Bobby Rush with Herb Powell – I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya: My American Blues Story
320 pages Hardcover edition
Along with Buddy Guy, Bobby Rush is one of the few remaining artists from a generation that was responsible for making blues music popular around the world. And like Guy, Rush’s career really came into prominence later in life. In addition to headlining major blues festivals over the last 20 years, the singer has received numerous Blues Blast Music Award nominations and a Lifetime Achievement Award, more than fifty Blues Music Award nominations, receiving 13 awards, in addition to receiving two Grammy awards. He has received awards and recognition from a number of cities, states, and institutions of higher learning. In 2006, he was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in Memphis, TN, sponsored by the Blues Foundation.
None of this success came easy, a fact pointed out time and again in the new autobiography that Rush has written with a helping hand from Herb Powell, a noted author and music historian. Born in Louisiana as Emmett Ellis Jr., he was named after his father, a hard-working farmer who was also a preacher. Hearing his father play a beat-up harmonica was the initial spark that fueled the youngster’s passion for music. Soon he was making rudimentary guitars out of wire from old brooms and a couple of nails pounded into a wall.
At age thirteen, the aspiring musician began taking trips to Pine Bluff, AK with an older friend who had a car. After a disagreement with his father over money, Rush left home, saved his money, and finally moved to the city for more opportunities. He meets one of his mentors, guitarist Boyd Gilmore, who told stories about his rambles around the region playing music, which provided further inspiration for Rush, who also credits the impact that Louis Jordan and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) made on his early development.
From there, Rush takes readers through the arc of his journey of life – playing in clubs as he honed his skills, then moving to Chicago to stay with his brother in order to get a taste of the big city. One interesting tale involves thought process on selecting the “Bobby Rush” stage name, partly to protect the reputation of his preacher father and, at the same time, something that would be smooth off the tongue. He also relates a hilarious story about the time he tricked a club owner with some quick costume changes that enabled him to get paid twice.
Another highlight of the book are the singer’s encounters with many of the legends of blues music, artists like Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Reed, guitarist Earl Hooker, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Muddy Waters, who encouraged Rush to start traveling to Europe in the mid-1960s, advice that he failed to heed, one of the regrets that came in hindsight. Rush does not shy away from sharing his views on the various aspects of racism he has dealt with over the years, particularly when he was touring the famous Chitlin’ Circuit, as well as in the tightly controlled network of Chicago nightspots, at times expressing his anger and pain in frank terms that leave little to the imagination.
It wasn’t until 1964, almost 20 years into his career, that Rush had a record released under his own name, entitled “Someday” on the Jerry-O label. Since then, he has released hundreds of recordings including his monster hit, “Chicken Heads,” tied to another story that shows how Rush adapted his songwriting to include humor and sly, but not lewd, sexual references, which became a hallmark of his style. He scored his first gold record with the song “Sue,” based his experiences with an older woman.
With a wife and family to support, the singer would often look for other ways to supplement his income beyond the realm of music. At on point, he was proud purveyor of a hot dog stand, quickly learning the value of location and fine-tuning his skills as a businessman. Later he opened a successful BBQ joint, an enterprise that almost cost him his life. Another one of his regrets is a drug bust in Texas that lead to a temporary career hiatus. His chilling description of an early morning accident that decimated his band is a vivid reminder of the dangers of life on the road.
Through it all, Rush never lost faith and kept grinding away, finally breaking through to the white blues audience, gaining entrance into the blues festival circuit as a headliner with a crack band and several female dancers to raise the entertainment value of his shows to new heights, particularly as the music has evolved to become at times a seemingly endless string of instrumentals solos. Rush acknowledges his pride at being referred to as the “King of the Chitlin’ Circuit,” while also making it clear that while he is now a world-wide draw, he will never abandon the black audience that has sustained him throughout his musical journey.
Included is a 16 page photo section full of black & white pictures that visually document his growth as an artist, in addition to turning the spotlight to some of the high points of his career.
Bobby Rush is a survivor. He is also a masterful storyteller. And all of the hit records, awards and tributes testify to his mastery of the music. Those aspects and many more come together in this compelling saga that is tough to put down. In the end, readers of this highly recommended autobiography will gain a whole new level of appreciation for Mr. Bobby Rush – don’t miss it!