How Bobby Rush Found the Blues

Bobby Rush plays a solo show at Swallow Hill on Saturday, July 22.
Bobby Rush plays a solo show at Swallow Hill on Saturday, July 22. Scott Olivier
Bobby Rush says he’s cut 374 records, but he didn’t record any of them in his home state of Louisiana until his most recent album, Porcupine Meat, which won a Grammy this year for Best Traditional Blues Album. But it was in Louisiana that the 83-year-old singer and guitarist, who’s been playing 200 shows a year for six decades, got his first taste of the blues, listening to it on the radio as a kid.

Rush’s father, who was a pastor, was also a big influence early on and taught his son how to play guitar. When Rush was around seven years old, he thought his father was going to sing him a gospel song, but instead he sang him a song about a girl his father knew when he was a young boy.

“And I wanted to hear it because I thought it was about my mama,” Rush says. “But it wasn’t about my mama. I thought he was going to sing ‘Glory Glory Hallelujah.’ He started singing, ‘Me and my gal went chinkapin hunting, she fell down and I saw something.'”

“I said, ‘Daddy, how big was she?,’ and he said, ‘She was fat, about 350 pounds.’ I said, ‘What did she have on?,' He said, ‘Nothing but a dress.’ A fat lady falling down with nothing on but a dress. In my mind, that’s a lot to see," Rush recalls.

When Rush heard Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry” later, he was stuck on the blues. “My daddy messed me up,” he says with a laugh.

After his family relocated to Little Rock, Arkansas, Rush, now a teenager, started playing in juke joints in the late ’40s, donning a fake mustache that made club owners think he was older than he really was. Rush’s band at the time included the legendary slide-blues guitarist Elmore James.

“In 1951, I started playing in places with all-white audiences, where people wanted to hear the music I played behind a curtain many, many nights,” Rush says. “They wanted to hear my music but didn’t want to see my face. At the time when I was doing it, it wasn’t news. A lot of places were like that.”

When Rush moved to Chicago in the mid-’50s, he met some of his heroes, like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Little Walter and Jimmy Reed.

“I learned from Howlin' Wolf being unique in your voice,” Rush says, “And being yourself. I learned from Muddy Waters the way you dress and carry yourself on the stage. I learned from Little Walter what not to do. Even some of the guys did some things that wasn’t favorable and wasn’t nice to do. I learned not to do that because I saw them do it. So I picked up the good things and the bad things; I just learned not to do the bad things. I learned to try to do the good things.

“It was a lesson all the way around," Rush adds. "Because when you see someone doing something that’s not good for them, if it’s drinking or getting high or whatever, it’s not good. If you learn not to do that, you still learn from it. It’s almost like when you make a mistake: If you learn from your mistake, it’s really not a mistake. It’s a stepping stone for what should or should not be.”

When Rush plays a solo show at Swallow Hill on Saturday, July 22, he says he’ll be doing more of the blues than the funky stuff he’s also know for, while telling his life story on the bandstand. And that life story includes his hit “Chicken Heads,” a dozen Blues Music Awards, for which he’s been nominated 41 times, a Blues Hall of Fame Induction in 2006, and his latest album, Porcupine Meat, which was released last year on Rounder Records.

Rush says producer Scott Billingham, who’s also Rounder’s vice president of A&R, let Rush do what he wanted on the album, which includes guest appearances from Joe Bonamassa, Dave Alvin and Keb' Mo'.

“He wanted Bobby Rush to be Bobby Rush,” he says. “I thought he wanted me to do something different or had something in mind for me to do where I could sound like somebody else or be somebody else. But, no, he wanted me to just be me. And that’s all he wanted of me, to be Bobby Rush. And I can easily be me, man.”

Bobby Rush (solo), with Adam Ezra, 8 p.m. Saturday, July 22, Swallow Hill, 303-777-1003, $24.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon