Friday, January 21, 2011

Blues Legends - Otis Rush

Longtime readers of Friday Blues Fix hopefully will remember one of my early posts about how I got into the blues.  I listened to lots of different styles of music.....rock, jazz, R&B, soul, funk, etc....  While I enjoyed all of it, I really wanted something else that captured the best elements of all those styles.  The first few blues records I found put me on the trail, as they incorporated all of these elements.  As I started finding more blues records, I was getting closer and closer to what I was looking for....then, I found it, amazingly, from a source who actually originated less than 25 miles from where I lived.

For me, Otis Rush was the total package.  He had everything I was looking for.....a unique guitar sound, an incredibly soulful voice, and some great songs.  I had never heard him before I picked up a cassette of his Right Place, Wrong Time album from the early 70's, but I knew after I listened to it that I wanted to hear more.  As a newcomer to the blues, I didn't realize what a part of blues history he was, or how big a part of blues history he could have been, had things worked out a little differently.

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.”



The Cobra label folded up after its owner, a notorious gambler, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and Rush signed with the Chess label, which boasted most of the cream of the Chicago Blues crop, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Little Walter Jacobs. However, Rush’s stint with the label proved to be a frustrating one, as he only saw two singles issued during his brief stay, one of which proved to be another classic (“So Many Roads”).




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.


Frustrated and reluctant to trust many record companies, Rush actually passed up on a couple of opportunities to record in the late 70’s and 80’s, including a session with Carlos Santana and a recording contract with Johnny Winter’s Blue Sky label. He recorded a couple of sessions with the Clarksdale, MS-based Rooster Blues record label, but they were never completed. He did release a live album in the late 80’s, but an album reissue from a 70’s session in Europe became highly controversial due to the producer adding instrumentation to the album without Rush’s approval.



Finally, in 1994, he was able to release Ain’t Enough Comin’ In. He followed that recording with his 1998 album called Any Place I’m Going, which won him a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album in 1999.







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 comtemporaries 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.

I attended the unveiling of Rush's blues marker in Philadelphia with my brother in late 2007, and we did get to see Rush, who was in attendance for the event with his wife and daughters.  Rush didn't speak at the event, but you could tell that he was deeply moved and appreciative of the honor and seemed to enjoy interacting with his fans afterward, even rising from his wheelchair long enough to pose for a picture with his wife and daughter in front of the marker.

Before signing off for the weekend, I wanted to share my favorite Otis Rush live track.  This is from  the Antones' 10th Anniversary celebration album, and was recorded in 1986.  This is a brief, but absolutely chilling version of "Double Trouble," the song by which Otis Rush will always be remembered, in my opinion.




Essential Recordings - There is actually no such thing as a bad Otis Rush album.  All of them have some remarkable moments and are worth seeking out.  These are just some of my favorites.


The Essential Otis Rush: The Classic Cobra Recordings (IMPORT)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.


All Your Love I Miss Loving: Live at The Wise Fools Pub Chicago [Live]All Your Love I Miss Loving: Live At The Wise Fool's Pub Chicago - Rush made several outstanding live recordings, but this one is the best because it captures him in his natural element, playing for a familiar audience in Chicago.  Don't let this be the only live disc you get of Otis Rush's, but make it the first one you get.

Right Place, Wrong TimeRight Place, Wrong Time - This is the set originally recorded by Capitol, but left to gather dust in their vaults until Hightone Records released it.  It ranks with Rush's best albums, featuring a nice mix of blues and soul.  Rush's version of "Rainy Night In Georgia" shows that he could have easily been a part of the Stax/Atlantic record scene.

Lost in the BluesLost in the Blues - This is the controversial reissue of tracks originally recorded by Rush in the 70's.  Alligator Records reissued it and added keyboards to selected tracks, which ticked Rush off.  Personally, I don't see the problem myself.  It was a good, not great disc before modification and it remains a good, not great disc afterward.  Rush himself does a fine job, but the song selection, all cover tunes, is average.

Ain't Enough Comin inAin't Enough Comin' In - Rush's first comeback disc of the 90's, released in 1993.  Despite the fact that there's only one new tune written by Rush (the title track), this features some nice moments, and I think he really shows the influence of Albert King on his fretwork more on this release than any others.
So Many Roads: Live in ConcertSo Many Roads:  Live In Concert - Rush is a major star in Japan and this performance (which features Jimmy Johnson on second guitar) proves why they can't get enough of him.
Any Place I'm Going  Any Place I'm Going - Rush's last studio album, from the now defunct House of Blues label.  Unbelievably, this is out of print and has been for years, which is a shame.  Some great new songs mixed with choice cover tunes.....and Rush never sounded better vocally or on guitar.  I'm glad he was finally able to turn one out like he really wanted.  If you can find a copy of this one, make it yours.

Otis Rush - Live at Montreux 1986 Live at Montreux 1986 - This is the live set with Clapton and Luther Allison.  The DVD features more tracks with Rush playing solo with his band, and they sound great.  Clapton graciously cedes the spotlight to Rush on their songs together, showing Rush's influence on his guitar work when he does step forward, and Allison joins the pair for a rousing closer.  The CD is good, but the DVD is better.

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