Bobby Rush: “Better Late Than Never”
The legendary blues artist reflects upon his life and career through a memoir and a new musical
Bobby Rush won his first GRAMMY in 2017 at the age of 83. For the living blues legend, born Emmett Ellis, Jr. in Homer, LA, winning Best Traditional Blues Album for Porcupine Meat may seem like a long time coming, but the tireless artist takes it all in stride. “I was so happy,” Rush says of the overdue GRAMMY win. “I’ve been through so many ups and downs. So, even if I had just been nominated and didn’t win, just getting in the race and running would make me feel good. Of course, I’m glad to win; I don’t want to take that away from my soul. But, better late than never!”
Rush, now 89, won his second GRAMMY in 2020 with Rawer Than Raw, a stripped-down album featuring songs by the bluesmen of his adopted home state of Mississippi, and is gunning for another with his upcoming single, “One Monkey Can Stop a Show.” He’s a 14-time Blues Music Award winner and Blues Hall of Famer, and he’s appeared in multiple documentaries — notably, Martin Scorsese’s 2003 series The Blues — and the 2019 Netflix film Dolemite is My Name, starring Eddie Murphy.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Rush was on the road for more than 200 days a year. Arguably the most active octogenarian on the scene, Rush is eager to get back in front of audiences. Known for his charismatic, energetic live performances blending blues and funk, Rush approaches each show like it’s his first — or his last. “It’s about having a good time at the moment. I just want people who come to see my show and listen to my songs to get some comfort, or laugh,” Rush says. “A live audience gives me hope, and I think that I will live forever. But, deep down inside, I know I won’t live forever, so I’m going to do all I can, while I can. I’m still learning, I’m still enthused, and I still have hope.”
That strong sense of hope and passion for music has driven Rush since he was a teenager, wearing a fake mustache to gain entry into juke joints, which led him to play with Elmore James, and later sit in with Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters — the list goes on and on. He says his father was the biggest influence on him, as a man and as an artist. “I think he influenced me not because of what he said, but what he didn’t say,” Rush explains. “Because my father, being a preacher, never told me to sing the blues. But he never told me not to. And that was a green light for me.”
As a young man, Rush moved to Chicago, hoping that leaving the South would lead to more opportunities as a Black musician. As Rush explains in his recently released memoir, I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya: My American Blues Story, he had to be resourceful to forge his path. “I went to Chicago because everybody told me that Chicago, IL would be my heaven,” Rush recalls. “And I could do anything I wanted to, go anyplace I wanted to go, sing any song I wanted to sing, eat what I wanted to eat, go to any restaurant, any hotel. But it wasn’t so.”
“When I got there, Muddy Waters took me to a suburb of Chicago where I got a job in a band Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, making $7 a night,” Rush recalls. “Making $21 for the whole week, split with four guys. This place was a fabulous place, with a stage on top of the bar where I played behind a curtain. The audience wanted to hear my music but they didn’t want to see my face.”
Rush’s musical career goals were simple, if not easy — he says he just wanted to be popular enough to make some money and find a girl, and playing behind a curtain would not do. “In the early ‘50s, I needed to have someone around me that would show me the business,” Rush says. “This may be dangerous, but that was Capone. The brother of Al Capone had taken a liking to me, so when I went to record for Chess Records with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, I would go in with no money and get things done like I had money because they thought I worked for Al Capone. I didn’t even know the man. So, as I tell it in the book, I just bluffed my way through, and they wouldn’t bother me.”
Rush’s bluff enabled him to learn about the music business — specifically, writing and publishing. Rush earned his first hit in 1971 with “Chicken Heads.” He toured extensively, playing small venues for Black audiences. Since then, Rush has made more than 400 records — 319 of which he wrote and owns at least a portion of the publishing rights, he says — and he owns many of the master recordings, enabling him to release a box set, Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History of Bobby Rush, in 2015.
“That’s a rare thing for a Black man of my age and time,” Rush says. “How many Black men could put out 100 masters on their own? And that was because people were scared to mess with me because I knew Al Capone, but I did not know Al Capone. But I’m just thanking God for all the things that happened to me.”
Rush is also grateful for his long relationship with BMI. “God has blessed me to be with people like BMI who are fair with me — getting my music to where I can make money,” Rush says. “So many things have changed, and so many things remain the same, but BMI is one of the organizations who has treated me well.”
As Rush notes, he’s experienced a lot of ups and downs in his life, and he doesn’t hold anything back in telling these stories through his songs. This connects him deeply with his listeners, including playwright/director Stephen Helper. In the summer of 2021, Helper was listening to Sirius XM when he first heard a Bobby Rush song. “The song was bluesy and it told a great story, and I thought that if I was in the theater and I heard this song, I would love it,” Helper recalls. “I’m not deep into the blues myself, but I thought, ‘If I’m responding this way, I’m sure a lot of other people are going to respond this way.’”
Helper looked up Rush’s website, where he found contact info for his manager, and reached out. “Bobby Rush and I had a number of conversations, and then I went to meet him in Memphis, where he was doing a benefit concert,” Helper says. “It’s kind of crazy to say it was love at first sight, but it really was. He took one look at me and said, ‘This is going to be good.’ I don’t know if that was wishful thinking, but he’s old enough and he sizes up people pretty quickly, and I think he felt like he could trust me straightaway — which he could — and he just had that instinct.”
Helper started spending a lot of time with Rush, going over his history and listening to his catalog of songs. They selected the memories that were most formative to Rush — things he carries as pivotal, meaningful, and often deeply sad — in the process of writing a musical, Slippin’ Through the Cracks, based on Rush’s life. “What’s great is that there are so many different kinds of songs,” Helper enthuses. “He does the stripped-back stuff, which is so powerful, and then he does these crazy funk songs, which are also terrific. I thought this would make a good show, because his songs are autobiographical, amplifying important or crazy moments in his life.”
Helper highlights one of the many things that draws Rush’s audience to him — his talent for using humor to lighten heavy topics. “Knowing that his comedy and his humor is part of his survival, if he just dwelled on how horrible everything was — and is, and can be — I don’t know that he’d still be alive, to be honest,” Helper says. “It’s his humor that helps him in so many ways and connects him with people so strongly. One of the things Bobby Rush embodies is resilience, and working through really tough and uncertain times. His story resonates with all of us because of those things.
“Now, not all of us have been victims of racism, but all of us have struggled against loss or feeling like the world’s turned against us. His ability as a living example of someone who can make it through … it’s kind of romantic to say, but I think we all need that hope. I think we all need to believe that things can get better for us, whatever our issues are. It’s such a human story.”
Helper and Rush worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to develop the musical, and they’re getting ready to present the show in New York City in March, inviting theaters from around the country to move into the production stage. “There’s a lot of momentum,” Helper says. “You’re not going to be able to see it tomorrow, but it’s going to happen.”
For Rush, he’s going to keep doing what he does — telling his story. He hopes that this is an inspiration not only for other artists starting their careers, but for everyone. “I have been up and down as a blues man — especially as a Black blues man,” Rush says. “With all the things that have happened in my life, I want people to know that if I, Bobby Rush, a country boy, could come through all of this and make it, you can, too.”
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