Posted April 2017
Almost anyone who is into music has at least a little appreciation for the blues. Personally, I love it. Some appreciate it. Still others don’t care for it at all. It’s history is long and, well, bluesy. The founding artists of the genre typically died poor, destitute, and (sometimes) under – shall we say – under circumstances that is the stuff of folk lore.
Ever since Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil at the infamous crossroads so that he could play the blues, the genre has lured many musicians and fans alike into its soul-gripping web.
Boomerocity has interviewed some great blues men and women like John Mayall, Johnny Winter, Walter Trout, Joe Bonamassa, Beth Hart, Derek Trucks, Kim Simmonds, and others.
Recently, long-time blues vocalist, Bobby Rush, was finally honored with his first Grammy. At eighty-three years old, it’s a long overdue honor for the blues legend.
I called up Mr. Rush while he was resting up before a performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We chatted about the Grammy and the album that he won it for; his upbringing as well as his experiences in all of his years in the business. While you may be tempted to just read this, I encourage you to listen to the audio embedded to the right of this article. To hear him tell his story is a cherished treat in itself.
When I started off by congratulating Bobby Rush for his Grammy, he expressed genuine gratitude and humility.
“It was long overdue but it’s better to come late than never, you know? That’s my attitude about it. I’m happy ‘bout it and
just so grateful. Why it hadn’t come before now we won’t even think about that. It’s just come now. Let’s grab the pieces now and run with it.
“Let me say this to you: My mind was made that even if I didn’t bring it home, I was a winner because I was in the race! That’s my attitude about it because to be in the race – I accept this because of a lot of guys I beat out was more qualified than me. That don’t mean I would’ve been happy if I didn’t bring it home but, nevertheless, there’s millions of guys who hadn’t gotten it and do as much as I do – it could be more. But I just appreciate it and I appreciate the guys I’d been running with – who I was in the race with - although I won and they loss. That’s the way it goes. Some win. Some lose. We all are friends in spite of that business stuff.”
Because he has been in the blues business for sixty years, I asked what has been the biggest changes that he has seen in the music business from the beginning until now.
“The biggest thing I saw, I guess, is opportunity that I didn’t have when I first started. As a biblical study, the more things change, the more they remain the same. But there are a lot of opportunity I have now that I didn’t have then.
“Let me tell you one thing that I’m so proud of. I’m so proud that I have crossed over now to a white audience. But I crossed over and never crossed out the black audience. They still relate to me as the King of the Chitlin circuit. That means I’m a blues singer – and proud of it – but I’m proud of it because I’m not only a blues singer, I’m a black blues singer and I never let anybody live that down. It’s been a hard road to me.
“I remember 1951 when I was working in clubs behind a curtain where people wanted to hear my music but they didn’t want to see my face. But, then, I had fun doin’ that. I didn’t have fun with the reason why, but I had fun doing it because it was all about getting to the place where I am now. I was payin’ dues and I don’t have no chips on my shoulder with nothin’ and nobody about anything. I just know when it’s my time, it’s my time.
“God has blessed me to be in the business sixty-six years. I’ve been recording since 1951. There’s 274 records. At my age – over eighty years old and gettin’ an award – I believe that I may be the oldest man that ever received an award at this age that never seen one before. Somebody told me but I didn’t think about it or know about it. But of many people who have been in my position, never win awards, we’re talkin’ ‘bout a lot of guys. ZZ Hill, Tyrone Davie, Johnny Taylor and many other guys I can call never been up for a nomination.
“So I accept this for these guys that never had the chance to receive this and they did just as good or better as I. But I’m just thankful. Just thankful. And I do thank the people for accepting me for who I am, what I am, and what I do. People like you calling me, god! You know how to make me feel to give me a call to do an interview with me! You don’t have to do this. You got a million other guys you can call to do an interview so I’m thanking you in advance for what you’re doing.”
And what hasn’t changed in the business?
“Well, what has not changed is the music and the people themselves because you got people still love good music and good entertainment. But you do have people recording things that’s not as good and radio stations playing it politically.
“It’s just like writin’ a book. You can only write about what you know about. But people still come for good music and good entertainment value. You gotta lot of garbage stuff that’s bein’ recorded now. I’ll not get into name callin’ of who’s doin’ it. But I call some of it garbage because some of it’s not really music. But I’m about the real music, man. The real, live musicians. Real music. That don’t mean the guys that do the samplin’ aren’t important, either. But what I’m sayin’ is I’m a creator and I create good music. Good songs; good stories; good lyrics and try to have a good point with where I’m goin’ with it and not just somethin’ I’m throwin’ up against the wall. I think that’s what’s changed with the music. People wanna do samples, now, and cut corners and do the set drum and set this and set that. There’s nothin’ wrong with none of that. That’s all modification. But we got to get back to the real music and the real music has changed.”
My research on Bobby Rush revealed that he grew up as a preacher’s kid. I asked him about that.
“My daddy was a pastor at two churches. One was for fifty years and one was for fifty-five years. Freewill Baptist Church. A Baptist preacher. My daddy was my best friend. He influenced me because being a preacher, I so much respect for my father as a preacher and as my friend, my mentor. He never told me to sing the blues but he never told me not to sing the blues and that was a green light. Because in the era I come up in, if he had told me not to sing the blues, I doubt that I would be singin’ the blues today. That’s how much respect I had for my father and for what he stood for.
“My real name is Emmett Ellis, Jr., after my father. I changed my name only because of my father – because of the respect I had for him and that he had for me. I was looking for names with one syllable. I tried to name myself President Eisenhower, Truman, and all of that, but as a young country boy, all I know was big names like the president. So, I came up with Bobby Rush because nobody called me Bobby and nobody called me Rush. Everybody called me Bobby Rush. There’s plenty of Bobby’s and plenty of Rush’s but ain’t but one Bobby Rush.”
Many artists in various genres got their musical start in church. When I asked Bobby Rush if that was the case with him, his response startled me.
“NO! I didn’t do performing in church. All I did in church was teach Sunday School, Superintendent of Sunday School, and did a lot of things in the church. I am a biblical study. I’m not a religion nut but I’m a biblical study because I take the Bible as a road map to life. It teaches what I should and should not do. That’s my guideline. I don’t beat people across the head about the resurrection or the devil, whatever. I just know that you must do all you can while you can. There will come a time that I cannot do then you won’t regret what you did not do. That’s what it teaches me.”
We then shifted the gears of our conversation to the subject of his Grammy-winning album, Porcupine Meat, and how putting this record together was different for him than all of the other records he recorded.
“Well, it wasn’t that much different than two or three others. But I’ll tell you, it’s different than a lot of them. First of all, in 1966, I had a record. It was ‘Chicken Head” and I didn’t know how to tell a guy the title of the song – Calvin Carter, who had Vee Jay Records. Later on, in ’81, I had a song called ‘Sue’. In ’83 or 4, I had “Ain’t Studdin’ Ya”. I had many records but every time I had titles like this, I always looked for titles like this that was a gimmick thing for titles. Everything I did that was titled like that seemed to be successful. So, when I had this song, “Porcupine Meat”, and I wanted to propose it to the producer, which was Scott Billington, who we’ve become very good friends, I was comfortable enough to tell him, I said, ‘Well, listen, I gotta song that I think is gonna be a hit record.’ He said, ‘What’s the name of it?’ I said, ‘Porcupine Meat”. He just fell out laughing. I guess he thought it was some kind of joke.
“So, I was afraid to tell him about the record because I thought he was gonna laugh at me just like he did but he was laughing in a good fashion. He wasn’t laughing because he was making fun of me. He was laughing because he thought it was so clever. Once I found out he thought it was clever, then I really put it on ‘cause what I’m talking ‘bout in ‘Porcupine Meat’, I wasn’t talking ‘bout the animal itself, I was referring to him like a parable.
“I’m in love with this woman, and I know she don’t mean me no good. I want to leave but I can’t because I’m afraid if I leave, I’ll find someone else just as bad or worse. So, I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t. That’s what they call ‘Porcupine Meat’; too fat to eat and too lean to throw away. That’s what I was talkin’ ‘bout. That kinda thing. I was talkin’ ‘bout my mama told me when I was young, ‘If you play with fire, son, you’re bound to get burned.’ I didn’t believe my mama way back then but look at me, the shape I’m in. I’m in love with a woman and I know she don’t mean me no good.’ She may not be good for me but, partner, damn, she good to me!’ Ha! Ha! Ha! You know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout! Man to man talk, here, you know? That’s ‘Porcupine Meat’. Too fat to eat, too lean to throw away. I’m afraid if I just go leave her, she’d go find B.B. King or somebody. They’d be braggin’ ‘bout it, you know?
“Anyway, it’s funny but true. We go through life that way.”
What has been crowd and fan response to the record?
“Oh, god! It’s been overwhelmingly good! And since I won, more people want to hear it than ever and they get the sense of what I’m talkin’ ‘bout now other than a piece of meat you get from an animal. They kinda laugh and joke ‘bout it. Some of ‘em say, ‘Hey! I missed it but now I have it!’ The ones who has it loves it more. I think this record is the kind of record that’s going to be around for a long time because the meaning of it is something that everybody can relate to once they find out what I’m talkin’ ‘bout. They can relate to it.
“I’m gettin’ good response and I think it’s gonna raise my bar up where I can make a decent livin’ for my family. It’s what it’s all about – puttin’ your time in to get something out. Put that music in and get somethin’ out. With time, at eighty-three years old, it’s time for me! I’m not trying to be cocky or a big shot about it. I’m just tryin’ to make a livin’ for my grandchildren, children, and my family. I put my dues and I paid my dues and I’ve been here.
“I started to workin’ in 1951. I was workin’ for a guy named E.F. Borger. I was making twelve dollars a month. Not twelve dollars a night. Twelve dollars a month! I was playin’ three days a week for a dollar a night, somethin’ to eat and a place to stay. Twelve dollars a month I was makin’! The last of that year, the first of ’52, I started working with Muddy Waters. I was makin’ seven dollars and fifty cents a night as band leader and payin’ Muddy Waters $5.50. That’s what we was makin’ and the band members was makin’ three dollars and fifty cents. That’s what we was makin’. Some of the other guys were makin’ a little bit more but the black guys, that’s all we was makin’.
“Once I got to the place where I was making twenty-one dollars a night, I thought I was in heaven, man! In ’53 and ’54, I was makin’ twenty-one dollars a night as a band leader. Man, I was in Heaven! Payin’ my band members eleven dollars. I was makin’ twenty-one as a band leader. After you pay your taxes and everything, usually, then, I was bringin’ home twenty-one dollars a week. Twenty-one dollars and forty-five cents. That was my take home.”
For those who haven’t heard it yet and are considering buying it, I asked the blues legend what song would he point them to as a calling card to entice them to purchase Porcupine Meat.
“Well, let me tell you what: this is the first time that I recorded a CD where I was confused about which one – eleven songs and you can point to nine of them songs equally. It’s hard for me to tell you because when I sent this to five DJ’s, five DJ’s took to five different things.
“Now, you may not know where I’m goin’ to but when you got a record, you send it to five DJ’s and they say five different things, that’s good! It’s good but it’s not good. It’s good because you got stuff that’s good they want but it’s not good because programming – that means you got five guys playin’ five different things. If I didn’t have but one record with five guys playin’, that’s one thing: concentrated play. When you get concentrated play, you get a hit record. But if we got ten people playin’ one thing on each channel and each one playin’ a different thing, that don’t give you no concentrated play. If the CD is so good but anything you play – when they pick it up, ‘Oh, I like this!’ That’s the first thing they’ll play. But I try to encourage people to play the first two cuts on there which is, ‘I Don’t Want Nobody Hangin’ Around” and ‘Porcupine Meat’. The third thing would be ‘Funk O’ De Funk’. But they play all over it. They play everything on it!
“One guy called me last week and said, ‘Bobby Rush, I been playin’ a different song every week!’ I didn’t cut him down ‘cause I appreciated that. But that don’t help me like they’re playin’ one song seven times a week or a song a day, you follow me? But, anyway, I’m grateful for that. I can’t call him up and say, ‘Let’s don’t play this but play this tomorrow.’ If he plays what he wants to play, at least he’s playin’ somethin’ off of that CD and it gives me name recognition. At least, now, I’ve lived long enough to have a legend name so let’s see where it takes me from here. Hopefully, I can keep enthused and keep doin’ what I’m doin’ and learnin’ what I’m learnin’ and stay in the business long enough to make a dent with some more records and come out with a Grammy.”
We’ve been losing some great blues men over the past couple of years and those still alive are beginning to face health issues. I asked Mr. Rush if he saw anybody whom he felt is picking up the blues mantel and carrying on the genre or does he feel that the genre is dying.
“Yeah, I feel both ways. You gotta guy like Dexter Allen and Joe Bonamassa. Quite naturally, he’s tough to beat. Then you have Stevie J and you got Jessie Robinson – you gotta few guys who that I know love the blues but I just don’t know how dedicated they are to themselves to do this in the form that I did it when you makin’ no money and still do what you do and keep tryin’. I don’t know if they got that kinda guts to do it. But there’s a few guys I hear that can play the blues, they love the blues, but I just don’t know what they have.
“I hope that with a sheer win out of Bobby Rush like this encourages them to stay in the business because of how long it takes. I’m not sayin’ that I hope it takes up to this long but I hope they don’t give up! I’m hopin’ I be the one at eighty-somethin’ years of age – ‘If Bobby Rush didn’t give up and he made it, so can I!’ I’m hopin’ I’ll be the guy who they look up to and say, ‘Hey! He finally made it so I can do it, too!’ I’m just hopin’!
“See, what happened – you don’t know this – twenty-five or thirty years ago, black guys entered the blues more they do now. Now, you got black guys who don’t want to play blues and to me, as a black man, they don’t want to be black. They don’t want nobody to know they’re black or play the blues. I’m the kind of guy, I love what I do and embrace what I do and I hope that you like what I’m doin’. I’ve heard guys say, ‘Well, I’m gonna play this because I think it’s what white people like. I wanna play like this because black people like it.” But I play good music and hope everyone likes it! It’s not a black or white issue with me. It’s about the music and the love of it! That’s what I feel about it.
“You know, I know there’s some discouragement with some guys, especially the black entertainers because they can’t get airplay. I just encourage them to take it from me at eighty-three years old with three hundred and seventy-four records, that I just got a Grammy. I think I got fifteen or eighteen blues awards. But let me tell you how encouraging it can be: Two years ago, B.B. King come to me and asked me, ‘Bobby Rush, I want you to do Indianola, Mississippi, ‘cause I’m not goin’ to play in it anymore.’
“Oh, he said that a couple of years before that and I’d say, ‘Aw, B.B., come on. I’m already booked, anyway.’ He said, ‘Where are you booked?’ and I said, ‘I’m booked up at Memphis, Tennessee.”
“The guy had me headlining at 11 o’clock at night and I’m a hundred and fifty miles from Indianola. So I went to the promoter and I said, “Listen, I need to do B.B. King a favor ‘cause he asked me to do somethin’ and I’ll tell ya what he asked me.”
“He said, ‘I tell you what. If you’re gonna do it for B.B. King, you can go on at 4 o’clock. I know nobody will be here but come on at 4 o’clock and you can go on and be with B.B.’
“I said, ‘Here’s my deposit you gave me.’ He said, ‘No! Keep the deposit! In fact, here’s the rest of your money! I’m gonna pay you now!’ Two weeks before he paid me to do the show and I got up and did the show with B.B. King.
“So, when I got there a couple of hours later, I said, ‘B.B. King, tell me, why did you want me to come?’ And he said, ‘Because I knew if you come, Bobby Rush, I’d get black people to see me ‘cause this gonna be the last time I play this here set.’ And I noticed every time B.B. played Mississippi, he never drawed but just a few black people. They didn’t come to see B.B. He wanted me there to draw blacks. In this particular time, it was about 50/50. It coulda been 75/25 were black. That is to see B.B., you follow me? And two or three weeks later, I got the B.B. King Award not knowing that I was gonna get it. And a month or two after that he passed. He passed the torch to me.
“Man! That was the saddest thing to me when I look back on it. Then, when I look back on what somebody wrote – that Bobby Rush is the oldest blues man living – I didn’t think about that but I think I am, ya follow me?
“I’m on my way up to Cleveland, Ohio, now, to do a guest spot on a movie that’s out called Take Me To The River. We did this three or four years ago. They got me up tomorrow. I’m goin’ to speak in front of the students about this movie that we did. It’s hard for me to talk about this because at the time we did it, myself, Snoop Dog, and some young rappers played. A bunch of musicians out of Stax was part of that. But now, since that time we did it, Otis Clay passed, the guitar player that was playing with us passed. Hardges had passed. And Ben – a horn player with the Stax horn section had passed. Since we did this, six guys had passed out of ten of us. Six of those guys had passed in two and a half years. And, now, they got me goin’ up and talkin’ about this. I never thought about it and I was willing to do it but when I rolled in last night, thinking about it, it’s almost like B.B. King, when he passed. The torch, he passed it to me. Then the family said, ‘Well, Bobby Rush, are you going to the funeral?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m goin’.’ ‘Since you’re goin’, we’d like for you to say a word or two.’ I said, ‘Okay, put me on the program.’ ‘We’d like to let you have the last word.’
“Oh, god, man! What can I say? Oh, man. It brings tears to my eyes to talk about it. I just don’t know. I thank God every day that I lived long enough to see some of the glory and how people have had a change of heart and a change of mind about people themselves – especially about the black and white issue in the music. ‘Cause music sows up everything. There’s no black and white issues in music with the people who do it and respect it. And I’m so happy that you people embrace me for who I am and what I am. It’s such a good feelin’. If they didn’t vote for me, they didn’t show it and if they did, I thank ‘em for what they done. Even if they didn’t vote for me – if they voted for somebody else in the same category – I’m okay ‘bout that ‘cause that don’t make it that they don’t love me. They had someone in there that was a family member or someone they have a relationship with. It’s okay because if you and I was votin’ today and our wife was up, we’d give her our vote because it’s our wife regardless of music. So I understand all o’ that. I understand the relationship makes the difference. But they thought enough of me to vote for me and I’m kind enough to say thank you! I’m grateful about it. I was so outgunned when I won, I didn’t have anything written. I hadn’t thought about what I was gonna say because that was far from my mind – winnin’. I was a winner when I was in the race! That was my attitude! I said, ‘I’m already a winner! I’m in the race! I’m eighty-three years old in the race!’
“I don’t know but someone told me that they thought I was the oldest man that had ever won it in this category at eighty-three years old. I think I’m the oldest man that ever won one. I know that I’m probably the oldest man who ever won one who never won one before.
“Anyway, it ain’t ‘bout what I did. It’s about what’s done now. I won it and I’m thankin’ God for it. I thank the people who voted for me. I thank the Academy so much for what they’ve done because they’re good people inside the Academy. They’re fair-minded people about the music and who do it.”
There is a small group of aspiring blues artists who are attempting to claw their way into the business. I asked Bobby Rush what he would tell an aspiring blues artist today.
“I would tell aspiring blues artists: get yo’ crap together! Do watcha need to do. Learn all that you can about what you’re doin’ and don’t give the dream up because one thing’s for sure, if you stay with it long enough, it’ll come to pass. But you gotta know and look in the mirror and face the fact, ‘Am I good? Am I hot or am I warm?’ Because 99 ½ won’t do. You GOT to be 100% in it and you gotta be good at what you do.
“One thing’s for sure – and I’m not braggin’ but I’m thankin’ God for it – I’m an entertainer and I’m one of the best. That’s not a brag. I inspire myself to be one of the best. I’m one of the best. That’s what I sign myself as. I think I write good. I perform well. I have a good show and I just do what I do and I do the best I can do. I don’t care who’s in the house. It could be Stevie Wonder in the house. It could be B.B. King in the house. Whoever in the house. I may not sing very strong but I compete in a level event. That’s what I tell musicians and young people. Be good at what you do and compete. Be good at what you do and compete. You must be present. Do what you do. Be on time. Be precise and be good at what you do. If you not gonna be good at what you do and don’t love what you do, you won’t be good at what you do because you gotta love it.”
With the Grammy still clutched in his arms, I was certain that there was a lot more stuff on his career radar than before he was handed the coveted trophy.
“Well, I got somethin’ in mind. I probably got four hundred songs back in the can. My approach may be different but my story’s gonna be pretty much the same. I’m gonna talk about the kind of things I been talkin’ about. I wanna talk about – the next CD – I wanna talk about how you miss out on opportunity if you don’t take a hold of yourself today. You miss out on tomorrow if you don’t do it today. I want to talk about that. How you capitalize on tomorrow by doin’ it today. You know, you gotta do it now. Like I said, my motto was I must do all I can, while I can. I know there will come a time I cannot do, then I won’t regret what I did not do.
“I been writtin’ since 1954 and 55. I got songs I been writing and I just been puttin’ them down on paper. When there come a time I cannot write or think of them, they already been thought up. I’ll go back in and analyze them. That’s what I plan to do on the next album or two. If God give me the strength, I’m gonna dig into my soul and my head to when I was twenty-five years old and correct some of the things I should’ve been sayin’ and wasn’t sayin’ and now I’m old enough to know what I was sayin’ where I can analyze it and straighten it out, whether right or wrong. I think I’m to that point now where I can kinda teach myself what I shoulda known then and I’m gonna go through my own head and go through my own paper and say, ‘Hey! Here’s where I talked about then but here’s where it shoulda been.’ It could be almost right and I’m just getting there and diggin’ it out.
“You go to your teacher and say, ‘Watcha think about this?’ and your teacher says, ‘Well, that ain’t quite right. You should cross a t here, dot an I here.’ That’s all you needs is somebody to straighten it out. So I’m goin’ back and straightenin’ my own stuff out against what I have learnt from people and from writin’ and from people like you and from people who been in the business awhile. I learnt from Quincy Jones. I learned from all the masters. I listened to what they wrote. All the hits songs from Elton John down to whoever. I listen to all musicians. All walks of life. Jazz, blues, country, whatever it is. I listen to the stories. I listen to the music. Now, I’m gonna put some of those sayin’s – Bobby Rush sayin’s – and I’m gonna try to come up with somethin’ that makes sense to the whole world. I can’t say it’s gonna be a hit record but I tell you what: it’s gonna be good!”
We all hope to see and hear more of Bobby Rush in the years to come. That said, I still asked the blues legend what I always ask someone who has been in the business a long time: When you’ve stepped off life’s tour bus up at that great gig in the sky, how do you want to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy will be?
“I want people to know that out of all the ups and downs and the struggles and hardship, though not seems conceivable but a dream, although it seems like a dream come true, but if you do what you want to do in life and feel good about it and do it well, it’s not a dream. It’s reality but it take time to do it. I want people to know that whatever you set your mind to do – if it’s impossible and God’s will of it – it’ll come to pass. But I do want people to know that it was written that a cow jumped over the moon but you gotta be smart enough to know if, in the book, he really didn’t jump over the moon. The cow didn’t really jump over the moon. It’s gotta be a realistic to yourself. I want people to know from me that I did what I did and I did it my way. I’ve gotten a Grammy and I’ve got this far doin’ it my way.”
In closing, Bobby Rush added:
“Let me say one thing: When you write, talkin’ ‘bout me, what you say about me or what people perceive me to be because whether it’s good or bad because they trusted you and what you say about me. So thank you in advance for sayin’ the good things – whatever you say about me – the true things about me, I’m hopin’ that they’ll be something that is readable and what they want to read about. Thank you for being that kind of a person.”
Bobby Rush is a class act all the way. Humble yet confident. Serious yet hysterically funny. Bobby Rush, we thank YOU for being that kind of person.
You can keep up with all things Bobby Rush at WWW.BobbyRushBluesMan.com.