Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with 50-year blues/R&B legend Bobby Rush about how he used to disguise himself as his own emcee, how he fooled Chess Records executives and his appreciation of Bessie Smith.
CP: You were born Emmet Ellis, Jr., and changed your name out of respect for your father. What made you think he would disapprove?
BR: He was a pastor at a church, and out of respect for what he believed in and what I believe in, as a spiritually minded person. He's my dad, but he's also my best friend. He's he one who influenced me to sing the blues.
During that time when I came along, most preachers were calling what we did “devil's music.” He never said that to me. He never told me to sing the blues, but he never told me not to, so that was a green light coming from a preacher man.
Out of respect for him and what he stood for, I changed my name to Bobby. Nobody called me Bobby, and nobody called me Rush. Everybody called me Bobby Rush. I was looking for a last name like President Eisenhower. I thought of Truman and Roosevelt. As a kid, I was thinking about names that were big to me, or something that sounded big, sounded like a super star. To me, Bobby Rush sounded like a superstar.
Everyone said the two syllables like it was one syllable. There's a whole lot of Bobbys and a whole lot of Rushes, but there's only one Bobby Rush. (Laughs.) I was looking for that kind of name.
During that time, there was a gentleman named Otis Rush in Chicago. I didn't know him, but I knew of him. He didn't have no name. He was just a guitar player in Chicago at that time. What I liked is when people would come up and say, “Man, you sure are in a hurry. What you rushin' for?” I'm an active person, so I grabbed the “Rush” and put Bobby with it.
CP: When did you settle on Bobby Rush as your stage name?
BR: I was 13 or 14 when I started looking for the name. By the time I was 16 or 17, I had it all down. I was sure I wanted to be Bobby Rush.
CP: You say your father didn't approve or disapprove of you playing music. What did he think once it turned into a career?
I think my daddy really respected me for what I chose to do in life because I was the kind of guy who was ahead of my time.
My cousin gave me a guitar when I was 7 years old, and I put it up in the loft because I thought my daddy wouldn't approve of me having a guitar. I didn't know anything about gospel singers playing the guitar, only blues singers. If figured if he saw the guitar, that would mean “blues” to him.
I didn't know he knew I had it until one day, he said, “Boy go bring me that guitar out of the loft.” I was afraid to get it out because I thought he was going to throw it away or take it away from me and give me a whooping. He said, “Give it here, son. I'm going to play you this song I used to play a long time ago to this girl I knew who made me happy.”
I thought he was talking about my momma. I had this pecan tree in the back of my house, and he started playing, “Me and my gal went chincapin huntin'/She fell down, and I saw something.” I said, “Daddy!” Being a preacher man … (Laughs.) Then, I said, “Sing it again, daddy.”
My mother was in the kitchen cooking. My dad his back to her, and she walked up to me and said to my dad, “Ahem. Don't sing that kind of song to that boy.” Instead, he sang it again. I said, “Daddy, sing it again!” What I wanted him to do was sing the other verses.
I said, “How big is she?” and he said, “She was real big.” I asked what she had on, and he said, “Nothing but a dress.” I could see, in my seven-year-old mind, a fat lady in a dress falling down with nothing on but a dress. Man, I could see that in my mind, and I wanted to express what I saw in my mind.
By that time, he started singing and went on with the guitar. He sang, “Me and my gal went chincapin huntin'/She fell down” and he turned around and looked at [my mom] and said, “And I kept runnin'.” (Laughs.) I don't know what he would have said, but I sure did wonder what my dad saw up under that dress. He probably wouldn't have told me, but I sure was curious.
My daddy was the first one to sing the blues to me. He influenced me. Then, I met Muddy Waters and fell in love with his dap dressing and the way he sung. Then came Howlin' Wolf, and I loved the way he sung with that rattlin' voice. Little Walters was a harp player, and I loved his harp. I loved Sonny Boy Williams; I never liked his playing, but I respected him as a singer and an artist. When he did what he did, it gave me this feeling that I wanted to do this. That's what got me involved in doing the blues. I wanted to do those things.
When you listen to my records, when you hear the elements of the different people in my life that I liked and respected, if you put them in a bottle and shake them up, you get Bobby Rush.
CP: You started out playing music as a teen, playing an instrument you made yourself. What attracted you to the stage at such a young age?
BR: I wanted to do what I'm doing because of the love of it, man. When I started doing what I'm doing as a blues singer, I had no idea they made money at this. Someone told me later on, “Hey man, you're good at this. You could make money with this.” I thought, “You mean I could get paid for something I would do for free anyway?”
This wasn't about the money. It was about something I loved. I loved the blues and writing, and I loved to play and have the girls holler at me - come on.
But I wasn't a drinker. We was playing in the juke joints, but it wasn't about me drinking, it was about people drinking and having fun and listening to me. The more they drank, it seemed like to me the better I sounded. They would say, “Play it again. Play it again,” and I loved that. (Laughs.) And I did it again - and again and again. That's where I come from and where I started.
I've been recording for many, many years now. In 56 years, I have 249 records. I cut my first record in 1951, so I've been doing this for a long, long time.
I believe I'm the only man who went into Chess [Records] and left with the master [record]. I think I'm the only black man who did that. I have managed myself and booked myself for many, many years, for about 50 years, but I hadn't planned to do that.
My plan was to book myself until I got an agent. I had planned to write for myself until someone came and became my songwriter. I had planned to produce myself until I found a producer. I planned on doing all these things to get in the door so someone would look at me and then do all these things for me.
All of the sudden, after 20 albums of doing this, B.B. King came up to me one day and said, “Bobby, you write so well, why don't you produce B.B. King?” I was off my feet. I went in the bathroom and had a meeting with myself. (Laughs.) I said, “You mean to tell me that all these guys want me to do something for them? Why?” It was because they thought I was this writer. Of the 249 songs I had recorded, I had written everything but four or five songs.
I did those covers out of respect to the artists I loved so well. I didn't do them because I needed a song. I was hung up in my own writing and doing what I did. I was doing well at what I did.
I think I got away with Chess because I went to Lenny Chess in the early '50s to record for them, and I told them I had a contract with Emmet Ellis. They did not know that Emmit Ellis and Bobby Rush were the same man. (Laughs.)
I went in and got introduced to the guys, and they thought I was tied up with Al Capone because I had been working on Bourbon Street and Rush Street. At the time, there were no black entertainers down there but myself. I was one of the first ones who worked in the Bourbon Street area as a black musician. They knew I had been working there, so they thought I knew somebody in the mafia. I did not; I just knew of someone.
They said, “Well, who do you work for?” I said, “I work for this guy. I think his name is Emmet Ellis. I don't know him too well, but I think he has something to do with Bourbon Street downtown.”
I planted that in their mind, that I knew somebody, and they said, “Well, we don't care what you do. You can record here, but when you get out of this contract, we'll take you in. In the meantime, go ahead and cut.” I paid whatever it was - $8 or $9, it wasn't much - and went in there and did my thing and cut a couple of songs. I left out of there with masters under my arm because they thought I was taking them to Emmet Ellis. I was, but they didn't know that Emmet Ellis and Bobby Rush were the same man.
Then, I started traveling with Junior Parker and people like that. I went down south. I'm from the South, but I was in Chicago for 46 years. Working in Chicago, I went south, and in the early '50s, we couldn't stay in hotels as black entertainers.
I went to Cleveland, Miss., and there was a hotel there. I believe it was the first Holiday Inn I ever saw. There was a phone booth outside of this hotel, so I went around to the chef's department at 3:30 or 4 and found out his [the chef's] name. They said, “Yeah, he's in, but you better go in now and talk to him if you want to talk to him because he gets off at 4:30.” My reason for being round there was to find out what time he got off.
Now, I had the chef's name, so I go around to this hotel, get in the phone booth and call the hotel. I changed my name to this white guy's and said, “Yes, this is John Hooker.” I used the N-word, and I said, “I've got a couple of guys coming around the hotel tonight and they need a room. Will you put them up for the night. I'll stand for it.”
Then, I walked back up and said, “My name is Bobby Rush. Mr. Henderson sent me around.” They said, “Oh yeah, he just called me a few minutes ago.” So I got my hotel room, but I knew the chef came to work at 7:30, so I got up at 6:30, and I was gone. (Laughs.) That's the way I got in the hotel.
We were playing in this club, and the club was paying us $2.50 a piece. I was giving the guys $2 and keeping the 50 cents from each. I was playing so well, that the guy paid us and gave us five hamburgers. I would eat one and sell four. The next night, we did so well he gave us eight hamburgers, so I ate one and sold seven of them at 25 cents a piece. Some nights, I was making $10 a night.
Then, J.B. Lenoir came along. We went to a place called Apex in Illinois, and we got a job that was going to play us $12, a piece. I said, “$12? That's money!” He said, “Come on, that's $24 total - $12 for your band and $12 for my band. But we got to play behind the curtain.” I said, “J.B., I don't give a damn what we have to do to get $12,” because that was more money than I'd seen in my life.
We went out there, and the owner said, “Now, this is a white club, and all my audience is white.” There was a mark on the floor, and we stood there with a curtain in front of us. We played all night long behind the curtain. They wanted to hear our music, but they didn't want to see our faces.
But we were getting paid for the night. We were making money, and that was big money back then. I had never made no $7 before. We played behind the curtain, but we got so god that people said, “Let us see the band.” They would open the curtain up, and have me in front of the curtain by myself. There was another curtain behind me so you could see me, but you couldn't see the band. They would open the curtain up for a little bit, and I was standing on this mark. I would take a bow, and in two seconds, they would snap the curtain back.
I would sing all night long behind the curtain. We would do that, day in and day out - me and J.B. Lenoir.
CP: How long was it before you felt comfortable in front of audiences?
BR: I felt comfortable from the get go, to be honest with you. I was born to do what I'm doing. I say this all the time that you can teach a man to play a guitar or play a harp or whatever instrument that he plays, but you can't teach a man to do what I do. I'm born to do what I do.
I'm an entertainer, and there ain't anymore entertainers left. There ain't anymore Jackie Wilsons or Sammy Davis Juniors left, but there is a Bobby Rush. There are plenty of musicians around. There are plenty of artists around. There are plenty of guitar players around. But they ain't entertainers. They're entertaining musicians, but they ain't entertainers.
Sammy Davis Jr. was an entertainer, and I put myself in that category. I'm an entertainer who sings and plays guitar; I'm not a guy who sings and entertains.
CP: Your bio says your live shows are “without parallel, replete with costume changes and comedic sketches.” What's up with all the spectacle?
BR: You know why? Because I'm a crazy guy. (Laughs.) People accept me for what I am and who I am because I'm one of the only black artists who has crossed over to a white audience, but I haven't left my black audience. I have crossed over but I have not crossed out.
I can tell you that you can talk to five top black blues singers, and they have crossed over; black people don't come to see them anymore. You know who they are because they have crossed black people out. You can't do that. You can't cross your race out.
I'm proud to be a black man. I'm proud to be a blues man. I love what I'm doing. What you see is what you get.
I was talking to a young man about how, 25 or 30 years ago, the white guys have learned to play the blues as well and sometimes better than the black guys. They invented a wah-wah for the white guy to sound like the black guy. Now, you've got black guys playing with the wah-wah to sound like a white guy trying to sound black. They seem to be ashamed of what they do until a white guy was doing it. I've never been ashamed of who I am or what I've done.
When you go to the blues festivals, you don't see many black folks unless it's an all-black festival. That bothers me, because we have been taught that, unless the white people were playing it, it wasn't played right or good enough, and if the white people weren't there, we shouldn't be there.
It's not like that. Music is music. It's not a black and white issue with me, and I hope everyone likes what I do. In the meantime, I've got to be Bobby Rush. That's what I am, and I'm proud to be that.
CP: What is the blues, in your mind?
BR: The blues is the same thing that makes you laugh as what makes you cry. Sometimes you can laugh and cry at the same time. When I was a young guy, when I went to the juke junctions or wherever I was going, it was all we knew. It wasn't about sadness.
When we went to the juke joints, it was some good times. I looked forward to going there because it was our place to let our hair down, and we had fun. That was the blues.
Someone asked me, “Bobby Rush, you sing the blues. Why do you sing the blues? Becase your woman left you?” You can have the blues when your woman leaves you, but you can also have the blues when they stay too long.
Blues to me is good times. Blues to me is sad times. Blues to me is up. Blues to me is down. You can have the blues, whatever state of mind or place you're in. It all depends on what you do, because the blues don't always have to be sad.
There's nothing sad about the blues, but there could be … for the moment. The blues don't have to be all happy. If I get off on Friday afternoon, that's the blues, but it's a happy time. But if it's Sunday night, I'm sad because I have to go to work Monday morning. Then again, if you don't have a job to go to on Monday morning, that's good because you don't have to get up, but come Friday with no payday, that's another sad day.
Your damned if you do, damned if you don't - that's the blues.
CP: Have you always approached music with that kind of dramatic flair or is that something that came after you had been playing for awhile?
BR: Let me tell you how that came out. It came about accidentally. I was going to Rock Island, Ill., with myself and Ike Turner back in, I believe, 1954. I was going to Rock Island, because I had a little job.
The guy was paying me $12 or $13 a night as a band leader, and he needed an emcee. I said, “I do have an emcee,” and he said, “I want a good emcee,” and I said, “I've got a good emcee. His name is Pretty Bob.” Pretty Bob was a good emcee, and I told him, “Why don't you go to Rock Island with me?” and he said, “I'll go, for $30.”
I went and told the promoter that the guy wanted $40, and he bought it, so I was making $10 a night on the emcee.
On Monday or Tuesday, we got everything ready to go to do the show on the weekend, and he called and said he couldn't go. I said, “Wow, what am I going to do?” I'm a standup comedian anyway. I was thinking about this $40 I was going to make on this guy, and I went to the store and bought this big old suit and hat.
I would dress really well under the suit, and I didn't wear a mustache, so I went to the drug store and bought a Fu Manchu mustache and some glue. I stuck them on my face and looked in the mirror and put my suit on. I called this guy and said, “I don't have Pretty Boy anymore, but I've got Mr. Tramp. He costs a little more money, but I'll eat it up.”
In the meantime, I got this suit on, and I went out and he said, 'Where's Tramp at?” I said, “Well, he's a bashful guy, but he'll be on time to do the show.” I went to the back room and came out as Mr. Tramp.
I did the show and was killing people with my stand up comedy. Then, I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, it's star time. Give a hand to Mr. Bobby Rush.” I walked back and snapped the mustache off, slapped my cap off my head and I was already dressed, and I go back on.
For about five months, I killed them like that. That's where the costume changes came from. Each time, I would change clothes and have a different suit under these old clothes, so I wouldn't be the same guy.
I got two monies, and I thought the man didn't know it until four or five weeks later when he called me and said, “Bobby Rush, you're a lying so and so. That's you doing that, man. But you're good, and nobody knows but you and I.” He kept paying me, man. (Laughs.)
It got so good that I took the suit off and let people know who I was because I was a good emcee and a good comedian. Later, a lady came up to me and said, “Bobby Rush, I liked you better when we thought you was in disguise.” I didn't know they know, but some of them knew all the time and didn't tell me they knew.
I started changing clothes then every night and doing costumes and the whole bit behind that. That's where it comes from.
CP: What's the secret to having a career that's lasted as long as yours have?
BR: I think what got me to where I am now, people dared me that I could not do what I do and that I wouldn't be successful. That made me work twice as hard. I also had good records and I got a good show.
See, my business is show business, and I have a good show. I try to elevate myself to the point where I'm the best at what I do. That's what keeps me in the game, because I'm good at what I do.
I think people looked at me a few times when I came in and said, “Well, maybe he got lucky. He didn't know what he was doing. Maybe he was on tonight. Maybe he was high or feeling good. Tomorrow will be different.” But they saw the same kind of show, day in and day out, year in and year out.
Here I am doing the same show I did 50 years ago, and I probably got better at it. That's what kept me in the game. Hit records go and come, but a show is forever. That'll keep you in the game. Sammy Davis Jr. had probably 20 years before he had a hit record, but he had a good show. When you've got a good show, you can stay in business. That's longevity.
On top of all that, God has blessed me to be an old man and be in the business this long and be in good health. That's a blessing to be in that position. This is God's doing, and I thank him for it every day.
CP: Are you a fan of Bessie Smith? What do you know about her?
BR: Yeah, I'm a fan of Bessie Smith. I knew what she did and what she stood for. I take my hat off to the people who were the first run of what we do as blues singers, both ladies and men. She never got recognized for doing what she was doing when she was living. It was later on that she came to the point where people recognized what she was doing.
So many guys in my age bracket went this route and now they're dead and gone from having alcoholism happen or wars happen. Someone told me a few days ago, “Bobby Rush, we're working on a stamp for you.” I said, “I appreciate that, but I don't want no stamp because every man I know who has a stamp is dead and gone.” I laughed and joked with that.
I want to do this because of what [Bessie] stood for, as a blues person and a woman. She never got the props she needed. She got most famous after the fact, when she was dead and gone, than when she lived. She was a great person, and her music was great.
Another reason I'm doing this is that I want to do all that I can when I can. There will come a time when I cannot do, and I won't regret what I did not do.