The air was thick with termites when Bobby Rush stepped onto an outdoor stage in New Orleans for one of his first live performances in over a year — an uncharacteristically long break, the result of pandemic shutdowns, in a career that began in the wake of World War II.
It was early May, and the swarming was so bad that the blues musician wove the insects into his lyrics: “Somebody come get these damn bugs.” He later moved to the ground in front of the stage, determined to continue his show in the dark, beyond the reach of the termite-attracting lights.
“I never seen anything like that before,” Rush said by phone a week later, from his home in Jackson, Miss. “I could hardly play my guitar.”
Rush has relied on practical improvisations, often in unglamorous circumstances, his entire life. His first guitar was a diddley bow he made from hay wire nailed to the side of his childhood home. Much later, Rolling Stone christened him “The King of the Chitlin Circuit,” an acknowledgment of the years he spent touring the network of small clubs for Black performers and audiences, mainly in the South, in a 1973 Silver Eagle Trailways bus he customized himself.
On the heels of winning his second Grammy in March, and on the verge of publishing a memoir in June, Rush, now in his 80s, is enjoying a moment of recognition. A lesser-known figure compared to many of the luminaries he has considered friends and mentors, including Elmore James, Muddy Waters and B.B. King, Rush is one of the last remaining Black blues musicians who experienced the horror of Jim Crow-era racism and participated, however tangentially, in the genre’s postwar flowering.
“I may be the oldest blues singer around, me and Buddy Guy,” he said in October, during the first of several conversations, this one via video conference. Rush sat at the edge of a couch at his son’s house in Jackson, slouching to peer into a laptop screen and trotted out a quip he uses onstage: “If I’m not the oldest, I’m the ugliest.”
He wore the same New Orleans Saints baseball cap over his Jheri curls during an in-person interview a week later, at the Grammy Museum in Cleveland, Miss. Speaking through a mask, he reflected from a dressing room chair about the “heavy” experience of outliving so many contemporaries. He was there to accept the Crossroads of American Music Award, a lifetime achievement of sorts.
“I’ve known so many of these cats,” he said. “I’ve lived the history.”
Scott Billington, a veteran producer who has worked with many blues musicians, including Rush, said the singer, guitarist and harmonica player is indeed among the last of a dying breed. “Bobby’s almost unique in the blues world today, because he has connections that go back so far,” he said. “He’s made this transition into a sort of iconic American figure.”
Rush believes the racial awakening triggered by the murder of George Floyd, and reinforced by the pandemic, leaves him well positioned to reach a public primed to hear the blues with fresh ears. “I think what we thought was forwards wasn’t forwards,” he said of the suggestion that Floyd’s killing represented a step backward in the struggle for racial justice. “I been having feet on my neck all my life.”
Rush’s memoir, “I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya: My American Blues Story,” written with Herb Powell and due out June 22, is frank about many things, including the reason he’s received so many standing ovations in recent years.
“I’ve got enough good sense to know they are not applauding because I’m a household name,” he writes. “What they’re standing for is that I’m still here, doing it my way.”
For much of his career, Rush tailored his show — a mix of soul, funk and blues interspersed with bawdy storytelling — to an audience he says was “99 percent Black.” He went decades without ever cracking into the broader, mainly white audience that brought fame (if not always fortune) to the blues’ biggest stars.
That started to change around the turn of this century, when Rush starred in “The Road to Memphis,” one in a series of documentaries about the blues, executive produced by Martin Scorsese, that aired on PBS in 2003. Rush was a senior citizen by then, or about to be. His book offers three possible birth years — 1940, 1937 and 1934. Rush claims not to know the answer.
“All I know is in 1947, I was plowing in the field with a mule,” he said.
Rush was born Emmett Ellis Jr. in northwest Louisiana. His father, Ellis Sr., was a preacher and sharecropper; his mother, Mattie, a mixed-race homemaker who passed for white. Rush, the sixth of 10 children, said his mother acted differently when the family went into town.
“Many times when I was in the public, she wasn’t my mom. She was my babysitter, and my dad was her chauffeur,” he said. “It was a strange situation.”
Rush’s family moved to Sherrill, a small town in the Arkansas Delta, when he was still a child. By his early teens, Rush was regularly sneaking into the music clubs in nearby Pine Bluff, a hub of Black culture and commerce.
In his book, the Arkansas Delta years are when Rush becomes a character in the history of the blues. It is where he befriended Elmore James, learned to wear his hair like Big Joe Turner, absorbed the harp playing of Sonny Boy Williamson, and first saw the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, the Black vaudeville group that he briefly joined.
Arkansas is also where Rush fell in love with the spaces where African-American culture flourished in the segregated South, and changed his name. In “juke joints we fixed onto being segregated. Being in the thick of ourselves with our own groove,” he writes. “There was freedom in these places.”
Rush joined the Great Migration north when he moved to Chicago in the early ’50s. He got a job pumping gas, and started a family with his first wife, Hazel. As a musician, he spun his wheels.
He was in Chicago over a decade before he cut his first single, “Someday,” released in ’64. He bought a hot dog cart to park outside clubs where he played — and ended up making more money selling hot dogs. In 1969, he opened Bobby’s Barbeque House.
He was a savvy, prolific networker. Rush’s book is strewn with lessons in life and music gleaned from legends like Waters, Jimmy Reed and Little Walter, a neighbor who taught him the basics of tongue-blocking, a harmonica technique. In his memoir, he recalls the harp player explaining, “That’s how you git it dirty — make them notes bend.”
Rush was ultimately more successful living the blues in Chicago than playing them. The chapter of his book where he discovers Hazel was cheating on him — including with a police officer who put Rush in jail for a night in order to be with her — is one of many where he admits feeling inferior to his more successful friends.
“Hidden behind the hurt of her infidelity were feelings of inadequacy,” he writes. “My status in the world felt small.”
Part of the hurt came from discovering that racism in the North was comparable to what he knew in the South. The memoir includes a story about a gig in the 1950s he took in a small theater outside Chicago, where he and his band were forced to play behind a curtain. The job was offered to him by a Black musician friend. In one of our interviews, Rush said he wished he could go back in time and ask the friend, “Why you recommend me to a place where I got to play behind the curtain? Why you think I would do that?”
The raw vulnerability was at odds with Rush’s physical presence. He stands over six feet and is fit for a person of his age, which, coupled with a taste for dapper clothes — he changed into a tuxedo to record a solo acoustic performance at the museum — allows him to slip easily into the role of an eminent, occasionally immodest bluesman. (He often claims to have made nearly 400 records; the discography in his memoir lists 67, including singles.)
Powell, Rush’s co-author, said the musician softened as he reflected on the pain he’d experienced — including the deaths of three of his four children, from complications of sickle cell disease — during interviews for the book.
“When we started to look back at his formative years, it created a bond between us that allowed the sensitivity — unusual for a man of his age — to come through,” Powell said. “He cried a bit, which was beautiful.”
The way Rush talks about affairs of the heart suggests a greater emotional complexity than many of his songs, and his stage show, would imply. In our first conversation, he discussed the inspiration for the song “Porcupine Meat” that a casual listener could assume is about little more than sex. The truth is deeper.
“I loved her more than she loved me,” he said. “I wanted to leave her, but I was afraid that she would find someone else better than I, and I’d never find someone that compared to her.”
Rush moved from Chicago to Jackson in 1983, to be closer to family and the Black fans who frequented the Black-owned juke joints where he’d found a loyal audience — and better money.
“A Black man will pay another Black man what he’s worth,” he said.
Rush continued to play live, finding ways to reach new ears. Christone Ingram, the 22-year-old blues guitarist and singer, was in grade school in Clarksdale, Miss., when he first heard Rush’s music coming through the windows of his neighbor’s house.
“I just loved his style,” Ingram said in a phone interview. “He was the first one I heard that brought the funk to the blues.”
In the mid ’90s, while playing a blues festival in the Netherlands, Rush realized the vaudeville-inspired show that delighted the juke joint crowds didn’t go over as well with larger, mainly white blues audiences. Vasti Jackson, a guitarist and longtime collaborator, was in Rush’s band at the time. “His thing was as much about the talking, telling stories, the comedy,” Jackson said. Jackson recalled advising Rush, “To get this kind of audience, you got to make it raw.”
Rush ultimately took the advice to heart. In 2016, the producer Billington convinced him to record what became the album “Porcupine Meat” with a group of New Orleans musicians.
“Chorus after chorus he never repeated himself. There was one great idea after another,” Billington said of Rush’s harmonica playing during the sessions. “The sound of his playing has such depth and authority that you couldn’t mistake it for anyone else in contemporary blues.”
“Porcupine Meat” went on to win a Grammy, Rush’s first, a validation of his turn toward a rootsier blues sound.
Scott Barretta, a blues historian based in Greenwood, Miss., likened Rush’s success with white audiences to the second act Big Bill Broonzy had in the ’50s, after transitioning from urban to folk-blues and receiving support from white taste makers Studs Terkel and Alan Lomax.
A difference, he said, is that Rush has “been able to keep a foot in both markets” — something Rush calls “crossing over, but not crossing out.”
The past 16 months have been good to Rush, even though they started with him contracting a fever so persistently high he wondered, “Am I going to make it out of this thing alive?”
Rush’s battle with what he assumes was Covid-19 — he was never tested — made news not long before he was ready to promote the August 2020 release of “Rawer Than Raw.” It’s a collection of solo acoustic blues songs, a mix of originals and standards by Mississippi blues legends like Howlin’ Wolf, Skip James and Robert Johnson.
Rush performed a sample of the songs at the museum last fall, stomping his foot to keep rhythm. Asked if there was a club he was eager to play when the pandemic was over, he mentioned Blue Front Café, in Bentonia, Miss., the oldest surviving juke joint in the state. It’s tiny.
“I’d probably have to play outside,” he said. “I don’t mind playing the juke joint, but I’m bigger than that now.”