At a time when most of his contemporaries are resting on their laurels, Bobby Rush—a 50-year veteran of the stage—remains one of the most exciting and creative artists in the R&B/blues arena. Rush’s live shows are without parallel, replete with costume changes and comedic sketches acted out with the assistance of his lovely female dancers. In addressing a broad range of matters of the heart, Rush adopts various onstage persona-the adoring lover, the cuckold, the boastful stud-delivering all with a knowing wink that assures the audience that he’s in on the joke.
In the context of today’s all too predictable and sanitized blues market, it’s easy to understand why audiences new to Rush’s performances often find them novel or even bewildering. Unique they are, but Rush’s signifying, jesting, and double entendré jiving are at the heart of the blues, as exemplified by forbears such as Bessie Smith,Louis Jordan, and Howlin’ Wolf.
Bobby Rush—it’s pronounced as one three-syllable name—calls his music “folk funk,” an apt description for a blend that’s both decidedly modern and deeply rooted in tradition. Over the decades he has consistently updated his music by incorporating new styles-- Chicago blues, soul, funk, reggae, and hip-hop—into a fresh mix. At the same time, his original compositions often stem from his dipping into the well of folk wisdom, as exemplified by songs like “What’s Good For the Goose is Good for the Gander Too.”
The son of a preacher man, Bobby Rush was born Emmet Ellis, Jr.,in the north Louisiana town of Haynesville; he later adopted his stage name out of respect for his father. He built his first instrument, a primitive guitar or “diddley bow,” and by his early teens he was donning a fake mustache and appearing at Deep South juke joints. In the mid-’50s he moved to Chicago, where his bands included Freddie King, Earl Hooker, and Luther Allison, and on jaunts back to his family home in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, he performed with artists including Elmore James.
Rush began working as a bandleader already as a teenager once he realized that he could control his own destiny if he owned all the equipment. His entrepreneurial flair is legendary among fellow musicians, who fondly recall his earing double pay by working in disguise as the emcee on his own gigs, and his shuffling between three gigs a night at West Side nightclubs.
Rush’s popularity as a live performer in Chicago set back the development of his recording career, but he began to achieve national acclaim in 1971 following the success of his hit “Chicken Heads” on Galaxy Records. Over the next decade he recorded for labels including Jewel, Philadelphia International, Warner Brothers, and toured widely on the “chitlin circuit,” the decades old network of clubs that stretches in a rough triangle between east Texas, north Florida, and Chicago.
In the early ‘80s Rush moved to his current home of Jackson, Mississippi, where he recorded a series of albums for the LeJam, Ichiban, and Malaco labels, and gained the title of “king of the chitlin circuit” in the wake of hits including “Sue,” “Wearin’ It Out,” “Ain’t Studdin’ You,” and “Hoochie Man.”
In 2003 Rush fulfilled his longtime dream of forming his own label, Deep Rush, recording the CD “Undercover Lover” and capturing the magic of his live show on DVD at the club Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The same year his showmanship was featured in Richard Pearce’s documentary film “The Road To Memphis,” part of Martin Scorsese’s film series “The Blues.”
Rush has also demonstrated his deep blues roots in the last several years through several special recording projects on Deep Rush On 2004’s “Folk Funk” he revisited the funk era on a live studio outing with guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart, and on his most recent CD “Raw” he strips his sound down to the basics, appearing only with his guitar and harmonica. Although he still maintains a busy schedule with his band, these sessions have inspired him to make occasional solo performances, which have been wonderfully received.
In the last decade Rush has gained new audiences through performances at the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and on festival stages in Europe and Japan. But catch him on an average weekend and he’s just as likely to be playing to packed houses in chitlin circuit clubs in places like Nesbit, Mississippi, and Smackover, Arkansas, before mostly black, working class audiences that conventional blues wisdom suggests no longer exist.
Success in the music business often entails leaving behind the people who sustained you during your early years, but that’s not a price Bobby Rush is willing to pay. As his career takes off in new directions, he’s determined to keep it real, presenting the same unadulterated show as he moves from Tokyo to Smackover. Or as he explains in what has become somewhat a mantra of late, “I want to cross over, not cross out.”
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