BY: TODD BEEBE
The world lost a true musical icon with the passing of Blues master Otis Rush on September 29, 2018. Otis was part of a unique pack of Chicago Blues artists that came to define what is often referred to as the “West Side Sound.” Along with greats Magic Sam, Luther Allison, Freddie King, and Buddy Guy, Otis Rush perfected a style that was heavily influenced by B.B. King but also incorporated elements that were a bit more raw, owing to artists such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. His songs, which often leaned towards minor keys, will be remembered as some of the most memorable in the genre’s history.
Otis Rush Jr. was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi on April 29, 1935. He originally heard blues on jukeboxes in Mississippi and first began playing the harmonica and singing in the church choir. Otis’ older Brother Leroy played the guitar and Otis would sneak into Leroy’s room when he was not home and play the instrument. Leroy’s guitar was strung for a right-handed player but this never dawned on the left handed Otis. He picked the instrument up as it was and learned to play it strung “upside down.”
Otis worked as a sharecropper on a farm in Mississippi. While visiting his sister in Chicago and witnessing a Muddy Waters performance he was quoted as saying “I flipped out man! I said damn this is for me!” He moved to Chicago in 1949 and immediately hit the Chicago Blues clubs on the South and West side and made a name for himself rather quickly. Willie Dixon caught one of Otis Rush’s performances and signed him to Eli Toscano’s Cobra records in 1956. His single “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, written and produced by the great Willie Dixon, was released in 1956. Many of Otis’ early records also featured a young Ike Turner on second guitar.
Rush Tunes like “Double Trouble”, “My Love Will Never Die”, “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)”, “Homework”, “Gambler’s Blues” and “Three Times A Fool” introduced his great vibrato heavy guitar work to the world. It was these early recordings that future stars like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan have cited as major influences. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band was named after Otis’s song “Double Trouble.” In the 1960’s Otis cut classic tunes at Chicago’s Chess Records. “So Many Roads, So Many Trains” and the great “Homework”, released on the Duke label, were major influences on Mike Bloomfield who later covered many of Otis’s songs. Bloomfield was once quoted as saying “Any blues bands coming up in the 60’s, wherever you came from, you had to play like Otis Rush man!” Many British blues artists hailed Rush as one of the greatest. John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers cut many of Otis’ tunes on record, and their live shows in the 60’s saw Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor filling set after set with his material.
When Buddy Guy first came to Chicago he ended up at the 708 Club. Otis Rush was onstage at the time and he let Buddy come up and perform alongside him. Buddy pulled out all the stops which led him into the start of an amazing career that’s still going strong to this day. Buddy Guy has always been forever grateful for that moment.
In 1969 the release of the Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites produced Mourning In The Morning saw Otis teamed up with the famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. This author believes it is some of Otis’s finest work, so be sure to check it out!
Throughout the 70’s Rush released albums like the Delmark labels Cold Day In Hell and Right Place Wrong Time on the Capitol Records label. There were also numerous live albums issued and they are all great and worth seeking out!
As the 80’s and 90’s came, Otis Rush sustained a great playing schedule and was often cited as saying that as much as he loved it he really didn’t have a choice one way or the other but to keep performing because Blues records just weren’t the biggest selling things sadly. Playing live was Otis’ bread and butter. He made numerous appearances at the Chicago blues festival and blues festivals around the country, and when crowds in the states weren’t coming out to hear the blues as often, Rush toured overseas. Luther Allison would often bring Otis Rush on stage and Luther was often quoted as saying “no one could play the blues better than his friend Otis Rush!”
Otis was often quoted saying he didn’t really understand the whole “West Side/South Side/Chicago/Texas” Blues thing. “If it’s blues, it’s blues, doesn’t really matter where it came from.”
In 1994 Ain’t Enough Comin’ In was released on the Mercury label. It is often cited as one of Otis’ finest albums. He followed that with 1998’s Any Place I’m Going which earned him his first Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues album. In 2003 Otis suffered a stroke which severely set him back. Understandably, he kept a pretty low profile over the past 15 years. In 2005, Delmark Records released a classic, live set titled All Your Love I Miss Loving – Live At The Wise Fools Pub – Chicago, and features a blistering set from Otis and the Smokin’ Band recorded in 1976. This author highly recommends it! It shows Otis at his finest. Live blues just doesn’t get any better!
In 2016 he appeared at The Chicago Blues Festival to be honored by the city. Many, including our own Buddy Guy, spoke words of great praise that Otis so rightfully deserved.
On September 29, 2018 the blues giant passed away due to complications arising from his stroke in 2003. I had the honor to be around Otis several times. He was always a class act, and always loved to speak to and connect with anyone that loved the blues and his music. He truly was the real deal. Otis Rush’ iconic songs are guaranteed to forever be played by Blues artists for the rest of time. Therefore, Otis Rush will be alive for the rest of time. As long as the human race listens to music and whenever anyone decides to learn to play blues guitar, they will have to walk down the road that was paved by Otis Rush. He will never be forgotten.
Rest In Peace Otis Rush April 29, 1935 – September 29, 2018. Thanks for the music Otis.