All-Star Blues Bash featuring Bobby Rush, Joe Louis Walker, Wayne Baker Brooks & Shawn Holt, Friday, February 12th at the Kalamazoo State Theater
By Nick Hatzinikolis
When talking with blues legend Bobby Rush, you get caught up listening to the story- telling of his childhood and all of the road stories, to the point you almost think you were there with him. Bobby knew and played with the biggest blues legends like Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and on and on. I found myself taken back to a different time and culture of the world during our conversation.
Bobby’s incredible half-century of recorded music is ready to be devoured by those who’ve never tasted it, and those who want another helping, on “Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History of Bobby Rush”.
Bobby started out the interview talking in support of his album “Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History”. “I want the world to know that this is my first time, and I want to say it for people to be enthused about me. I’m not enthused about all of the songs because at the time I didn’t think they were all good. But after you become a ‘legend’, you look back and it all looks good. There are things you had in the can you didn’t want to put out, and then you get asked what you have in the can that’s never been heard to put it out.”
Bobby Rush was born in Homer, La. in 1933, making him, according to Bobby, the oldest blues musician around. Rush cut his musical teeth in the Pine Bluff, Ark. area with the likes of Elmore James and Big Moose Walker. A move to Chicago in the 1950s put him in the company of Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, and led to sessions at the city’s Chess Records. 1971’s “Chicken Heads” proved his breakthrough, notching #34 on the Billboard R&B chart.
He subsequently recorded for a variety of labels, and relocated in the 1980s to the Deep South, where he became one of the “Kings of the Chitlin’ Circuit”. His musical crossover began largely in the early 2000’s when he was included in the Martin Scorese-produced, Clint Eastwood-directed “The Blues” documentary for PBS. Since then, he’s received three Grammy nominations and 41 Blues Music Award nominations (of which he’s won ten, including 2015’s award for B.B. King Entertainer of the Year).
At the age of 82, he still performs all over the world, including a stop in Kalamazoo on February 12th, 2016 with Joe Louis Walker, Wayne Baker Brooks and Shawn Holt as part of the All Star Blues Band at the Kalamazoo State Theatre.
SMASH magazine had the honor to spend some time on the phone with Bobby Rush as he was preparing for the All Star Blues Bash.
SMASH – Mr. Rush, I have heard talk about your days as a young man picking cotton and singing gospel song. Is this how you became influenced by the blues?
BR: “Please call me Bobby. Yes, yes I started picking cotton when I was about 6-7 years old. From sun up to sun down we would pick. There was ten of us kids in the house and I was the kind of kid that was a quick learner, so my daddy tells me you’re kind of bright. You got to come out of school because you need to help me plant all this cotton. That keeps the other kids in school. And somebody got to do it.
“Apparently, he saw in me what he didn’t see in the other children. So he told me, you can survive it. You’re a smart kid. Come on with me. You go to school three months out of the year, and those kids go nine. See, I was this kid who understood things.”
SMASH – Let’s fast forward to your move in 1947 to Pine Bluff Arkansas. You have been quoted to say, “I need to do this blues music!”
BR: “My daddy was a preacher, he had a church in Houma and in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He would preach at one church on the first Sunday and the other one on the third. As a kid, I was very involved in church, and going to church, but I never sung in the choir.
“I’d go to church on a Sunday, and the choir would be singing, and I’d be singing, but not in the choir. The ladies would be shouting and everything. We’d get out of church about one o’clock and come home, and my dad would have to go back and preach some more in the afternoon. I wouldn’t go back to church with him. And the same people that had been shouting in church, man, they’d be boogie-woogiein’ with me in church just having’ a ball. I think I was about 10 or 11 years old then.
“I wanted to play the guitar. I remember my very first guitar, I made it out of a broom wire. I had a brick on one end and a bottle on the other end — it was like what they used to call a diddley bow.”
SMASH– Did all that boogie-woogie in church give you the courage to go out and make your own music later in life?
BR: “Oh yeah. I went to a place called the “Jitterbug” on Third Street in Pine Bluff. I went to the store and bought a fake moustache. You could glue it on. With that the man at the Jitterbug let me in. See, you could buy them, and you stick them on your face, and it made you look older. Back then you could get in the club when you was 18, but I wasn’t even 18. I went in this club, and I had already been playing at this other club called Drums across the town. But I wanted to go in Jitterbug on Third Street; that was the top of the line club.
“So I went into Jitterbug, got this job, the owner gave me 25 cents, and four hamburgers. And I sell them for 25 cents. I got so good, he would pay me eight hamburgers; I’d sell seven of them and eat one. At 25 cents apiece. So I’m making’ money! That was all my pay. And right time the Chitlin’ Circuit came around. The club owner would say ‘Bobby Rush, you gon’ be the king of my Chitlin’ Circuit.’ Now, I didn’t know what he was talking’ about then, but I found out.”
Bobby continued to say, “There’s a book on the Chitlin’ Circuit, but let me set the record straight on the Chitlin’ Circuit. I’m not the first one that played the Chitlin’ Circuit, but I’m called the Chitlin’ Circuit King. Because the Chitlin’ Circuit was really named from chitlin’s. From a hog (intestines). Because up till 1947 or ’48, chitlin’s wasn’t sold. You could go to the slaughter pen, they would give you all the chitlin’s you want. Especially if you were black. And the black men who owned the chitlin’ joint went and got the chitlin’s and cooked em and gave ‘em out free to the musicians for no money. And you played for chitlin’s. That’s why it’s called “The Chitlin’ Circuit.”
SMASH– Because that’s only way the musicians were paid?
BR: “Exactly right. Now, you might make two fifty or four dollars a night, but you got to split that with all the musicians that’s working’ with you. You making’ a dollar a night, working’ three or four days a week, making’ three or four dollar, instead of working’ in a cotton field making’ eight dollars a week, that’s about all you’re going to get.
“My first gig in Illinois, in ’55 or ’56, in Argo, Illinois, me and Freddie King, I don’t remember the name of the club at that time, but it became The Cotton Club. I was getting $7 a night. And I, as the bandleader, paid the band four dollar and fifty cents. Early ’50s, that’s what I’m making’. And Muddy Waters was making’ $15 a night.”
SMASH– Let’s talk about your move to Chicago, and your name change.
BR: “I came to Chicago in 1951. Muddy Waters was there. Little Walter was there. Willie Dixon was there. In 1953 or ’54, Pigmeat Markham and Moms Mabley came. In 1955, Chuck Berry came. In 1957, Etta James came. I was drivin’ a taxi, picked her up at the bus station, took her to Chess. I didn’t know her; pure coincidence. Also in 1957, the last of ’56, Howlin’ Wolf came. In 1957, Buddy Guy came. In 1957, John Lee Hooker came. Smokey Hogg and Lightnin’ Hopkins had already been there.
“About changing my name, It was about 1953, when I was around 19 years old, I was born Emmit Ellis Jr. I moved to Chicago, and not too long thereafter I changed my name to Bobby Rush.”
SMASH– How did you select the name Bobby Rush?
BR: “I just went through names. I would listen to the sounds of names — there was a cousin of mine who’s named Bobby, and it had a ring, but Bobby is so common. I needed a name that had the first name and last name as a combination. What I mean about that, if you notice, everybody call me Bobby Rush. I tried to pick a name where you say one, you say the whole name, like one word.
“It’s double entendre too, like, I’m in a hurry, I’m rushing, whatever you want to call it, slow yet fast. But I thought about the name for a year before I adopted it for myself. It came out of the sky. I always tell my real name, it’s no big secret, but people call me Bobby Rush, not Bobby, and I prefer people to call me Bobby Rush. You don’t have to call me Mr. Rush. A lot of people who work for me call me by my last name, and that’s OK, but I do want people to call me Bobby Rush.”
Bobby went on to lament as we finished our interview that, “Someone asked me recently what my biggest downfall in life is. I guess my biggest downfall, that I didn’t take advantage of the people who loved me, who really loved me for me. That was Albert King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. Let me tell you what these guys used to do, when I was just a teenager. They used to call me and say, ‘Hey, Blood, come go with me.’ I don’t know what kind of person I was for a grown man to want a teenager to follow him.”
Be sure to see the legendary Bobby Rush at the Kalamazoo State Theatre with the All-Star Blues Bash on February 12. Tickets are available at the Kalamazoo State Theatre box office and all of the usual outlets