At the age of 82 and a 60-ish year career, Bobby Rush has earned the title of the greatest bluesman currently performing. Inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006, Rush has also earned three Grammy nominations as well as 10 Blues Music Awards and 41 nominations. He estimates that he has recorded well over 300 songs and is on the road for 200+ dates a year. His hectic tour schedule has earned him the affectionate title King of the Chitlin’ Circuit and his renowned stage act features his famed shake dancers, who personify his funky blues and bawdy sense of humor.
Born Emmet Ellis, Jr. in Homer, Louisiana, he adopted his stage name out of respect for his father, a pastor. Rush started his career as a teenager in the juke joints in Little Rock, Arkansas where his family had relocated and moved to Chicago in the mid 1950’s to pursue his career further. In Chicago he began working with greats such as Earl Hooker, Luther Allison, and Freddie King, and sat in with many of his musical heroes, such as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, and Little Walter and began leading his own band in the 1960’s.
He also started to craft his own distinct style of funky blues, and recorded a succession of singles for a various small labels. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that Rush finally scored a hit with “Chicken Heads.” More recordings followed, including an album for Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Label. Rush relocated one final time, to Jackson, Miss. in the early 1980s.
Since 2003, Rush has self-released most of his work on his Deep Rush label, but recently, he came to the realization that having a bigger record company behind him would be beneficial. This opened the doors to esteemed producer and two-time Grammy winner Scott Billington, Rounder Records’ longtime VP of A&R. Together they recorded Bobby Rush’s new album, Porcupine Meat.
The album was recorded in New Orleans and for the project; Billington assembled some of the best Louisiana musicians, including Shane Theriot, David Torkanowsky, Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander, Kirk Joseph, Cornell Williams, and others. Rush brought along his old friend and longtime collaborator, guitarist Vasti Jackson. Guitar greats Dave Alvin, Keb’ Mo’, and Joe Bonamassa all make guest appearances on the album. Porcupine Meat is set for release on September 16, 2016.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Bobby Rush (he likes to use his name in full) by telephone as he prepared for the release of the new album and he heads out on the road again.
So, you’ve got a lot of tour dates ahead of you, are you ready to go back out on the road?
I’m still on the road, it’s been 65 years of this since 1951 and I’m still enthused.
What do you like to do when touring to pass the time?
When I’m on the road, I write and I read. I’m a bookworm. I’m always trying out new ideas and new things and putting licks down. Over 200 shows in 65 years—I see a lot and I hear a lot to write about.
Tell us about your famous Shake Dance Girls.
I’m not doing anything new. James Brown used to do it and now the rappers do it. There could be anywhere from 2 to 3 to 10 girls a show…it’s entertaining. I added the dancers in 1963 and started taking them out on the road in 1980. People love it.
You have a brand new album out called Porcupine Meat. Can you tell us a bit about how it came to life?
I hope everyone will see it as we see it. It’s raw and different and it’s good. I’ve done 277 records, the first one recorded in my home state. Now on this album, there are people from everywhere playing on it, including folks from the state of Mississippi and man, it’s great.
In 1968 I took a song that I called, “Chick Head” to VeeJay Records. They just laughed at me. They thought I was singing a song about black folks eating chicken heads, so I just used that to my advantage. I said, “oh, yeah, ‘Chicken Heads.’” That song had nothing to do with chickens. Then they told me I needed a B-side and I told them I had a song called, “Mary Jane”. They thought I was talking about a woman and I was talking about reefer. But when I cut the record, I had the number one record above James Brown. I’ve had records every since then and I’ve been fighting for myself until now.
I have mostly done everything myself for many years, writing, producing and promoting, but I needed some help doing things that I can’t do. I’m just a mom and pop operation trying to survive the rat race. I met Scott Billington many years ago and we became friends. He had been asking me for years to do something and I finally said yes. I’m not corporate now, but I’m somewhere in-between. Now, I’m here you know, at the label and now I do have help. And I have my manager, Jeff. He’s a young kid, and I met him at a party. I loved that guy and he loved me. He can do things with the computer that I can’t do. I’ve had nobody to do this and to help me write songs. (Billington and his wife co-wrote two songs on the album) Now I have help writing and I get to do what I’m best at, me being me. I’m just hoping that people are ready for Bobby Rush.
With roots in the Deep South and 48 years in Chicago do you identify more with Delta Blues or Chicago Blues?
It’s all the same thing, the same story, just modified. We’re all doing the same thing…this is nothing new. Cab Calloway did it back then and now rappers do it now. I play the funky blues. I’m an entertainer and performer. I want to be an entertaining songwriter and storyteller. I’m a country boy; I came out of the country. Now there’s Americana, and some people might think that I’m trying to cross over to a white audience, but this is not a black and white issue. I’m trying to cross over with MY music, not cross anyone out. And I’m not trying to be a B.B. King or a Buddy Guy, but I want us all to share the light. I’ve been told I’m the oldest living blues man now. BB. King died and Buddy Guy is younger than me. There’s Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, but they are more rock and roll guys. But up, down, sideways, it don’t matter. I want to be good at doing what I do, which is being Bobby Rush.
Is there a genre of music that you would like to explore but haven’t had the chance to dive into yet?
Yeah, I want to do things with Snoop Dog and Ice-T…go in that direction, you know. I think their audience would like me. I’m old enough to understand what young people like. And I’m just a guy in the streets all my life. You have to modify yourself in these times.
September 17th Delta Blues Festival Greenville, MS
September 22nd Americana Music Conference and Festival Nashville, TN
October 1st TBA Pine Bluff, AR
October 3rd The Lyric Theatre/Woodsongs Lexington, KY
October 5th King Biscuit Blues Festival Special Event Helena, AR
October 8th TBA Bogalusa, LA
October 10th B.B. King’s New York, NY
October 12th Chans Woonsocket, RI
October 13th Bull Run Shirley, MA
October 15th Moondogs Pitssburgh, PA
October 16th Sellersville Theater 1894 Sellersville, PA