The King of the Chitlin’ Circuit. The Hardest Working Man in Showbiz. The Funkiest Man Alive. These are simply three honorary titles bestowed on Bobby Rush, and he wears all of them with joyous satisfaction. Rush had deliberate to begin the new 12 months with two performances in London till Omicron cancelled his total European tour, however enjoyable at dwelling in Jackson, Mississippi, the 88-year outdated exudes bonhomie. Covid-19 has already disrupted his life loads, forcing a man who, till 2020, spent the previous 5 a long time working over 200 nights a 12 months, to take day out. Did he loosen up? Rush laughs: “Positive I did. I received busy in my dwelling studio chopping new materials.”
This was after he recovered from coronavirus. “I used to be the first individual in Mississippi to get Covid,” says Rush. “It was earlier than they’d the vaccines and I received actual sick, hospitalised for 5 weeks. I survived via God’s grace and the proven fact that I’ve at all times saved match, by no means touched medication or alcohol. Nevertheless it positive beat up on me like nothing else earlier than.”
Rush’s 2021 autobiography I Aint Studdin’ Ya particulars this and many different scrapes in an epic American life. Contemplating he began performing aged 13 and launched his first file in 1964, what’s most outstanding is a piece ethic that has seen him win wider acclaim and audiences in recent times – choosing up Grammys in 2017 and 2020, showing in the Eddie Murphy film Dolemite Is My Identify and becoming a member of Queens of the Stone Age on stage – than ever earlier than. In contrast to John Lee Hooker and Johnny Money, who had been each efficiently repositioned of their twilight years, Rush by no means loved early fame. As an alternative, his rising viewers is due purely to his talent as an entertainer. “Individuals love my present cos I emphasise good occasions,” he says. “I encourage individuals to put on a smile, not a frown.”
Rush describes his present (or “revue”) as “Black vaudeville” – tune, dance, storytelling, typically bawdy humour – and these components offered the key to his breakthrough: The Road to Memphis, the 2003 documentary that was simply the strongest effort in Martin Scorsese’s The Blues collection, and adopted Rush as he labored, his persona and performances successful over new listeners. Add to this a brand new supervisor with a imaginative and prescient of the best way to take Rush ahead and he entered his 80s doing higher enterprise than ever.
“I didn’t need anybody to learn the e-book and really feel sorry for me,” says Rush of a life that has seen him get shot, jailed, badly injured when his tour bus crashed and, most punishingly, lose three of his kids to sickle cell anaemia. Musicians helped him on the exhausting highway to success however James Brown, each when Rush was a junior and later a veteran, left him out of pocket when he provided largesse. “Some males behave like canines,” says Rush. “My factor has at all times been to not surrender, to maintain on pushing – as Curtis Mayfield sang. All these hills and valleys I’ve climbed, nicely, somebody at all times got here via and lifted me out. Life is so brief that I take the good as the overlap of the dangerous.”
Born Emmet Ellis Jr in Homer, Louisiana, to sharecropping dad and mom, segregation overshadowed a mud poor upbringing. “We didn’t don’t have any electrical energy in our dwelling,” says Rush. “Solely an outdoor rest room. Grew up choosing cotton and received little education. However Daddy and Momma beloved us and raised us proper and, even when they’d little or no cash, made positive we received the necessities. It’s Black of us’ oldest blues tune in America – making a method out of no method.”
Emmet Jr determined to make his personal method aged 13, leaving dwelling to work full time as a farm labourer. Decided to carry out, and being tall and assured, he started sitting in with blues musicians enjoying native juke joints (shanty bars typically constructed on plantations). Aged 15, he joined the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels troupe as a singer and dancer, dabbing burnt cork on his face (as was then anticipated of minstrels) earlier than performing.
“Bessie Smith and Louis Jordan and many others began out with minstrels,” he states. “Minstrels additionally created Black vaudeville, and Sammy Davis Jr and others got here out of that. I’m not defending minstrels, I’m simply saying it was a bridge for lots of us to enter the leisure trade.”
He modified his identify to Bobby Rush – out of respect for his father, who was now a preacher and blues was thought of the satan’s music – and labored juke joints the place sharecroppers would drink and dance. Shifting to Memphis, Rush was befriended and schooled in the fundamentals of the music trade by Rufus Thomas and Albert King, then, in 1953, joined the nice migration of African People northwards. In Chicago, he constructed himself a repute as an entertaining performer however little else – he labored a hotdog stand, opened a barbecue outlet, collected scrap steel, grafting exhausting to assist his household. Releasing seven 45s on six totally different unbiased file labels between 1964 and 1971, he lastly clicked when Chicken Heads reached No 34 on the US R&B charts. “People funk” is how Rush described his sound and his hit turned a staple on southern jukeboxes, promoting 1,000,000 copies. A nasty deal meant he noticed no royalties however it introduced him extra bookings and audiences beloved him. “We in the leisure enterprise,” he says, “so I attempt to do this: entertain.”
Philadelphia Worldwide Information signed Rush and, in 1979, launched his debut album Rush Hour, however it received scant consideration. Aged 46, he refused to give up and saved working the golf equipment. An underground star, Rush quickly turned often known as “the King of the Chitlin’ Circuit” and to many Black People, that is royalty certainly.
“The chitlin’ circuit ain’t nothin’ however a spot the place we Negroes may go and have an excellent time,” he says of a free community of African American golf equipment that offered loyal audiences for the likes of Denise LaSalle, Latimore, ZZ Hill, Shirley Brown and different famous soul/blues artists who by no means managed to crossover to white audiences as Al Inexperienced, Buddy Man and Aretha Franklin did. Chitlings are fried pigs’ intestines: slaves had been typically given them by slavemasters after a pig had been slaughtered and developed this right into a staple of “soul meals”. Rush notes that they cleaned up the shit-filled pig’s colon and seasoned it right into a delicacy, “simply as we might take run-down outdated theatres and flip them into an oasis for Black individuals to flee all the shit we had been taking from the outdoors world”. Whereas the chitlin’ circuit extends throughout the US, its stronghold is in the south and, in 1983, Rush relocated from Chicago to Jackson, Mississippi, to work it.
Rush’s people funk ensures his songs are laden with nation homilies, broad wit and lusty innuendos: She Caught Me With My Pants Down, Santa Claus Needs Some Too and What’s Good For the Goose Is Good for the Gander are funky and lascivious. One quantity, Large Fats Girl, turned a comedy trope in Rush’s present and he has lengthy employed “shake” dancers – amply proportioned Black girls who shake their rears whereas he sings. The shake dancers go down a storm on the chitlin’ circuit however are much less welcome in Europe: he was booed at a Dutch competition, whereas his 2005 efficiency at London’s Barbican Corridor had this paper’s reviewer damning Rush as “merely pathetic”.
A 12 months earlier than his Barbican debut, the place the predominantly white viewers exuded silent discomfort, I had seen Rush carry out in Mississippi to an nearly completely Black viewers who whooped, dirty danced and sang alongside. It’s a cultural conundrum: there’s nothing nasty in his celebratory reveals however, inevitably, humour doesn’t at all times journey nicely. I point out European criticism of his dancers and Rush’s reply incorporates tempered fury. “Shake dancers are from Africa,” he states. “It’s what Black individuals do. Booty is part of our Blackness and I’m not ashamed of who I’m or the place I come from.”
Twerking, I counsel, comes from shake dancers. “You bought it,” he replies. “Rappers love what I do cos I’m swift with the lyrics.”
This famous, Rush has toned down his act: his 2019 efficiency at London’s Jazz Cafe discovered him accompanied by one considerably restrained shake dancer. He’s additionally remodelled his sound: shiny keyboards and soul stylings have given approach to an elemental blues with Rush enjoying magnificent harmonica. Certainly, his 2022 reveals had been going to be his first completely solo live shows in Europe.
“In 1970, Rufus Thomas suggested me to retire the harmonica as a result of Stax had advised him it sounded old-timey,” notes Rush. “Extra not too long ago I seen that there was a return to blues roots and so I went that method. Much less vaudeville, extra authenticity. I wished to indicate individuals the place I got here from … the sound I began out with.”
In The Highway to Memphis, Rush talked about how, whereas he commanded an enormous Black viewers, he hoped he may cross over to a white one. Now that he has achieved this, I ponder if he nonetheless performs the chitlin’ circuit.
“I crossed over however I didn’t cross out – you get me?” he replies. “Some Black artists – and I’m not naming names – cross over and lose their individuals. Not me. I can nonetheless play a membership in the Black part of Memphis and pull hundreds of individuals. Then I am going play on Beale Road (the metropolis’s blues vacationer strip) and get a white viewers.”
In his autobiography, Rush notes how he has at all times possessed extra power than anybody else and, throughout our Zoom chat, he not solely speaks with nice ebullience however sings, performs harmonica and strums his guitar – the whole lot however name on a shake dancer. His enthusiasm is infectious, this funky, humorous pensioner who exudes Black satisfaction and pleasure.
“So much of issues have modified throughout my life,” says Rush once I ask about Black Lives Matter, “however nonetheless loads stays the similar. Music has a hyperlink to freedom; it’s an ideal place to deliver individuals collectively, construct friendships and understanding. That’s why I’m nonetheless going on the market.”
I Aint Studdin’ Ya is revealed by Hachette.