago. During his visit, she took him to see Muddy Waters at a local club and Rush decided where his future lay. He purchased a cheap Kay guitar and taught himself to play, sometimes listening to records of his favorites and slowing the turntable down. A left-handed guitarist, Rush learned to play a guitar strung for a right-hander, but flipped over with the bass strings closest to the floor.
By 1953, he was playing in local clubs and by 1956, celebrated producer/composer/musician Willie Dixon arranged a recording session for Rush at Cobra Records. Rush’s sessions for Cobra produced some of the finest music of his career, including several songs that are now considered blues classics, such as “My Love Will Never Die,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “Double Trouble,” and “All Your Love (I Miss Loving).” Though Dixon wrote several songs for these sessions, the songs penned by Rush are much stronger and have stood the test of time. Rush eventually persuaded Cobra to give two future blues legends, Mississippi native Magic Sam Maghett and a young Buddy Guy, their first shot at recording, even playing lead guitar on Guy’s recording, “Sit And Cry The Blues.”
Hoping for better things elsewhere, Rush fled Chess to sign with the Houston, TX-based Duke Records, but his situation worsened. He recorded only one four-song session for Duke, which generated only one single, albeit a good one, "Homework.” During this time, although Rush wasn't recording, he was working, continuing to improve his already impressive skills and absorb influences, from artists as wide-ranging as guitarists Albert King, Wes Montgomery, and Kenny Burrell, and organist Jimmy Smith.
Rush’s hard work eventually paid off as he managed to get a few tracks on a Chicago Blues anthology for Vanguard Records in the mid 60’s (Chicago! The Blues! Today!).
Finally, Atlantic Records signed him to record an album in 1968 for their Cotillion subsidiary. Traveling to Muscle Shoals, Rush recorded his first full-length record, Mourning In The Morning. He was backed by the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and even enjoyed the support of up-and-coming guitarist Duane Allman on a few tracks.
Based on the Atlantic release, Rush signed with Capitol Records and produced one of his best recordings, recorded at San Francisco in 1971. Unfortunately, Capitol never released the album and it sat on the shelf for five years until a tiny independent label released it in 1978. Appropriately entitled Right Place, Wrong Time, it was eventually released to a larger audience, but not until the 1980’s.
Rush also released two albums, including a live one from Japan, where he has a huge following, for the Chicago-based Delmark label, but the blues industry fell upon hard times in the late 70’s due to the disco craze and it became difficult to record a blues record domestically. Rush was able to tour overseas and even made some recordings for European record labels, most of which are now available stateside, but was unable to release any new material in his home country for a number of years.
Rush continued playing and touring until 2004, when he suffered a stroke. Confined to a wheelchair and unable to perform, he has not been able to resume his career. Currently, he is living in Chicago with his wife and is surrounded by his two daughters and five grandchildren.
Though Rush is unable to perform these days, there’s a lot of product out there for those who are interested. Most of his studio recordings are in print or can be found on the internet. He also recorded several live albums, which are all still available, including a wonderful session taped in January, 1976 originally recorded for radio broadcast, called All Your Love I Miss Loving - Live At The Wise Fool’s Pub, Chicago. Many fans agree that his live CDs are his best recordings. There are also several DVD’s as well, including one from a 1986 appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival which features Eric Clapton.
Soon, as part of the Mississippi Blues Trail, a marker will be placed in Philadelphia honoring Rush.
Though Otis Rush has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts over the past decade, it was a long time coming. For years, he was better known in Europe and Japan than he was in his own country. Hopefully, he will be able to enjoy some measure of success and recognition for his contributions to modern music in his later years.
A few comments to add to the article.....it had to have been extremely frustrating for Rush during those years with Chess and Duke Records, as it was obvious he was signed by them to basically prevent him from recording elsewhere. He watched as contemporaries like Magic Sam and Buddy Guy continued to record successfully in the 60's, while he was basically hamstrung.
Unfortunately, as a result of this mistreatment, he was reluctant to really trust anyone, and probably denied himself of a couple of other opportunities, such as the ones mentioned above, in the 70's and 80's. One such opportunity was to actually tour with the Rolling Stones in the early 70's, similar to a couple of years earlier, when Buddy Guy and Junior Wells opened for them. Rush declined, saying the timing wasn't right, to the consternation of those who were trying to help him at the time.
Things finally did work out for him in a way. In the 90's, Evidence Records reissued a pair of his recordings made in Europe during the 70's, one studio album (Screamin' and Cryin') and one of his better live sets (Live In Europe). Prior to those releases, there were only a couple of Otis Rush albums on the market in the U.S....the Hightone release, Right Place, Wrong Time, and Blind Pig's live release, Tops. Paula Records, out of Shreveport, LA, repackaged Rush's Cobra recordings around 1992, putting them back in U.S. print for the first time in many years. Both of his 90's releases are good, but his final studio recording on the House of Blues label (Any Place I'm Going) was very well received and Rush had a lot of input in the final product (which was co-produced by Willie Mitchell and Rush). Sadly, the label folded within a couple of years and the album went out of print.
The Essential Otis Rush: The Classic Cobra Recordings 1956-1958 - These sides are an indispensible piece to the 1950's Chicago scene. With songs by Rush and Willie Dixon (who had left Chess to work for Cobra in the same capacity), and with musicians that included Rush, Wayne Bennett, and Ike Turner (who played guitar on the original "Double Trouble"), this set is as essential as you can get. If Rush had never recorded again, these tracks earned him a place in blues history.