Otis Rush

Widest Sweep in the Blues
Widest Sweep in the Blues

All Your Love, I Miss The Lovin’.”

The year was 1956, the label was Cobra, and all of Chicago was rocking to the deft little tune, along with blues hipsters all over the country. This came smokin’ in right on the heels of other smashes like “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “My Love Will Never Die,” and “Groaning The Blues,” all of which were chartbusters for Mr. Otis Rush, the man many guitarists acknowledge as the father and progenitor of the tough, snarly, minor-keyed blues that hint at the darkness and celebration of the human condition.

To this day, Rush remains that rare artist – the true-to-his-soul and unsparingly emotional individual who can pour out every iota on stage while remaining a very private individual off stage. This ability to voice feeling, love, pain, and despair, all within the confines of a measured 12-bar blues has led some of the record-buying public and even a few reporters into thinking Rush must be even more expansive and opinionated when not in the spotlight. But again, he is a true believer in the ability of getting out angst through the purity of song.

“Yes, that’s right,” Rush says. “Sometimes I feel the happiest – or I should say the most content – when I’m sitting around in my empty house playing the blues on my guitar. Don’t matter plugged in or not, I like it both ways, so sometimes I’ll be quite loud and others, why, you can hardly hear me. But for me, anyway, that’s when I play and sing my very best.

“See, I moved up from Philadelphia, Mississippi (to Chicago), in like 1949 or ’50. I had a fairly big family, too – four brothers and two sisters. And you could say I was trying to find me, you know, find that part of yourself that ain’t nobody else has, that little something special that makes a person who they are.

“Well, we was livin’ in Chicago around 31st and Wentworth in an apartment, and I bought myself my first guitar, a cheap little Sears thing, I think, and someone took me down to hear a band play at a club. This is something very hard to understand these days, so explain this to your readers; I mean the first group I ever heard in my life was Muddy Waters, with Jimmy Rogers on guitar and Junior Wells on harp! Now, how are you supposed to beat that?”

Rush can talk at length about the revelatory experience of hearing the first phase of the original Chicago blues as it was being formulated. Rush was born in 1934, so he was 16 years old at the time. And it wasn’t just him.

“No, that’s right. Take a look at Eric Clapton and Keith Richards and all those English cats,” he says. “They were just babies when this was going down, and it hit them hard, too. You could say that music changed all of their lives, also. But I was there, man. I saw it and felt it and set out to capture that ability to transform your life through song.”

His patented vibrato technique – that slow, sultry sweep that quavers and pulsates with just the right shake, can fool a listener at first. One might think they’re hearing amp vibrato or tremolo, but watching Rush up close, you see it’s all right there, in his hands.

If, like most current blues fans, you missed Rush’s big string of Cobra hits in the late ’50s and ’60s, don’t worry – there’s still time! Rush is one artist who is at the peak of his game right now. It’s still all there, along with the wisdom and maturity of age that graces his performances with all of the fire and dynamics of his best singles laid out side-by-side with some newly-penned tunes and enough breathing space to give you an occasional break.

All too often, familiar performers tour with sort of a reconstituted greatest hits package; a little window dressing, but not much going on in terms of audience connection and emotion. But this man works out like he’s trying to come to terms with something, and when he’s really on, there is no stopping him.

“Well, that really is true,” Rush confides. “I try to talk through the method of a song and I’m also still looking for something. I don’t know…a feeling, I guess. See, when I started out, I loved Earl Hooker (John Lee’s cousin), he was my man and he played slide. I wasn’t comfortable with that bit of pipe on my finger and I also really liked B.B. King, you know? His sound was, still is, so articulate and defined. So, really, I tried to combine that slidin’ sound, which is harsh and heavy, with B.B.’s style of vibrato. And I came up with me!”

Sitting next to Rush as he fingers chords and goes to town on his lead work is a good lesson in sparseness and controlled fervor. He can grab the neck and shake it firmly, yet he retains a gentleness and sensitivity that gives his vibrato clarity and control. In terms of gear, Rush says, “Well, there’s two guitars I really like – my Gibson semi-hollows and Fender Strats. I can go with the Gibson 345 or 355, but any of the semi-hollows do it for me. Actually, with either heavy strings or sometimes lighter ones like a 10-46 set. But, like with anything, there’s always something else out there. And for me, well, the Strats just can do some things and feel a bit differently than the Gibson, and sometimes I’ll trade-off.

“For amps, I can’t deny I really liked those old 4 X 10 Bassmans. That was all I ever needed. These days, sometimes I run through a Mesa Boogie for that extra oomph, and sometimes I use a Victoria, which sounds to my ears pretty much like the old Bassman I used to have.

“But we were also trying to find something out there on the stage. See, a lot of times I feel I play a tune too long. Now I know it’s standard to extend a piece in concert, as opposed to how it is on the record, but that’s not how it is with me. At home, when it’s just me and my guitar, I swear at times it’s perfect. The notes come out just right, my singing feels good, and I’m content. But get me under those lights and people are screamin’ and the band’s all jumpin’ around and sometimes, to me, I just don’t get the tone and the feelin’ the way I want; the way I can feel it wants to come through.

“You know, I’ll blow through a solo, 12 bars or whatever, and I’ll be thinkin’ ‘I know this come out better at home last night.’ So I’ll bide my time, take another pass at it, and try to do it better. It goes both ways. I play reactionary, so I move with the crowd. But that can be distractin’, too.”

Rush also feels being left-handed is a definite advantage for his chosen instrument, and points to guys like Albert King and Jimi Hendrix, who also developed signature sounds.

“See, when you play lefty, (upside down right-handed guitars), you’re pulling that vibrato down to the floor. That makes things a lot easier in terms of pressure and control. It only makes sense,” he said. “It’s a lot less stress to tear a house down than to build it up, right? Pulling down makes more sense, to me anyway, and I can work it stronger and get it to sustain better. ‘Course, besides all that, I kinda like doing things backwards, anyway.”

Rush is also a typical example of the consummate artist who is all about his music, and not involved in the cooperate aspects of marketing “soul.” He had a great jump start at Cobra, under the tutelage of Eli Toscano, who was murdered during Rush’s major hit streak with the label.

“Yeah, he was a sweet man who hung too much with gamblers like Shakey Jake and all them. And he ended up in real serious trouble.”

Though he received a Grammy for his recording “Right Place, Wrong Time,” it took six or seven years for it to be released on Hightone.

“It’s just a thing with me,” he said. “I do what I do as best as I can, but I don’t stump around arguing with label owners. If they don’t like what I put out, I guess I just sit back and wait to see what happens.”

Apparently an awful lot of people like what Rush does best, and besides players like Clapton and Richards, Duane Allman and Mick Taylor list him as a mentor. If you want a fine sampling of Rush holding court in front of a captivated audience, get Otis Rush Tops, a recording on the Blind Pig label that features live versions of songs like “Right Place, Wrong Time,” “Crosscut Saw,” and “Keep On Lovin’ Me Baby.”

If you’re hungry to hear how the man works when he has the studio to himself, pick up Lost In The Blues, on the Alligator label, and listen to the special spin he puts on standards like “Little Red Rooster” and “You Don’t Have To Go.”

Onstage, Rush provides a full, lusty sound, augmented by a lot of people, including Bobby Neely on sax.

“Yeah, I always liked a horn brace, you know? It gives you something else to bounce off of, and it really rounds the sound.”

Alan Lomax, author of The Land Where The Blues Began, maintains that the subtleties of true blues music are as varied and precise as the most finely-honed and carefully crafted opera. The book, a carefully researched documentary, was inspired by years spent combing the Mississippi Delta in the days of segregation, trying desperately to unravel the mysteries and driving forces behind the American music we have come to know as “the blues.”

Without getting into the oft-quoted argument about how “you can’t play the blues if you never had ’em,” the simple fact is certain music rings true. Perhaps Joe Moss, a Chicago-area blues guitarist, said it best when he recently opened for Rush at Buddy Guy’s Legends.

“I’d like to thank Buddy Guy for having us here,” he said. “It’s great to be playing. But, actually, the biggest thrill is taking the stage before Mr. Otis Rush, because he is really the *#@!!”

Buddy’s smile, from the back of the room, was easily visible onstage. And everyone in the room shook their heads in agreement. ‘Cause there are speed-freak polynote players all over town, but when Rush starts squeezing that neck, nobody can touch him!

Otis Rush photo by Frank Falduto.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’98 issue.

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