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Bobby Rush: A Blues Survivor

Bobby Rush
Laura Carbone
Bobby Rush

If you want a story about perseverance and justice, it doesn’t get better than Bobby Rush. As “The King of the Chitlin’ Circuit”, he was an electric entertainer, a singing and dancing machine. He grinded through night after night at bars and juke joints and small theaters. The Blues Hall of Famer was loved and respected by fans and musicians, but other than his 1971 Top 40 R&B hit “Chicken Heads”, he didn’t really burst into the mainstream public’s consciousness until he recently won three Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Blues Album, all after the age of 82. “Things came a little late in my life, but it wasn’t time earlier. I’m so glad God allowed me the chance to enjoy some things, even at my late age in life,” Rush said.

While he is the proto-typical blues musician, Bobby Rush can’t be pigeonholed. He brought the funk before the 70’s funk boom. He’s been called the master of “folk funk.” He worked blue and rapped before the advent of hip hop. He plays the harp in the same style as his mentor Sonny Boy Williamson II, who told him, “It doesn’t matter what you wear, it’s what you sound like.” Close your eyes and listen to Rush’s 2021 acoustic blues album Rawer Than Raw and you feel like you’re on the back porch alone with him in 1949.

At 90 years old, Rush is one of the last living blues men that made the move from the South to Chicago in the middle of the twentieth century when blues was becoming widely popular. He was a contemporary of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and such. He tells tales of living through Jim Crow and growing up black in Louisiana and Mississippi, but remains positive, even joyous about his journey. “I used to carry water 15 miles a day for 50 cents. I used to pick cotton in a cotton field, it’s a shame that young you work that hard. People can see I’ve got no chips on my shoulder. I do good music and hope everyone likes it. It’s not a black and white issue with Bobby Rush. It’s about the music.”

Bobby Rush's latest album is All My Love For You
Courtesy of the artist
Bobby Rush's latest album is All My Love For You

Rush has toured the world, spreading the gospel of the blues, and being named “International Dean of the Blues” and “Friendship Ambassador to the Great Wall of China.” He truly loves the music and the opportunity to still share it with people. It’s impossible to be in a bad mood in his presence. “Blues is the mother of all music. If you don’t love the blues, you probably don’t like your mama.”

Rush is taking advantage of his moment. He was recently featured on the Grammy-winning album by The Count Basie Orchestra directed by Scotty Barnhart Basie Swings the Blues. He will appear on the forthcoming Lou Reed tribute album The Power of the Heart. A street was named after him in his adopted hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. He is touring behind this year’s Grammy-winning album All My Love For You both as a solo act and as an opening act for his friend Buddy Guy’s farewell tour. He met Guy in 1956 in Chicago. “For the last 20-25 years, we have come to grow more than friends, like brothers now,” Rush said. “We are the two oldest blues singers in this category now. Buddy gave me so much insight in life. We is the blues, this is it. Bobby Rush/Buddy Guy, Buddy Guy/Bobby Rush. Last of the kind!”

 Buddy Guy and Bobby Rush area appearances:

April 5 – Parx Racing – Bensalem, PA

April 9 – Hackensack Meridian Theatre at the Count Basie Center for the Arts – Red Bank, NJ

May 3 – Mayo Performing Arts Center – Morristown, NJ

May 9 – Bergen Performing Arts Center – Englewood, NJ

Bobby Rush & Buddy Guy “Chicken Heads”:

Bobby Rush with The Count Basie Orchestra directed by Scotty Barnhart “Boogie In The Dark”:

Bobby Rush “I Ain’t Studdin Ya”:

Bobby Rush – Live in Porretta, Italy, 2023:

Bobby Rush “I’m Free”:

<b>Dave Popkin</b> is a WBGO News/Music contributor, veteran sportscaster, educator and musician <br/>