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John Kessler talks with bluesman 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
Bill Steber
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

John Kessler Today, we are very lucky and honored to be talking with Bobby Rush, one of our greatest bluesmen in history. With his distinctive style of funky blues, Bobby Rush has had a career that spans 70 years. After decades of playing the chitlin circuit, Bobby Rush has broken through to the mainstream with a long overdue Grammy in 2017 for his album Porcupine Meat and another in 2021 for Rawer than Raw. Bobby Rush will be performing at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley in Seattle February 1st and 2nd with young bluesman Jontavious Willis. So, Bobby Rush, I am so honored and thrilled to be talking with you today. Thank you.

Bobby Rush: I'm here, John. Bobby Rush. Thank you for having me on. I'm glad to be here.

JK: So I've got some questions from some of our listeners. I told them that we were going to be talking. And so they sent me in some questions to ask you, and I've got a couple of my own too.

BR: OK, you got it.

JK: All right. So this is a question from Ray: What was it like when you were first starting your career? Did you know that you wanted to be a performer?

BR: Oh yeah. And I knew that early... At seven, eight years old, I knew I want to be a songwriter and I knew I wanted to be a Blues singer. But I didn’t know anything at all about making money. I didn’t want to be popular or famous. I just wanted to do what I loved to do and what I thought I could do well. I knew that early in my life.

JK: So what were some of the first instruments that you were playing?

BR: (Laughs) I built me a guitar upside my wall, a one string guitar from wire that you bale hay up with. I made me a ole guitar. From that, I went to about seven/eight years old. My first cousin gave me a guitar and my daddy bought me a harmonica when I was about seven/eight years old. Well, I don't know if he bought it for me, or bought it for hisself. But he passed it down to me and my daddy played the first note on a guitar that I ever played in my life, you know, he tuned the guitar up and taught me how to tune it. And then he taught me how to play one song. A little song he taught me how to play was called “Chankypin Huntin’”. (Chinquapin) You know, that was like a little pecan, or a peanut. You know, we call them Chankypins. So that's the history behind that, you know. My mother said, “Don't teach that boy how to sing them kind of song!” Because my daddy was a preacher and a pastor of a church. And the little song he was tryin’ to teach me ‘bout Chanky Pin huntin’, he said…”Me and my gal went to Chanky Pin huntin’, She fell down and I saw somethin’”… Man! My Daddy being a preacher. I said Dad, sing it again. I wanted to ask my Daddy “what did he see?” But I couldn’t ask him as a little boy. He said “Me and my gal went Chankypin huntin’” I said “How big was she Dad?” He said “Oh about 350 pounds, boy”. I said “350 pounds, what did she have on?” He said “Nothin’ but a dress, boy”. And now I know she was 350 pounds, she had on nothin’ but a dress. Man I could just visualize that in my mind. I said “I’m gonna be a Blues singer, I’m going to write me some risqué kind of a song like this. That was on my mind!

JK: Wow that's great. That's such a wonderful story. Well Lisa has a question: What musician or musicians made the biggest impression on you when you were growing up?

BR: Louis Jordan. I had many guys, but Louis Jordan. He had a song out one time talk about a buzzard and a monkey was good friends. So apparently the monkey was a better friend than the buzzard was to him. So he invited the monkey in the air with him in this song. And after he got ‘em up he started duckin’ and boppin’ like he gonna throw him off his back or harm the monkey. So the monkey wrapped his tail around his neck and, he said “Oh you’s chokin’ me!” He said “Well straighten up and fly right. Stop all that ziggin’ and zaggin’!” So that was Louis Jordan’s song. So you got to understand my first Gold Record, my first big record was “Chicken Heads”. So yeah Louis Jordan, definite.

Then I had many other guys like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, B.B. King, Ray Charles, all the guys in my age bracket, Fats Domino. All these guys impressed me, man. Many guys. But Louis Jordan, Ah! That was my man.

JK: Now I read that you were also buddies with Elmore James.

BR: Yeah, Elmore James was in my band. I put I put a band together called Bobby Rush and The Four Jivers. He was much older than I, but Elmore James was in my band kind of accidentally. He got in my band because I had nobody to play. I was doin’ an audition for the Rabbit Foot Show. And the man turned Elmore James down, and I went in to do a Rabbit Foot show with my little guitar. He said “What can you do boy?” So I got up and went in and I did the “Hambone” (sings hambone rhythm) The guy said “Man, you hired”. And in the meantime, I didn't tell the man I play guitar ‘cause he just turned Elmore James down. But then I formed a band and hired Elmore James in the band. (laughs)

JK: That's hilarious. Yeah, I love Elmore James. He plays and sings like, There's no tomorrow.

BR: (sings) “I get up in the morning and I believe I dust my broom.” Oh man! Elmore James! But you know Boyd Gilmore was his first cousin, and Boyd Gilmore was a guy who played just as good as Elmore, could have been better. He said he taught Elmore. I didn’t know, I asked Elmore about it and Elmore say he did. I don't know whether that's true or not, but he was my first slide guitar player was Boyd Gilmore, they was first cousins.

JK: So here's a question from Randy. Her question is: how did you choose your name?

BR: (laughs) My real name is Emmet Ellis Jr., named after my father. My dad was a preacher and pastor for two churches. I had so much respect for my father, as my friend and my dad. I just wanted a name. I came up with about four or five name before I come up with Bobby Rush. All I know is as a country boy, I wanted a big name, I wanted a name like Eisenhower or President Roosevelt, some big name, you know?

And I thought about Bobby, but there's a lot of Bobby and a lot of Rushes. But ain’t but one Bobby Rush. Everybody calls me Bobby Rush. Nobody calls me Bobby, nobody calls me Rush. It’s Bobby Rush. So I heard this when I was about, oh, eight or nine, maybe 10 years old. But I got this name when I was about 12, and it’s been with me ever since then, it’s Bobby Rush. I said it in the house a lot, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Bobby Rush!”

And it sounds good, you know. I was just thinking about someone would call me on the stage and say “Ladies and gentleman we got a gentleman in the house can play guitar, blow harmonica, let’s get him to the stage his name is Bobby Rush!” (laughs)

JK: It has a nice sound to it. So here's a question from Gordy, and I don't know if there's an answer to this, but his question is when did you feel like you had made it?

BR: Okay I can tell him that. And I feel like I have made it…not yet. (laughs) You know, I'm very modest about life, but I do thank God for giving me the opportunity to be here, this long to do what I'm doing--record 397 records. And I still don't think I did everything I wanted to do. But I have did everything just right. If I could do it over again, I’d do the same thing because everything I did, then I thought I was right about doing it. It was the best I knew how to do then, and I'm here because of God’s grace and His mercy and His hedge around me.

JK: So here's some questions from me now. So last year you published an autobiography, I Ain't Studdin’ You, that was given very high ratings by every reviewer I ever looked at. So why did you decide to write this autobiography?

BR: It was on my mind for about 25 or 30 years. I didn't want to write it because I thought it might conflict, make someone uncomfortable about what I say about them because they lived. But after I had gotten older, I got eighty somethin’ years old and I said, Let me put this book out while I live right or wrong, up or down. If it fits your foot, then wear it, you know. If the shoe don’t fit you then don’t bother about puttin’ it on. When I come up with this book, I want you to read this book, not just you, but everybody who reads it, and don't feel sorry for me because a lot of things happened to me. My ups, my downs, my in and outs. The bad things, the good things, but the good things overtake and overshadow the bad things. But I want people to come out reading this book and say, “If Bobby Rush, a little country boy can do this and make it to where he is now, I can, too.” So I’m hoping that it’ll help someone somewhere down the line.

JK: So let's talk about Jontavious Willis. I had the chance to meet him a couple of years ago. He did a performance in our studio at the radio station. And first of all, what a lovely, charming, kind young man. But I'm interested to know how you met with him.

BR: Well, through music and stages and byways and highways. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time with him here lately. But he just admired me and he was kind of guy just wouldn't go away. Always in my face about information and what I've done, and he thinks the world of what I do and what I've done. So anybody like that, I've got to give them my best shot to try to help them anyway I can. Let them know that I’m not perfect. I didn't get here by no silver plate, and I have some hardship and hard time. If you're willing to go through the things that I went through, then I'm willing to help you go forward from here because it's going to be joyful time with me just to be with John. So Tavious, if you're listening, let's have some fun, man and make some history.

JK: So when you do your show, do you both play together with each other?

BR: Yeah, I'm going to play some with him. We're going to make a rehearsal and whatever. he wants to do, that makes sense. You know, it got to make sense for both of us, that we can pull this thing off. I think just because he's a good player, his head level is there, we can't miss with it, we can’t miss with it.

JK: Yeah, it's going to be a great show again. Bobby Rush will be performing at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle February 1st and 2nd with Jontavious Willis.

BR: Two big day, big days!

JK: So this kind of leads and we're almost done here. But this is a question that I think is on the minds of many people, including myself. How do you feel about the future of Blues music?

BR: I feel good about it now. It was kind of dim for me a few years ago because I didn't see young men like Kingfish (Christone Kingfish Ingram) and John coming on. But now I see some young guys coming on doin’ the Blues. I just hope they could continue to do it and love what they doin’, not do it just because they’re making a living out. It's okay to make a living. But you got to love it first because if you love what you're doing, you'll be the best at it because I try to be good at what I'm doing. And if you don't like me, you can say, Well, I don't like Bobby Rush, but damn he good. That's all what matter. So I think especially the black guys who are playing the Blues now, they got to really let people know that you playin’ it because you love it. You playin’ because it’s the root of all music, if you don't like the blues, you probably don't like your Momma.

JK: You have a way with words. I will say that !

BR: Well you know, the Blues is the mother of all music, man. You know Blues has been the kind of music has so many short cuts and even the radios and people who play the Blues now don't play it like they play other music, you know? And I like all music, but you got to live with the Blues because the Blues is something that start everybody off, you know? And I just hope that some of the black guys who are playing the Blues now would grab hold to it and run with it because you got a lot of white guys playin’ it, which is good. If it wasn’t for them playin’ it, I don't know what the Blues would be. So everybody can have the blues, but the black guys are really the root of it. And I catch a lot of guys sayin “I'm going to record this because I think black people like this, I'm going to record like this because I think white people like it.” I think we should record good music and hope everyone like it. It's not a black/white with me. It’s music.

JK: Beautifully said. Thank you so much, and I think that's a great place for us to wrap this up. You're so eloquent in your own way, and I just personally, I just love your music. It moves me. I know it's the real deal, and I'm just so honored to have this opportunity and just wish you the best of luck. And I hope you keep making music and keep putting records out and keep winning Grammys.

BR: John, let me say before I leave you, if you allow me to. Thank you for what you have done, thank you for what you're doing and what you plan to do. Because what you say about me or my music, is what people perceive me to be. So thank you for what you doin’ because there ain’t many guys like yourself keeping this Blues alive. And a few people like you from the radio standpoint, from entertainer standpoint, from an interviewer standpoint, you keep it alive you guys. Because I've been doing this for seventy somethin’ years now. Because if it wasn’t for people like you, nobody would know about Bobby Rush. So thank you for what you do.

JK: Right back at you together, we're going to keep this Blues music strong. So all right, Bobby Rush, thank you. So thank you so much. Appreciate from the heart, and I hope to see you next week.

BR: Okay, God bless.

John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.