Northwest Indiana will be importing some Chicago blues from across the state line today as Star Plaza Theatre welcomes seven popular purveyors of the sound that first ignited the rock ‘n’ roll fuse in a bunch of British kids who went on to fame and fortune in such groups as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Animals and Bad Company, to name but a few.
“I been playin’ the blues for a long time now. I started playin’ the blues in the early 1950s,” said Bobby Rush, a performer on the Star Plaza all-star bill and one of the cornerstones of the vintage Chess Records sound in Chicago. Rush is one of last living musicians who recorded for the groundbreaking Chess label, the musical home to the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and others.
Rush came to Chicago by way of Arkansas and Mississippi in the 1950s for three reasons. He had family in the city, he was looking for work and he wanted to play the blues in the same town where Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Willie Dixon were playing it. “I got here and I couldn’t believe I could actually make some money doing something I would have done for free,” he said. “I got paid to play the blues. There was nothing better than that for me.”
As part of the Chess Records dynasty, Rush has many stories to share with his fans. Ones he shared during his chat with The Times included how he picked up a young singer named Etta James when she came to Chicago and drove her to the Chess offices to meet owners Leonard and Phil Chess and begin her career. He also told how Freddy King and Luther Allison were both guitar players in his early band, how he and King came to accidentally “steal” a song from iconic Chicago bluesman Magic Sam for King Records. Then there are stories about Elmore James, Pinetop Perkins and other giants of the blues’ old-guard.
“I have cut 249 records over the years,” recalled Rush, whose biggest commercial hit was 1970’s “Chicken Head. “I’ll be doing three to four of the hits from earlier in my career and I’ll do one or two from my new album and maybe a medley of some songs. I don’t know what I’ll do, but I promise that whatever it is, I’ll do it good.”
Rush’s stage show is built around big-bottomed female dancers, ribald humor and hip-shaking grooves. “What I do goes back to the days of black vaudeville and Broadway, and — with my dancers on stage — even back to Africa,” Rush says. “It’s a spiritual thing, entwined with the deepest black roots and with the songs on “Down in Louisiana,” I’m taking those roots in a new direction so all kinds of audiences can experience my music and what it’s about.
After four-plus decades of living in Chicago, Rush returned a few years ago to Jackson, Mississippi. “It was a combination of things,” he said. “It was the weather, because Chicago is so cold in the winter. But mostly it was because I saw that most of my (live) dates were booked in the South. I’d leave Chicago to play shows from Thursday to Sunday and come back home on Monday and have to leave again on Wednesday. It just made more sense to live closer to where most of my dates were being played.”
Rush says he still averages about 250-275 dates a year. “I love what I do and as long as I’m healthy and people want to see me, this (the road) is where you will find me,” he said. “I’m feeling’ good and I'm playing better than ever.”
Rush has a good reason to be on the road this year, a brand new album titled, “Born in Louisiana” hit the street in February via the Deep Rush label (distributed by Thirty Tiger Records). A tasty gumbo of swamp, blues, rock and reggae grooves, this new Rush album is already creating a buzz among the blues community as a potential Grammy contender.
“Let’s face it. I’m not a young man. My motto is to do all I can, while I can,” said Rush of why at 77 years of age, he felt the need to make a new album with new tunes rather than live off his past laurels. “There’s a time coming when I won’t be able to do what I’m doing now, so I’m doing this (making records and touring all over the world) while I’m in good spirit, good health and good strength. I’m still enthused about what I’m doing and still learning along the way. I don’t want to regret what I had the chance to do and did not do.”
“This album started in the swamps and the juke joints, where my music started, and it’s also a brand new thing,” continued Rush, who along with returning to his musical roots, plans to return to the “juke joints” of the chitlin’ circuit where he, Buddy Guy, B.B. King and most other first-generation blues artists started playing.
“I started in those little places in the 1950s and I want to go back and play those places again,” said Rush, who has wonderful memories of those smokey haunts that dotted the rural roads and rivers of the Deep South. “We all started there and eventually many of us crossed over to a white audience, but I never crossed out my black audience. Sometimes when you cross over like we did, you lose the people who were there for you in the beginning, but I’ve been blessed because they are still there for Bobby Rush. The songs on this album give me the chance to go play acoustic shows in those funky little places that can’t afford most of us these days. I want to go back and play affordable shows in those places where we all got our start.”
Like his friend Buddy Guy, Rush worries about the state of the blues and the future of the music that he helped to pioneer and popularize. “It bothers me that young black artists haven’t carried it on and don’t like or respect the blues,” he said. “That is a real shame. But God bless the white kids who have kept it going (Kenny Wayne Sheppard, Joe Bonamassa, Jonny Lang, etc.). But it’s important that they let people know where the blues came from and let people know the history of the blues. The history is what’s important and giving the credit where the credit is due.”