When he gets excited, Bobby Rush refers to himself in the third person.
“The whole world is watching Bobby Rush,” he says from a hotel room in Florida.
Rush is no bloviator. His life has taken a strange turn since his appearance on Martin Scorsese’s 2003 documentary series, “The Blues,” on PBS. This singer/guitarist/harp player was featured in the third installment, “Road to Memphis,” with folks like B.B. King, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf. Since it aired, his popularity has soared — especially with white Americans.
It’s about time. He’s been doing this for 51 years now.
Flash back to 1940s Louisiana. Rush grew up with his nine brothers and sisters in a home that he refers to as “poor, but rich in love.” In 1946, they moved to Pine Bluff, Ark. There, Rush met bluesman Elmore James and James’ cousin, slide player Boyd Gilmore, and started a band.
His first instrument was a homemade guitar he calls a “Diddley Bow.” Not much more than a syrup bucket and a broom, it was enough to set him on the path that would define his life. He was going to sing the blues.
“Because my daddy was a preacher and I shared his name (Rush’s real name is Emmett Ellis Jr.), I decided to go by Bobby Rush.”
In those days, some folks thought of the blues as the devil’s music. But Rush claims to have known better.
He has always stayed a little bit ahead of the game. Just think: While much of America was busy being paranoid over Cold War propaganda and hiding their daughters from a certain hip-shaking rockabilly boy from Memphis, Rush was writing such irreverent songs as “Bowlegged Lady” and “Chicken Heads” and perfecting his jaw-dropping, libido-driven stage show.
For years, he made his living in the chain of nightclubs referred to as the Chitlin Circuit. This string of clubs featured mostly African-American musicians performing for African-American audiences. They were especially popular in the South.
And while folks like Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf were making their way into the mainstream market, performers like Rush were left in the lurch. Rush says many radio stations deemed his music “too black” for airplay.
“I am black, what did they expect me to sound like?” he asks. “I am not Elton John.”
Though it’s unlikely anyone would ever confuse Rush with the pasty British piano man — one can certainly say he shares John’s sense of resplendent individualism.
In fact, it is Rush’s capacity for independence that sets him apart from the litany of his guitar-in-hand blues contemporaries. Even in the early days of his career, he was intent on doing things his way.
“I was always concerned about what was going to happen to Bobby Rush,” he says.
“I knew what those record companies wanted. They were like, ‘Hey, go record your songs, we’ll give you $5 and then take all your money.’”
Rush wouldn’t bite. He says he still owns the rights to 99 percent of his music.
“I figured I would write my own music until I found somebody better to do it. And then I figured I would produce my music until I could find somebody better to do it … all of a sudden I was that guy.”
The sound of Rush’s music stretches everywhere from funk to folk to soul and rock ’n’ roll, but insists that he is simply a blues singer.
“Every black man is a blues singer,” he says.
To Rush, the blues are a sacred part of American history. “Just because your women left you, don’t mean you got the blues. Sometimes you got the blues ’cause she stayed too long.”
And it’s not just his lionhearted mien that sets him apart.
Rush openly admits that sex sells. The incorporation of his backup dancers, the Booty Shakers (voluptuous African-American women who bounce and shimmy wildly to Rush’s tunes), is a signature addition that sets Rush’s audiences apart from the knee-slapping masses of blues lovers. To say they are sexy is an understatement. To many — the Booty Shakers are one of the best parts of the show.
He doesn’t care that people are just now catching on.
“Of course I want to cross over … but I don’t want to cross out.”
“Black people dance and shake our butts. I will never be ashamed of that.”