Otis Rush - Biography
By J Poet
Otis Rush is one of the original urban Chicago bluesmen, a contemporary of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, known for his screaming, high volume lead guitar lines and soulful, gospel influenced vocal style. He’s left-handed and plays guitar upside down and backwards, so to speak, but his vibrato attack and jazz influenced lead lines helped shaped the sound of Chicago blues. Although he had his first national hit, “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” in 1956, his long career has been plagued by setbacks and financial problems. He has recorded infrequently, but the albums he’s made are all first rate, especially the Grammy winning Any Place I'm Going (1998 House Of Blues). One of the few original Chicago players still healthy and playing in 2008, at 75 Rush is still touring and giving his all to his fans.
Rush was born on a farm in Mississippi in 1934, one of seven children. He grew up singing in the church choir with his six brothers and sisters, and loved listening to Tommy McClennan and Lightnin' Hopkins. He got a guitar in grammar school, but carried it around for years without playing it. Instead, he taught himself blues harmonica.
In 1948, just 14, he dropped out of school and moved to Chicago to live with an older sister. He worked in the stockyards and lied his underage way into blues clubs to hear Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers. He picked up an electric guitar at 19, and was good enough to start the Little Otis band within a year. After hearing T-Bone Walker and B. B. King, he started developing his own eclectic, vibrato- laden style.
Willie Dixon heard him in a 47th Street club, but at the time he sounded too close to Muddy Waters, so Chess passed on offering him a deal. Dixon signed Rush with the new Cobra label in 1956 and his first Cobra single the Dixon composition “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” became a national hit. He also had minor hits with “My Love Will Never Die,” “Double Trouble” and “All Your Love (I Miss Loving).” His backing band included Ike Turner on guitar, Little Walter on harp, Dixon on bass, and Little Brother Montgomery on piano. The label owner Eli Tascano was a gambler and lost the label and all the master recordings in a card game. Most of the tracks on Cobra are collected on This One's a Good ‘un (1969 Blue Horizon France).
In the next 10 years Rush recorded a few sessions for Chess and Duke, and had one minor hit on Duke, “Homework,” in 1962. His Chess sides were released on the anthology Door to Door (1970 Chess) after he became popular with his Atlantic record. He didn’t tour and liked staying around Chicago to play in clubs, so despite his immense talent he remained largely unknown outside of the city. In 1966 he had five cuts on the Vanguard anthology Chicago/The Blues/Today, Vol. 2 (1966 Vanguard). The album introduced him to an international audience including Eric Clapton who cites Rush as a major influence on his own playing. He was one of the stars of American Folk Blues Festival, a package show that toured Europe to sold out crowds.
Rush became popular with non-African American audiences during the 1960s blues revival and with his friend Mike Bloomfield cut Mourning in the Morning (1969 Atlantic) a slow, gritty outing that found him backed by the Muscle Shoals house band, including second guitarist Duane Allman. Shifting personnel in his bands, and personal problems kept Rush from documenting this phase of his career. He got a hero’s welcome on his 1975 Japanese tour, but recoded infrequently. Screamin' & Cryin' (2000 Black and Blue) includes some of the sides he cut around 1974 while the aptly titled Right Place, Wrong Time (1990 Hightone) is the album he cut for Capital that was deemed less than commercial when it was recorded in 1971. Today Right Place is considered Rush’s first masterpiece.
Rush continued playing to his Chicago fans, and made a few more recordings before retiring in the early 80s. Albums from those years include Cold Day in Hell (1976 Delmark), Lost in the Blues (1977 Alligator) a Swedish session that Alligator added augmented with some piano overdubs, and So Many Roads: Live in Concert (1978 Delmark) a blazing set recorded during his 1975 Japanese tour.
In 1985, when Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughn (who named his band Double Trouble after the title of Rush’s early Cobra hit) initiated another blues revival, Rush began performing again, although he still stayed close to Chicago. Ain't Enough Comin' In (1994 Mercury) was his return to form, a solid album with his guitar on fire and his vocals full of sanctified fire. His new take on “Homework” is even more intense than the original. Rush began touring again and closed the decade with Any Place I'm Going (1998 House Of Blues), the Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy winner produced by Hi Records house producer Willie Mitchell.
In 2004, Rush suffered a stroke and had to take time off to recover, but he was soon back on the road. His most recent releases are documents of older live performances. All Your Love I Miss Loving: Live at the Wise Fools Pub Chicago (2006 Delmark) is taken from a 1976 gig, recorded for Chicago’s WXRT Sunday Night Unconcert program, with his regular backing band of the time add muscle to the performances and the two disc DVD/CD set Otis Rush & Friends: Live At Montreux 1986 (2006 Eagle Rock Entertainment) a series of extended jams with guests Luther Allison and Eric Clapton. With he health back Rush continues to tour and surprise fans with his indefatigable energy and massive guitar chops.