Yes, 85 Year Old Bluesman Bobby Rush Still Has It On New LP ‘Sitting On Top Of The Blues’ (INTERVIEW)

Bobby Rush at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum, 1150 Lakeland Drive Jackson, Mississippi 39216. Photos for the album "Sitting on top of the Blues." © photo by Bill Steber

If you’ve had the opportunity to talk with Bobby Rush then you know he has a delightful wit and fun stories. If you have seen one of his live performances then you know this 85-year-old blues singer is more of an all-around entertainer – swinging his hips, jumping, singing, blowing on his harp, flirting with his audience. If you’ve listened to any of his 300-plus records, then you know the man is the real deal.

Louisiana born and bred, the son of a preacher father and a strong-minded mother, Rush has always liked music. It was in his blood early on, whether he was listening to his father sing the gospel or catching the sounds of Chicago that drifted down to his small northern Louisiana town, where he lived until the family moved to Arkansas while in his early teens. It was while in Arkansas that he met the great blues guitar player Elmore James. But it was Chicago that would change his life because the city was dripping wet with the blues. Musicians and singers gravitated to the city and Rush was electrified by it all.

Fast-forward to 2019 and Bobby Rush has a new album on the horizon, August 16th to be exact. Titled Sitting On Top Of The Blues, the moniker is prophetic in a number of ways: Rush is one of the few remaining blues artists from those hotbed days when Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and BB King were in their prime; Rush, who performs over 200 shows a year, is still energetic, giving his fans a sweaty, harmonica-fueled adventure; and he feels like he is finally on top of his game, business-wise, with more control and more smarts when it comes to everything from royalties to creative freedom. And Sitting On Top Of The Blues is the proof in the pudding.

One listen through the eleven songs is not enough. You’ve got to let it rotate, let your body immerse itself into the groove and funkiness that Rush adds into his version of the blues. From Muddy’s suits to the Wolf’s vocals to Son House’s simplicity, Rush has paid attention to his influences and formulated what he calls a Bobby Rush soup. The new single, “Good Stuff,” is that and more while “Bowlegged Woman,” “Hey Hey Bobby Rush” and “Get Out Of Here (Dog Named Bo)” make you just feel good. 

Winning his first Grammy only two years ago for his Porcupine Meat album, Rush knew he had to up his game on the next record and it looks like he has accomplished this on the new record, with his future looking brighter than ever. “I’m a bluesman who’s sitting on the top of my game, proud of what I do and proud of who I am and thankful for people accepting me for what I am and who I am,” Rush said recently. “I’m happy about what I’m doing and still enthused about what I’m doing. And I think we’ve got some good songs.”

Rush was waiting for soundcheck to begin in Detroit when we spoke to him about his new music, the blues and what makes Bobby Rush, Bobby Rush.

Bobby Rush at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum, 1150 Lakeland Drive
Jackson, Mississippi 39216. Photos for the album “Sitting on top of the Blues.” © photo by Bill Steber

You spend a lot of time on the road. 

Oh God yeah. I’m on the road all the time. I don’t think I did under two hundred shows a year for the last sixteen years. But it’s hard, it’s real hard. But I think need-more keeps you going. 

So what do you do when you have that rare day off?

I got some great-grandchildren and I like to pick one of my great-grandkids up and go fishing. I love to go fishing. I live in Jackson, Mississippi, now. I left Louisiana in 1947 and I went to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, with my father, who was the pastor for church, and a preacher. In the early fifties I moved to Chicago and I lived in Chicago forty-something odd years, forty-seven, forty-eight years. I started recording in the early fifties at Chess Recording Company and from that time to this time, I’ve been recording for sixty-six years. From that time to this time, I recorded 394 records.

I am so blessed and so thankful for being a Louisiana guy. I recorded two years ago a record, Porcupine Meat, and it won an award. I recorded in Louisiana, everybody was from Louisiana who was on the record except Vasti Jackson, who was from Mississippi, and it was my first time up for a Grammy and I won a Grammy and all the musicians were from Louisiana. Now how good can a man feel winning an award with everyone from Louisiana except one and I’m from Louisiana. God that made me feel good.

Homer is up in northern Louisiana. Were you getting New Orleans music up there or was it mostly Chicago and Memphis music coming down to you?

Most was Chicago and I went to Chicago very early in my career and I started when I was a young man because of the influence of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Junior Parker, Bobby Blue Bland, James Brown, Ray Charles; all these guys had an influence on me. So I was doing the Chicago thing and singing the blues with the funk kind of beat to it; not so much like a Muddy Waters but with a funk beat to it; you know, with the energy to it.

What makes music exciting for Bobby Rush in his eighties?

I’ll tell you, I’m still enthused, I’m still learning, I’m still excited about the things I hear and about the things I do. And I pray to God every day to keep me enthused because I know a man and a woman can live a long time without water and without food but you can’t live long without hope. I still have hope. And I love what I’m doing and I like the music. You know, I’m a blues singer who appreciates the people who love me and I love you for loving me and I have crossed over but I never crossed out my people. I’m still considered the king of the chitlin’ circuit but yet I crossed over. So I am so blessed and so thankful.

You call yourself a blues artist but you’re actually a lot more than that – you’re more of an all-around entertainer. Is that how it had to be in your early days, you had to be everything?

Oh yeah. Really what you see now is what I’ve been doing all this time. It’s just I’m more comfortable with what I’m doing now because I don’t have to take the backseat. My name is a little bigger now so I can do some of the things I want to do but what I’m doing is something that has been in me all the time and that’s entertaining people. I dance, I sing, I jump, I play, I’m a guitar player and a harmonica player, bass player, and I’ve been doing it all the time. Early in my career I couldn’t do some of the things I’m doing now because I had to stay commercial. I had to do what some of the record companies wanted me to do. Now, I do some of the things Bobby Rush wants to do and hope you like it.

You are very frisky onstage. How did your father, who was a preacher, feel about you being such a rascal?

(laughs) Well, you know, my dad was my best friend and my best motivator. Although he was a preacher, he never told me TO sing the blues but he never told me NOT to sing the blues. That was a green light to me because it wasn’t about the race music or the devil’s music; it was about me being who I am and doing what I do. My daddy was always in for that, you know.

How has gospel music most influenced you and the music you make?

I don’t know whether the music influenced me as much as the words, because I’m a blues singer. But biblical study, it’s a personal thing. I believe in the good book and I have faith that God is going to see me through any situation I’m in. I come from a gospel background but I never was the guy who was singing gospel in the church. I was the guy who was in church who wanted to sing the blues (laughs). I remember my dad used to go to church and then come back from being in church all day and sometime on Sunday afternoon he would go back to church and he would preach. Sometimes we wouldn’t go with him. When he was there I would sing, “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.” When he leave, it was “Wang Dang Doodle” (laughs). But I didn’t kid myself about it and I joke about it because my daddy probably understood that’s who I was. I was just this guy going to church doing what I do but blues was in my heart.

Gospel and blues have a lot of similarities

Oh they are both about the same thing. On a Sunday morning you’re talking about Jesus and then Saturday night you’re talking about my baby (laughs)

And the harmonica is a big part of who you are

Oh God, yeah. I started when I was six years old when I picked up the harp. My dad was a harp player and a guitar player. He wasn’t a great player but I thought he was because that’s my dad and he was the best one around in my neighborhood, you know, the best one I knew about. I didn’t have the opportunity to see anyone who played the guitar. I’d just heard of guys who played. I wasn’t around players until I go to be a teenager. So my dad was my first person who played the harp. He taught me my first song. 

I can tell you this, my cousin gave me a guitar when I was about seven years old and I hid it from my dad and one day he said, “Bring that guitar here and let me play it for you.” I didn’t know my daddy knew I had a guitar but you find out your parents know everything (laughs). So I brought it to him and he said, “Let me sing a song I used to sing to the girls when I was a little older than you.” And I wanted to hear about this cause I just knew it was going to be about my mother. It was either one of them gospel songs like “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” but it wasn’t about my mother and it wasn’t “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.” 

He went to singing, “Me and my gal went to chinquapin hunting; she fell down and I saw something.” And my dad being a preacher! Somebody falling down and he saw something. Well, I wanted my daddy to tell me what he saw but I couldn’t find words to ask him, “Daddy, what you saw?” so I said, “Sing it again.” I thought if he sung it again, the second verse would be talking about what he saw. He said, “Me and my gal went to chinquapin hunting; she fell down and I saw something.” By that time my mother was in the kitchen cooking and she cleared her throat, “Don’t sing that kind of song to that boy.” So he went to sing it again and I said, “Daddy, what did she have on?” And he said, “Nothing but a dress.” I said, “How big was she?” He said, “Well, about 350 pounds.” Now in my little mind, a woman weigh 350 pounds, she had nothing on but a dress and she fell down and her dress went up. Wow! I could just see that in my mind and that’s a lot to see! (laughs). And my dad being a preacher writing this kind of song! And he went to sing it again and my mother was coming up. “Me and my gal went to chinquapin hunting,” and I said, “Daddy, Daddy,” in a low voice. “Here come Mama.” And he looked around and he said, “Me and my gal went to chinquapin hunting; she fell down and I kept running.” (laughs)

So my mother broke it up. I don’t know what my daddy would have said if my mother hadn’t been there. I wish my mother hadn’t never showed up cause I would have found out what my daddy saw. I never knew. So with him saying that, it make me write and think the way that I write songs today. He was my first introduction to my writing. So now I write about those kind of things. 

You call out yourself in your songs and you’ve got several songs on the new album with Bobby Rush in the title. How did that start?

That started because back in the day sometimes you could turn the radio on and they would play ten records in a row without calling who played. If they played ten records in a row and one of them was my record and they’re not going to call my name, I’m going to put my name in so you know who sung it. So I started to put my name in my records intentionally so you would know who sung that particular record. Sometimes back in the day you had to go back and call the radio station, “Listen, there was a record you played about two hours ago, the ninth record, who was that?” Sometimes he would tell you and sometimes he wouldn’t, sometimes you wouldn’t get no one and had to guess on what title or wait for him to play it again. But I started to put my name on records so whenever you play a Bobby Rush record I call my name so many times you know who it was.

And you call out other blues guys as well

That came from respect, because a lot of the guys who I respect and who I mention their names, are people that I love what they do. You know, I loved the Muddy Waters and the Howlin’ Wolf and BB King, Ray Charles, Junior Parker, on and on you could name them. A lot of the guys I love the way they write, the Smokey Robinson, and some of the younger guys coming up. I loved Prince and I love Stevie Wonder. There are so many guys I like some things about them, you know, and I talk about those kinds of guys inside of my records cause most of them are my friends; even if they’re not my friends it’s someone that I love something about, I respect something about them.

Your “Bobby Rush Shuffle” on the new record is an instrumental. What are you most representing – is it you, is it your influences, is it just the day outside?

I will be a harmonica player till the day I die. It’s being loose, being blown in the wind by looseness. A shuffle, at that time, was like dancing but what we did back in the older days, my granddaddy and all of them danced and they’d shuffle. You didn’t pick your feet up too high, you’d just shuffle along with the groove. So I just played this groove and you just kind of shuffle along with the groove. I did it on a harmonica riff so you could relate to it like a Little Walter or Sonny Boy Williamson, and quite naturally I’ve got Bobby Rush in it. You can hear a whole lot of things inside of Bobby Rush because I love the Howlin’ Wolf because he was so different with his voice; I love Muddy Waters and BB King. I love so many different artists for what they did and what they was doing so I took a little piece of this and a little piece of that and put it all together and stirred it up in a bowl and you get a Bobby Rush soup. You have a lot of elements from different artists that I love and respect inside of my music. And the funky stuff you hear, that rhythm and energy kind of stuff you hear, is from James Brown and you hear some Muddy Waters and some BB King, you hear some Howlin’ Wolf, you hear some Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker. All these guys influenced me. Then I have my own take in all that.

What did you get from someone like Son House who was very minimal?

Oh from Son House I got the storytelling, from him and Sonny Boy Williamson. I love Son House and the storytelling, he was a storyteller. Sonny Boy Williamson would tell this story, “Don’t start me talking cause I’ll tell everything I know.” There’s just so many things I like about different artists and I can’t tell you everything I like about them. But there ain’t too many artists left now to influence me but I respect so many guys that’s not here anymore. But a few guys like Buddy Guy, who is still here, he’s my best friend and I think I influence him by the things I do cause he do “Chicken Heads” and I love him and he loves me. But most of the guys I love that loved me aren’t around for me to love them anymore, other than the fact that that I just love what they did while they lived and the friendship they brought.

Making Sitting On Top Of The Blues, did you go in and do it quickly or did you take your time? How do you like to make a record now?

In between the two. I took my time because I thought about this real thoroughly because I’m coming behind a Grammy, Porcupine Meat. You know, it’s hard to compete with yourself. I had already won a Grammy so coming behind a Grammy it’s hard to come up with songs to compete or compare with what you’ve done. You’ve got to beat yourself out. So I started working on “Bowlegged Woman” and then “Good Stuff” and “Slow Motion.” When you get my age you want to do everything in slow motion anyway because it fits your lifestyle, you know. “Bowlegged Woman,” I had done that several times but I had never did it this way. All the things I thought about. People could relate to me being something fresh or being something new but yet I wanted to be related to the past. It’s a hard task to try to please. I’ve got to try to please the young crowd, the older crowd, the ones that have been with me a long time, the ones who have never been with me. It’s hard but I’ve been able to put this together and I think I’ve got something I think everybody can relate to and everybody will love.

And what exactly were you trying to say with the title? 

I was talking about being on top of my game, being a blues singer, because most people think blues singer just loose goose and don’t think about anything else other than singing the blues and the ups and downs or hard failures and mistakes. But I’m talking about that I’ve been in this game for a long time as a bluesman and it’s a business and I treat it as a business and I’m on top of that. When I first got into the game, people ripping me off for my publishing and my songs, for my writing and everything else, from underpaid and the whole bit. But now I’m on top of the game so I hope I’m wise enough. I have a manager with me now who I love and he love me and we doing some things together and we can try and get paid for some of the things we do and enjoy the things we’re doing. So that means I’m on top of the blues.

And you know, there is no place I can’t go back that I’ve been, because I lived that kind of life and took care of myself that way where I can always go back where I come from and do things I’ve done before. I haven’t burned any bridges. I may not do everything that my fans and public would like for me to do but I try to come as close as I can because I try to be good at what I do so if I’m good at what I do, you may not like me but you’ll say, well, I may not like ole Bobby Rush but damn he good. And that’s all that matters.

What do you think lies at the heart of a great blues song?

Honestness and truth. I think if you’re telling the truth about a situation, you can do it best. And if you’re honest with yourself about it, you can feel the honestness in it, because if I sang about “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” you can hear it in my voice. If I talk about this girl that I met named Sue, now her name may not be Sue but you can bet your life that I met someone somewhere down the line. If I talk about my woman left me for the garbage man, I’m talking about I lost somebody in my life that I was involved with to someone that I felt bad about. Because if you lose someone to a stranger, a loss is a loss but it’s never like losing somebody to someone you know well or a friend. So when I write, I try to write about what I feel, what I think, what I been through or what I wish I was going through or what I hope to go through.

I believe I’m the oldest bluesman around. It’s not just about what I’ve done or doing but it’s what I plan to do. My motto now is that I must do all I can while I can; when it come a time I cannot do, I won’t regret what I did not do.

 

Portraits by Bill Steber; live photographs by Mary Andrews

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