A generation of English blues rockers, including Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page, have acknowledged that guitarist/vocalist Otis Rush has provided them with divine musical inspiration. But Rush, who's 61, is not the type to crow about the influence he's had on so many stars. "Oh, yes, it does make me feel good to hear all that," he says. "But I don't even see what I'm doing that they like so much."
Evidently, those who vote for the Grammy Awards don't get it, either: In an absurd decision, they chose Eric Clapton's From the Cradle as 1994's Best Traditional Blues Recording over Rush's far surperior Ain't Enough Comin' In, on Mercury Records. Fortunately, Rush did better at this year's W.C. Handy Awards ceremony, organized by a group that rewards artistry, not big names: He was christened Best Contemporary Male Blues Artist, and Enough's Grammy-snubbed title cut was declared Blues Song of the Year.
These acknowledgments have been a long time in coming. Rush has been an innovator since the Fifties, when he helped create the electric-blues sound that came to be associated with Chicago's West Side. Still, the musician feels that his boyhood in rural Mississippi, where he was reared until age thirteen, was as much of a spur to his work as the time he spent in the Midwest's most vigorous blues hotbed.
"Mostly the things I've done were my ideas," he notes, his tone soft-spoken and polite. "There was music in me. My mother used to go to church and sing--I'd watch her shout in church. And sometimes she would go to town and come back with a record, a blues record. I'd see the emotions she got from it, and I just sort of picked up on those records from watching her. I learned from all sorts of other people, too--Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, people like that. But that came later, when I started studying for myself."
A few years after he arrived in Chicago, Rush came into contact with other musicians like him--artists who had moved to Chicago's poorest area as children. These players, including Magic Sam and Freddie King, brought a strong gospel feel to the blues and favored the use of the minor scales that came to exemplify the West Side sound. In an attempt to capitalize on these developments, gambler/entrepreneur Eli Toscano started his own Cobra label in 1956. He subsequently recruited Willie Dixon to act as his session leader and A&R man, and it was with a Dixon composition that Rush had his first (and biggest) hit--"I Can't Quit You, Baby," a tune best known to rock listeners through the version by Led Zeppelin. Rush was 22 when he first cut the song, and he was thrilled by its popularity. "I was really excited," he recalls. "I couldn't go to sleep, because I'd be listening to the radio and wondering, `When are they going to play the record again?'"
His career in the years that followed was seldom this satisfying. While Rush recorded sporadically after "I Can't Quit You, Baby," he never again achieved the commercial success enjoyed by his debut. He did quality work for Cobra until the company's demise and later joined the roster at the Chess imprint. But during a period when other artists flourished at Chess, Rush was victimized by the first of what turned out to be a long series of inadequate recording deals. He remained a respected figure in Europe, making a big splash at the American Folk Blues Festival staged there by Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau in 1966, but he sank into obscurity in the States. This situation seemed ready to change in 1969, when Rush was signed by Bulldog Records and entered the Muscle Shoals studio along with a band led by guitarist Duane Allman. But the album that resulted, the masterful Right Place, Wrong Time, turned out to have a prescient title; it sat on the Bulldog shelves until 1971.
During the next decade, Rush gained a reputation for reclusiveness and was said to be in a creative slump. In addition, journalists began describing him as unstable, impulsive, temperamental--and perhaps a victim of clinical depression. Such conditions certainly would be understandable given the many downturns Rush has suffered. Even so, the guitarist discounts these amateur diagnoses: "I'm just like anybody else, I guess. I try to get my music right, and I try to treat people the way I want to be treated." He laughs as he adds, "I think I'm easy to get along with."
Rush's improved attitude probably has something to do with his increasing business savvy. He's no longer willing to jump into bad deals, even if it means long stretches between albums. Nevertheless, he admits that waiting around for the right situation can be frustrating. "The space in between can be really hard. Sometimes there would be five or ten years or more before I got a recording out, because I didn't want to do one with just any company. I could have recorded with some people, but I didn't want to get in with someone who I didn't think would work with it. You've got to be careful."
So Rush took his time and concentrated on improving his playing during often lengthy periods of forced studio inactivity. "That's what you've got to do," he claims. "It's just the taste and quality of the music that I love to sing and play that's important. I want to do it the best I can and keep it clean and try to get a beat from it--a message. I still haven't learned it all. That might take a lifetime. So I just keep on going and try to learn what I can."
In the meantime, plenty of other players have been trying to pick up the secrets Rush already knows. What most of them discover, however, is that his style is difficult to duplicate. That's because Rush is a left-handed instrumentalist who plays a right-handed guitar upside down--and since he pulls, rather than pushes, the strings to bend notes, his sound is marked by a distinctive vibrato effect that's pretty much beyond anyone not born a southpaw.
When right-handers ask Rush to help them achieve something similar, he usually demurs. "It's a little difficult for them to watch me play," he says. "So what I do is, I'll sit around in different places and show a few people some things that maybe they didn't know. See, I'll hear them playing and leaving a note out, so I'll show them that the note is right here, and this is the best way I know to get it."
Ain't Enough Comin' In reminded blues fans that Rush is still finding those elusive notes with impressive frequency. As a result, Rush says that a great many opportunities have been coming to him of late. He hopes that his next studio project, set to get under way this fall, will build on that momentum, but he's unwilling to say much more about it right now. "I'm trying to fix it up," he allows, "but I'm not sure what I'm going to do, and I don't want to say something and then not have it happen.
"I don't know what to say to people about my music," he continues, "except that if you're interested in music and listen to some records, please check me out, too. You might hear something you like. I really would appreciate it."
Otis Rush. 8 p.m. Saturday, July 8, Common at the Plex, 14th and Curtis, $15, 777-7372.
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