Bobby Rush goes home to Louisiana for his latest album, Down in Louisiana.
Rush lives in Jackson, Miss., but he’s a native of Homer, in north Louisiana, and he lived in Chicago for 47 years.
Rush was still a youngster when he moved to the city that was home to a great blues scene and the record label, Chess, that released recordings by Chicago’s blues stars.
After going back and forth between Chicago and Louisiana, he become a permanent Chicago resident in 1953. He soon joined the vibrant music scene that included Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and many more.
“I feel blessed,” he said a few weeks ago. “I came on in at the right time. Because I don’t think there’s another place I could have learned any more or any faster or any better than I could in Chicago.”
Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf all took young Rush under their experienced wings.
“The first lesson I took from Howlin’ Wolf was being a man,” Rush said. “Howlin’ Wolf was a guy who didn’t take no stuff off nobody.”
Rush also joined Howlin’ Wolf in recording sessions at Chess.
“I was tambourine and bass on some of the stuff,” he said. “But he just wanted me to hang around. So did Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. I was this young boy that they took a liking to. Why? I don’t know. I don’t know what I had to offer them.”
Singer and multi-instrumentalist Rush absorbed the era’s urban blues sound from his mentors.
“The Chicago sound is really a Mississippi sound turned upside down,” he explained. “Most of the guys from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, the guys who migrated to Chicago, we got a little slick with our licks and the things we did. So we called it the Chicago blues sound.”
The city’s amplified, urbanized blues style didn’t immediately work overseas, Rush recalled.
“The first time I went overseas they booed me,” he recalled. “I understand they booed Muddy Waters, too. Because what they perceived a black musician to be was a guy sitting on a stool with white socks on, talking about, ‘My baby left me last night. I don’t know where she went.’
“But when I went to overseas, I was like the James Brown of the blues. And they said, ‘That’s not really blues.’ But now they eat my hat, shoes and socks and all.They realize that I’m the real deal. I was the real deal then, but they weren’t used to the modernization.”
In addition to Chicago’s classic blues men, Rush’s influences include his rock ’n’ roll contemporaries.
“I worked with Little Richard and Fats Domino and Chuck Berry,” he said. “So there’s a lot of elements of a lot of different music in me. When you put it all in a pot, stir it up, you get Bobby Rush.”
His oft-praised Down in Louisiana is a great example of Rush’s range. The title song is funky and swampy. “Rock This House” is a funk-fired instrumental. Rush goes gospel for “Swing Low” and returns to the blues for “Raining In My Heart” and “What is the Blues.”
“People always ask me, ‘What is the blues?’ I think the blues can be something on your mind. It don’t always have to be sad or bad. Because the same thing that can make you laugh can make you cry.
“People like the record,” Rush added. “It’s rooty. I wanted to go back home and do a rooty kind of a thing. That’s why I call it Down in Louisiana. That’s where I come from, the roots of Bobby Rush.”
A performer known for the bawdy side of his show, Rush said he nevertheless can play for any audience, anywhere.
“If it’s a family oriented show, we’re going to abide to that,” he said. “If it’s a juke joint, we’ll abide to that. If it’s one of them places where people get drunk and fall on the floor, we’ll lay some carpet out and deal with that. We know what to do. We cover all the bases.”