STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
Bobby Rush is one of the hardest working bluesmen around and he is known for his own style of funky blues. The 82-years-young singer, harmonica player and songwriter has been performing for more than 60 years. He will be performing at Sellersville Theater with his 8-piece band on Oct. 16.
And though the “King of the Chitlin Circuit” may not be a household name like some of his contemporaries, he has been honored with 3 Grammy nominations; 41 nominations and 10 awards from the Blues Foundation and a 2006 induction into the Blues Hall of Fame.
Rush just released “Porcupine Meat,” his first album for Rounder Records. An odd title to be sure, but remember that his first gold record in 1971 was for the song “Chicken Heads.”
“Porcupine Meat” was produced by Scott Billington, Vice President of A&R for Rounder Records. It was recorded in New Orleans, which afforded Rush the opportunity to record in his home state of Louisiana for the first time in his career.
In an email interview, Rush discussed the recording experience.
“It was great. One of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had recording. I never met a producer before that had the same idea I had before I even said it, that we think just the same way. He must be kin to me and I don’t know it. Anytime I’d bring an idea to Scott he’d tell me he was thinking the same thing, and vice versa.”
He added: “I believe Scott trusts my writing ability and performance ability to get things done, and I trust him… The only thing I worried about (is) I just didn’t want to let him down. I wanted to do my part to the best of my ability to make this happen.”
Rush said that this was the most comfortable that he felt with a producer since working with Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble on “Rush Hour” (Philadelphia International, 1979).
The album features all “real” instruments – no synthesizers – as on many of Rush’s more recent recordings. Rush’s old friend and longtime collaborator, guitarist Vasti Jackson, was a welcome presence to work alongside the studio musicians. Billington enlisted some Louisiana’s finest including Shane Theriot (electric and acoustic guitars), Cornell Williams (bass), David Torkanowsky (keyboards), Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander (drums) and Kirk Joseph (sousaphone). In addition the album features cameo appearances by guitarists Dave Alvin, Keb’ Mo’ and Joe Bonamassa.
Born Emmet Ellis, Jr. in Homer, Louisiana, his interest in the blues was cemented in childhood. He was influenced by Louis Jordan, Junior Parker and Muddy Waters. He adopted the stage name Bobby Rush out of respect for his father, a pastor. According to Rush, his parents never talked about the blues being the devil’s music, as was commonplace at that time.
“My daddy never told me to sing the blues, but he also didn’t tell me to not sing the blues. I took that as a green light,” said Rush.
He made a homemade guitar and eventually acquired a real one. When his family relocated to Little Rock, Arkansas, he wore a fake moustache to look old enough to get into blues clubs to perform. He had a band at that time which featured Elmore James.
After moving to Chicago in the mid-1950s, he began to perform with Earl Hooker, Luther Allison and Freddie King. He also had the opportunity to sit in with many of his musical heroes including Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon and Little Walter.
In the 1960s Rush started to lead his own band. It was then that he began to establish his own distinct style — funky blues. And he has been performing and recording under his own name ever since. Along the way his single “Chicken Heads” (Galaxy, 1971) hit #34 on the Billboard R&B chart and “I Wanna Do the Do” (Philadelphia International, 1979), produced by Leon Huff, hit #75.
Rush started out as a motivated do-it-yourselfer and that is a major reason why he has been able to maintain his success, despite all the changes and uncertainty of the music business.
“I think it’s survival, trying to survive. I was trying to survive the rat race,” said Rush. “I didn’t know I was teaching myself the trade. I was going to write me a song until I found a writer. I was going to promote myself until I found a promoter. I was going to manage myself until I found a manager. I was going to record myself until I found someone to record me.”
Rush says that he still enjoys touring and he still performs about 200 dates a year. He would like to cut his tour dates down somewhat so he can spend more time with his children and grandchildren.
“I’m still enjoying it and I’m enthused about what I do.”
Rush says he plans to continue touring and recording “Forever. I have no plans to retire.”