ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JUNE 19, 1997
By Steve Newton
In conversation, blues legend Otis Rush comes across like one of his classic guitar solos: direct and to the point. He’s no fancy talker, but he gets to the heart of the matter. When the Georgia Straight tracks the 62-year-old musician down at his home in Chicago, and asks if he still enjoys playing the blues as much as he did in his ’50s heyday, he replies, “It’s my thing. That’s ’bout all I know to do.”
Rush has been doing what he knows best ever since he moved to the Windy City from Mississippi when he was 14. By the early ’50s he was playing at various ghetto clubs, duplicating hits by Delta bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, and eventually developing a more personal style, characterized by impassioned vocals and biting, single-note guitar lines.
Rush’s impoverished learning-ground was no social paradise, however; he had to deal with the sight of numerous nasty bar fights, knifings, and shootings while he performed. “Anytime you see somebody get killed, that’s rough,” declares the former stockyard and steel-mill worker.
During his tenure in the rough blues joints of Chicago, Rush became known—along with Magic Sam and Buddy Guy—as a leading practitioner of the West Side Chicago blues style. Magic Sam (Sam Maghett) died of a heart attack in ’69—just when he was starting to attract a substantial white following—while Guy has gone on to become one of today’s top-ranked blues veterans. “He’s been doin’ great,” enthuses Rush, “and I’m glad for him and proud of him.”
Although Guy has garnered more fame than Rush in recent years, the latter’s legacy is no less impressive, and his influence on the world’s rock heroes has been immense. On the landmark Bluesbreakers album, Eric Clapton took the fire of Rush’s “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” to heart; and Led Zeppelin covered Rush’s ’58 hit, the Willie Dixon–penned “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, on its 1969 debut. Then there’s Rush’s harrowing “Double Trouble”, which so impressed Stevie Ray Vaughan that he named his band after it.
While he was recording those deathless tracks for Cobra Records between 1958 and 1960, Rush had no inkling that he was unearthing blues gems of timeless quality. “I was just scratchin’,” says the humble musician, who, when asked to pinpoint his forte in blues, replies: “As long as I’m able to play, that’s good enough for me. I try. I’m always tryin’.”
Although he currently spends most of his time in Chicago, playing famed blues joints such as Blues Etcetera and the Buddy Guy–owned Legends, Rush still gigs around North America, making regular treks to New York, L.A., Vegas—and Vancouver. He’ll be at Richard’s on Richards on Wednesday (June 25), as part of the du Maurier International Jazz Festival.
“I get around,” he says. “It’s a job, you know, and I got to work.”