Otis Rush: "This Is My Life Story"
The Complete 1998 “Living Blues” Interview
During the mid-1950s, a tough new breed of guitarists began to emerge from Chicago’s West and South sides. These twenty-something bluesmen had all been raised in the South, and they played loud, hard, and sure-handed. Master string-shakers, they framed their cathartic tales of heartbreak and woe with unforgettable riffs and story-telling solos. Their ranks included Magic Sam, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Joe Young, Luther Allison, Jimmy Dawkins, and first among them to score a hit, Otis Rush.
Born on April 29, 1935, Rush was raised on a plantation-style farm just south of Philadelphia, Mississippi. A southpaw, he learned to play a flipped-over right-hand guitar. Throughout his career strung his guitar “in reverse,” with his bass strings nearest the floor. Seeing the Muddy Waters band during a 1949 visit to Chicago caused an epiphany: “All I could say,” Rush remembers, “was, ‘Whoa! I got to do that.’“ Moving to Chicago, he immersed himself in records by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King, B.B. King, and T-Bone Walker – occasionally slowing down the turntable to play along – and took lessons with Reggie Boyd. Rush made his club debut circa 1953, playing to his own foot stomps. In ’56, Willie Dixon spotted him playing at the 708 Club and arranged for his session debut with Eli Toscano’s fledgling Cobra Records. (For a complete rundown of this session, see my post “Otis Rush at Cobra Records.”)
Rush’s very first recording, a heartrending rewrite of Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You, Baby” delivered with a fever-and-chills vocal performance, reached the Top 10 in Billboard’s charts for “R&B Sellers in Stores” and “Most Played R&B in Juke Boxes.” Hailed as one of Chicago’s most brilliant performers, Rush was soon moving in progressive directions. His sultry moaning and groaning in Dixon’s “My Love Will Never Die” foreshadowed 1960s soul ballads, while his tormented, strikingly original “All Your Love (I Miss Loving),” “My Love Will Never Die,” and “Double Trouble” became urban blues classics. Characterized by its visceral attack and beautiful phrasing with shimmering vibrato and elastic bends, Otis’s guitar approach was soon inspiring a generation of rock and blues guitarists. His disciples included Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Peter Green, Magic Sam, Carlos Santana, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. On Rush’s recommendation, Cobra recorded Magic Sam in 1957 and Buddy Guy in ’58 (with Otis playing rhythm guitar on Guy’s first Chicago recording).
Under Dixon’s guidance, Rush signed with Chess Records and recorded another classic – “So Many Roads” – in 1960, but the association proved to be one of many unhappy experiences he’d have with record labels. Later in the decade he cut records with mixed results for Duke, Vanguard, and Atlantic’s Cotillion subsidiary. His brilliant 1971 album Right Place, Wrong Time lived up to its name, staying on the shelf for a half-decade. Rush confessed to being “high as a kite” from alcohol while making 1975’s Cold Day In Hell for Delmark, and his 1978 Sonet LP, Troubles, Troubles, would be his last studio album for sixteen years. He played occasional dates and recorded live albums for Delmark, Black and Blue, Trio, and Blind Pig, but mostly stayed home drinking and “living off the land” by “hustling pool, trying to catch the lottery.”
In 1994, Rush ended his studio hiatus to record Ain’t Enough Comin’ In for Quicksilver Records, using the same production team and core musicians featured on Buddy Guy’s Feels Like Rain. But unlike Guy’s album, with its airwaves-approved duets and star names, Rush carried the show alone, journeying from passionate pleas to gritty soul and sanctified screams. The title track was the album’s sole Rush composition.
Rush said that his latest release at the time of our interview, Any Place I’m Going, co-produced with his wife Masaki and Willie Mitchell for House of Blues, is “better than any stuff I’ve ever done, because of the sound.” He recast his old Cobra single “Keep On Loving Me Baby” with a modern sheen and delivered a taut slow blues with “Looking Back.” The album’s other Rush original, the title track, was co-written with Will Jennings, of Titanic and “Up Where We Belong” fame.
Through the years, Otis Rush has been characterized as a brooding, intensely guarded man who’s extraordinarily reticent during interviews. This was not the case during the following two-and-a-half-hour conversation, which took place in Chicago on August 8, 1998, in the lobby of Rush’s upscale North Shore high-rise. He unhesitatingly answered all of my questions. I came away feeling that his unflinching recollections of his youth provide insight into the anguish that drives so many of his classic recordings.
When you were beginning to play, did you solo right away or go through learning chords first?
I learned solos right away, because I was playing more like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, stuff like that. I began to practice, and I learned as I go. I’m still learning.
Did you own an acoustic guitar when you were young?
Yes, I did. I didn’t own it, but my brother did. I have a brother – he can’t play, but he bought a guitar. I guess that was my big break. His name was Leroy.
Was this in Philadelphia?
Yeah, Philadelphia, Mississippi.
You once described that town as being so small you could throw a baseball across it.
Yeah. You can bat a home run, and it’s over! [Laughs.] It’s in Shelby County. It’s forty-some miles from Meridian, a hundred miles from Jackson, Mississippi. Living there was a hell of an experience for me.
Why is that?
Just the things you had to go through. This was back in the ’40s and ’50s.
Was there a lot of racism?
Yeah, a lot of that too. I’ve had to go around the back to restaurants. When white people are having dinner, I must wait till they get through eating. After they eat, then we could eat. I’m not kidding. The rest rooms, they had signs up there – “White” and “Colored.” You know I’m telling the truth. It was all over. You’d go to a restaurant, even on the highway, and it’d say, “Colored, go around the back.” When we wanted some food, we can’t order from the front. But I don’t want to get into that. Like I say, it’s been a hell of an experience.
You’ve said that your hard times started around the time you were five years old.
That’s right. My mother didn’t have a husband. There were seven of us – five boys and two girls, and she had to raise us by herself. I’m what they call a bastard. All my brothers had another father – they’re half-bothers – and I have one whole sister, Odie Mae. There’s also Leroy, Lorenzo, Eugene, and Wilmon. The other sister is Elizabeth. The seven of us had to support each other.
Did you ever work in a field?
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah! From five years old. My mother and older brothers and sisters be out in the field picking cotton, pulling corn, or something. I’m lookin’ at them workin’, and I wanted my mother to compliment me. Every time I’d pull some cotton, I’d give it to her and let her put it in her sack – she used to drag the sacks. She said, “Boy, you’re doin’ great!” She kept on telling me how great I worked. I get tired and go sit in the shade, so at some point she said, “Come on, boy.” I said, “What, mom?” “You pick that cotton like you been pickin’.” I didn’t want to pick it. She said, “You better come on, boy, I ain’t gonna tell you no more.” So at six, seven years old, man, I’m working my ass off. I had to pick that cotton. At nine or ten years old, my goodness, I was plowin’ the mule, turning this land over with the plow. No tractor – they had ’em, but not on this farm.
The white man let us go to school when the weather was so bad out there that we can’t go to work. And we’d be prayin’ for bad weather all the time! [Laughs.] We would hope for a storm, so today we could go to school. I went to school, man, but not like I should have. I’d be in school, I have all these plans for today – this is my great day – and [knocks three times, then says in a loud, gruff voice] “Junior in there?” They called me Junior and Bud then. “Is he in there? Send him out here.” Then he’d say, “Come on, boy. I want you to go out here and cut them bushes and do that bottom over there.” I come out of that school mad, man! I felt like kickin’ my own ass. But, hey, you better get up and go – don’t you be seein’ that damn tree with that limb hangin’ out like that with them ropes around it? Shit. I come out of there – and no argument! My teacher don’t argue, just, “You got to go! You got to go, Junior!”
Were you aware of lynchings?
Was I aware of them?! I knew all the time what they’ll do! I’m livin’ there, man! I’m livin’ in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
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