There’s just one guitar slinger alive today who can say he influenced Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, Peter Green, Jimi Hendrix, the J. Geils Band, Carlos Santana, Michael Bloomfield, Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, and Ronnie Earl—and has been embraced as a peer by pillars of blues Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters.
But he probably wouldn’t boast. Chicago’s Otis Rush is a humble guy. Nonetheless, he’s also one of the greatest guitarists to ever grace the planet?a master of unpredictable runs packed with daredevil bends, purposefully rattled low strings, and seventh-, ninth-, and eleventh-chord resolutions that create an air of mystery.
Rush in his prime, wailing his “I Can’t Quit You, Baby” on the American Folk Blues Festival’s traveling stage (see clip above) in the early ’60s, is the very embodiment of the second generation of electric blues. He snatches the torch from the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in a solo that’s simply a scalding fusillade of notes, balanced by the verses’ elegant pentatonic lines that cry in reply to his dark-angel singing. In his slick shades, skinny tie, and a sweater Rivers Cuomo would kill for, Rush is also the absolute embodiment of cool.
Rush was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on April 29, 1934. But his career began in a garage behind the ABC TV & Repair Shop on the 2900 block of West Roosevelt Street on Chicago’s notorious West Side in 1956.
Eli Toscano, the owner of Cobra Records, sat behind a plate of glass that separated his control booth from the rest of his garage. There, musicians crowded around a single microphone. When it was time for a guitar solo the amp was rolled closer to the mike on a dolly and then pulled back to its literal place in the mix.
More than a half-century later the claustrophobia-stoked intensity of that session still crackles like lightning. It’s audible in the soaring high-wire vocal moan that opens the song and the tumble of notes that rip through the air of Rush’s original recording of “I Can’t Quit You, Baby.”
In 1956 Rush, Buddy Guy, and Magic Sam were the latest discoveries of Toscano and his talent scout, Willie Dixon, who was moonlighting on the Chess brothers. Together those musicians took blues recordings to a new place: the ghetto.
The music of the clubs on Chicago’s west and south sides was more vicious than anything that came before. And in the ’50s Rush was its principal vinyl architect. The wiry virtuoso’s early hits?including “My Love Will Never Die,” “All Your Love (I Miss Lovin’),” “Three Times a Fool,” “Double Trouble,” “So Many Roads,” and so many more?are the sound of raw change.
At Chess Records, the Delta tradition gone electric had been captured. At Cobra, when Toscano caught Rush’s anguished shout and the whinny of his guitar spitting out clusters of sheer frustration and pain, he was taping the essence of the city?the percolations of the pressure cooker of urban poverty and wage-slavery; of crowded living conditions and harassment by the law; of young men and women who’d emigrated from the poor South only to find a new kind of Jim Crow.
And Rush did it by turning his amps wide open and pouring himself into his guitar, creating a style of beating out often unpredictable single-note leads that still ripple with a level of imagination that surpasses all but the greatest of today’s players.
Rush became Cobra’s biggest star when “I Can’t Quit You, Baby” hit the streets in ’56. The single blasted out of windows on every block of Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods. It also somehow made it across the sea into the hands of the young bucks who’d later play in groups like John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and Led Zeppelin.
“Personally, I didn’t know what I was doing then, and I don’t know what I’m doing now,” Rush told me when we spoke at a gig at the House of Blues in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the mid-’90s. “I say, ‘Wow, I’m hitting the wrong notes.’ And people will go, ‘How did you play that?’ It’s hard to explain that, to me.”
Well, here’s the explanation: Rush, thanks to his whip-crack intensity and his snaking chromatic soloing style, simply makes even the notes he feels are wrong sound perfectly, deeply right.
Rush’s career has been a rollercoaster of record labels, periodic absences from the stage, and personal turmoil. He has long suffered bouts of depression and the ills of diabetes. And today, sadly, Rush is unlikely to perform. In 2004 he had a stroke that has left him impaired. But his legacy still works magic.
After Cobra went broke, Rush skipped to Chess Records in the late 1950s. But his next hit was in 1962 when he cut “Homework” for the Houston-based Duke label. The song, a teenaged love anthem, later became a centerpiece of the J. Geils Band’s live repertoire.
As the ’60s went on, Rush came to greater recognition thanks to the young white players he’d influenced. His “All Your Love” was the opening track on John Mayall’s magnificent 1966 Blues Breakers with a pre-Cream Eric Clapton on guitar. And “I Can’t Quit You, Baby” is a blasting centerpiece on Led Zeppelin’s debut album, with Page and Robert Plant shedding blood in their performance.
The same year Led Zeppelin was released, 1969, Rush’s career got a brief boost when Michael Bloomfield took him into the studio at Muscle Shoals to produce Mourning in the Morning, where Rush reprised the high drama of “My Love Will Never Die” and added another classic original, “It Takes Time,” to his repertoire.
One important quality of Rush’s playing that mesmerized Clapton, Page, Bloomfield, and generations of players since their arrival is his staggering vibrato.
“Otis’ music always really touched me because it was tormented and had this minor key, deep quality,” says Ronnie Earl, one of America’s pre-eminent traditional blues guitar stylists. “I was very struck by that and by his vibrato, which I was trying to learn in my room when I was starting out. He’s the king of that; he has the best vibrato of them all. It never fails to shake my soul up.
“I’ve heard him take a 12-minute ride with his guitar and never repeat himself,” Earl relates. “He’s like the Ray Charles of blues guitarists.”
Another of Rush’s influential qualities is his hair-raising way of bending strings. Rush relayed his technique to me when we crossed paths in early 2000.
Like Albert King, whose similarly ferocious style of bending was influenced by Rush (in turn impacting Stevie Ray Vaughan, who named his band after Rush’s song “Double Trouble”), the Chicago six-string aerialist is a southpaw. That’s a mighty advantage when bending, since the lighter gauge strings on his guitars are on top of the fretboard. That encourages Rush to pull down strings rather than bend them up. So his fretting hand can use its full strength and fine motor control in bending and gently rocking his strings.
Although the muscles of the human hand are better built for pulling guitar strings down than pushing them up, northpaws needn’t despair. Rush recommends that they channel their string bending to the fat round wounds, which can add a low spooky moan to a solo in the A or E pentatonic scales, two of Rush’s favorites.
Rush also stressed the importance of pinning the strings hard to the fretboard. “Always use two or three fingers to bend strings,” he offered. “It makes it easier and more accurate, and you can shake the strings better for vibrato when your grip is stronger. But don’t put your fingers together. That’s not as strong as spacing them out a little bit.” To prove his point, he grabbed his ES-345’s B string at the seventh fret and placed his middle finger on the sixth, then tugged it down two whole steps, from F# to A#, smooth as butter, then added just a twist of vibrato to produce a shivering tone.
He is also a firm believer in “less is more.”
“I figure if you put in every note you can for five minutes, it’s gonna be hard for people to figure out,” he said. “You’ve got to bring out your notes slow and easy, like in ‘All Your Love.’ ”
Rush is also a big jazz fan, which would explain the chromatic high wire walking of his most dizzying solos, especially live. “I’m crazy about Kenny Burrell,” he said. “I’ve learned some of his tunes, like ‘Chitlins Con Carne,’ and I’m crazy about Stanley Turrentine on saxophone and [organist] Jimmy Smith. That’s one of the reasons I play out of key sometimes. I don’t worry about that. It’s about playing what you feel like. If I’m playing a solo in B, I might bend a note up to D just because I want to.”
Although there’s a host of post-1970 Rush live albums available, his studio output became irregular after 1971’s Right Place, Wrong Time, which began a jinx by getting tied up in Capitol Records’ red tape for five years. His last truly essential album was 1994’s Ain’t Enough Comin’ In, a burly affair buoyed by gargantuan tones thanks to Rush’s trademark ES-345 and his then new-found affection for Mesa-Boogie combos.
During that disc’s sessions?which also found him experimenting with a Strat, the model of guitar he used back in the early days with Cobra?Rush recaptured all the fire of his ’50s recordings and spit it back into a dozen songs. And for the next decade, until his stroke forced retirement, he managed to summon back the virtues of his most articulate playing in his best on-stage performances.
Even when illness caused Rush to turn in poor shows, which were frequent in the last 20 years of his live career, his vocal ability?part ploughman’s holler, part soulman’s moan?was always intact. He ascribed that to his practice of drinking three fingers of cod liver oil before his shows, which I once observed, albeit chased with red wine.
Unlike John Lee Hooker or Buddy Guy, who managed to accumulate significant wealth in their senior years after decades of struggle, Rush never reached that financial pinnacle.
He said he could afford to leave rural Mississippi in the early ’50s only because “I had got some money from a good harvest, cropping and everything.” And despite the success of his Cobra sides, Rush spent his nights in the ’50s and early ’60s playing for tips in the steelworkers bars that dotted Chicago?rough joints that stayed open 24-7 while Toscano spent Cobra’s small profits at the track or with bookies. That eventually cost the portly domo more than his label. Toscano’s body was fished out of Lake Michigan in the mid-’60s.
Rush claimed “the royalties were never right” on any of his pre-’90s recordings, which is why he took a long break from studio recording after ’71’s Right Place, Wrong Time save for a few weak one-offs for European indie labels.
“It got discouraging. Discouraging. Discouraging,” he said.
“I just quit altogether for a few years in the late-’70s and early-’80s. I was shooting pool and livin’ off the land. That’s also when depression and diabetes set in.
“I have a gift and I chose not to use it for a while,” Rush explained. “But it felt like God gave me a whuppin’ for that, you know. So I got back to it.
“Let me tell you, being a blues musician is one of the hardest things you could ever want to do,” he observed not long before that “whuppin’ ” resumed and took him out of circulation. “But it’s sweet, too, if you make it.”