On the occasion of his birthday, I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to one of the most original and influential bluesmen of all time: the legendary Otis Rush. I once remarked to florrie, "The combination of his searing guitar and his sweet soulful voice and heartfelt groans will definitely touch your soul." It certainly touches mine.
The list of artists who were inspired or influenced by Otis includes Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Pat Matheny, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Mike Bloomfield, Duane Allman, Peter Green, and Ronnie Earl, among many others.
The best account of his early life I found comes from his Blues Trail marker:
Otis Rush rose from the poverty of a Mississippi sharecropper's life to international fame as one of the most passionate singers and brilliant guitarists in the blues world. Rush, the sixth of seven children, was born in 1935, according to family sources, although biographies often give his birth date as 1934. His mother, Julia Campbell Boyd, ended up raising her family alone on farms in Neshoba and Kemper counties. 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 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. Rush's distinctive style was rooted in his self-taught technique and his ability to transform sounds he heard into notes on his guitar. One sound he recalled from his childhood was Leroy's whistling.
As a young teen, Rush was already married, sharecropping cotton and corn on a five-acre plot. .. Rush only became inspired to be a professional musician after visiting his sister in Chicago. She took him to a Muddy Waters performance, and, as Rush recalled, "I flipped out, man. I said, 'Damn. This is for me.'"
Otis' first hit came with his very first recording, for Eli Toscano's nascent Cobra Records label in 1956: I Can't Quit You Baby
. That live rendition on YouTube is from the American Blues Festival from around 1966. It's easy to see why Led Zeppelin covered the song on their first album; Jimmy Page's lead seems to be taken almost verbatim from the original.
After two years of recording hits for Cobra
- including My Love Will Never Die, All Your Love (I Miss Loving), Three Times a Fool,
and Double Trouble
, the label went under
, and Otis never had much luck with recording studios after that. He recorded the classic So Many Roads, So Many Trains
on Chess in 1960, and then spent several years contracted to the Duke label, which produced only one hit - Homework
, in 1962. In 1966 he participated in an excellent session
for the Vanguard label. In 1969 he recorded the underrated Mourning in the Morning
for the Cortilian label.
In 1971, Rush recorded the classic Right Place, Wrong Time
, for Capitol Records, but they foolishly decided not to release it. It took 5 years until Otis finally bought the rights to his own music, and released it on the Bullfrog label. 1975's Cold Day In Hell
was the last studio recording Otis cut in the US until 1994 brought the release of Ain't Enough Comin' In
- which has been in rotation in my car CD player for a while now - I've listened to the hair-raising version of As The Years Go Passing By
several times in a row sometimes.
There were some excellent live albums in the interim, notably So Many Roads
, and Tops
, and the more recently released and highly acclaimed Live at the Wise Fools Pub
, recorded in 1976. Another relatively recently live release was the DVD Otis Rush & Friends: Live At Montreux 1986
, featuring Luther Allison and Eric Clapton. A few cuts of that are available on Youtube - here's Double Trouble
with Eric Clapton taking the opening vocals.
Unfortunately, Otis suffered a stroke in 2004, and his touring has been severly curtailed for now, though he still hopes to make a comeback. He even appeared on stage just months after the stroke, bringing the audience and band members
near to tears with emotion. He was recognized by the state of Missouri
at the dedication of the aforementioned Blues Trail marker in 2007, and his website
continues to be updated with news.
I wish Mr. Rush continued good health and all the best. Happy Birthday, Otis!!