Rush perhaps wasn’t as widely known as B.B. King or Albert King. But his guitar and vocal work had a huge impact on guitar legends including Buddy Guy, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn, who named his band after Rush’s late 1950s hit “Double Trouble.”
Otis Rush was born on April 29, 1934, in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Like so many other blues singers born and raised in Mississippi, Rush grew up surrounded by the state’s rich musical tradition, which had a profound effect on his career selection. He learned the basics of the harmonica before settling on the guitar as his instrument of choice. In the tradition of Albert King, Rush was a natural lefty who played the instrument upside down. He jammed with other musicians around his home town, absorbing different musical ideas that he later used to create his own sound.
“The stuff I grew up on was all on the Cobra (Records), you know. You know ‘Double Trouble’ and ‘I Can’t Quit You, Baby,'”
Clapton said after a 2014 interview. He said he puts Rush in the same category as other pioneering blues greats who shaped his own blues playing.
“No, that’s right. Take a look at Eric Clapton and Keith Richards and all those English cats,” Otis says. “They were just babies when this was going down, and it hit them hard, too. You could say that music changed all of their lives, also. But I was there, man. I saw it and felt it and set out to capture that ability to transform your life through song.”
He was a key architect of the Chicago “West Side Sound” in the 1950s and 1960s, which modernized traditional blues to introduce more of a jazzy, amplified sound.He recorded for Chess and Duke in the early 1960s, where his work continued to be heard and admired by the new British exponents of the blues, notably John Mayall, whose Bluesbreakers recorded ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby.’ That song also caught the ear of Page, and it became part of the first Led Zeppelin album, released in January 1969. Mayall’s band also recorded other key Rush songs including ‘Double Trouble,’ All Your Love’ and ‘So Many Roads.’ In 1968, Mike Bloomfield summed up Rush’s influence, telling Rolling Stone that in Chicago, “the rules had been laid down” for young, white blues bands: “You had to be as good as Otis Rush.”
“He was one of the last great blues guitar heroes. He was an electric God,”
said Gregg Parker, CEO and a founder of the Chicago Blues Museum.
Rush loved to play to live audiences, from small clubs on the West Side of Chicago to sold out venues in Europe and Japan.
In 1994, Rush released Ain’t Enough Comin’ In, which at the time marked his first record in 16 years. Two years later, his album, Any Place I’m Goin’ won him the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. Though that LP would be his last full-length studio effort, Rush contributed to various tribute albums and remained a regular live performer until health issues forced him off the road.
“Yes, that’s right,” Rush says.
“Sometimes I feel the happiest – or I should say the most content – when I’m sitting around in my empty house playing the blues on my guitar.
Don’t matter plugged in or not, I like it both ways, so sometimes I’ll be quite loud and others, why, you can hardly hear me. But for me, anyway, that’s when I play and sing my very best.
Otis Rush created a sophisticated, modern blues sound that has been imitated, but never duplicated. His lack of commercial appeal in no way deflects from the contributions of this very talented individual. His strong urban sensibility reflects the life of the African American person living in America. Because of his limited recorded contributions he has never received his proper due. Despite being overlooked by the powers that be, Rush has managed to carve out a name for himself among blues aficionados, and he remains one of the major blues cult heroes.
Those who remember him for his contributions to the blues back in the late 1950s and early 1960s keep a special secret. Throughout his career it seems as if Rush was destined to miss out on the big time. It is unfortunate that he has not been luckier throughout his career, or he might be singing a different song than the double trouble blues.