Born April 29, 1934, in Philadelphia, MI; son of O. C. Rush (a farmer) and Julia Boyd. Addresses: Agent--Rick Bates, 714 Brookside Ln., Sierra Madre, CA 91024.

A stinging guitar vibrato and gospel-like voice are the definitive trademarks of bluesman Otis Rush. One of the founders of the Westside Chicago blues sound in the 1950s, Rush fused deep Mississippi blues with modern urban styles to produce a formidable guitar combined with vocals capable of agonized high falsetto shouts. During the blues revival of the 1960s, Rush emerged as a mentor for musicians from Mike Bloomfield to Eric Clapton. For three decades, Rush has continued to record and tour, bringing audiences throughout the world his fierce brand of electric blues.

Born one of seven children in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on August 29, 1934, Rush was raised on a farm by his father O. C. Rush and mother Julia Boyd. While he occasionally sang in the church choir, Rush remained drawn to the country blues sounds of Tommy McClennan and Lightnin' Hopkins. Although he began to pick up the guitar at age eight, Rush recalled in the liner notes to Chicago/The Blues Today that "as a kid I just liked the looks of guitars, but I didn't play." Instead, Rush began to teach himself harmonica.

In the winter of 1948 Rush went to Chicago, where he stayed at the home of his sister. Working in the Chicago stockyards, he continued to play harmonica. Finally, inspired by the live performances of Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers, he began to study the guitar in 1953. Within a year, Rush fronted a band under the name of "Little Otis," playing his first job with Arkansas-born guitarist Bob Woodfolk. Introduced to the guitar playing of T-Bone Walker and B. B. King, Rush incorporated modern phrasing and rhythmic ideas into his deep Mississippi sound. "I can remember when Otis was playing just like Muddy Waters," explained Luther Tucker in Blues Guitarists. "T-Bone Walker was pretty hot at that time and he gave Otis some ideas. He kept the Muddy Waters feel but added little more modern chord progressions."

In the mid-1950s, Rush's maturing style caught the attention of bassist Willie Dixon. As Dixon explained in his autobiography I Am the Blues, "I found Otis Rush down on 47th Street and I knew he was good but Leonard Chess thought he sounded too close to Muddy Waters." Consequently, Dixon signed Rush with Eli Tascano's newly established Cobra label in 1956. At Tascano's Westside studio, Rush's guitar was brought to the forefront of the band. Accentuated by a driving horn section, his solos exhibited a drive and volume unknown to earlier Chicago bluesmen.

Cobra's Westside blues guitarists like Rush and Buddy Guy drew upon the influences of jazz, rhythm and blues, and the horn- based ensemble of B. B. King to produce a modern urban sound. Written and engineered by Dixon, Rush's first Cobra recording, "I Can't Quit You," became the label's only national hit. From its tormented vocal introduction, "I Can't Quit You" was an eerie slow blues, augmented with brilliantly phrased guitar fills. Rush's next single was "My Love Will Never Die," a powerful minor-key slow blues which set the trend for Rush's unique West Side sound. Two more excellent examples of this style were the blues masterpieces "Double Trouble" and "All Your Love (I Miss Loving)," which later became a guitar standard for young bluesman Eric Clapton. "'All Your Love,'" wrote blues historian and critic Paul Oliver in his Blues Records, "shows Rush in top form, harboring insane pockets of energy released into an atmosphere of tense expectation." Incorporating Latin and straight shuffle rhythms, the song features odd, minor-inflected chord breaks and searing single note passages unsurpassed in the modern electric blues idiom.

At this period in Rush's career, his back-up musicians often included guitarists Dave and Louis Meyers, drummer Odie Payne, and Dixon on acoustic bass. In 1958, Rush hired Arkansas-born Willie D. Warren who played electric bass on the bottom three strings of his guitar. The addition of Warren brought further attention to Rush's band, for it marked the introduction of the electric bass into blues music. In an interview with Contemporary Musicians, Warren emphasized the importance of this event: "There wasn't any electric basses back then. There was only upright bass fiddles like Willie Dixon played. After joining Otis I met Little Walter, Magic Sam, and Buddy Guy. They wanted me to teach their bass players what I was doing." Thus, Rush's band earned a reputation as a first-rate ensemble which helped set the trend for the development of modern electric blues.

After Tascano's death and the departure of Warren in 1959, Dixon brought Rush to Chess Records. That same year, Rush recorded "So Many Roads So Many Trains," an excellent single reminiscent of his finest Cobra material. Following this session, however, Rush experienced numerous setbacks. Without commercial success on the Chess label, he signed with Duke which resulted in the release of one single, "Homework," in 1962. Active primarily in the local Chicago club scene, Rush performed at occasional out-of-town shows with such artists as T-Bone Walker and Little Richard.

In 1966, Rush appeared on Vanguard's Chicago: The Blues Today, the first recorded blues anthology directed toward a young white folk/rock audience. Participating in that year's American Folk Blues Festival, he played concert dates throughout Europe--the exposure brought him a devout following among musicians in both England and America. Between 1969 and 1972, Rush played before large crowds of enthusiastic listeners at the annual Ann Arbor Blues Festival.

While Rush's songs were being covered--and often directly imitated--by bands from Paul Butterfield to Led Zeppelin, he struggled to eke out a living in small Chicago clubs. Plagued by inadequate back-up bands, he failed to produce an album equal in quality to his earlier work. His 1971 release Mourning in the Morning, though it contained moments of brilliance from Rush, suffered from over-production and poorly selected material. In 1975, after years of personal and career problems, Rush's spirits were lifted when his band was greeted at Tokyo's Haneda Airport by thousands of fans who covered the runway with flowers. "I never saw so many flowers before in my life," commented Rush in Down Beat. "They had our baggage covered in flowers, the car we were in was full of flowers, at the gate people were standing around me with flowers."

Unfortunately for Rush, his successful Japanese tour represented only a brief moment in a career marked by setbacks and financial problems. Disillusioned, he quit performing for two years in the early 1980s. But when the blues experienced a second revival during the middle of the decade, Rush found a new audience among young musicians, including Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn who paid tribute to him by naming his band Double Trouble after Rush's 1958 Cobra recording.

Despite his quiet and congenial disposition offstage, Rush remains a powerful performer. Employing a left-handed upside- down guitar technique, Rush bends notes that are reminiscent of slide guitar tones and inflections. "I practiced to get that sound without using a slide," explained Rush in Blues Guitar. "I'm still trying to develop it." By imitating the slide sounds of Robert Nighthawk and Earl Hooker, he developed a lyrical string vibrato, colored by full chords inspired by the recordings of jazz guitarist Kenny Burrel.

Despite many years of hardships, Rush has remained optimistic that he will attain rightful recognition for his work. His 1994 release Ain't Enough Comin' In featured the production team that brought recent commercial success to friend and Chicago blues guitarist Buddy Guy. Critical of many second- generation bluesmen, Muddy Waters often commended Rush for possessing a "deeper" blues sound than most of his contemporaries. A true exponent of the deep-blues tradition, Rush remains a guitar legend, one of the last living giants of Chicago blues.

by John Cohassey

Otis Rush's Career

Played first job, under name "Little Otis," 1954; first hit record on Cobra label, 1956; signed with Chess Records, 1959; recorded for Vanguard label and toured Europe with American Folk Blues Festival, 1966; played concerts throughout America, 1969-72 and 1980s; toured Japan and recorded live album for Delmark label, 1975; released album Ain't Enough Comin' In, 1994.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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over 12 years ago

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