A stinging guitar vibrato and gospel-like voice are the definitive trademarks of bluesman Otis Rush. One of the founders of the Westside Chicago blues sound in the 1950s, Rush fused deep Mississippi blues with modern urban styles to produce a formidable guitar combined with vocals capable of agonized high falsetto shouts. During the blues revival of the 1960s, Rush emerged as a mentor for musicians from Mike Bloomfield to Eric Clapton. For three decades, Rush has continued to record and tour, bringing audiences throughout the world his fierce brand of electric blues.
Born one of seven children in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on August 29, 1934, Rush was raised on a farm by his father O. C. Rush and mother Julia Boyd. While he occasionally sang in the church choir, Rush remained drawn to the country blues sounds of Tommy McClen-nan and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Although he began to pick up the guitar at age eight, Rush recalled in the liner notes to Chicago/The Blues Today that “as a kid I just liked the looks of guitars, but I didn’t play.” Instead, Rush began to teach himself harmonica.
Born April 29, 1934, in Philadelphia, MI; son of O. C. Rush (a farmer) and Julia Boyd.
Played first job, under name “Little Otis,” 1954; first hit record on Cobra label, 1956; signed with Chess Records, 1959; recorded for Vanguard label and toured Europe with American Folk Blues Festival, 1966; played concerts throughout America, 1969-72 and 1980s; toured Japan and recorded live album for Delmark label, 1975; released album Ain’t Enough Comin’ In, 1994.
Addresses: Agent —Rick Bates, 714 Brookside Ln., Sierra Madre, CA 91024.
In the winter of 1948 Rush went to Chicago, where he stayed at the home of his sister. Working in the Chicago stockyards, he continued to play harmonica. Finally, inspired by the live performances of Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers, he began to study the guitar in 1953. Within a year, Rush fronted a band under the name of “Little Otis,” playing his first job with Arkansas-born guitarist Bob Woodfolk. Introduced to the guitar playing of T-Bone Walker and B. B. King, Rush incorporated modern phrasing and rhythmic ideas into his deep Mississippi sound. “I can remember when Otis was playing just like Muddy Waters,” explained Luther Tucker in Blues Guitarists.”T-Bone Walker was pretty hot at that time and he gave Otis some ideas. He kept the Muddy Waters feel but added little more modern chord progressions.”
In the mid-1950s, Rush’s maturing style caught the attention of bassist Willie Dixon. As Dixon explained in his autobiography I Am the Blues, “I found Otis Rush down on 47th Street and I knew he was good but Leonard Chess thought he sounded too close to Muddy Waters.” Consequently, Dixon signed Rush with Eli Tascano’s newly established Cobra label in 1956. At Tascano’s Westside studio, Rush’s guitar was brought to the forefront of the band. Accentuated by a driving horn section, his solos exhibited a drive and volume unknown to earlier Chicago bluesmen.
Cobra’s Westside blues guitarists like Rush and Buddy Guy drew upon the influences of jazz, rhythm and blues, and the horn-based ensemble of B. B. King to produce a modern urban sound. Written and engineered by Dixon, Rush’s first Cobra recording, “I Can’t
Quit You,” became the label’s only national hit. From its tormented vocal introduction, “I Can’t Quit You” was an eerie slow blues, augmented with brilliantly phrased guitar fills. Rush’s next single was “My Love Will Never Die,” a powerful minor-key slow blues which set the trend for Rush’s unique West Side sound. Two more excellent examples of this style were the blues masterpieces “Double Trouble” and “All Your Love (I Miss Loving),” which later became a guitar standard for young bluesman Eric Clapton. “’All Your Love,’” wrote blues historian and critic Paul Oliver in his Blues Records, “shows Rush in top form, harboring insane pockets of energy released into an atmosphere of tense expectation.” Incorporating Latin and straight shuffle rhythms, the song features odd, minor-inflected chord breaks and searing single note passages unsurpassed in the modern electric blues idiom.
At this period in Rush’s career, his back-up musicians often included guitarists Dave and Louis Meyers, drummer Odie Payne, and Dixon on acoustic bass. In 1958, Rush hired Arkansas-born Willie D. Warren who played electric bass on the bottom three strings of his guitar. The addition of Warren brought further attention to Rush’s band, for it marked the introduction of the electric bass into blues music. In an interview with Contemporary Musicians, Warren emphasized the importance of this event: “There wasn’t any electric basses back then. There was only upright bass fiddles like Willie Dixon played. After joining Otis I met Little Walter, Magic Sam, and Buddy Guy. They wanted me to teach their bass players what I was doing.” Thus, Rush’s band earned a reputation as a first-rate ensemble which helped set the trend for the development of modern electric blues.
After Tascano’s death and the departure of Warren in 1959, Dixon brought Rush to Chess Records. That same year, Rush recorded “So Many Roads So Many Trains,” an excellent single reminiscent of his finest Cobra material. Following this session, however, Rush experienced numerous setbacks. Without commercial success on the Chess label, he signed with Duke which resulted in the release of one single, “Homework,” in 1962. Active primarily in the local Chicago club scene, Rush performed at occasional out-of-town shows with such artists as T-Bone Walker and Little Richard.
In 1966, Rush appeared on Vanguard’s Chicago: The Blues Today, the first recorded blues anthology directed toward a young white folk/rock audience. Participating in that year’s American Folk Blues Festival, he played concert dates throughout Europe—the exposure brought him a devout following among musicians in both England and America. Between 1969 and 1972, Rush played before large crowds of enthusiastic listeners at the annual Ann Arbor Blues Festival.
While Rush’s songs were being covered—and often directly imitated—by bands from Paul Butterfield to Led Zeppelin, he struggled to eke out a living in small Chicago clubs. Plagued by inadequate back-up bands, he failed to produce an album equal in quality to his earlier work. His 1971 release Mourning in the Morning, though it contained moments of brilliance from Rush, suffered from over-production and poorly selected material. In 1975, after years of personal and career problems, Rush’s spirits were lifted when his band was greeted at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport by thousands of fans who covered the runway with flowers. “I never saw so many flowers before in my life,” commented Rush in Down Beat. “They had our baggage covered in flowers, the car we were in was full of flowers, at the gate people were standing around me with flowers.”
Unfortunately for Rush, his successful Japanese tour represented only a brief moment in a career marked by setbacks and financial problems. Disillusioned, he quit performing for two years in the early 1980s. But when the blues experienced a second revival during the middle of the decade, Rush found a new audience among young musicians, including Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn who paid tribute to him by naming his band Double Trouble after Rush’s 1958 Cobra recording.
Despite his quiet and congenial disposition offstage, Rush remains a powerful performer. Employing a left-handed upsidedown guitar technique, Rush bends notes that are reminiscent of slide guitar tones and inflections. “I practiced to get that sound without using a slide,” explained Rush in Blues Guitar. “I’m still trying to develop it.” By imitating the slide sounds of Robert Nighthawk and Earl Hooker, he developed a lyrical string vibrato, colored by full chords inspired by the recordings of jazz guitarist Kenny Burrel.
Despite many years of hardships, Rush has remained optimistic that he will attain rightful recognition for his work. His 1994 release Ain’t Enough Comin’ln featured the production team that brought recent commercial success to friend and Chicago blues guitarist Buddy Guy. Critical of many second-generation bluesmen, Muddy Waters often commended Rush for possessing a “deeper” blues sound than most of his contemporaries. A true exponent of the deep-blues tradition, Rush remains a guitar legend, one of the last living giants of Chicago blues.
(With others) Chicago/Blues Today!, Vanguard, 1966.
(With others) American Folk Blues Festival, 66’, L&R, 1966.
Mourning in the Morning, Atlantic, 1969.
So Many Roads, Delmark, 1975.
Cold Day in Hell, Delmark, 1975.
Lost Blues, Alligator, 1977.
Live in Europe, Isabel, 1977.
Ain’t Enough Comin’ In, Mercury, 1994.
Albert King/Otis Rush: Door to Door, Chess.
(With others) The Best of Duke-Peacock Blues, MC.
The Classic Recordings, Charly R&.
Cobra Alternates, P-Vine.
(With others) The Cobra Records Story, Capricorn.
Groaning the Blues: Cobra Sides 56-58, Flyright.
Otis Rush 1956-1958, Paula.
Otis Rush and Magic Sam —The Other Takes, 1956-58, Flyright.
Right Place, Wrong Time, Hightone.
Screamin’ and Crying, Evidence.
This One’s a Good Un, Blue Horizon/Polydor.
The Blackwell Guide to Blues Records, edited by Paul Oliver, Basil Blackwell, 1989.
Blues Guitarists: Collected From the Pages of Guitar Player Magazine, Guitar Player Productions, 1975.
Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music, From the Pages of Guitar Magazine, edited by Jas Obrecht, Miller Freeman Books, 1993.
Cohn, Lawrence, Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians, Abbeville Press, 1993.
Dixon, Willie, with Don Snowden, The Willie Dixon Story, Da Capo, 1989.
Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Viking, 1981.
Rowe, Mike, Chicago Blues: The City and the Music, Da Capo, 1975.
Down Beat, April 7, 1977.
Guitar Player, November 1993.
Additional information for this profile obtained from liner notes by Samuel Charters to Chicago/The Blues Today!, Vanguard, 1966.
Rush, Otis 1934–
Otis Rush 1934–
While critics and fans have long appreciated Otis Rush’s role in the founding of West Side Chicago blues, fame has eluded the bluesman for most of his career. “If there were any justice,” wrote Bill Dahl in the San Francisco Chronicle, “guitarist Otis Rush would occupy the same exalted position … as his longtime friend Buddy Guy.” Rush first came to the public’s attention when Cobra Records released “I Can’t Quit You Baby” in 1956, introducing the minor key song with jazz flavorings onto the blues scene. But although Rush’s musical career has been plagued with bad luck and record deals gone sour, he continues undaunted. “You don’t have to be unhappy to play the blues,” he told Jas Obrecht in Guitar Player. “I mean, I’m happy sometime. Sometime I’m not, no matter what I do…. I play the blues, but not because I’m sad—it’s a livin’.”
Born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1934, Rush was one of seven children born to O.C. Rush and his wife, Julia (Boyd) Rush. He sang in the church choir and listened to the blues of Tommy McClennan and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Drawn to music, he learned the guitar from his two older brothers and by listening to records, and he also played the harmonica. Near the end of 1948 Rush left Mississippi for Chicago, where he lived with his sister. He attended Dunbar High School half-days and worked a variety of jobs over the next several years in Chicago’s steel mills and stockyards.
Rush studied the guitar more closely after seeing Muddy Waters and Jimmie Rogers perform at local nightclubs in 1954. He told Dahl that he bought a “cheap amp, cheap guitar … It seemed like it was dancing—when I hit a note on the guitar, the amp would bounce around.” He played his first club date with Bob Jones at the Alibi and began playing full-time in 1955 at the 708 Club. At first he imitated Waters’s sound, but this changed as he came under the influence of T-Bone Walker and B.B. King. Soon Rush fronted his own band under the name of Little Otis.
In 1956 Willie Dixon saw Rush perform and signed him to Eli Tascano’s fledgling Cobra Records. Dixon wrote “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and Rush recorded it for his first Cobra session. When the song was released as the label’s first single, it reached number six on Billboard’s R & B chart, helping to define the West Side Chicago sound. Robert Palmer wrote of the song in
Born on April 29, 1934, in Philadelphia, MS; son of O.C. and Julia (Boyd) Rush.
Career: Performed at 708 Club as “Little Otis,’ 1955; signed with Cobra Records and released the Top 10 single,” I Can’t Quit You Baby,’ 1956; signed with Chess Records, 1959; signed with Duke Records, early-to-mid 1960s; recorded on Vanguard compilation, Chicago: The Blues Today!, 1966; played American Folk Blues Festival, 1966; performed at Ann Arbor Blues Festival, 1969–72; toured Japan and recorded Cold Day in Hell, 1975; released first studio effort in 16 years, titled, Ain’t Enough Comin’ In,1994; released Any Place I’m Going, 1998.
Awards: Grammy, Best Traditional Blues Album, 1999.
Address: Artist Agency —Concerted Efforts, Inc., P.O. Box 600099, Newtonville, MA 02460.
Deep Blues: “It was a medium-slow, steady-rocking shuffle, with Otis shouting the gospel blues and playing rapid-fire bursts of high-note guitar.” Unlike Waters or Rogers, Rush often added saxophones to his ensemble and incorporated jazz influences. The music that Rush recorded for Cobra would later be collected on Otis Rush, 1956–1958: His Cobra Recordings. Koda declared in All Music Guide, “These are milestone recordings in the history of the blues and an essential part of anyone’s collection.”
In 1959, after Tascono’s death, Rush successively signed with the Chess and Duke recording labels, but little of his music was released between 1959 and the mid-1960s. He continued to play at small clubs in Chicago, but was unable to repeat his early success at Cobra. In 1965, while still under contract to Duke, he attended a recording session for Vanguard Records. Four of his songs were included on the compilation titled Chicago: The Blues Today! Koda commented, “This Vanguard session … was [Rush’s] first in several years and finds him in exemplary form.” The Vanguard album also brought Rush to the attention of new audiences. He performed at the American Folk Blues Festival in 1966 and at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival between 1969 and 1972. Rush also found appreciative audiences in Europe, and in 1969 he recorded Mourning in the Morning with guitarist Mike Bloomfield.
Despite a resurgence in his career, bad luck continued to follow Rush during the 1970s. In 1971 the well-known manager Albert Grossman cut a deal with Capital Records for Rush’s next effort. Wrong Place, Wrong Time was produced by Nick Gravenites in San Francisco for $36,000 and turned over to Capitol for release. Despite the excellent quality of the set, Capitol decided to pass on the album, and the recording remained in limbo until the small Bullfrog label issued it in 1976. “This record doesn’t mess around at all,” noted Eugene Chadbourne in All Music Guide, adding that “the first track takes off like the man they fire out of a cannon at the end of a circus.” Rush recorded Cold Day in Hell in 1975 and followed it with several live releases during the late 1970s.
During the 1980s Rush temporarily ceased performing due to frustrations with the music business. “Success is hard to come by, and there’s a lot of false pretensions out here,” he told Chris Morris in Billboard. “I wanted to get away from music. Matter of fact, I quit for two years, maybe longer. I stopped playin’.” In 1986 Rush was slated to record an album for Rooster Blues, but walked out of the session due to dissatisfaction with the sound of his amplifier. He experienced further frustrations when Alligator Records bought the rights to Troubles, Troubles, a Rush album originally issued on the Sonet label in 1978. Instead of re-releasing the album as it had been recorded, Alligator decided to overdub keyboard parts, and reissued the album as Lost in the Blues in 1991.
In 1994 Rush re-established his prominence with the release of Ain’t Enough Comin’ In, his first studio album in 16 years. “If talent alone were the formula for widespread success,” noted Bill Dahl in All Music Guide, “Rush would currently be Chicago’s leading blues artist.” Rush continued to tour and signed a recording contract with House of Blues in the mid-1990s. Because of his erratic career and infrequent releases, Rush’s name lacks the recognition that has attached to players like Buddy Guy. As Robert Palmer in Deep Blues noted, though, few bluesmen can match Rush’s passion: “I had heard bluesmen play and sing with comparable intensity and technique, but Otis Rush had something else—an ear for the finest pitch shadings and the ability to execute them on the guitar, not as mere effects but as meaningful components in a personal vocabulary, a musical language. He was playing the deep blues.”
Chicago: The Blues Today! (compilation), Vanguard, 1966.
Mourning in the Morning, Atlantic, 1969.
Right Place, Wrong Time, Bullfrog, 1976.
Groaning the Blues, Flyright, 1980.
Otis Rush, 1956–1958: His Cobra Recordings, Paula/Flyright, 1989.
Ain’t Enough Comin’ In, Mercury, 1994.
Any Place I’m Going, House of Blues, 1998.
Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Viking, 1981, p. 266.
Rowe, Mike, Chicago Breakdown, Drake, 1975.
Shaw, Arnold, Honkers and Shouters, Collier, 1978.
Billboard, February 5, 1994, p. 13.
Guitar Player, November 1993, p. 34.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 22, 1996, p. 41.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com
Biography Resource Center, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.