RIP Otis Rush (1935-2018): let’s hear it for the lefty

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In 1966, during a broadcast of I Can’t Quit You

Bluesman Otis Rush died yesterday, aged 83, from complications of the debilitating stroke that had confined him to a wheelchair since 2003.

Rush was probably the jazziest blues guitarist of his era. Aged 8, the Mississippi-born schoolboy taught himself to play on one of his brothers’ instruments – and didn’t realise he was supposed to fret with his left hand and pick with his right. He learned the other way round: “Nobody teached me. That’s why I play left-handed.”

But he credited his southpaw style – “pulling down”, he called it – for giving him greater facility to bend and stretch the notes in what became his trademark single-string breaks.

Whole fake books are devoted to “Otis Rush licks”, but his jazziness resided in how he rarely played the same lick twice. He’d always find a way to change it up or down, vary the dynamics, and weave delicacy and swing into robust roots chords. He was also one of the first leaders to invite the electric bass sound into Chicago’s blues bands.

There had been music around his mother’s house, but it was most likely to be country music on the radio, while his brothers had done little more than fool around with their instruments. Rush, however, caught the guitar bug, although there wasn’t much time for playing or schooling. As sharecroppers, his family got tools and seed from a white landowner to farm. For that, they paid half their crop every year, and long hours of labour – including what should have been school time for the little ones – any time the landowner needed extra, unpaid hands.

At 14, Rush visited his sister in Chicago and saw Muddy Waters performing live. That was it: he knew what he wanted to do. When he was practising in those early days, “the neighbours wanted to call the police on me, mad at me for making that noise. I was like: ‘Man, I’m trying to learn how to play the guitar like Muddy Waters’.”

Working by day in the stockyards, at a steel mill and later as a driver, he got some lessons and by 1953 was making his first club appearance, billed as “Little Otis”.

Together with Buddy Guy and Magic Sam (Maghett, who died aged 32), all signed to the Cobra label, they shaped what became known as the West Side Sound: a more lyrical, rhythmically complex blues style that was eagerly taken up by white players in the blues-rock movement of the 1960s.

Many other artists (Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, John Mayall and more) profited from their homages to songs whose sound Rush had shaped, such as I Can’t Quit you Baby (composed by Willie Dixon) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-7aYnijKbw), while his success remained, at best, modest. If you want, you can search Google to hear Mick Jagger, Robert Plant and more making attempts at the classic field-holler whoop with which Rush opens that song, but I’d recommend you stick with the original.

First with Cobra (which went bust via the gambling habits of its white owner), then Chess, Delmark, Duke and more, Rush was repeatedly shackled by contracts from capitalising on his hits with timely follow-ups in what should have been his career prime. He went 16 years during the late ‘70s and ‘80s without a release, and later Capitol Records sat on the release of his classic Right Place, Wrong Time (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zesioegOY0 ) for more than five years. He wasn’t interested in showbiz glamour, slick self-management or promotion, telling one journalist “I like to go home to bed after a show”, and unsurprisingly given these frustrations, he spent some years battling alcoholism.

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None of that detracts from the brilliance of his playing or the thinking that went into it. Rush was belatedly recognised by a 1999 Grammy for Any Place I’m Going, a place in the Blues Hall of Fame, and multiple music media awards. His guitar walked those tracks from Mali to Mississsippi to Chicago to the world, and working musicians everywhere may well hear echoes of his life in their own.

May his spirit rest in peace.

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