To simply call Bobby Rush a bluesman would be doing him a huge disservice.
Sure, he rubbed shoulders with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf during their Windy City hey-day.
And he counted Magic Sam, Elmore James, Freddie King and Luther Allison as members of his band at one time or another.
So sure, Bobby Rush is the real-deal blues.
No doubt about it.
But Bobby Rush is so much more than that.
He’s a family man. He’s an employer. He’s a record executive. He’s a chef. He’s a keeper of the flame.
And Bobby Rush is one heck of an entertainer.
Whether he’s on the huge stage at the Chicago Blues Fest, decked out in a flashy suit and backed by a big band and pair of beautiful female dancers, or whether he’s churning out the gut-bucket blues with just a battered acoustic guitar in a small juke joint in Clarksdale, Bobby Rush’s goal remains the same.
To entertain and make us forget about our problems for a few hours.
With all due respect to James Brown, or to anyone else who might have laid claim to the title, Bobby Rush is THE hardest working man in show business.
Even after grinding it out night after night for five-plus decades.
Nominated for a Blues Music Award in the category of Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year for an astounding 13th time in the past 14 years, Blues Blast recently caught up with the living legend to check in on all things Bobby Rush.
Blues Blast: How have the first couple of months of 2011 been to Bobby Rush?
Bobby Rush: Things are looking up. The dates (playing live) are starting to look up from where they were the last two years. So thank God things are looking up. I don’t know where things are going, because people are getting used to doing without, but it’s time for a change. I can’t put my finger on it, but so far so good.
BB: So on a good year, how many shows do you typically play?
BR: Well, I played less last year than I have in about 40 years. But I do about 220-250 shows a year. That’s for the last 50 years. Sometimes we do two shows a day – six for the weekend.
BB: You’re almost like two separate performers. You’ve got your big stage production – with the female dancers everyone talks about – a show that moves from light-hearted fun to straight-up comedy to down-and-dirty blues, and then you’ve got your solo shows – with just your guitar and harp. Which do you prefer doing these days?
BR: Well, when I’m doing the solo thing, I don’t have to have all the personalities and the band to deal with. But when I have the band with me, it makes me feel good that I’m able to employ people, especially in times like these. I’ve got nine people on the road with me and it gives them something to do and it feeds a lot of families. It’s something that I’ve been able to do for 30 or 40 years and that makes me feel good that I can supply a job for them and their kids and grandmothers and family. But doing them both gives me a wider range, because I want to go down in history as a performer, not just as a guitar player or a harp player. I’m labeled as that, but I want to be known as an entertainer. And it takes all those big-band things to make an entertainer out of me. But when I’m doing the solo acoustic thing, it narrows it down to a lesser worry, because sometimes I think people kind of miss what I’m about, or where I’m going. Especially like 10 years ago. It’s better now because they found out this old man knew what he was doing in the beginning. Because deep down inside, I’m the same person whether I’ve got 10 people around me – the strings, the horns, the guitars and drums – because I talk the same talk there that I do when I’m solo – I’m talking story-wise. I may tell it a bit different, but overall it’s the same meat, the same story. So overall, I’m wearing three hats, but they all keep the sun off of me.
BB: It seems like a lot of performers these days have totally forgotten about the venues on the Chitlin Circuit…
BR: Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that. I’m so glad you mentioned that because my first reason for wanting to do the solo thing was not because I was so in love with it, but because it gave people the opportunity to see me that might not have had the chance to otherwise. Like the juke joints – the Chitlin Circuit with the 50- or 100-seat clubs can’t afford a Bobby Rush or a Buddy Guy or B.B. King or Clapton. But now, I can give them Bobby Rush on a smaller setting and it won’t cost them an arm and a leg. That makes me feel good. What we have done, I’m talking about entertainers and musicians, by pricing ourselves like we have, it has put the small clubs out of business. So I’m trying to bring back the small clubs and small promoters into business. Those small places and juke joints are where we all come from. That’s a bridge we’ve crossed and we don’t want to forget about it.
BB: Yeah, it just seems like there’s so few of those clubs around anymore.
BR: They are scarce and that’s why we want to save them. They’re like hen’s teeth. We want to save the ones that’s left and encourage the ones that were in business, or the ones that want to start a business, to come back. And when I say juke joint, I don’t mean that as being less than something else. It’s just a smaller business, a smaller club.
BB: In addition to a band leader, manager, performer and entertainer, you’re also a record label owner. Did the idea for Deep Rush Records come about because you wanted to unburden yourself from other record labels, or was there a bigger vision, like wanting to provide an outlet for other performers, who might not otherwise get the chance, express themselves?
BR: I had two game-plans. I wanted to have the power to do what I wanted to do, because I thought I could think better for me than the record labels could think for me. Like what should I cut, how should I cut it … I thought I could think for myself instead of having someone think for me. And at the same time, it would let other entertainers see that they could do this, also. Plus, it gives me the voice to speak to the issues that I want to speak about in my records. There’s just so much control with record companies. Don’t get me wrong, some artists needs management and controlling, but everybody doesn’t need that. I’m not saying record companies and management were not important, they just weren’t important to me.
BB: Let’s not forget about another one of your business projects – the Bobby Rush Hot Links. How did the idea for those come about?
BR: That came about because in Chicago, for about 20 years, I had a restaurant called Bobby’s BBQ House. It was successful but it took away from me a lot of time musically. Financially, it was good for me, but musically it just took away from me, because I didn’t have time to create a lot music-wise. So that’s what got the BBQ thing the first time – music. So I started making hot links, I learned how to make them as a kid from my dad, who taught me how to make hot sausage. So I just took that and instead of putting it in a patty, I put it in a link. And people started eating them and I started comparing them with other links around and I thought I was making something as good, if not better, than what there was around. That’s how it started. I made them for 15 or 20 years and cooked them and sold them and made a couple of nickels off them, so lately I started going back into the barbecue houses and making and selling links again. And I’m a great cook, if I do have to pat myself on the back. I make jelly and preserves – anything from apples, plums or pears – from scratch.
BB: Growing up in Louisiana, that kind of cooking was just a way of life, wasn’t it?
BR: It was. I was born between Homer and Haynesville, Louisiana, but I left there in 1947 for Pine Bluff, Arkansas and lived with my father on a farm there for a few years. In the early 50s I moved to Chicago and when I got there, there were many blues guys there. But the people I respected and knew well were Muddy Waters, Little Walter and of course, Willie Dixon, who was there with Chess Records. And Jimmy Reed was there, also.
BB: And you spent a good deal of time with Jimmy Reed, didn’t you?
BR: I was very good friends with Jimmy Reed. So good a friend that I often tell it that I think Jimmy Reed was the only guy that I ever called my friend and really cheated him. I hate that today, that I cheated him, but I laugh about how I cheated him. He was a drinker and he used to send me to the store to get him a bottle of gin and that would cost about 90 cents or less. And once he had a couple of drinks, I found out he didn’t know how much he was drinking, what he was drinking or what I was giving him. So I would take me an empty bottle and fill it halfway with water and halfway with gin and I would sell it to him for about $1.20 – about 10 times a day, man. So I was making about $5 a day or better off Jimmy. And in 1951-52, $5 or $6 was a lot of money. Yeah, I was making about $25 a week off Jimmy Reed. I was the richest dude around, making more than Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf put together!
BB: Speaking of Jimmy Reed, Muddy and The Wolf, just how competitive was the Chicago blues scene in the 1950s and 1960s? Was it hard to get a gig because of all that talent and competition?
BR: There were so many (performers), but there so many clubs. There were a bunch on Roosevelt …and then on Lake Street, there was Silvio’s, where Muddy Waters played on Wednesday and Thursday. I played there on Saturday and Sundays. And then I’d play at Walter’s Corner on Wednesday, Thursday or Fridays … there was just a lot of gigs around. And I was in a position as a young man, who was a little younger than Muddy Waters, I was working two jobs a night and sometimes getting $12 or $13 a night. And that was more money than a lot of the guys were getting. I would jump from one club right to the next.
BB: Sounds like the opportunity was there if a guy wanted to take it.
BR: Yeah, yeah! But there weren’t a whole lot of entertainers. There were a lot of musicians, but not a whole lot of entertainers, understand? A lot of them didn’t stick out like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Little Walter.
BB: There may be people that don’t know this, but a young Luther Allison got his start in Chicago in your band. What made him such a special performer?
BR: I met him when he was about 17- or 18-years-old. Luther was special because he was always such a good guitar player. I was playing at a place called the Squeeze-In, and at that time I had Freddie King on guitar with me. I wanted Luther to play with me because he was a young guy who was fresh, but he wasn’t old enough to play in the club. But I got him into Walter’s Corner – they let him play but he had to stay in the dressing room – but Mr. Walter (the club owner) let me bring him in, even though he was only about 18 and you were supposed to be 21 to get in. So I think I was one of the first guys that Luther played with. And from that, Magic Sam and from that, Elmore James played with me.
BB: Before you got to Chicago, what was the blues scene like in Arkansas – in Pine Bluff and Helena – in the 50s?
BR: Well, Helena was a little more advanced, music-wise, than Pine Bluff. Helena had Sonny Boy Williamson. There were little 40- or 50-seat juke joints that would have music Wednesday through Sunday. In Pine Bluff, there was a place called Drum’s that was owned by a guy named Drum, who played the drums. I was just a little young harmonica player and Drum would play the drums and I’d get on the harp. Then one night a guy called Jitterbug came to see me. He had a place on Third Street. And I became the talk of the town because Jitterbug came to see me at Drum’s. He wanted me to come over on Third Street and play. And from there, I went to a place called Jack Rabbit and that was where Elmore James was playing. So I kind of took his job and that’s how I became friends with Elmore James.
BB: It didn’t take Elmore James long to turn into a real force in Chicago blues, did it?
BR: I didn’t. It was 1953 when he played with me and he had halfway established his name out of Mississippi at that time. I met him in Belzoni, Mississippi one time. There was a gentleman in Chicago at that time named Lee Robizeen, that owned Lee’s Lounge. And he came down to Mississippi and met this young lady that owned the Delta Funeral Home. She had two of them (funeral homes) and she was a good-looking lady. And Lee Robizeen came down and got married to this lady. Lee was a friend of mine and Elmore James was also a friend of mine who I wanted to play with me, but I couldn’t afford him. He wanted $35 a night and I couldn’t pay that. So he (James) saw this lady sitting at the bar one night. He goes, ‘Wow, Bobby Rush, who is that fine lady you just talked to?’ I said, ‘She’s a friend of mine.’ And Elmore goes, ‘I’d do anything to get to talk to her.’ As I was walking away, I stopped and said, ‘Anything?’ So I said, ‘Elmore, if you’ll play with me, I’ll hook you up.’ He said, ‘I’ll play for you for free, if you hook me up.’ So it was a dirty thing really, they were both my friends (Lee and Elmore). I know it’s dirty, but when Lee wouldn’t be around, I’d tell Elmore and he would talk to her while the husband was gone. And then I’d get Elmore James to play this weekend with me for free. I didn’t have to pay Elmore James a dime. But I know that’s the wrong hookup. I shouldn’t tell that, but they were both my friends. Sorry about that, Lee (laughs). Sorry about that, Elmore (laughs). Elmore might have had a little rock in his jaw because I’d taken that gig from him (in Pine Bluff), or maybe he didn’t want to play with me because I was too small or didn’t have enough money to pay him. But after I introduced him to that lady, he thought I was the king.
BB: You’re nominated for (BMA) Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year again this year, after having won it four out of the past five years. I vote that we just go ahead and change the name of the award to The Bobby Rush Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year. Does it mean anything to win awards like this after all the years you’ve been playing?
BR: I’ll be honest with you. It means a lot to me. If I’m even in the running, whether I win or not, I’m still a winner, because of all the other artists that are up for the award. I’m just happy to be there. It’s like in 1971 when I had the Record of the Year (for “Chicken Heads”) and James Brown had the number two record and Bill Withers had the number three record. To beat out James Brown and Bill Withers? Come on, man! That’s a knockout. So sometimes, it depends on who you’re in the race with. When you beat out guys like that, you’re in good cotton. And it keeps your name relevant and out there. I don’t remember what year it was, but I think I was the only artist to have the acoustic album of the year and win the soul blues artist of the year and win the acoustic artist of the year (in 2008, for his album Raw). I mean nobody had done that before in history, not in the same year.
BB: With the way the economy has been lately, with gas and food prices going through the roof, meaning less disposable income for fun stuff, like buying records and attending shows, what do you see in the immediate future for the blues?
BR: Well, performers are going to have to be like I was when I first started in the 1950s – you have to be self-contained. Everybody’s had to cut back and we performers have to, also. I know the big band leaders are going to kick me in the head for saying this, but the guy who has 20 or 30 pieces on the bandstand – it’s not like they can’t get a job – but the way things are now, the performers and the venues will just not allow you to make money like that. So you have to find a way to down-size. But as far as the music, I don’t know where blues is going, because they’re downloading everything now. I really don’t know. All I can say is, if we as entertainers do real music and stick to the real-deal, people will buy that. People are just having to make hard choices on what they want to spend their money on.
BB: After performing and being on the road for so long, does retirement ever cross your mind?
BR: Yeah, it does. I’ve decided I’m going to retire when I’m 108. After that, we’ll talk about it again.
BB: So with no imminent plans on retirement, what’s on the horizon for Bobby Rush?
BR: I did a new record three or four months ago, and hopefully it’ll be out before the end of this year- I think I want to name it Down in Mississippi – and it’s all raw – just Bobby Rush with a harp and guitar. And I’m also dropping a new soul record in a few weeks, a regular kind of Bobby Rush thing. This is not something I did intentionally, but it’s like I’ve got two or three different heads (styles of music) on me. I’m so blessed that I crossed over to a white audience and didn’t have to cross out a black audience to do it. So many other guys like myself have crossed over to a white audience, but they crossed out the black audience. I did not. People expect me to be me and I’m still doing the same thing, the folk-funk kind of record, the R&B thing, the acoustic blues thing and they accept it all. And I’m so thankful. I just always tried to cut the kind of records that were true to me. Now you’ve got young black guys with the wah-wah pedals and the whole bit, trying to sound like the white guys who were trying to sound like the black guys. You follow what I’m saying? And there’s nothing wrong with either one, but I think that a man should just be himself and do what you feel.
Interviewer Terry Mullins is a journalist and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.