published Friday, August 19th, 2011

Folk-funk scamp featured in Bessie Smith Heritage Festival


Q&A with blues/R&B legend Bobby Rush


What: Fourth annual Bessie Smith Heritage Festival, featuring Bobby Rush.

When: 4:30 p.m.-midnight Saturday.

Where: Bessie Smith Cultural Center, 200 E. M.L. King Blvd.

Admission: $35 general admission. $50 and $100 tickets available with closer, reserved seating.

Phone: 266-8658.

Venue website:



5 p.m. T-Ran Gilbert

5:45 p.m. Joe Johnson

6 p.m. Tonya Dyson

6:40 p.m. KSS

7:20 p.m. Eric Essix

8:30 p.m. Avery Sunshine

9:30 p.m. Chrisette Michele

10:30 p.m. Bobby Rush


Legendary blues songstress Bessie Smith began performing in Chattanooga at age 9. Her powerful, passionate vocals earned her the title of "The Empress of the Blues," and she moved to New York City before she turned 30. There she used noteworthy musicians such as Louis Armstrong as sidemen. Her career began to wane during the Great Depression, however, and she was killed in a car crash in Clarksdale, Miss., in 1937 at age 43.

To some people, the idea of a funny blues song sounds like a contradiction of terms. As Bobby Rush sees it, however, blues music is too big for one emotion.

"The blues is the same thing that makes you laugh as what makes you cry," the 70-year-old said during a phone interview. "Blues to me is good times. Blues to me is sad times. You can have the blues, whatever state of mind or place you're in."

As a teen, Rush began playing shows on the so-called "chitlin' circuit," where he quickly made a name for himself with a bawdy take on the blues that busted guts as often as it jerked tears.

Rush is a prankster by nature, and his career is rife with shenanigans.

In 1954, he earned two paychecks for five months by dressing in disguise as his band's emcee at a house gig in Rock Island, Ill. He also claims to have fooled executives at Chess Records into giving him the master copies of his recordings by claiming he was still under management by a fictional Mafioso called Emmit Ellis, Rush's given name.

In all, Rush has released dozens of albums since his first record in 1951. He has collaborated with some of the blues luminaries, such as J.B. Lenoir and Ike Turner.

Saturday, Rush will close out the fourth annual Bessie Smith Heritage Festival at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. Other artists slated to perform include Avery Sunshine and Grammy Award-winning R&B/soul singer Chrisette Michele.

Rush said he's honored by the opportunity to recognize Smith for her accomplishments.

"I want to do this because of what [Bessie] stood for, as a blues person and a woman," he said. "She never got the props she needed."

Unlike Smith, whose career was tragically cut short, Rush has been performing for 56 years. The secret? Don't just play; entertain.

"There ain't anymore entertainers left," he said. "There ain't anymore Jackie Wilsons or Sammy Davis Juniors left, but there is a Bobby Rush.

"Hit records go and come, but a show is forever. That'll keep you in the game. When you've got a good show, you can stay in business."

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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