Born: April 29, 1934 in Philadelphia MS
Guitarist Otis Rush is revered by hardcore fans of the music, but virtually unknown outside the blues world. This in spite of the fact that his unique guitar style and hearty, soulful voice influenced a generation of blues artists and would factor heavily in the sound of rockers like Eric Clapton, Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Indifferent or underfunded record labels and bad contracts, erratic behavior, mediocre live performances, and poor management have prevented Rush from taking his rightful place as one of the greats of the Chicago blues.
The Cobra Records Years
Born and raised in Mississippi, the left-handed Otis Rush learned the rudiments of blues harp and guitar, which he played upside down, while still a youth. Rush moved to Chicago in 1948 and, inspired by the electric Delta blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, was performing in South Side and West Side clubs by the age of 20. Rush's expressive fretwork and powerful vocals brought him to the attention of Willie Dixon, who signed the guitarist to Cobra Records.
Rush hit it out of the ballpark with his first side for Cobra, "I Can't Quit You Baby" quickly rising to #6 on the Billboard magazine R&B chart in 1956. Subsequent singles for the label performed nearly as well, songs like "Double Trouble," "All Your Love," and "My Love Will Never Die" becoming staples of Rush's live show for decades and, along with fellow guitarists Magic Sam and Buddy Guy, helped to define and popularize the West Side Chicago blues sound.
Ignored By Chess Records
When Cobra Records went bankrupt in 1959, Rush followed his producer Dixon over to Chess Records. The label recorded eight songs on the guitarist between 1960 and '62, but only released one lone single, the classic "So Many Roads, So Many Trains." Dismayed by the lack of support from Chess, Rush jumped to rival Duke Records, which also released just one single, the houserockin' "Homework" (later covered by the J. Geils Band). Although his fortunes in the recording studio were waning, Rush's live performances were in high demand, and he toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival.
In 1965, Rush had the rare good luck to have five songs included on Vanguard's seminal Chicago/The Blues/Today! compilation, which brought the guitarist's unique sound to an appreciative rock music audience. Guitarist Mike Bloomfield, of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, convinced his manager Albert Grossman to take Rush on as a client.
With a deal from Atlantic Records' Cotillion subsidiary in their pocket, Bloomfield and fellow blues-rock guitarist Nick Gravenites produced Rush's Mourning For The Morning album in 1969. The pair failed to capture the guitarist's incendiary performance style on tape and when the album suffered from lackluster sales, the label dropped Rush.
Right Place, Wrong Time
Undaunted, Grossman grabbed a deal for the guitarist with Capitol Records, and Gravenites went back into the studio with Rush in 1971 to record Right Place, Wrong Time, widely considered to be Rush's best album. Not liking what they heard, the label refused to release the album, and it sat on a shelf until the independent Bullfrog Records bought the rights and released it in 1976. By this time, however, the allure of the blues for white rock audiences had fallen by the wayside, and the album sold few copies.
Rush released the unspectacular Cold Day In Hell for Delmark Records in 1975, but recording sessions became few and far between for the bluesman well into the 1980s, and he made a living through club performances and the odd festival appearance. Rush retired from music for a while in the early-80s, but by mid-decade he was back in the saddle, using questionable pick-up bands for performances outside of Chicago.
Late Career Revival
Rush's reputation took a hit during the 1980s as the guitarist displayed increasingly erratic behavior and delivered mediocre performances with substandard bands, many of which were later released on vinyl and compact disc by exploitative fly-by-night labels. By 1994, though, Rush had seemingly tightened up his game, and he recorded the inspired Ain't Enough Comin' In with noted producer John Porter, his first studio album in sixteen years.
Rush released what might be the final studio album of his career in 1998, Any Place I'm Goin' receiving widespread critical acclaim and earning Rush his first and only Grammy Award for "Best Traditional Blues Album." Rush toured steadily throughout the 1990s and into the '00s until suffering a stroke in 2004 that put the Chicago blues legend on the sidelines for good. Rush released Live...And In Concert From San Francisco in 2006, the album capturing a decent 1999 performance.
Recommended Albums: Otis Rush's album catalog is full of false starts, failed attempts, and dodgy propositions, but you won't go wrong with the stellar Right Place, Wrong Time. Rush's excellent late-1950s recordings for the Cobra label are featured on The Essential Otis Rush, the young guitarist backed by talents like Willie Dixon and Little Walter.
Otis Rush - Select Discography
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- Mourning In The Morning (Cotillion Records, 1969)
- Cold Day In Hell (Delmark Records, 1975)
- Right Place, Wrong Time (Bullfrog Records, 1976)
- Lost In The Blues (Alligator Records, 1977)
- Troubles Troubles (Sonet Records, 1978)
- Tops (Blind Pig Records, 1985)
- Ain't Enough Comin' In (This Way Up, 1994)
- Any Place I'm Going (House of Blues, 1998)
- Live...And In Concert From San Francisco
- The Essential Otis Rush (Fuel 2000 Records, 2000)
- All Your Love I Miss Loving: Live At The Wise Fool's Pub Chicago (Delmark Records, 2005)