Born: April 29, 1934 Primary Instrument: Guitar, electric
While critics and fans have long appreciated Otis Rush's role in the founding of West Side Chicago blues, fame has eluded the bluesman for most of his career.
If there were any justice, wrote Bill Dahl in the San Francisco Chronicle, guitarist Otis Rush would occupy the same exalted position ... as his longtime friend Buddy Guy. Rush first came to the public's attention when Cobra Records released I Can't Quit You Baby in 1956, introducing the minor key song with jazz flavorings onto the blues scene. But although Rush's musical career has been plagued with bad luck and record deals gone sour, he continues undaunted.
Born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1934, Rush was one of seven children born to O.C. Rush and his wife, Julia (Boyd) Rush. He sang in the church choir and listened to the blues of Tommy McClennan and Lightnin' Hopkins. Drawn to music, he learned the guitar from his two older brothers and by listening to records, and he also played the harmonica. By 1948 Rush left Mississippi for Chicago, where he lived with his sister, attending Dunbar High School half-days and worked a variety of jobs over the next several years in Chicago's steel mills and stockyards.
Rush studied the guitar more closely after seeing Muddy Waters and Jimmie Rogers perform at local nightclubs in 1954. He bought a cheap amp, cheap guitar ... It seemed like it was dancing--when I hit a note on the guitar, the amp would bounce around. He played his first club date with Bob Jones at the Alibi and began playing full-time in 1955 at the 708 Club. At first he imitated the Muddy Waters sound, but this changed as he came under the influence of T-Bone Walker and B.B. King. Soon Rush fronted his own band under the name of Little Otis.
In 1956 Willie Dixon saw Rush perform and signed him to Eli Tascano's fledgling Cobra Records. Dixon wrote I Can't Quit You Baby and Rush recorded it for his first Cobra session, when the song was released as the label's first single, it reached number six on Billboard's R & B chart, helping to define the West Side Chicago sound. Robert Palmer wrote of the song in Deep Blues: It was a medium-slow, steady-rocking shuffle, with Otis shouting the gospel blues and playing rapid-fire bursts of high-note guitar. Unlike Waters or Rogers, Rush often added saxophones to his ensemble and incorporated jazz influences. The music that Rush recorded for Cobra would later be collected on “Otis Rush, 1956-1958: His Cobra Recordings.”
In 1959, after Tascono's death, Rush successively signed with the Chess and Duke recording labels, but little of his music was released between 1959 and the mid-1960s. He continued to play at small clubs in Chicago, but was unable to repeat his early success at Cobra. In 1965, while still under contract to Duke, he attended a recording session for Vanguard Records. Four of his songs were included on the compilation titled “Chicago: The Blues Today!” This Vanguard session was his first in several years and finds him in exemplary form. The Vanguard album also brought Rush to the attention of new audiences. He performed at the American Folk Blues Festival in 1966 and at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival between 1969 and 1972. Rush also found appreciative audiences in Europe, and in 1969 he recorded “Mourning in the Morning” with guitarist Mike Bloomfield.
Despite a resurgence in his career, bad luck continued to follow Rush during the 1970s. In 1971 the well-known manager Albert Grossman cut a deal with Capital Records for Rush's next effort. “Wrong Place, Wrong Time,” was produced by Nick Gravenites in San Francisco for $36,000 and turned over to Capitol for release. Despite the excellent quality of the set, Capitol decided to pass on the album, and the recording remained in limbo until the small Bullfrog label issued it in 1976. Rush recorded “Cold Day in Hell” in 1975 and followed it with several live releases during the late 1970s.
During the 1980s Rush temporarily ceased performing due to frustrations with the music business, stating: Success is hard to come by, and there's a lot of false pretensions out here, I wanted to get away from music. Matter of fact, I quit for two years, maybe longer. I stopped playin'.
In 1986 Rush was slated to record an album for Rooster Blues, but walked out of the session due to dissatisfaction with the sound of his amplifier. He experienced further frustrations when Alligator Records bought the rights to “Troubles, Troubles,” a Rush album originally issued on the Sonet label in 1978. Instead of re-releasing the album as it had been recorded, Alligator decided to overdub keyboard parts, and reissued the album as “Lost in the Blues” in 1991. In 1994 Rush re-established his prominence with the release of “Ain't Enough Comin' In,” his first studio album in 16 years. If talent alone were the formula for widespread success, noted Bill Dahl in All Music Guide, Rush would currently be Chicago's leading blues artist. Rush continued to tour and signed a recording contract with House of Blues in the mid-1990s. “Anyplace I’m Goin’” went on to win a Grammy, for Best Traditional Blues Album, 1999.
In 2006, Rush released “Live and From San Francisco,” on Blues Express Records, a live recording from 1999. A video footage of the same show had been released as DVD Live Part 1 in 2003 from the label.
Because of his erratic career and infrequent releases, Rush's name lacks the recognition that has attached to players like Buddy Guy. As Robert Palmer in Deep Blues noted, though, few bluesmen can match Rush's passion: I had heard bluesmen play and sing with comparable intensity and technique, but Otis Rush had something else--an ear for the finest pitch shadings and the ability to execute them on the guitar, not as mere effects but as meaningful components in a personal vocabulary, a musical language. He was playing the deep blues.
Source: Ronnie D. Lankford Jr.