Otis Rush (April 29, 1934 - September 29, 2018), the greatest of the second generation of Chicago blues guitarists, has passed. And to call Otis Rush that is no small accolade, because I'm saying he was better than both Magic Sam and Buddy Guy. Why? Because he was not only a superb left-handed guitarist with an immediately recognizable style, he was also a highly emotive singer with a rich and agile voice. He was, with Sam and Buddy, one of the main innovators of the West Side sound, but with a darker, more intense take on it. Yet despite that, no modern blues artist of his caliber and longevity was more poorly documented, with only seven studio albums in 46 years, and two of those seriously compromised at that.
Born in Mississippi, Rush moved to Chicago in 1948 and became a star with a song producer Willie Dixon wrote about one of Rush's relationships: "I Can't Quit You Baby" in 1956 on the Cobra label. (Label owner, Eli Toscano, reputedly cheated his artists to feed his gambling habit; Cobra collapsed when Toscano was murdered in 1959.) Dixon took Rush to Chess Records, which only released two Rush singles; a move to the Duke label yielded just one single in five years. His best '60s work came on a multi-artist album, Chicago/The Blues/Today! Vol. 2, which included a reworking of "I Can't Quit You Baby" that was closely copied by Led Zeppelin for their first album. Atlantic's Cotillion subsidiary put out Rush's first full LP, Mourning in the Morning, recorded in 1969 in Muscle Shoals, but the production (by Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites, who co-wrote six of its 11 songs) is so atrocious it's painful to listen to.
Capitol signed Rush in 1971, but the album he made for them, Right Place, Wrong Time, lay unreleased until issued five years later after Rush bought the master from Capitol; it was then released in Japan by P-Vine and in the U.S. by a tiny indie label, Bullfrog. A 1974 French album, Screamin' and Cryin', didn't appear in the U.S. until 1992; Rush denigrated it, but it's worth hearing; a 1977 European studio effort, Lost in the Blues, had keyboards added (and some Rush solos excised) without his consent. Fortunately two great albums on the mighty and more respectful Delmark label saved the '70s for him, but Rush had understandably become suspicious of many recording offers, which limited his output further. The '80s were so bad that Rush withdrew from the scene. Activity picked up in the '90s, but a studio album from Mercury that could have turned his career around was followed by "personal problems"; 1998's Any Place I'm Going, for House of Blues, disappeared with that label's demise, and he made no more studio recordings.
Any hopes for another comeback were dashed by a 2003 stroke, after which Rush was unable to perform. After that, older concert recordings began to appear, making Rush's discography look less skimpy; some are good, but never do they seem crucial, though of course fans are generally happy to have additional Rush. (Except for Double Trouble: Live Cambridge 1973, a muddy recording with sloppy and indifferent playing, a too-prominent saxophonist using a Varitone, and ill-advised covers of "Watermelon Man" and "Popcorn.")
Where should a neophyte start? I have the temerity to rank his best work:
So Many Roads: Live in Concert
This inspired 1975 concert in Tokyo, Japan (with a Chicagoan backing trio including Jimmy Johnson on rhythm guitar) finds Rush letting it all out, with his trademark burning guitar tone and his full-bodied, expressive vocals on peak form. He reprises many of his classics, including "I Can't Quit You, Baby," "Crosscut Saw," "Looking Back (Take a Look Behind," "All Your Love (I Miss Loving)," and "So Many Roads" (with especially impassioned singing on this classic slow blues). This 1995 CD reissue adds three songs there weren't room for on the original Delmark LP: jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell's blues instrumental "Chitlins Con Carne," "I've Got News For You," and "Mean Old World," the latter an evocative blues standard that matches Rush's long-suffering persona.
The Classic Cobra Recordings 1956-1958
All 17 of Rush's seminal tracks for the Cobra label (plus seven alternate takes), including "I Can't Quit You Baby." When Rush started writing his own material, he came up with such classics as "Double Trouble," "Keep on Loving Me Baby," and one of his signature songs, "All Your Love (I Miss Loving)." Some of his other efforts were lyrically weak, but the fervor of Rush's singing could make anything sound good, and the stinging tone he got from the Fender Stratocaster he used at this time is iconic. Pianists are Lafayette Leake and Little Brother Montgomery, harmonica players include Walter "Shakey" Horton and Little Walter Jacobs, and there's usually a honking or wailing sax.
Right Place, Wrong Time
Recorded in '71 for Capitol with fine San Francisco players but not released until five years later, this is nonetheless a great album. Rush co-produced with Nick Gravenites, but the soundstage here is better (if still unnatural) than on the Gravenites-co-produced Mourning in the Morning of two years earlier, the arrangements are less cluttered as well, and the horn charts are hot (I had the good fortune to interview Rush in the 1990s and he made it clear that he loved having a horn section). Most of all, the material is superb, with some of Rush's best originals, including "Take a Look Behind," "Three Times a Fool," and the title track. It's a surprise to hear him sing the Brook Benton hit "Rainy Night in Georgia," but he puts it across nicely. This is one of the rare Rush albums where he sounds equally involved in the fast tunes as well as the slow blues he excelled in.
Cold Day in Hell
This 1975 studio album (which returned Rush to the attention of U.S. blues fans) has its ups and downs, but listening to Rush's agonized singing on the slow blues tracks is a cathartic experience. There is as much pain and bitterness in these numbers (though spilling over into melodrama on the title track) as anywhere in the blues, inspiring some of Rush's most intense guitar solos. Eventually the CD added a fiery alternate of one of the best tracks, "You're Breaking My Heart." By the way, "Midnight Special" is not the familiar Leadbelly song, but instead a darkly sinister instrumental. With a pair of saxophonists, Big Moose Walker on organ and piano, and rhythm guitar (mostly Mighty Joe Young), this has the full sound Rush preferred.
Ain't Enough Comin' In
A kick-ass 1994 comeback after a long studio recording hiatus, this mixes a few of Rush's less-played tunes (a remake of "Homework," his one Duke single, is especially welcome) with lesser-known blues and soul classics. Rush picks up a Telecaster again (as on his Cobra sides) after years with a Gibson and his sound takes on more of an edge. He needs it to cut through the big arrangements, with piano and organ (Stones sideman Ian McLagen and Little Feat's Billy Payne), three horns, and one or two rhythm guitars plus bass and drums. It's the sort of big production Rush preferred but rarely got, and he gives it his all. The expressiveness of his playing is marvelous.
Chicago/The Blues/Today! Vol. 2
In December 1965, blues scholar/producer Samuel Charters recorded three LPs' worth of sessions with nine Chicago blues artists and their bands, then put them out three artists per album. (Collectors can acquire all three albums in one set.) It introduced players largely overlooked outside the Windy City to a nationwide -- in fact, worldwide -- audience, and helped keep interest in Otis Rush alive during one of his dry periods. He's heard playing five songs in a quintet with Robert "Sax" Crowder on alto sax and Luther Tucker on rhythm guitar, and "Rock" gives a glimpse at the kind of R&B blues bands were experimenting with.
Live in Europe
This captures Rush at a 1977 festival concert in Nancy, France with his regular working group of the time (Bob Levis, rhythm guitar; Bob Stroger, bass; Jesse Green, drums), the pre-overdub group on Lost in the Blues. The repertoire is largely familiar and predictable, but the band is tight and Rush is on fire, with abundant solo room and with his singing strong and impassioned.