Anyone who’s spent any time at all with Bobby Rush knows him to be one of the most upbeat, friendly and humorous folks they’ve ever met – sharp as a tack and a great conversationalist who’s got both big-city smarts and deep country roots.
That’s how Blues Blast found him a few weeks ago, when we contacted him by phone to set up this interview. He was at home in Jackson, Miss., and it was a few days after the world in general and his life in particular had come to a screeching halt.
As a former Chicagoan who first met Bobby at an upscale club on the South Side about 50 years ago, it was an honor for this writer to handle the assignment – the first ever in a warm friendship that’s endured across intermittent meetings through the years.
We don’t cross paths often. But when we do, we enjoy each other’s company for as long as time allows. This one was going to be a pleasure for both of us, something he stated immediately after picking up the phone.
“These are strange times,” he said, his voice strong and cheerful and his seemingly boundless energy masking the fact that he’d been born in north Louisiana more than eight decades ago. “I spent last Saturday at home with my wife and kids. It was the first time on a Saturday in 50…60 years.”
The time wasn’t right for an extended chat. When that call came, however, things had changed. Bobby’s voice sounded slightly strained and his seemingly boundless energy low.
“It’s been rough on me for three or four weeks,” confessed the Grammy winner and Blues Hall of Famer. “They’re tryin’ to put the brakes on me.”
The road warrior had been in Chicago on Valentine’s Day for a major show when he began feeling ill. His symptoms – a fever that came on like a train before subsiding, a dry cough and general fatigue – persisted for weeks, and he suspected the worst: that he’d come down with coronavirus somewhere in his travels.
A man who normally hops around the globe regularly and displays more energy and better moves than most men one-third his age, he was clearly ailing, but stated that his symptoms had lessen and that he was feeling a little better by the day. He insisted on going forward with our talk against this writer’s objection. In my eye, Bobby Rush is nothing short of a national treasure, and his health will always be far more important to me than any story.
But continue we did.
Only later after we spoke did I discover the truth: A week earlier, like many of his fellow musicians who are homebound and off the road for the foreseeable future, he decided to entertain his fans with a solo, acoustic show broadcast on social media. Immediately thereafter, his son and grandson rushed him to a Jackson hospital because his condition seemed worse. Doctors subsequently admitted him briefly before releasing him to return home and self-quarantine. His personal physician also administered a test for COVID-19.
Several days later, when we spoke, the results still hadn’t arrived a week later, and eventually proved to be inconclusive. Always the trouper, Bobby was living apart from his family – something he was ordered to do until April 20. And all of his meals were being delivered twice a day through a state-run program.
Fortunately for him and all who know and love him, Rush’s condition continued to improve after we spoke – so much so, in fact, that he sounded like his old self – both enthusiastic and talkative — on the eve of Easter, when interviewed by Memphis’ Tri-State Defender, which posted a snippet of its phone conversation on its website.
Even after admitting he’d “never been so scared in my life, through it all, Bobby was more concerned about how the illness would affect his band of nine musicians and the family he loves so dearly. A man of deep faith, he’s grateful for the overwhelming number of prayers and well wishes offered up by fans and friends around the globe after his family finally released a statement about his condition two months after his symptoms had set in.
Above everything else, Bobby credits God for his recovery, which shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, he’s the son of a preacher. And despite his chipper outlook on life, he’s a true blues survivor who’s already overcome more pain and hardship than most men could endure.
Bobby Rush is truly a living, breathing bridge to a different era, a world in which the races were still separated and a time when the real giants of the blues world walked shoulder-to-shoulder with him on this earth.
Born Emmett Ellis Jr. in Homer, La., on Nov. 11, 1933, Bobby knows of what he speaks and has literally seen it all.
The son of a guitar- and harmonica-playing minister and farmer, he was street smart as a child despite only attending school about three months a year. He worked in the family’s cotton fields beginning at age seven, regularly spending his time in reverie as he daydreamed about becoming a performer. In his mind, he saw himself on stage and dressed in tails like the man depicted on the tin of Prince Albert tobacco that his father smoked.
He practiced singing in the mirror, and he burned matches and used the charred ends to create a moustache and look older than his tender years. His focus was so strong, in fact, that his mother, Mattie, once hit him in the head with a cup simply to get his attention.
“I’d be pickin’ cotton or choppin’ cotton, doin’ what I had to do,” Rush recalls, “but I had this dream where I was this big superstar. I didn’t know about anything other than the country life, but in my mind, I’d have all of the country men and women waitin’ for me at the end of the cotton field to see me weigh my cotton up and to play a song.”
Although he excelled at Bible study, he never sang in church. But he did build himself a Diddley bow out of a brick, broom wire and glass bottle in the barn, and he experimented with it on Sunday mornings follow the early service and after his father, Emmett Sr., returned to church for afternoon sessions.
His first real guitar came as a gift from his first cousin, Son Scott, and he hid it in the barn loft, where it warped under the heat of the hot Louisiana sun. His father found it six months later, and Rush feared he was in for a whipping. Bobby recounted the incident in the song “Chinkapin Huntin’” on his 2009 Blind Snake CD, and the tune’s title refers to a search for the nuts of a brush-like variety of the chestnut tree common to the South.
At the time, Rush had no clue that his dad was a musician. He was shocked when, instead of a paddling, Emmett Sr. took the six-string from his hands and started singing and playing – and even more so because, when he did, the young boy expected to hear a gospel number akin to “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” but got a full-on blues performance instead.
Surprisingly, the song contained strong, un-churchlike sexual overtones. The lyrics, he recalled, repeated the line: “Me and my gal went Chinkapin huntin’/She fell down and I saw somethin’.”
To this day, Rush doesn’t know what his father saw because his dad never completed the verse. But he did teach Bobby how to play both six-string and harp in the months and years that followed. And despite the common belief among the faithful that blues is the Devil’s music, he never dissuaded Bobby from following the dream that eventually resulting in him becoming the superstar envisioned in his dreams.
Instilled with a strong work ethic, in addition to toiling in the fields, Bobby also began transporting the cotton to market at age ten or 11, driving a team of mules by himself to sell it at the gin 15 miles away. Because of his youth, he went unnoticed as he listened intently while the adults around him shared notes about the best time to peddle their wares to get the highest return. The Ellises grew more than cotton, and the tips he picked up quickly made him a major asset in the family’s farming operation.
He grew up soaking up music by listening to radio powerhouses, WLAC in Nashville and KFFA in West Helena, Ark., — whose 50,000-watt signals reached all corners of the South — as well as local gospel and country stations, too. The music he plays today is drawn from a broad range of influences, including everyone from Percy Mayfield, Sonny Boy Williamson and Solomon Burke to Willie Dixon, singer-actor Phil Harris and many others.
Bobby’s first exposure to live blues came at about age 14 after his family had moved to Pine Bluff, Ark., where his dad had assumed the pulpit at a new church. It was there that Big Joe Turner played in Townsend Park on the city’s north side, soon followed by performances from Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters with a young Little Walter in tow.
Continuing a habit he picked up while daydreaming in front of the mirror, Rush donned a fake mustache to make himself look older and started sneaking into clubs. Still in his mid-teens, he befriended and eventually started playing with slide guitar legends Elmore James and Boyd Gilmore, future Chicago keyboard stalwart Johnny “Big Moose” Walker and drummer Robert Plunkett, who backed Otis Rush, Eddie Shaw, Jimmy Dawkins and others. As a group, they eventually relocated to Little Rock for a while, where they worked as the house band at two popular venues, Drums and Jitterbug.
Bobby moved to Chicago at age 19 in 1953, slowly evolving from Emmett Ellis Jr. into Truman Roosevelt and other stage names before adopting the one fans know him by today. He chose Bobby after a favorite cousin and Rush partially because he was always in a hurry to establish himself in show business.
“It was like movin’ to heaven,” Rush says today, “because Muddy Waters was there, B.B. was there…Smokey Hogg, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed…then come Bo Diddley, Pigmeat Markham, Moms Mabley, Johnny Brown…my gosh, all the guys you know who were singin’ the blues was comin’ through Chicago for Chess Records and Vee-Jay.”
His first gigs came in the southwest suburbs, playing in Blue Island before moving to small clubs with white audiences — Skins in Robbins and The Apex in Phoenix — where he sang and played behind a curtain. “They wanted to hear my music,” Rush says, “but they didn’t want to see my face.”
It wasn’t uncommon, he says, to play clubs that were posted “Blacks not allowed,” adding: “It’s nice that the laws have changed, but you know and I know that the hearts of men haven’t changed that much.”
As someone who grew up deeply rooted in the Jim Crow era of segregation and racial prejudice, Bobby has successfully balanced a career that appeals to folks of all colors. But, he says, he’s still waiting for the world to change in a positive direction.
“There’s not too many people around now who realize and recognize that what I have done, what I’m doin’ and what I plan to do is all the same,” Rush says. “I got people around me now tellin’ me all the time: ‘Bobby Rush, we don’t want to hear you talking about what it was. It’s a new day now!’
“I’m tryin’ to find what is the new day… ’cause, as I get older and see thangs, it’s like the Scripture says: There ain’t nothin’ new under the sun. So what everybody talkin’ about? What’s new? You got a new approach, that’s all.
“When they tell me I’m old-fashioned, it burns my heart because even though things have changed, they still remain the same. The saddest thing is that the people I know’d for 50-60 years, they’re not around to know and fight (for true racial equality),” he says. “The people who’s comin’ up – especially in the blues music business — the black music business – most of the guys want to deal with the blackness of the music, but don’t wanna go on and deal with the blackness of it all.
“Most of the guys I know that’s comin’ up now want to wrestle, but don’t want to fall. But any good wrestler is gonna fall – even if you win most of the time.”
As someone who’s been the lifeblood of blues and soul blues for decades, it also bothers him greatly that some folks who claim their music to be “blues” today simply have no clue as to what the music’s all about. In musical terms, he says, “when you can count ‘one and two and…’ the one counts, but the and is just as important – because if you don’t know where the and is, you don’t know where the count is. The music is more than just notes.”
We live, Bobby says, in an era in which the younger, surviving generation venerates living artists as blues gods while ignoring the past. It’s a cultural divide in opinions that’s as clear as black and white. And it’s as important to carry the tradition forward because the stars of the ‘30s through ‘90s are gone and no longer can speak for themselves.
With few exceptions, there’s a distinct, multi-generational gap between Rush and Buddy Guy – who’s three years younger — and the new wave of emergent young black bluesmen, including Marquise Knox, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Jontavious Willis, Andrew Alli and others.
“Bennie Turner (Freddie King’s brother) can’t tell the stories that Freddie King told,” Rush says. “You can talk to the drummer for B.B. King, but he can’t tell the stories that B.B. tells ‘cause he wasn’t in the room when it all happened. But there are still a few people who can,” he adds. “It’s too bad that most people didn’t get this information.”
There are a great many artists of color trying to carry the blues forward the best way they can, he insists. Talented in their own right, the music they deliver is often primarily neo-soul, hip-hop, rap and more. Check the listings for some of the “blues” festivals Rush headlines – ones aimed directly at a black audience – and it’s apparent that the roster features more artists whose sounds are old-school soul and other art forms with, at best, just a taste of blues itself.
“They don’t know anything about the real root of the blues,” Bobby insists. “Most of the time, what the white people are sayin’ the kings of the blues is true.
“It’s almost as if the wah-wah (pedal) was invented so the white guys could sound like a black guy. But what’s botherin’ Bobby Rush is that you’ve got black guys buyin’ a wah-wah, tryin’ to sound like a white guy who’s tryin’ to sound black.
“Among my people, they take it as a racial kinda thing. But I’m just tryin’ to set the truth to them: That’s the way it was, and that’s the way it is,” he insists, “because, if you talk right now about who the dominant black men are playin’ the blues today, you’d probably say Buddy Guy and Bobby Rush.
“We’re the only ones left. But we ain’t the only ones playin’ the blues. We’re the only ones who aren’t ashamed of it! But the blues is the root of everything. If you don’t like the blues, you probably don’t like your mama,” he laughs.
“Young people don’t wanna know about the past because it’s too outdated to them. But without the root of the tree…without the root, there’d never be a tree. It’s like ‘I think I know how a woman feels to have a baby,’” he says. “’But I really don’t know ‘cause I never had one myself.’
“That’s where I come in…people like myself…to tell ‘em about people that came before me and taught me what I know that I didn’t know I knowed.”
Bobby’s stage act grew out of that tradition. He started developing it in 1959, a year before he formed his first band, after playing in groups that included Earl Hooker, Freddie King, Ike Turner and Luther Allison in central Illinois and the upper reaches of the Mississippi River.
Booked as the house band at Bagarbar, a club in the Quad Cities community of Rock Island, Ill., he hired a comedian to serve as his emcee, but he backed out at the last minute. A natural comedian and actor, Bobby decided to do it himself. He changed clothes between sets, did a comedy routine as “The Tramp” before rushing backstage again and changing clothes after having delivered his own introduction.
He was so convincing that it took the bar owner five months – during which he’d been footing the bill for the extra performer — before he realized the ruse. At that point, however, Bobby was filling the club to the rafters and his boss never cut his money after finding out.
“I was just bein’ me,” he says. “All I know’d was to pick up my guitar and harmonica, played the best I could play, sung the best song that I know’d to sing and tried to remember the best things that meaned somethin’ to me.”
Rush has been living in Jackson since 1983. In so doing, he broke a vow he made to his parents decades earlier, when he promised them he’d never move there because of the slavery and racial hardships they and their ancestors had endured. He did so, he says, in an effort “to make a difference.”
The founding father of a style of music termed “folk-funk,” Bobby’s shows serve up a combination of over-the-top band of showmanship that includes a world-class band and trio of booty-shaking dancers with occasional interludes of solo, old-school acoustic blues – a mix that appeals to people of all races.
While a casual listener might misinterpret the strong messages about sexual relations and infidelity that populate many of his songs, they’re all delivered respectfully – and virtually all of them can be traced back to his early life on the farm.
“When I started out, I talked about the things that I related to – good or bad– which was farm things – horses, elephants, cows, dogs and what have you – and then I put them into womanizin’ things,” Rush says, “from a woman’s standpoint and from a man’s standpoint, too… ‘If you was a horse and I was a horsefly, would you let me…’ That sort of thing.
“It’s like Louis Jordan used to sing about the monkey and the buzzard. The monkey always thought that the buzzard was his friend. But when the buzzard tricked him to fly with him, he tried to throw him off knowin’ the monkey didn’t have no wings to protect himself. So the monkey wrapped his tail around the buzzard’s neck…not to hurt him, but to hold on.
“He said: ‘You chockin’ me!’ and the monkey says: ‘Well, you better straighten up and fly right!’ That’s where that song came from. My first gold record, ‘Chicken Heads’ – (No. 34 on Billboard’s R&B charts for the Galaxy label in 1971) – came from another Louis Jordan song, ‘Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens.’”
And if you listen closely to his other material – songs like “What’s Good for the Goose Is Good for the Gander,” “Wearin’ It Out,” “Sue,” “Handy Man, “Hen Pecked” and more – you’ll discover that they primarily deal with unselfish love and deep devotion.
“The woman is the key to everything, man,” he insists. “She’s the key to my life and everybody else’s life — whether we want to admit it or not. Why would you want to go to school if it wasn’t to be educated enough to take care of a woman in your life? Why would you want to learn how to count if it wasn’t countin’ up somethin’ for the one you love?
“I wouldn’t work a day in my life if I didn’t have to take care of my family…’cause the work ain’t what I love. It’s in reverse of what I love.
It’s that attitude that persisted throughout his illness.
“We men are macho and all that,” he says. “But once we get sick, we rely on the woman to bring us some water, rub our heads, soothe our aches and pains and talk to us when we’re down and lift us up when we fall down. The lady is the reason why we do all we do.”
“At this point in my life, I think I’ve got a pretty good idea about where I stand,” he said while still in the midst of his personal battle. “I’ve been fightin’ with this virus thing for four or five weeks now. I’m not so concerned about death itself because they ain’t got no cure for it.
“I’m not a religion nut, but if you’re a believer like I am, what you have to do is put your trust in God that He’ll see me through like He has through all these years. I come from a family of prayer warriors, and that means something to me personally.”
That faith helped Rush overcome immense personal tragedy early on in his life, when he lost both his first wife and three children to side effects of sickle cell anemia. Now a household name around the globe, it helped him preserve for two decades as he became the undisputed king of the chittlin circuit before scoring his first hit record and becoming popular with more affluent, white audiences. And it’s enabling him to persevere today, too.
A four-time nominee, he finally captured his first Grammy at age 83 — for the album Porcupine Meat — in 2017. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006 and served as the ribbon cutter in 2015, when the Blues Foundation dedicated its new museum in Memphis – a fitting honor when you consider that, at last count, he’d garnered approximately 50 Blues Music Awards nominations and taken home five statuettes as soul-blues artist of the year, two more for both acoustic artist and acoustic album, and one each for historical album, overall album and B.B. King Entertainer of the Year.
But Bobby’s never been one to rest on his laurels. He’s released more than 400 records, including the CD Sitting on Top of the Blues, which dropped last summer, and the recent single, “Dolemite Kid,” a playful childhood reminiscence that’s tied in to his cameo appearance in the new film biography of comedian, actor, singer and filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore, “Dolemite Is My Name,” starring Eddie Murphy.
“That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Rush says with a smile in his voice. “Eddie Murphy totally embraced me and what I did — but all I did was be myself.
“It’s the way God blessed me. Everybody else was playin’ somebody else. But I was playin’ Bobby Rush!” – a natural role to play when you consider that he and Moore toured together on the chittlin circuit for a decade prior to integration. “How bad could I be playin’ me?
“Rudy Ray and I musta did 150 shows together, playin’ for small crowds in juke joints, VFW halls, dancehalls, bars –and at least 120 of them that made no money at all. Rudy Ray would be the headliner and emcee, and he was a good business man, too, goin’ around with a bullhorn, drivin’ through the streets and announcin’: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, tonight’s gonna be Rudy Ray Moore, Bobby Rush and more’ – goin’ from town to town doin’ that.”
Produced by Vasti Jackson, the “Dolomite” song is related to the movie in name only as it carries forward the folk-funk tradition loaded with boasts and mythical superheroes. In this one, Bobby playfully claims he stuck his hand down an alligator’s throat, “snatched the tongue out of the mouth and used it for my remote.”
The first bluesman ever to sing on the Great Wall of China and a man who still performs up to 200 dates a year, Bobby was already on the path to recovery and eager to get back on the road when we spoke. He’d spent his down time cataloging his extensive originals, and he was already making plans for another acoustic CD.
“You’re the medicine,” he told me as the interview came to a close. Here’s hoping he’s back soon, drawing the audience’s attention to his fine ladies as they shake on stage and smiling that broad, familiar smile for the whole world to see.
Check out Bobby’s music and, hopefully, where he’ll appearing next by visiting his website: www.bobbyrushbluesman.com