Bobby Rush is the reigning king of big-booty blues
First time I ever heard of Bobby Rush was in the mid-1990s at an indie-label convention in New Orleans, when a journalist pal hooked me into catching his show at the House of Blues. It was apparent that something hincty was up, when some random blues purist at a cafe turned his nose up at our professed destination. “Bobby Rush?” he asked himself before sneering, derisively. “Bobby Rush? That is soooo jive-ass.”
We’d seen said blues purist the night before, inhaling the imaginary Thunderbird fumes of serious blues authenticity at a T-Model Ford and Junior Kimbrough show in the basement of a bowling alley, so his contempt really didn’t register. I merely figured we might be in for an evening of electrified hybrid blues, something along the lines of Johnny “Guitar” Watson—more ’70s Malaco Records-style blues with an R&B-meets-early-disco-groove flavor than ’50s or ’60s Chess Records classicism.
But holy moly! Instead, what showed up onstage was like watching the blues as re-imagined by cartoonist Robert Crumb in an unhinged, Courvoisier-fueled collaboration with old-school rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot, wherein the joys of extra-large callipygian bliss would be hitched up to a wicked blues beat and celebrated like the Second Coming.
You see, when Bobby Rush gets onstage to play the blues, he brings some beautiful big-leg dancers with him. These butt sisters could, with one serious rump shake, knock a row of Charles Bukowskis off their barstools. If you catch him near his home in Jackson, Miss., you’ll get the full-on cinematic bootyvision experience with 10 dancers, but his traveling version is somewhat more compact.
“I’ll only have two dancers with me,” he said via a recent phone interview. “But this is gonna be a great, fun time. I’m going into Vegas on Friday night, Saturday night I’m going into Los Angeles, and I’m coming to Sacramento on Sunday.” He’ll be playing one of Mike Balma’s afternoon blues barbecues at the Horsemen’s Club. By Rush’s reckoning, this will be the third time he’s played Sacramento in recent years.
Now Bobby Rush—you pronounce it like one word, with three rapid-fire syllables—may not be one of those spring chickens, but even at age 65, he still can punctuate a tune with well-oiled karate kicks that would sideline men decades younger. “I don’t kick nearly as high as I used to,” he admitted.
The Louisiana native, né Emmitt Ellis Jr., has been playing the blues for 50 years, starting in Chicago around 1953. His bands have featured such greats as Freddie King and Luther Allison. Rush’s recorded catalog didn’t really get under way until he signed with ABC’s BluesWay Records in 1968. His first hit was a single, “Chicken Heads,” on Fantasy Records blues subsidiary Galaxy in 1971. More recent albums include Undercover Lover and a CD/DVD combo, Live at Ground Zero, both of which came out on Rush’s own label, Deep Rush, in 2003. The DVD from the latter documented his booty-ful blues revue in full glory. He followed with Folkfunk and Hen Pecked in 2004 and Night Fishin’ in 2005.
In 2003, Rush’s career got a major boost when he was featured in Richard Pearce’s film The Road to Memphis, the third episode of seven in Martin Scorsese’s PBS series The Blues. The film exposed road-warrior Rush’s old-school blues revue to a national audience, and his relish for delivering a blues experience focused on showmanship came through with sincerity. “That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
Rush still says he loves working the modern-day chitlin’ circuit, too. “I like the small-club feeling because it’s close up,” he said. “It gives me a chance to shake hands and bump elbows with the people that I love to do things for. That’s my kind of life—I’m from the juke-joint days, and I still enjoy it.”
Ladies and gentlemen: Bobby Rush.