Otis Rush: A-Level Skills, B-Level Fame. Welcome to the Blues.
The death of Otis Rush takes us a long step closer to closing the book on a generation of post-war bluesmen who changed the game.
It also reminds us that while Rush’s personal story did not precisely replicate those of the bluesmen who came before him, from Charlie Patton and Blind Willie McTell to Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howling Wolf, he had much in common with those earlier masters, like rarely getting the success and rewards his music should have earned him.
Within the music world, those named are revered, even hallowed. In the wider world, it’s likely that way more fans know “I Can’t Quit You, Baby” from the first Led Zeppelin album than from Rush’s original 1956 version — even though Rush’s reached the R&B top 10.
Rush did get full props from Zep’s Jimmy Page, as well as the likes of Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Duane Allman — that is, most of the white guys who wanted to do what he could do.
The late Mike Bloomfield, one of the finest white blues players, said the goal of his generation was to be “as good as Otis Rush.”
It’s satisfying that Rush, who died Saturday at the age of 83 from complications of a stroke that ended his music career 15 years ago, was also revered in the black blues community.
Rush, Magic Sam (Maghett) and Buddy Guy were widely considered the new jacks in the 1950s Chicago blues scene. They added jazz licks, gospel echoes and maybe a horn section to the blues they grown up hearing.
Blues had already morphed considerably from the stark, marvelous acoustic sound of the 1920s and 1930s to the powerful electric sound popularized by Waters after he made his way from the Mississippi Delta up to Chicago.
But Rush, along with Magic Sam, Guy and other players like Junior Wells, took it a step further. They enhanced without abandoning, and while some purists heard these new touches as blasphemy, they pointed to where the blues were heading.
Rush had a unique guitar style, stemming partly from the fact he was left-handed. He bent his notes in ways other players did not, and often held them for longer. At the same time he was known as a clean player who wouldn’t hit six notes if two would make the point.
Among that new-kid trio, Rush had the first hit, with “I Can’t Quit You, Baby.” Guy would later tell interviewers that Rush became a kind of mentor to him, calling him on stage and encouraging him to chase the dream. Perhaps ironically, Guy would eventually develop a wider mainstream following and higher musical profile than Rush — or Magic Sam, who seemed to be on the brink of crossover success himself when he died of a heart attack in 1969, age 32.
In Chicago in the late 1950s, there was room for all three. Chicago was an epicenter of live and recorded blues, which was great for creativity albeit challenging for musicians trying to make a living alongside a hundred competitors.
The Blue Flame Club, for instance, held a regular blues competition where first prize was $5 and a bottle of whiskey. The running gag was that the $5 paid for the second bottle.
By the end of the ’50s, Rush was one of the most respected players on the Chicago scene, known for both innovative guitar and intense vocals. Some though not all of his records for the small Cobra label, notably “Checking On My Baby,” captured that intensity.
Recording for Cobra gave Rush considerable freedom to develop his recorded sound. It also limited the distribution of his music, since owner Eli Toscano couldn’t afford extensive promotion — particularly when much of the money the label did make fed Toscano’s gambling habit.
After Cobra went bankrupt in 1959, a victim of one too many bad bets, Rush moved to the larger Chess label. One of his first records there, “So Many Roads, So Many Trains,” may be his best, with a blistering guitar to match a searing vocal.
Had Rush signed earlier with Chess or its sister label Checker, like Waters, Howling Wolf, Jimmy Rogers, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter and many other Chicago bluesmen of the 1950s, he might have matched their famel.
The 1950s was a peak era for blues in the black community, a decade before its embrace by the likes of Clapton and the Rolling Stones made it fashionable in the rock ’n’ roll world as well.
While Rush played the expanded 1960s and ’70s circuit, he would later lament not making a bigger breakthrough. Several times he quit the business altogether, reflecting not ambivalence about the music as much as the strain of making a living playing it.
He would eventually be recognized as one of the modern-era standouts, and while he never reached the crossover heights of Guy or B.B. King, he won a Grammy in 1999 and was still playing when he suffered a crippling stroke in 2003.
In some ways, Otis Rush’s story reads like the traditional blues template. He was born in 1935, heart of the Depression, to a large family of sharecroppers in Philadelphia, Miss. The family came north to Chicago in 1948 and young Otis, not particularly wanting to ever return to sharecropping, picked up music starting with the harmonica.
He switched to guitar as he began hearing radio broadcasts and records of artists like Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins. He launched his career as Little Otis while he was still a teenager.
From the time he assembled his first band, he was looking to incorporate diverse sounds while staying rooted in what came before. The pianist on a number of his Cobra sides was Little Brother Montgomery, who was playing barrelhouse piano in Louisiana during the first World War and was a disciple of Jelly Roll Morton.
In any case, the new generation of blues players in the 1950s some time ago became the old guard, leaving Otis Rush as one of its last survivors.
Happily, recordings let music live past its creators. So many roads, so many trains.