With blues icon Bobby Rush, ‘what you see is what you get’

Over the course of a 70-year career, Bobby Rush has made his mark on America’s legacy of blues music.

He’s been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, and Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame. He has won 12 Blues Music Awards and in 2017, at the age of 83, he won his first Grammy Award.

Hailing from Louisiana, Rush got his breakthrough in 1971, when his song Chicken Heads climbed the Billboard R&B chart and was certified gold. He then had two more gold-certified records with Sue in 1981 and Ain’t Studdin’ Ya in 1991.

Rush has toured all over the world, including China, where in 2007 he became the first blues artist to perform in the country, earning him the title “International Dean of the Blues.”

Rush’s late-career renaissance saw him win the Grammy Award for best traditional blues album for Porcupine Meat in 2017. He’s been nominated for a Grammy five other times — including a nomination this year for his latest album, Rawer Than Raw. He also had a cameo appearance in the 2019 film Dolemite is My Name, starring Eddie Murphy.

Bobby Rush joined us in the Gumbo Kitchen from his current home in Jackson, Miss., to tell us more about his life and career.

At your age, you look fantastic. What’s your secret?

It’s not a secret, it’s a blessing. God has had his hands around me all my life, and granted me time to get some things right. I appreciate what God has done for me, and I appreciate the people who listen to me — my fans and friends, DJs around the country, radio stations, TV stations, and all of you guys who really embrace me. Everybody who’s been in my life, that’s what keeps me going and that’s how I got to where I am.

Let’s talk about your life. Growing up in the Deep South, your dad was a sharecropper and a preacher. What kind of music was playing around the house when you were a kid?

Man, when I was a kid there wasn’t much music. There was a radio station called WLAC that we could listen to at night. There wasn’t much we could listen to. There wasn’t much outlet or opportunity for me to see and hear and learn about musicians. There wasn’t many DJs at the time, and there wasn’t many radio stations that played the blues. When I did hear the radio, I heard the country-western stuff, some gospel stuff, but there wasn’t that much Black music and Black entertainers. But when I did listen to WLAC, I heard John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and people like that who I could relate to.

At what age did you pick up the guitar?

Oh God, it was very, very early. My first guitar was what they call a diddley bow. It was a wire on the side of the house and I put a brick on the top of it and a bottle at the bottom of it, and I played the Wang Dang Doodle, just one string. At about seven or eight years old, my cousin gave me a guitar and I hid it from my father. One day my father said, “Bring that guitar here, boy. Let me play a song to you.” I didn’t know he played guitar, really. I thought he was gonna sing some gospel song. But he sang, “Me and my gal went a chinquapin huntin’ / She fell down and I saw somethin’.” Comin’ from my dad, and a preacher dude — man! I knew right then that I wanted to be a blues singer. I knew I wanted to write those risqué types of songs. My daddy hooked me up, man.

Did your dad give you any grief when you started singing the blues, or was he supportive?

Oh no. The religious people were always talkin’ ’bout the devil’s music. But in my household, that never was spoke about. My daddy never told me to sing the blues, but he never told me not to sing the blues. That was a green light for me. I had respect for my dad as a preacher, as my father and as my friend. He never told me not to, so I always thought it was good for me to do.  My dad let me did what I wanted to do, because I was the kind of guy who had good intentions about what I was doing, not to harm no one. I just wanted to sing the blues, man. I guess in his heart, he never felt anything wrong with that. He probably was OK if I did anything I’d done, if I did it well and people enjoyed it.

I can’t imagine what it was like for you growing up in the Deep South in the ’50s. I heard a story that you had to play for white people behind a curtain. Is that right?

Oh, yeah. I left my hometown in Louisiana in 1947. In early ’51, I was living in Arkansas and I wanted to go to Chicago because Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed and Little Walter were there — all these guys I had grown up listenin’ to. I wanted to leave Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi because I wanted to go north, because I had read that there was better opportunity for a Black man, for a Black musician to do things that I couldn’t do in the south. When I got there, I got a job at a place making $7.50 a night as a bandleader. The other places I was playing was paying $5, so I got a raise. But the problem I had was they wanted me to play for an all-white audience behind a curtain. They wanted to hear my music, but they didn’t want to see my face. That was heartbreaking to me, because I went north expecting a better way of life. It wasn’t no different from the south. A lot of things changed, but so many things remained the same.

I heard another story about a guy asking you to work for him saying he’d give you a big payday.

It was a guy my daddy was working for on a farm. My daddy told me he wanted me to do a little work for him over the weekend. He wanted me to rake the leaves up his yard and just burn ’em up. So I did, for about two or three days. He said, “I’m gonna give you a payday.” Well, I’m a young Black kid. I didn’t know anything about payday. I didn’t know how much to ask for. I’ll never forget, I worked three days and he said, “You’ve done a good job, boy. Come on in and get your payday.” So I went in, man, looking for my payday. He gave me two PayDay bars. That was my payday. I think PayDays at that time probably cost a nickel a piece. It hurt me so bad. I couldn’t say nothing because he lived by his word — that’s what he said he was gonna give me. But as a grown man, he knew I didn’t understand.

I can’t believe some of these stories. How does someone who’s been treated so bad remain so optimistic?

I guess it comes from how I was raised — to treat people like you want to be treated. I let bygones be bygones and we move on. I don’t have no chip on my shoulder. And speaking [of which], I was 83 before I got a Grammy. I’d been up many times for a Grammy, but I didn’t get a Grammy until I was 83 years old. That didn’t mean I didn’t have a good enough record, but I never got there. I didn’t know the politics to play, I didn’t have the push from a label to get people to know me for what I do. I just didn’t have that. Being a Black man, I knew that certain things I could not do because there was no opportunity to do it. I took that with a grain of salt and tried to do the best I could do at what I was doing and to make the best out of it. Here I am, and maybe nobody ever thought I’d be worth anything anyway.

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Over the years I’ve noticed that at blues festivals, it’s mostly white audiences. But I remember when James Brown passed away, it was mostly Black people. When did Black folks stop listening to the blues? 

I think a lot of the time, it’s the artists themselves and how they cross over and cross out. The kind of music you do, you’re always related to who’s listening to you. There’s not many guys around like myself or James Brown who had a white audience and a Black audience. Most of them are white audiences. In the beginning they had Black audiences, but then they started recording songs that relate to white people. You hear Black guys say, “I’m gonna record this song because I think it’s what Black people like. I’m gonna record this song because I think it’s what white people like.” I record good music and good songs and hope everyone likes it. It’s not a Black and white issue with me. But I’m one of the few lucky and blessed guys that crossed over and never crossed out. You can put me in Memphis and sure, I’ll draw a house of white folks. But you can also take me across the river to a Black club and I’ll still draw a full house. But not many people have that. I’m so blessed and thankful to be able to work with both sides. Most Black guys have to work with one side or the other. They don’t have both sides.

Let’s talk about your new album, Rawer Than Raw. It’s just you playing unplugged with the acoustic guitar. Did you record this during COVID-19 or was it before that?

The songs came before that. I’ve got plenty of songs that I do like that, and I can come out with CD after CD after CD. It’s really Bobby Rush. But what I do when I record is have demos, and I take those songs into the studio and get a band to play behind it. When COVID-19 hit, I said, “Well, I can’t go to the studio, I can’t take a band, so let’s take this stuff and put some of it out.” This stuff was already recorded years ago.

You were in a movie not too long ago, Dolemite is My Name with Eddie Murphy. What was it like working with him?

Let me tell you, man. The best experience I ever had in my life was working with Eddie Murphy. I told my manager, “When Eddie Murphy get here, talk to the producer and let me meet him. I want to talk to him,” not knowing that Eddie Murphy had the same feeling about me. I didn’t know he knew anything about me at all. When he got to the set that afternoon, he run up on the stage where I was performing and hugged me, man. God man, that was it. He knew more about me than I knew about myself. He looked up to me and I looked up to him. He knew where I was coming from. That was the greatest feeling I ever had in my life.

You’re writing a book, I understand. Are you going to make some people mad?

Yeah, I’m writing this book. I’m through with the book, actually, but it won’t come out for another 90 days. But yeah, I’m gonna make somebody mad and tell the truth on some bleepers. There’s some things in the book that I’ve never talked about, and I haven’t always been a goody two-shoes kind of guy. There’s a lot of things I don’t have right, but I guess did enough things right so that people forgive me for what I’ve done. But I’m telling you, what you see is what you get.

This interview has been edited and condensed.