Otis Rush was one of the last of a generation of bluesmen who were not only great craftsmen but also heavily influential on another generation of (especially) British bluesmen and women. He died on September 29, 2018, at the age of 83. This is his story.
In Chicago in the sixties, “the rules had been laid down” for young, white blues bands, Mike Bloomfield told Rolling Stone in 1968. “You had to be as good as Otis Rush.”
Like so many of his peers, Rush came from Mississipi. Philadelphia, MS is not part of the Delta of blues lore but is a good 120 miles (193km) to the South and East. Rush was born in 1935, same year as Elvis Presley which I find at the same time both interesting and satisfying.
From the Mississippi Blues Trail website: “During the throes of the Great Depression in a segregated society, although times were hard, with the children often missing school to work in the cotton fields, Julia Boyd (his mother) did own a wind-up Victrola record player. Rush heard blues records at home and on jukeboxes in Philadelphia when his mother would bring him to town. He began playing harmonica, and also sang in a church choir.
When his oldest brother, Leroy Boyd, was away from home, Otis started secretly playing Leroy’s guitar. With no musical training, he devised his own unorthodox method, playing left-handed with the guitar upside down.” He used to curl the little finger of his pick hand around the bottom E string which provided his own distinctive sound.
Otis visited his sister in Chicago, heard Muddy Waters live and said “Damn. This is for me.” He moved to Chicago in 1949 when he was 14 years old and – while supporting himself as a laborer – started playing in local clubs in 1953. Billing himself as LIttle Otis, he was discovered by blues legend Willie Dixon who was also a talent scout for the now-defunct Cobra Records. (Also home to Magic Sam and Buddy Guy.)
Otis and his peers were largely responsible for developing the “west side” Chicago sound which was often “characterized by a more fluid, jazz-influenced style of guitar playing and a full-blown horn section while the “southside” blues sound was often more raw and raucous.”
Otis’ very first record, in 1956, was a Willie Dixon-penned tune called “I Can’t Quit You Baby” which he wrote about a relationship Rush was involved in. The song was a hit in the genre then pathetically known as ‘race records.’ This song has been covered by pretty much every blues player who ever lived, most famously by Led Zeppelin on their debut album and most recently by the Stones on Blue and Lonesome. (With Clapton on guitar.) Dixon plays bass on this tune and Big Walter Horton, the harmonica.
When you hear me moaning and groaning, baby,
You know it hurts me way down inside
When you hear me moaning and groaning, baby,
Oh, you know it hurts me way down inside
Yes, when you hear me, honey, baby,
You know you’re my one desire
It was during this period of time that Rush recorded some of his great (and two of my favorite) blues songs, the Willie Dixon-penned “Double Trouble,” and his own composition, “All Your Love (I Miss Loving.”)
If “I Can’t Quit You Baby” wasn’t enough to convince you of this man’s influence on British (and other) bluesmen, consider that “Trouble” was recorded later by Paul Butterfield and John Mayall. And that Stevie Ray Vaughn’s band was named after the song. Eric Clapton plays a killer version on his great live album Just One Night.
Here’s Otis’ “Double Trouble.” Ike Turner plays on this tune.
You laughed at me walkin’ baby, when I had no place to go
Bad luck and trouble have taken me, I have no money to show
But hey, hey, to make it you got to try, baby that’s no lie
Yes, some of this generation is millionaires
It’s hard for me to keep decent clothes to wear
Wikipedia: In 2010, Otis Rush’s “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. Peter Green acknowledged being influenced by “All Your Love”‘ when he wrote the rock classic “Black Magic Woman.” According to Carlos Santana, “If you take the words from ‘Black Magic Woman’ and just leave the rhythm, it’s ‘All Your Love’—it’s Otis Rush.”
I love this fucking song and first heard it on the famous John Mayall and Bluesbreakers “Beano” album. I play it on guitar pretty much all the time. Fun to play and listen to. Ike Turner is second guitar again:
Cobra Records folded and Otis moved on to Chess. Sad to say, while he is incredibly well-known among blues aficionados he never received the widespread mainstream recognition of a Buddy Guy or B.B. King. He played clubs in the US and Europe and his live shows apparently alternated between great and listless.
In 1969, Otis recorded an album called “Mourning in the Morning” at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. This album was co-produced by Mike Bloomfield of the Butterfield Blues Band and Nick Gravenites, all-around blues guy who wrote “Born in Chicago.” And yes, this version of the Muscle Shoals band included Duane Allman. This song “Reap What You Sow” is on Duane’s Anthology II and features some tasty background playing by him.
This next track is from a 1976 album called Right Place, Wrong Time. After his days at Cobra, Otis had had the misfortune of being on labels that didn’t know how to promote him or went out of business. Capitol Records – who, starting with the Beatles have a history of stupidity – did not release this album and it came out five years after it was recorded on another label. Anyway, here’s the title track:
Worn out and disillusioned, Otis retired from music in the late ’70’s. He made a comeback in the ’80’s and finally got his due in 1999 when he won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album with Any Place I’m Goin‘. Here he is doing Ray Charles’ “Night Time is the Right Time.” (No Spotify.)
In 2003, Otis had a debilitating stroke, only appearing once on the sidelines in 2016 at the Chicago Blues Festival.
Otis Rush was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984. In 2015, Rolling Stone ranked him number 53 on its 100 Greatest Guitarists list. The Jazz Foundation of America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award on April 20, 2018 “for a lifetime of genius and leaving an indelible mark in the world of blues and the universal language of music.”