Ain’t got enough coming in
To take care of what’s got to go out
It ain’t enough love or money coming in
To take care of what’s got to go out
Like a bird, I got my wings clipped my friends
I got to start all over again
–Otis Rush, “Ain’t Enough Coming In”
Make no mistake about it, Otis Rush was one of the most important musicians to come out of the second wave of Post World War II Chicago Blues. In particular, his stunning guitar playing was a seminal influence on the playing of such well known guitarists as Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Jimmy Page, Johnny Winter, Michael Bloomfield, and Duane Allman, among many. His music was also a huge influence on Texas Bluesman, Stevie Ray Vaughan, who named his band after one of Otis Rush’s classic songs, Double Trouble. Many musicians, including the author of this article, have spent countless hours with the music of Otis Rush.
In addition, Otis Rush was a great composer and one of God’s great singers. Yet, unlike his contemporaries like Buddy Guy and B.B. King , his music is not known to the public at large. Some of this was due, at times, to a limited recorded output and some of this was due to the fact that Rush was a consummate artist and not a showman-like entertainer. He did not like to give many interviews and avoided “show business trappings” whenever possible. As described later in this article, my own encounter with him lead me to believe that he was a very shy and humble, yet an outstandingly kind and generous human being. It is the humanness and the reality of Otis Rush’s music that lead me and so many others to embrace it in the first place.
Therefore, when I learned of the passing of Otis Rush on September 29, 2018, at the age of 83, I shed many tears and continue to shed more. For the most part, Otis had been largely inactive as a musician since he suffered a debilitating stroke in 2003. I was pleased to learn that Carlos Santana had been sending Otis two substantial checks each year since his stroke. I met Carlos Santana in 1998 and found him to be a very kind man. So the generosity and respect that he demonstrated towards Mr. Rush was not that surprising to me . An example of a disciple paying it forward.
America has an alarming history of never really appreciating real talent until they have departed this world. Yet, despite not receiving the recognition he deserved in America, among his other struggles, Otis Rush maintained his art and humanity. That is just one of the lessons within the context of this article. To begin to understand the music and art of Rush we need to embrace some crucial biographical details
He was born on April 29, 1935, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to Julia Campbell Boyd and O.C. Rush, a sharecropper family. He had started playing music in Mississippi on an older brother’s guitar. When he visited his sister in Chicago in 1948, he decided to stay. The Blues scene in Chicago was booming in the late 1940’ and Otis made his way into the clubs as a listener when he sister took him to see such Chicago Blues legends as Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers. Before he was 20, Otis was making an impact in those same clubs. He was a regular at the 708 club and there he met Blues bassist, composer and raconteur, Willie Dixon. Willie introduced the young Otis to Cobra Records President, Eli Toscano.
In 1956, he signed a recording Contract with Toscano’s Cobra label. He immediately hit big with his version of Willie Dixon’s, “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” which made it to #6 on the national R&B charts. ( This same song was also covered by Led Zeppelin on their debut album). During the two years he was with the Cobra label, Rush recorded such Blues classics as, “Double Trouble, My Love Will Never Die, It Takes Time and Groaning the Blues, among other sterling examples of the West Side Blues form. The songs in these sessions were split between the songs of Willie Dixon and Rush. The sessions were overseen and produced by Willie Dixon and included Ike Turner and Louis Myers on backing guitars.
Considering the maturity and depth of the Cobra recordings, it is quite surprising that Otis Rush was in his early twenties when he started to record.
It is also quite interesting to consider the triumvirate of Blues guitarists that recorded for the Cobra label. Otis Rush, along with Buddy Guy and Magic Sam created a style of Blues called “West Side Chicago Blues.” Part of that was some of the locations in Chicago where these three guitarist/singers plied their trade. The other consideration was a stylistic one. In contrast with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, who were playing electrified Delta Blues with a strong backbeat, Rush, Guy and Sam were playing Blues more along the lines of B.B. King and Albert King. The stylistic attribute of West Side Chicago Blues included bent string solos that were vocal-like in their approach and that also included intense Gospel influenced vocals in the singing of these great artists.
In particular, Otis Rush and Magic Sam wrote and covered many songs that were in minor keys. Because of the minor keys many of the songs in their repertoire had a broadly mordant quality. To quote Muddy Waters, these were “deep blues,” with a broad sonic and emotional palette. Rush also studied Jazz guitarists like George Benson and Kenny Burrell. He also seriously studied with ace Chicago session man, Reggie Boyd.
Otis Rush left Cobra records in 1958. From 1960 through 1976, Otis Rush recorded for a broad range of labels. These included such labels as Chess, Duke, Vanguard, Cotillion, and Capitol, among others. Part of the issue with the recordings that Otis Rush did during this period was that few of the producers of these records shared Otis’ level of talent. However, no matter what the production values were, the records of this period all had glimmers of Otis’ genius.
The seventies were a difficult time for Otis Rush. He suffered bad relationships, bad management, occasional alcohol problems and, for a period of time, stopped playing and recording. Without a doubt, a restless time for a restless soul.
In 1985, Otis Rush started a comeback. This culminated with a contract with Mercury/Universal and the pairing of Otis with a sympathetic Guitarist/Producer, John Porter. In 1994, they collaborated on the stunning album, “Ain’t Enough Coming In.” This record was nominated for a Grammy Award. Ever the restless spirit, Otis signed with the House of Blues label. Again, he was matched with a Producer worthy of his talents, the legendary Memphis Producer, Willie Mitchell, who had produced artists ranging from Al Green to Ann Pebbles to Keith Richards. Together they put together the broad ranging 1998 album, “Any Place I’m Going,” which won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album. Otis was finally earning the income and getting the respect he so richly deserved. He was enormously popular overseas.
I first heard Otis Rush’s music when I was in high school. I had been playing guitar for about six years at that point. In particular, I absorbed the Blues of the Mississippi Delta and the Blues from Chicago.
I love the Blues because it encompasses all aspects of the human experience. The Blues is a way to accept my life and accept the struggles and joys of this world. I had the same reaction to Otis Rush’s music as when I first heard the music of the Delta Blues genius, Robert Johnson. Like Johnson, the sound of Otis Rush’s guitar and vocals were both eerie and compelling to me. A contrast of shadow and light in sound.
I have spent a lot of time emulating both his guitar playing and vocals. I still find great inspiration in Otis Rush’s work. He remains a distinct and consistent part of my musical DNA.
In 1996, I was a member of a Blues Society in Norfolk, VA called the Natchel’ Blues Network. Through their good graces, my good friend Pete Brennen and I obtained press passes to go to the First Western Maryland Blues Festival In Hagerstown, Maryland. The headlining act was Otis Rush. Also on the bill were artists like Robert Lockwood, Big Jack Johnson, John Hammond and The Nighthawks, among many.
As Pete and I had never seen Otis live, we were beyond excited. To this day, the 1996 Western Maryland Blues Festival was one of the most intelligently organized festivals of it’s kind that I have ever been to. The first night, May 31, was at a local college with Robert Lockwood performing. The next day the city utilized blocked off streets for performers such as Big Jack Johnson, who Pete and me became friendly with. Jack told us that his band was going to be hosting an open Blues jam at a local club that night after Otis Rush’s performance at the Maryland Theater. I made a mental note of that and hoped we would have the time and energy to participate.
But the Holy Grail was seeing Otis live that night with solo performer, John Hammond, opening. The Maryland Theater was an elegant theater in downtown Hagerstown. ( In fact, the same theater is used in the Opera scene of the Shirley MacLaine film, Guarding Tess). As always, John Hammond played an engaging and intense opening set.
But a cool wind blew in from Chicago when Otis Rush hit the stage. Otis opened with a song from his original Cobra sessions, “All Your Love(I Miss Loving). He also performed songs from the Ain’t Enough Coming In album and other material from the early part of his career. His almost Gospel-like vocals elevated my spirit. Definitely have seen many Blues guitar players in my life, but the wide bends and pitch shadings of his playing were the best Blues guitar playing I have ever heard, before or since that night.
For the guitar players, among my readers, Otis was playing a Gibson Stereo 355 guitar that he ran stereo into two Fender Twin amplifiers. Otis played the guitar left handed/upside down like Albert King with the little finger of his picking hand resting slightly under the low E string. It was well worth the wait to see Otis turn a theater into an almost church- like atmosphere. This was deep Blues at it’s best.
After the show we waited backstage, I with my Otis Rush record collection and press pass in hand. We got in a line of about 20 people, mainly comprised of festival staff and family waiting for an audience with Mr. Rush. We met Otis’s lovely wife, Masaki. When she saw our press passes, she reached inside her jacket pocket and gave my friend Pete and I some Otis Rush guitar picks. I asked about an interview with Otis. Masaki said he was suffering from a toothache and to contact his manager, Rick Bates. Rick would set something up in the near future by phone.
At that point, Otis saw me and the vinyl albums I had under my arm. He gave me the warmest smile and said, “Folks I will sign everybody’s CD’s. But let me talk to this guy with the albums right now, if you don’t mind.” We shook hands and I introduced myself and Pete to one of one of my Blues heroes.
A hero who turned out to be one of the sweetest people I have ever met. A very shy, yet warm man. Otis said, “Man, you have a lot of my old stuff. Thank you!” I expressed how much his music meant to me. That I was a guitar player and singer and that I had studied his music constantly. He thanked me again and than said, “I can see by the covers that you played these records and didn’t just collect them!” He was particularly thrilled that I had a 45 single from the 1969 album, “Mourning in the Morning.”(Note: Mourning in the Morning was produced by Michael Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites) He signed every record I had with me. Mindful of the people behind me, I thanked Otis and Masaki. Masaki gave me Otis’s management information.
Feeling elated, Pete and I decided to go to the Big Jack Johnson jam we had learned of earlier that day. We went to a club outside of downtown Hagerstown, whose name escapes me now. I spoke to Big Jack Johnson, a great man, now deceased, a Clarksdale Mississippi version of Otis, and asked to borrow a guitar and an amplifier to use. He grinned through sunglasses and said, “ Well you need to play for me so I know that you can play.” I plugged in a Stratocaster and ripped off a series of chords and licks. Jack laughed and said, “ That guitar likes you, you will be up next.” Just as my turn came up, Otis and Masaki Rush walked in.
As a musician, in those circumstances, you can either choose to be a coward or choose to be a lion. I chose to be a lion that night.
In the jam we were given two songs. I backed up a local Blues singer on her version of Muddy Waters’ “Walking Thru the Park.” I noticed Otis smiling during the guitar solos. I then walked up to the microphone and dedicated Albert King’s, “Drowning On Dry Land, to Otis. I played and sang like my life depended on it.
When we finished, I noticed that Otis and Masaki were leaving. I did my best to say goodnight, but I was unable to. Otis’ back-up musicians were still there. One of the musicians, the guitarist I believe, told me that Otis’ tooth was really hurting him. But he said that he wanted to pass on to me that Otis really enjoyed my performance and thought my playing was “classic.”
You could have sealed me in a bubble right then and there.
We left Hagerstown the following afternoon. About a week later, in Norfolk, we did a four man phone interview with Otis Rush. It was on fellow Bluesman and Fan, JD. Silvia’s Radio Show, Blues Alley. This show was broadcast on the Norfolk State University’s radio station, WNSB, 91.1. Also participating in the interview was my friend, Pete Brennen and another Bluesman, Thomas Parker. When I was 19 years old, I played with Thomas in the Jade Brothers Blues Band. The Jade Brothers were a stone cold, Chicago style Blues band. Thomas turned me on to a lot of Otis’ music and was also a great mentor to me.
Each of us, after introductions, basically got to ask one question of Otis. I chose mine carefully. I always thought that the way that Otis bent strings sounded like a slide guitar player without a slide. So I asked him if he ever jammed or studied with the master Chicago guitar player, Earl Hooker. Earl was known for his innovative slide guitar work. Otis said, “He sure did.” I said, “Well I can tell.” Otis in turn said, “Well, you’re the one, Michael.”
What? I couldn’t believe he said that, but I thanked him with a rapidly diminishing air of coolness.
Everybody there asked great and pertinent questions of this great artist who was so generously sharing his time with us. JD mentioned that Pete and I had really enjoyed seeing Otis at the Western Maryland festival the other week.
Otis said thank you to JD. and repeated, “Yeah, but Michael was the one. He played great.”
I am fortunate to have a tape of that interview. Evidence in my old age. I am now the same age Otis was when we met.
One of the many lessons I learned from Otis Rush’s example was how to maintain your humanity in the face of adversity and to aim for the best creation of art in the process. I hope I communicated effectively to him what his words of praise meant to me.
It is always amazing when someone you honor and respect is an even greater person than your imagination could describe. Check out some classic Otis Rush. His music is now widely available at many outlets, including Amazon. Check out first “The Essential Otis Rush: The Classic Cobra Recordings 1956-1958,” and work your way up. There is a flame of genius in every Otis Rush recording.
Otis Rush’s music is for all the ages. It is part of the best that America has to offer to our citizens and to the people of the world. He left a great legacy of art and family. He is survived by his loving wife, Masaki, eight children and innumerable grandchildren and great-grand children. Otis Rush and his music taught me to never fake it. Whether note to note, word to word, or soul to soul.