The late great Otis Rush was born 85 years ago this week in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and
whether he's heard through Joe Bonamassa, Gary Clark Jr., or a teenage blues phenom we have yet to meet, Rush’s influence on modern blues and its mostly rock-raised admirers has proven to be as tough as his cutting guitar tones. Rush is one of the few American guitarists-- B.B. King and Albert King come to mind--who can be identified by a single note. Rush was an equally formidable presence on stage whether wearing sunglasses as young man on Cobra Records or in a cowboy hat. He often performed using an Epiphone Riviera played upside down, which allowed him to attack the higher strings with a strength and bend style that other guitarists could not match.
But regardless of where the technique came from or how it was achieved, his sound still startles you today. Just listen to Rush’s singles for Cobra in the late 50s, for Chess in the 60s, the 70s era classic Right Place, Wrong Time re-released on High Tone in the 1980s, or the live album So Many Roads (“That was a very important record for me,” recalled Mark Knopfler).
Even as modern –and more temperate—recording styles take over, Rush always remained the consummate modern bluesman, thoroughly engaged in the present, and offering audiences a kind of rapture that could give you the sense that this time he might take the blues as far as it can go—or should go.
Rush’s first recordings—and perhaps most exciting--were produced for Cobra Records, the small upstart "West Sound Sound" label run by record store owner (also a part-time tv-repair shop) Eli Toscano. Toscano, a visionary of sorts, wanted to highlight the new generation of blues guitarists like Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and Magic Sam,-- the very music the Chess brothers had once championed but now had little time for thanks to the cross-over commercial success of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Cobra was short-lived. Toscano mysteriously drowned a few years later in Lake Michigan, probably the victim of keeping bad company. (The Cobra recordings would certainly make a terrific soundtrack for a film on the layered intricacies of living the life of a street hustler in Chicago in the late 50s.)
But Toscano did have the foresight to hire Chess Records’ formidable (both physical and spiritual speaking) bassist, arranger, and songwriter Willie Dixon as the label’s “spiritual guide” and talent scout. And its thanks to Dixon’s leadership on the Cobra sides (Dixon also cut sides for Ike Turner and Better Everett) recorded live to a mono Ampex 1/4" tape machine in Toscano’s garage, that we have Rush’s ineffably powerful debut singles.
From 1956-1959, Cobra's releases on 78 and 45 represented—as much as a record could--the sound of the night scene in Chicago, soundtrack of sorts to urban African-American life just prior to the arrival of Motown, Stax, James Brown’s revolutionary singles, and soul music. If nothing else, Toscano should be appreciated for having a vision democratic enough to feature and even exhault the very sense of danger, despair, and boredom found there.
Most of Cobra’s artists worked at steel mills and other labor jobs by day and played in the West Side clubs at night. Rush's incredible chops, searing tone, and passionate delivery—often at the very top of his range--brought a new attitude to Chicago blues in the late 50s and he did it all on his Cherry Epiphone Riviera. If you want to know who Mike Bloomfield, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton were thinking of when they made their first records, the answer is Otis Rush. Stevie Ray Vaughan named his band after Rush’s classic “Double Trouble.” Beatles Gear
author Andy Babiuk recalled that McCartney’s interest in a Casino
came directly from listening to Rush’s Cobra singles as well as B.B. King at John Mayall’s house in 1964.
“John Mayall told me that the pubs in England would close at 11pm so if you wanted to continue drinking, you had to go to somebody's house," Babiuk told Epiphone. "Mayall lived in Central London and had a great blues record collection and a lot of his musician friends would go to his flat to listen. He said McCartney was hanging out with him quite a bit in late 1964 and asking how he got all the sounds on these blues records--B.B. King, Otis Rush, and guys like that. And Mayall told him you gotta get a hollowbody electric guitar.
Rush’s influence on modern rock and blues guitar has remained constant for over 60 years. For evidence of Mr. Rush's serious skills, check out this priceless film of him shot during the 1966 American Folk Blues Festival. From 1962 until 1971, the American Folk Blues Festival introduced dozens of the most important and rarely celebrated American blues artists to audiences in the UK and Europe. These films are a treasure. Don't miss 'em.
As for the music, check out Rush's Cobra singles for an eye-opening introduction. (You may never listen to Eric Clapton quite the same gain). Right Place, Wrong Time
is another highlight from the 70s recorded when Rush's voice and chops were red hot. He was rarely off the road in those days. All of Rush's work for the Delmark label is worth having, too, but especially check out So Many Roads
recorded live in Japan. Long live Otis Rush!