Otis Rush

Otis Rush, southpaw.

Otis Rush’s recording debut.

Another good ‘un, the horns seem be laughing at him.

Otis Rush’s masterpiece, with Ike Turner on 2nd guitar.

Otis Rush, a conk and shades.

Circa ’66, wailin’.

Otis Rush (born April 29, 1935 in Philadelphia, Mississippi) was one of the last truly original blues guitarists, and one of the triumvirate of players (along with Magic Sam and Buddy Guy) who recorded for Cobra Records in the 50’s that would became known as the masters of the West Side Sound, even though they sounded nothing like each other. There was no West Side Sound, just a bunch of guys who mostly played clubs in Chicago’s west side.
Rush’s family moved to Chicago when he was in his early teens and by his early 20’s he was playing all over the south and west side making a name for himself. It was the sides he cut from 1956-58 for the Cobra label that remain his finest studio recordings and the basis for his reputation as one of the greats. A left handed, upside down guitarist, his style is as unique as it was stunning. He could summon up a nasty, dirty, bad feeling like no one I’ve ever heard. Lester Bangs wrote in one of his last articles that it was the sound of “being mugged by an iceberg”.
Which is fairly accurate. I’ll never understand why, in a world where there are so many guitarists who can play their instrument really well, they mostly sound exactly the same in terms of tonality, phrasing, etc. Anyway, Rush began recording for Cobra in July of ’56 and his debut disc– I Can’t Quit You Baby b/w Sit Down Baby (Cobra 5000), was a minor hit that would become something of a standard. Sit Down is a version of Willie Dixon’s (who produced and played bass) Little Red Rooster, later a hit for Howlin’ Wolf and the Rolling Stones. Here’s an interesting alternate take. Wayne Bennett is on second guitar and Big Walter Horton is playing the harmonica. He returned to the studio that fall to record the awful (despite the promising title) Dixon tune Violent Love and a b-side My Love Will Never Die, issued as Cobra 5005. In early 1957 Cobra brought him back in the studio to wax Groaning The Blues and If You Were Mine (Cobra 5010) in a session with Little Walter on harmonica and young Jody Williams on second guitar. A few months later he was again recording, with Love That Woman and Jump Sister Bessie issued as Cobra 5015, and again Little Walter is present along with Louie Myers from Walter’s band on guitar. Rush closed out the year with his fourth single for Cobra– Three Times A Fool b/w She’s A Good ‘Un. Otis Rush’s first single in 1958 was It Takes Time b/w Checking On My Baby (Cobra 5027) on which he is supported by Little Brother Montgomery on piano, and the great Freddie Below who gave Muddy Waters’ Live At Newport it’s propulsion on drums. I love the way the horns seem to be laughing at Rush on Checking On My Baby, as though they’re part of fate’s evil plan for him. These discs didn’t sell very well and until recently were fairly easy to find on 45 or 78 RPM, I found copies of all his discs at both speeds for less than a dollar in Boston in the early 80’s.
Otis Rush’s greatest moment in the studio came at some point in mid-58 when he waxed Double Trouble and Keep Lovin’ Me Baby (Cobra 5030) along with All Your Love and My Baby’s A Good ‘Un (Cobra 5032). The all star band behind Rush on these two discs was made up of members of Ike Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm (Ike Turner-guitar, Jackie Breston- baritone sax, Carlson Oliver- tenor sax, Eddie Jones- tenor sax) along with Willie Dixon on bass, Odie Payne on drums, and Little Brother Montgomery on piano. Now that’s a band! There’s a question as to who’s playing the solo on Double Trouble, some think it’s Ike, but after many careful listens, I think it’s Rush. Here’s an alternate take of Double Trouble. The way that Rush and Ike Turner’s guitars mesh set a truly bad vibe for the song, it’s one of the most bleak and unrelenting performances in the entire blues canon. It sounds like Rush’s whole world is caving in on him, only Percy Mayfield would make greater records of such a depressing nature. This session would also be the end of his tenure at Cobra, which soon went out of business, but Rush and Cobra went out with a bang, if not many record sales.
Otis Rush wouldn’t record again for two years when he signed to Chess who recorded him in two rather lacklustre (compared to the Cobra sides) sessions, the best tune being So Many Roads, So Many Trains, which Chess issued in 1960 to little notice. Another two years would go by until his next session, this time for Duke he waxed the amazing soul pumpin’ Homework b/w I Have To Laugh, using a large horn driven studio band that included Lafeyette Leake on organ and Lefty Bates on guitar. Homework was a regional hit, but he never recorded for Duke again, and whatever momentum he had built up in his recording career was lost.
From there on, Rush would record for strictly for the white blues market. There are a few decent tunes and perfomances on the Vanguard Chicago-The BluesToday! Vol. 2 LP (the instrumental Rock is particularly good), but from there his discs would get progressively duller.
Mourning In The Morning (Cotillion) in 1969 was the album that was supposed to make Rush into the new Albert King, produced by some goofy San Francisco rock musicians whose names I can’t remember, it’s not much of a record. Some folks like his 1975 Cold Day In Hell (Delmark), but I find it quite stiff and lacking in the pathos of the Cobra sides.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s Otis Rush was a regular at the old Tramps on 17th Street (see my Esquerita posting on for more on that place), and his performances ran the gamut from painfully dull to stunningly brilliant, burning, searing, guitar workouts, although I think I saw more of the former than the later, on a good night, he could not be topped. Something of a misanthrope, he seemed to take pleasure in boring the audience to tears, then when the club was empty, start wailing away, playing amazingly to the empty seats.
Otis Rush really didn’t start receiving the acolytes due to him until the late 90’s when he won Grammy for “best traditional blues album”, but by that point his skills had diminished quite a bit. He had a stroke in 2004 and has not been able to perform since. So somewhere, in some bed, sits Otis Rush, no longer able to support himself with music. What is is day like? Is he in pain? Does he have decent medical care? He is still alive, but few seem to care. It’s a shame, because as one of the last authentic bluemen left, he could have finally made some real money.
I hope he has decent life and cable tv. He certainly earned them.
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