AURAL FIXATION: Bobby Rush

My first pilgrimage to the birthplace of the blues—Clarskdale, Mississippi—was in 2000. Since then I’ve been back a dozen or so times, and my memory has made the details of this initial trip bleed into others. One thing, though, made an indelible impression on my young mind: Bobby Rush.

Bobby Rush signed head shot

Bobby Rush is an unforgettable entertainer by any definition, but to this high school junior, his act was downright eye-popping. Bobby’s interactive stage show is a spirited recipe of hip-shaking grooves and bawdy humor, seasoned with a lively lineup of big-bottomed dancers.

With the word “twerk” now a part of mainstream vocabulary and Miley Cyrus up to her unfortunate antics, this approach might not sound unique by today’s standards. Unique is an understatement, however, because Bobby Rush is a true master of his craft.

Growing up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas and Chicago in the 1940s and ‘50s, Bobby Rush’s background reads like a blues history book. Howlin’ Wolf gave him guitar lessons, and he exchanged harmonica riffs with Little Walter. As a teen, he donned a fake mustache and played on stages alongside Muddy Waters, Etta James, and Jimmy Reed. Elmore James, Freddy King, and Luther Allison were bandmates.

His own funky soul-blues sound developed throughout the ‘50s  and ‘60s, making him popular on the Chitlin’ Circuit — a string of venues located mostly in the South that were safe places for African-American entertainers during Jim Crow. His style continued to take shape in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, earning him gold-certified records in each decade.

Bobby performed at the White House along with James Brown when Clinton entered office.  An appearance in Martin Scorsese’s The Blues series as well as the feature of his song “Chicken Heads” in the film Black Snake Moan gave him more exposure, particularly to white audiences.

He has toured in most major markets around the world and became the first blues artist to perform in China. He was later named Friendship Ambassador to the Great Wall of China after performing the largest concert ever held at that site. Bobby Rush has been presented with Blues Music Awards, nominated for Grammies, and inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame.

And yet you’ve probably never heard of him.

American Blues Scene magazine said “…the man known as ‘King of the Chitlin’ Circuit’… is a man who deserves being mentioned in the same context as the blues greats Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and B.B. King.” Having seen him several times over the last 15 years, I wholeheartedly agree.

He is an enormous talent who has paid his dues, and he is nowhere near ready to rest on his laurels. After more than sixty years of touring and 100 records under his belt, Bobby Rush shows no signs of slowing down.

Bobby Rush live at Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi

Bobby Rush will be performing with his full entourage at the Rhythm Room in Phoenix on Wednesday, January 27th as well as the Rialto Theatre in Tucson on Thursday, January 28th. He rarely comes this far west, so don’t miss this opportunity to catch him live. If his funky, dirty show doesn’t make you move or put a smile on your face, well, I don’t know how to help you.

UPDATE: Since this post, Bobby Rush won a 2017 Grammy award (best traditional blues album) for Porcupine Meat. 

Bobby Rush and fan at Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi 2012

Bobby and Kitty Lemieux in Clarksdale, Mississippi (2012)

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