When it comes to fame, bluesman Bobby Rush was a late bloomer.
A dynamic singer and harmonica player, Rush won his first Grammy Award in 2017 for the album, “Porcupine Meat,” recorded in New Orleans. He won a second Grammy this year for “Rawer Than Raw.”
His newest project, a memoir, chronicles a lifetime of perseverance.
Born in 1936 in north Louisiana’s Claiborne Parish, the “King of the Chitlin’ Circuit” didn’t begin to achieve mainstream recognition until the early 2000s.
“I Ain’t Studdin’ You: My American Blues Story,” published by Hachette Books, contains 280 pages of first-person recollections. Collaborating with co-writer Herb Powell, Rush tells his story in vivid one- to five-page chapters. His early life in north Louisiana and Arkansas, especially, unreels in up-tempo detail.
Based in Chicago for 30 years and Jackson, Mississippi, since 1983, Rush lived most of his childhood in north Louisiana with his father, a sharecropper, preacher and amateur musician; mother, Mattie; and the 10 other children his parents raised.
“With a daddy like mine,” he writes, “I don’t carry one single note of the dark blues of not having a father. So fully present in my life, he is a large man in my memory, spirit and heart.”
Rush’s memories also include the experience of being Black in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era. The harsh realities of the time and place include the systemic inequity in sharecropping and complexity of belonging to a mixed-race family.
Like many other musically inclined farm boys, Rush, then 6 years old, built a rudimentary one-string instrument known as a diddley bow. In “I Ain’t Studdin’ You,” he recalls entering a state of rapture when he played that single string, dreaming he was on stage.
Rush later felt “sanctified” when an older cousin passed on his scratched-up Kay guitar to him. He tinkered with the cheap, hard-to-play instrument every spare moment. A song, dance and comedy routine he improvised for a 4-H contest effectively launched his nearly 70-year-long career.
Singer-harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson was a major early influence.
“I said a prayer of thankfulness because Sonny Boy taught me almost everything I would need to be a writer and solid bluesman,” Rush writes.
Future blues great Elmore James helped the young Rush land a short but formative stint with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. A popular vaudeville troupe, the “Foots” had previously been a training ground for Ma Rainy, Bessie Smith and Louis Jordan. Rush also attended every performance by established artists he could, studying Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Rufus Thomas and fellow Louisiana native Little Walter Jacobs.
After his family’s move to Sherrill, Arkansas, a small town near Pine Bluff, Rush met many music stars and future stars, setting the pattern of friendship and mentorship that continued when he moved to Chicago in 1953. He writes both affectionately and frankly about such peers as Jacobs, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Ike Turner, Rudy Ray Moore, Dr. John and James Brown.
Rush also recalls racial disparities in the music business.
“White folks were trying really hard to take what we’d cook up and make it theirs,” he says. “But the fact remains that the only thing that White folks did to create rock ’n’ roll was Alan Freed giving it the name rock ’n’ roll. … Then like a dump truck full of clear water, they started dumping re-recordings of R&B with White faces.”
Following decades of stardom on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the 2003 Martin Scorsese-produced documentary “The Road to Memphis” brought Rush a wider audience. More high-profile work came with another documentary, “Take Me to River”; his late-night national TV debut on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”; two Grammy wins; and a cameo in the Eddie Murphy-starring Rudy Ray Moore biopic, “My Name is Dolemite.”
In addition to its entertainment and cultural value, Rush’s memoir holds the wisdom he’s gained during a long and active life. Examples include his thankfulness for his musician friends, most of whom he’s outlived.
“Those pure moments that we shared, of mutual respect, admiration and love,” Rush writes, “that recognition was more than enough to keep me going for almost 70 years."