We may never again witness such a symbolic and pivotal passing of the torch as the one that just took place a few short weeks ago.
On May 8, 2015, we learned that Bobby Rush had been named the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year at the 36th annual Blues Music Awards in Memphis.
Then, just six days later, we learned that the great Riley B. King himself had passed away at his home in Las Vegas at the age of 89.
As one would expect, Rush struggles for words and fights back tears when thinking of the synergy that those two closely-related events inspire.
“Oh, man … let me tell you, how blessed am I that I won the B.B. King Award on May 8 and he left this world on May 14? I won the last B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award while he was still living,” Rush said just one day before King’s funeral procession from Beale Street to Handy Park in Memphis and three days before his service in his hometown of Indianola, Mississippi. “I’m just so sad he’s gone, but I’m so happy God let him live for 89 years. I may be mistaken, but I think I’m the next oldest bluesman in this category. I mean, I’m older than Buddy Guy and I’m older than Little Richard. Chuck Berry and Fats Domino would be the only ones older than I am, but they don’t consider themselves to be bluesmen. I never expected to hear that Bobby Rush and Buddy Guy were two of the original bluesmen left … I never would have ever thought about that for one second … I was always just so busy doing what I do.”
With the undisputed and unrivaled King of the Blues – along with his magical companion Lucille – now serenading the good patrons of Heaven, the list of bluesmen who can lay claim to having been around near the birth of the electric blues is a decidedly shorter one. The list of bluesmen who can say they were friends as well as contemporaries of B.B. King from back in that time is an even shorter one, with Bobby Rush and Buddy Guy quickly coming to mind as two of the remaining few.
Although Bobby Rush certainly has nothing left to prove to anyone based on the track record that he’s amassed over the years – rightfully earning the title as greatest soul bluesman of all-time along the way, along with receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from Blues Blast magazine last fall – he does acknowledge a new burden being placed on his shoulders as he now dutifully steps into the breach left by the passing of B.B. King.
“I am so blessed to have been around and to have been B.B.’s friend for 62 years. He made a mark for all of us. I do feel kind of alone since he passed and I do wonder what I’m supposed to do now. Am I supposed to carry this torch alone?” Rush asked. “I’m reaching out and I hope that Buddy Guy will reach out to me and maybe the two of us can get together and try to make one B.B. That’s just how great B.B. was in my eyes. I just want to reach out to Buddy and all the blues guys around my age bracket and do what all we can to keep these blues alive. We also need to encourage all the young people that want to do it to feel free to do it and to help keep the blues and B.B.’s legacy alive. You can think of a King as someone who crowns people and sits in a big chair. Well, there’s a lot of work that goes into that from the time you’re a teenager to the time that you’re 80-years-old. That’s a lot of time and work that’s been put in. I want the world to know that didn’t nobody give B.B. King anything; he earned it because he lived and at times earned little or nothing and put up with all the times he was slighted. None of that stopped him from becoming the King of the Blues. If I could ever become half the bluesman that B.B was, I’d be satisfied.”
For close to the last 30 years or so, a person could easily walk into any bar, grocery store, or even high school campus, and mention the name ‘B.B. King’ and be almost 100-percent guaranteed that all those present would nod their heads in the universal signal of ‘I know who you’re talking about.’ Rush says that a lot of that is due to the man upstairs.
“God blessed him to be around a long time and made him the King of what he was doing. And he was such a kind person … God gave him the grace to be around long enough to travel all the avenues that he did,” he said. “Because he was not just known to blues people, he was known to all the people in pop, rock-n-roll, jazz, country. Even if some of those artists may not have liked him, they sure knew about him. He had a little bit of something for everyone. Everybody knew about B.B. King, you know? That certainly made him the King of the Blues, but it also made him the King, period.”
Just a casual glance at a few of the major awards that B.B. King was honored with will blow a person’s mind. It’s no wonder that the Blues Foundation has named their performer of the year after him, considering that King possesses over 15 Grammy Awards and was also bestowed with their Lifetime Achievement Award in the late 1980s. He’s also a member of both the Blues and Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fames and has been nominated for nearly 50 Blues Music Awards (BMAs), taking home over a dozen trophies from the ceremony in the Bluff City where he famously got his start. Despite the bar being set so impossibly high by B.B. King, Rush figures that there may one day be another icon worthy of all the attention that King has gotten the past six-plus decades.
“I think that God always has a rabbit in the bush for everything. I think the biggest artist has not yet been born. Somewhere down the line, someone will come along that will be as just great. Not so great that people will forget about the greatness of B.B. King, mind you, because he came along at a time when it was not popular to be a blues singer,” he said. “Especially to be a black blues singer. That was not popular when B.B. first came around, because back then it was not called blues; it was called race music. But B.B. stood the test of time and because of what he did, you had a Bobby Rush, you had a Buddy Guy, along with many other artists that came along. We’re here because of what B.B. did and what he stood for. I don’t believe he was doing it to be the King. I believe he was doing it because of his personality and because of his love to play and sing the blues. He did it from his heart and did the best he could do. God wrapped his arms around B.B. and took care of him, so in turn, he could take care of people like myself and Buddy Guy and many other musicians. They’ll be some young guy to come up and come along and make a name for himself and be just as good, or maybe even better, but they’ll never take the name of the King.”
A couple of the more remarkable aspects about B.B. King’s career would have to be his constituency, along with his refusal to get swept too far down the treacherous river of current trends. Put it this way; when you heard B.B King, you were going to hear the blues, end of story.
“From the word ‘go’ B.B. has stood still, ever since I knew him. He never changed very much, which was good … maybe because he didn’t know how, but nevertheless, it’s all good. A lot of guys that came along with B.B. and myself, when the disco days happened, we tried to change to what was going on, so we could fit in,” said Rush. “But B.B. King never tried to fit in to anything. He was always B.B. King.”
Unfortunately, there has been no shortage of controversy or leveled accusations as to King’s death and the handling of his estate in the immediate wake of his passing, with B.B.’s daughters on one side and his longtime manager on the other.
“It has cast a shadow on things, but you’ve got to understand B.B was an easy-going man. Maybe him and his daughters didn’t have much of a relationship. Who knows? Only B.B. and his daughters know that,” Rush said. “I sure don’t want to get into that. I personally don’t know the manager, who I think had been with him for 40 years. I just hope that somewhere down the line, people that have been with him for all this time will recognize his friends – especially his blues friends. I don’t know what went down and what happened with the kids and I don’t want to get into that. I’m not taking sides with the children or the manager … what’s right is right and what is done is done. The main thing is I want to leave it with the love of a man who did so much for me and other people like me. I just want people to let him be at peace.”
Even though the familiar sight of a tuxedoed B.B. King, perched in a folding chair and cradling his beloved Gibson ES-355 with a huge grin on his face, may be missing in the coming years, Rush insists that the spirit of the man will forever be alive and well and with us.
“B.B. King will live on through people like me and Buddy and the people that will be coming up after us. He lives on through this, through the blues. It’s just like T-Bone Walker lived on through B.B. King. B.B. loved T-Bone,” said Rush. “You can hear Blind Lemon in B.B. King. He lived on through B.B., too. You see? You can hear Louis Jordan and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in me. They live on through me. You keep passing this on and on; because there ain’t nothing new under the sun. Everything has been done before.”
Blues Blast publisher Bob Kieser once referred to Rush as ‘the Susan Lucci of the blues.’ Considering that during the first couple of decades of the Blues Foundation’s awards (from the Handy Awards to the current Blues Music Awards), Rush was nominated almost every year but always walked away empty-handed, that description seems rather apt. However, the tide has most definitely turned the past few years and Rush has probably had to add more mantle space for all the BMAs he’s captured (including Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year this spring). So why the change in perception of Rush’s craft among voters?
“Well, it’s better to be late than never,” he laughed. “But I’m not bitter of what I didn’t win or for what didn’t happen. I’m blessed to have ‘Bobby Rush’ be a household name now and to known all over the world.”
Rush has been on quite a hot streak the past couple of years and has churned out a couple of albums that have already found a spot among some of the best endeavors of his long and illustrious career, including 2012’s Down in Louisiana (Deep Rush Records) as well as his brilliant hookup with Blindog Smokin’ on last year’s Decisions (Silver Talon Records). It was on Decisions that Rush teamed up with Dr. John to cut the instantly-memorable song, “Another Murder in New Orleans” (which was nominated for Song of the Year at this year’s BMAs). The subject matter tackled in that song might be a little different from the kinds of things Rush normally sings about, but according to the man himself …
“That’s what makes Bobby Rush. You see, I’m not trying to invent another wheel; what I’m trying to do is grease the wheel so it will roll smoother. You have to modify yourself into today’s times … I don’t mean change, I mean modify,” he said. “I always use this; when I was a child, we had an outhouse and you used the bathroom outside. Well, now you have a bathroom inside and it may smell better, but you do the same thing in both, you see? The bottom line is we may change were we do it, but we haven’t changed what it is we do in the bathroom. That hasn’t changed and probably never will, the location has just been modified. Musically, some of the grooves may have changed, but we really haven’t changed what we’re talking about a whole lot over the years. Here’s what we’re talking about: making love, being in love, short money, long money, no money, some money, a little money and a whole lot of money. Sometimes we talk about troubles – up and down – and we talk about buying a house and living up on the hill and good times and bad times. All that is about the blues. We all want the same thing, whether we’re black, white, green, brown … we all want the same thing … a good living and a good life and some money in our pockets.”
Rush threw his faithful fans a bit of a delightful curveball back in 2006 when he took things way back to the old-school days by unplugging, strapping on an acoustic guitar, hanging a harmonica around his neck and heading into the studio to cut what would become the Raw album. It was immediately hailed as an all-time classic, and thankfully, it appears that another such project is currently underway.
“Yeah, I’ve already recorded it and it’s rawer than Raw. It’s just me, my guitar, my harmonica, my big feet on a board and I’ve got about 12 or 13 songs done and I think it’s great and will be something that people want to see and hear,” he said. “I think people will be knocked off their feet when they hear Rawer than Raw. I don’t think anyone’s recorded the kind of record that I’m trying to record. It’s down, dirty, greasy and to the point, man.”
The way that Rush views it, the blues is music to be celebrated no matter how you’re feeling – up or down.
“That’s right. When you look at the blues, they’re nothing that’s only there to make you sad and they’re nothing that’s only there to make you glad, because the same things that make you cry are also the same things that make you laugh. When I was a young man, we would work all day in the cotton fields, picking and chopping to make a living. When the weekend came, we were happy because we knew we’d be heading off to the juke joint. We were going to party and have a good time and listen to the blues. That was a good time,” he said. “The only sad time about the weekend happened at about 9:30 or 10 on Sunday night when it would start getting close to Monday morning and work-time again. That was the saddest time. Then, from Monday morning to Thursday night, you’re sad because you’re working, but you’re also happy because you’re one day from Friday afternoon and the weekend and back to the party. That’s the way life is. A man will go to work all year just to get a vacation. A man will work all week to get a payday. And a man like myself and B.B. will work all these years to get famous, where we can be popular enough to earn a little bit of money and to be liked for what it is you do.”
All that work to make a name for yourself throughout the decades leaves a person little time to think about the ultimate level of success that they might hope to obtain, and this includes Rush, who has basically been a self-contained bluesman from the get-go.
“When I started out, I was going to write songs until I found me a good song-writer. I was going to promote myself until I found an agent. I was going to produce myself until I found a producer. I was going to do all these things until I could find someone to do them for me,” he said. “Well, all those things that I wanted to get someone to do for me I found out 40 or 50 years later that I was the man. I didn’t know that at the time, but I was the man for the job. About 10 or 12 years ago, B.B. came to me and asked me to write him a song and Bobby Bland did the same thing, too. Can you believe that? They wanted me to write them a song. I was looking up to those guys and I wanted to have the kind of writers that those guys had, and here they are, asking me to write them a song. Man, I was flattered.”
A dozen or more scorebooks would not even begin to hold all the names of the musicians that have been a part of Rush’s band over the years. A good deal of those even went on to earn enshrinement in the Blues Hall of Fame (including Rush himself, who was inducted in 2006), cats such as Luther Allison, Freddie King, Elmore James and Magic Sam, to name just a very few. So did Rush have any idea he was mentoring some of the baddest of the bad?
“I do now, but back at that time, you didn’t think about that. Forty or 50 years ago, I was just playing and when a band-member would want to go do their own thing, I would say, ‘Go ahead. Go do your own thing.’ Someone asked me one time if I could name all of the musicians that had played with me through the years and I told them I could not,” Rush said. “I’m talking about thousands and some of them went on to do really well for themselves. Some of them were even more qualified at doing what I was doing, but I was the band-leader, you know? I couldn’t get fired by any of those guys, the only person I could get fired by was the club-owner if they didn’t hire me back.”
Regardless of whether or not Bobby Rush had been cast into the role of blues crusader now that his long-time friend B.B. King has passed, there’s little doubt that slowing up or easing the pace has never once crossed his mind. Just like it has always been, from here on out, it’s business as usual for the great Bobby Rush.
“Man, retirement don’t cross my mind. I’ll retire when I have to, not because I want to. There’s no retirement in my sights,” he said. “I’m going to do this until I can’t.”