I had a dream about Otis Rush Saturday night.
I rarely remember my dreams. I am sure I dream every night. Scientists say I do. Who the fuck am I to disagree with a fucking scientist? It’s just … I don’t seem to remember many of my dreams. How depressing is that? Even in my dreams I can’t seem to be any more fucking excited or enthused about life than I am when I am awake. If I had any musical talent of my own I think I would have albums worth of ruminations of how my life sucks because my dreams are so meaningless I never fucking remember any of them. Either that or my shit just works so poorly I can’t keep track of anything. I think I like that better. I can blame my lack of progress in life to the lost masterpieces inside my dreams that will never be unlocked. Bitchin’.
Anyway, what I actually dreamed was I met an employee of Otis Rush. She might have been his manager or president of a fan club – I am not sure. She looked like Samantha Mathis, only she was a little heavier (I thought you would want to know). Anyway, this woman and I met somewhere or other (yeah, I remember she was a fat Samantha Mathis lookalike but can’t remember where we ‘met’) and got to talking and she remembered reading one of my reviews of an Otis Rush album. She told me the review had meant so much to Otis and he was very moved by it.
I was stopped dead in my tracks.
Otis read my review?
“The hell you say,” I say to fat Samantha Mathis lookalike girl. “How fuckin’ cool is that? But I don’t believe you. I mean, how would he have?”
Turns out it was true. She actually found the review and showed it to him. Fat Samantha Mathis (not her real name) had actually met Otis Rush! I suddenly had so many questions for this mystery woman. I asked about his health (he will turn 72 this month and suffered a stroke a few years back) and she said he was doing well but his days of performing were probably behind him. She and I then spent the rest of the dream talking about Otis Rush and his music.
So where did this dream come from? Who the fuck knows? I did get assigned (actually volunteered with much enthusiasm) to review an upcoming DVD release entitled Otis Rush – Live at Montreux 1986 (there is also a CD companion to this release) this past week. The excitement of this assignment caused me to listen to the Otis Rush playlist I have on my iPod. I cannot wait until that DVD arrives. You will know when it does as the review will be hosted here at Blogcritics. I guess the combination might have caught up with me a few days later and planted the seeds of this dream. Fat Samantha Mathis will remain a mystery. I am indifferent about the real Samantha Mathis. I am just jealous her larger lookalike has met Otis Rush and I have not.
Rush was born in Philadelphia, MS in 1934 and moved to Chicago in 1948. He was discovered by Willie Dixon, who was working for Eli Toscano’s Cobra label at the time, and signed a deal with Cobra in 1956. Cobra folded up shop a few years later and that largely tells the story of the rest of Rush’s career (biography information courtesy of AMG). Some blues artists make it big and have to fill their career with songs reminiscing about the bad times. Rush seemed to never stop having them. He never ran out of inspiration to sing and play his blues.
He is probably best known to rock fans through the music of Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. Led Zeppelin used Rush’s version of Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” as the blueprint for their version. “I Can’t Quit You Baby” has been covered several times and most of them follow in the Rush-Zeppelin tradition (although the late “Little Milton” Campbell did a soul-blues version to interesting effect). The other well known Rush song is one he wrote himself and was made famous by Eric Clapton. “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” is a song Clapton did when he was with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. Clapton’s version is slower than Rush’s but is largely faithful to the original.
The late Stevie Ray Vaughan also considered Rush an influence. He, too, covered Rush songs in concert and even named his band after one of his songs (“Double Trouble”).
That’s how you might know of Otis Rush. How did I discover Otis Rush? It is a long story. Here is the short version. A lot of the rock music I have enjoyed over the years has had a strong blues flavor. I had always had a curiosity about the blues but was intimidated by the process of trying to sort through it all. It seemed an impossible task. A few years ago I went through a six-month period where I was listening to the Rolling Stones night and day. The early Stones records were filled with covers of Chuck Berry songs and old blues numbers. My love of those songs gave me a place to start when it came to discovering the blues. I started with the Chicago Blues sound made famous by Chess Records.
One of my first blues purchases was the Chess Blues box set. There were a few names I recognized like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. Otis Rush was another name I recognized even if I could not place any of his work. His lone inclusion on this fabulous box set, “So Many Roads, So Many Trains,” grabbed my attention and I knew I wanted to hear more.
I could not have chosen a much tougher task. Because Rush had the misfortune of signing with every half-assed label (major and independent) under the sun, a lot of Rush’s music is out of print and/or damn hard to find. Of the easily accessible titles, AMG (a wonderful resource for the musically inclined) seemed to think most highly of The Essential Otis Rush: The Classic Cobra Recordings 1956-1958 and Right Place, Wrong Time.
My first Otis-specific purchase was The Essential Otis Rush: The Classic Cobra Recordings 1956-1958. This two-year period was in many ways Rush’s commercial peak as an artist. Some have suggested it was also his creative peak. While this era is not my favorite of his career there is no denying he recorded some of his defining work during this period and it can be found on this collection.
“I Can’t Quit You Baby” was the first single issued by the Cobra label and it went to #6 on the R&B charts. Not bad for a beginner. Due to the recording constraints of the time, Rush’s guitar mastery can only be heard in small bits. When Rush began his recording career, albums were not the norm for blues artists. Blues artists had to think in terms of singles. That meant recording two songs at a time and they had to fit on a 45rpm vinyl single. Songs had to be efficient. Even if a blues artist did get to record a longer song, radio play was still very strict about song length. If you wanted to sell records you had to get on the radio and if you wanted on the radio you better make that song short and snappy.
With such tight constraints, he had to focus as much on his vocals as his guitar work. “Groaning the Blues,” “Double Trouble,” and “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” all feature excellent vocal work and still manage to showcase his stinging guitar sound and style. “My Love Will Never Die” and “Three Times a Fool” rely more on his voice and are also among the highlights of these early singles.
Do yourselves a favor if you ever purchase this CD. Do not ever listen to “Violent Love!” Not only is it the worst song Willie Dixon ever wrote, it is one of the dumbest fucking songs ever written. It is embarrassing and cannot be avoided enough. I wish I could go back in time and not hear that song.
Following the demise of the Cobra label, Willie Dixon returned to Chess records and Rush followed for a brief time. While at Chess, Otis cut two of my favorite songs of his career. “So Many Roads, So Many Trains” and “You Know My Love.”
“So Many Roads” is a slow blues classic drenched in that signature Rush guitar sound. The fills throughout the song are like quick jabs and the guitar solo is the knockout punch. The vocal is the victory dance when the show is over. It is one of the textbook examples of Rush at his most intense. A lot of writers have described Rush as having an intense, hair-raising vocal style. There is no question that was part of his sound and is a characteristic of some of his most famous songs. He was, however, capable of a very cool, smooth vocal delivery. “You Know My Love” (available on the Willie Dixon Chess Box) is a prime example of this other style.
Rush was not embraced at Chess and recorded only a couple of singles there. He did not record much for the next several years. His 1962 Duke single “Homework” is one of the few recordings to have made much of a dent during this period. This version of the song is available at iTunes but is not easily found on CD (Rush also re-recorded the song for his 1994 album Ain’t Enough Comin’ In.
In 1969, Rush recorded his Mourning in the Morning album in nearby (for me) Muscle Shoals with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section featuring Duane Allman providing support. Mourning in the Morning is an uneven yet underrated album. When Rush is working with strong material, the album soars. “My Old Lady” is an atrocious song (nearly as bad as “Violent Love”) and no amount of heroics could put life into that shit. It’s just fucking bad. Lyrically, “Me” falls into that same territory but somehow Rush manages to inject enough guitar licks and enthusiasm in the vocal to keep it from being a complete waste.
Then, of course, there are the great moments. Rush absolutely owns B.B. King’s “Gambler’s Blues” on this set and the song became a staple of his concerts over the next several years. He also does a searing instrumental version of Aretha Franklin’s “Baby, I Love You” which Aretha first cut when she made a trip to Muscle Shoals to record for Atlantic Records.
The main reasons I don’t think Essential is Otis at his peak can mostly be found on Right Place, Wrong Time. I am still a novice as a student of the blues and there are scores of albums and artists I have yet to hear. In spite of that I have no problem saying Right Place, Wrong Time is my favorite electric blues album. His vocals on this album are perhaps the best of his career. It is as if all the songs and all the shows up to this point had been a dress rehearsal for this one moment and he makes the most of it. He was ready. His record label was not.
In what has to be one of the worst damn decisions in any label’s history, the album was rejected when Rush turned it in to his bosses. The tapes sat in a vault for five years before an independent label finally put out the record. It is jackassery that defies all comprehension. How someone could have listened to this record and not pissed themselves is beyond me. I would have had the shits in anticipation of the opportunity to bring this record to the people.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. Well, you’re right if you think that last statement was carrying things a bit far. You’re wrong if you think you can dismiss my assessment as some sort of fanboy bias. That would be a mistake. Right Place, Wrong Time is the album that caused me to drink the Otis Rush Kool-Aid. I was a casual fan of Rush and the blues when I ordered this album. This is the record that made me believe.
Right Place, Wrong Time has a Southern blues sound in arrangement and tone – his Chicago sound is not as obvious. It is a perfectly-balanced album. Guitar, vocal, horns, and piano are mixed in the right doses. Some guitar players would feel crowded by the presence of a horn section or second guitar player. Rush is generous with his fellow musicians and willingly takes a step back, sometimes more often than you wish he would because he is such a fabulous player. There are fast and slow songs. There is a nice mix of shorter and longer tracks and there are instrumentals as well as vocal numbers. All of these different pieces are sequenced superbly and it creates an ideal pace and listening experience.
“Your Turn to Cry” is my favorite song on the album because it fooled me. Some melody patterns are so well-worn and familiar you can see them coming before they get there. It is part of what makes some pop songs so catchy. You feel like you know them immediately. “Your Turn to Cry” takes what you think you know and uses it against you. You listen to the song and think it is going one direction only to have it go the other. The horn accents are never better utilized then they are here.
He penned the title track and it is another of his best. He takes advantage of the opportunity to have longer songs and gets multiple guitar runs and he still manages to leave room for his excellent horn section to provide great accents to the song. His voice is note perfect. This is Otis Rush at his best.
Sadly, this would be his last great studio album for twenty years. Cold Day in Hell was released around the same time as Right Place because of the label jackassery. Cold Day has some super moments but does not hold together the way Right Place does.
The rest of Rush’s 70s and 80s output is mostly a collection of live albums. These live albums allow him to strip down the sound and stretch the songs out at the same time. The live setting allows him to jam and he takes full advantage with a series of searing guitar runs. He usually worked with a horn section on most of his studio recordings but rarely had the money to bring one on the road with him. The leaner sound puts more emphasis on Rush as a guitar player and nearly every night he is up to the challenge. There are occasions when he overindulges but even in these instances he is never a boring listen.
There are two of these live albums I recommend picking up. Actually, there are three but I would start with these two: So Many Roads, So Many Trains: Live which was recorded in Japan in 1975 and All Your Love I Miss Loving: Live at Wise Fools Pub Chicago which was recorded in 1976.
So Many Roads probably gets the edge in sound quality. He was playing with a different group of musicians on this set than on All Your Love…. The rhythm section on this set sounds like they have some jazz experience and they deftly follow Rush wherever he leads. Most of the songs run between four and five minutes which keeps things moving. The rendition of “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” is not to be missed nor is the title track of the release. Neither, particularly “All Your Love,” have ever sounded better.
Wise Fools, the show from Chicago ’76, was only released last year. The tapes of this show sat around in a vault somewhere until someone had the good sense to dust them off and get them released. Someone at Delmark should get a raise for this glorious decision. Wise Fools was one of my Top 10 Albums of 2005 and is easily one of the more distinguished live releases in Rush’s catalog. The sound is a little less pristine and shiny than So Many Roads but in its own way that makes the show feel all the more authentic. These days, live albums are so remixed and remastered and cleaned up there is no blood and there are no guts to them. Wise Fools has not been overly tinkered with and you really have the feeling this is what he sounded like on that night. The eight minute version of “You’re Breaking My Heart” (a song he would record for his Cold Day in Hell album a few months later) is a showstopper.
Ain’t Enough Comin’ In, released in 1994, is an unexpected gem. There was no reason to think he had it in him. Rush rarely stepped into a studio by the end of the 70s and released even less in the 80s. It seemed he had run out of steam and was destined to fade into blues history. He had one last great studio album in him.
Rush was 60 at the time he released this album. He might not have been able to summon the blood-n-guts persona of his earlier days but he makes up for that with smoothness and warmth. These are not “hellhound on my trail” blues but rather the kind of barroom blues you would expect to hear at a jukejoint on a Saturday night. These are the kind of blues that make you feel good. These are the kind of blues that make you move, and if unlike me you are capable, dance.
John Porter, who produced the album, has to be given all the credit in the world. For a combination of reasons, Otis had not sounded this good in 20 years. The band and the sound of the album are all first rate. Rush had recorded a number of these songs previously. He even redid his 1962 single, “Homework” and gave it more sizzle and style than ever. Recycled material could have doomed the album but Porter made a brilliant decision in the sound design of Ain’t Enough Comin’ In. Some producers might have been tempted to try and make a vintage recording when working with a legend like this. Porter resisted the temptation and made a modern-sounding blues record. This seems to have invigorated Rush and he sounds more vital than ever.
Unfortunately, Ain’t Enough Comin’ In and 1998′s Any Place I’m Going are out of print and fucking impossible to find. OK, so not impossible. I found them on eBay but it took some doing. Where Ain’t Enough Comin’ In felt worth every bit of the hassle and them some, Any Place I’m Going does not have that same special energy.
Rush teamed up with Willie Mitchell, a Memphis-based producer, and the album just does not have enough fire in it. Ain’t Enough Comin’ In was a great blend of the smooth and the visceral. The fire does not burn quite as hot here perhaps because Rush’s guitar sound has been tinkered with a little too much and because the horns tend to get in the way of it a little too often. Or, maybe he was just beginning to feel tired and could not summon his amazing talents with the same power as he could at his peak.
Any Place… is not a bad record. His version of the song made famous on The Cosby Show (The Night Time is “The Right Time”) is excellent even if he can no longer sing the declaratory “Baby!” lines with the same fire as the young Rudy Huxtable. The guitar work is still very good and the material is strong. Unfortunately, someone thought an experiment in reggae might be fun. I disagree. “Any Place I’m Going (Beats Any Place I’ve Been)” is a good song but I don’t like this arrangement.
Sadly, Rush’s health began to take a turn for the worse and Any Place I’m Going will likely be the last “new” album he will record. Already, a trickle of historical Rush releases are hitting the market. Wise Fools was released last year and his 1986 Montreaux performance is being released on both CD and DVD. Long gaps between release dates in Rush’s career leave the hope there might be more treasures in vaults somewhere, waiting for some genius soul to share them with us. Even if that never happens, Rush has left behind enough great material to be celebrated for generations.
So what has the point of all this been?
I wanted to tell you all about my dream. I also wanted to tell you about the Montreaux set I will be reviewing as soon as it arrives. Mostly, I wanted to talk about an artist whose music has moved me so much these past few years and to introduce him to a few of you.
If you are a blues fan, you have certainly heard of Rush and likely have some of his songs in your collection. If not, you must buy Essential today and would do well to check out Right Place, Wrong Time. Both are still in print and are essential albums. You should also check into the two live albums I mention and consider Live in Europe.
Blues fans should also check out a multi-artist set called Chicago! The Blues! Today!. It is a reasonably priced 3-CD package and features a great set from Otis (with Luther Tucker on rhythm guitar!), a strong set from Otis Spann (Muddy Waters’ piano player who made some terrific records on his own), James Cotton, J.B. Hutto, and also includes one of many collaborations between Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. There are some great performances by all of these artists (and others) but Rush really shines. His version of “I Can’t Quit You Baby” on this set features a sort of stop-start maneuver he would use on multiple songs in concert (you will hear it on many of the live albums). Chicago! The Blues! Today! is a treasure for a blues fan.
If you have not heard Otis Rush or do not consider yourself a blues fan, I would recommend starting with Right Place, Wrong Time. The album combines classic and modern elements of blues and might be the most user-friendly place to begin. Actually, Ain’t Enough Comin’ In is a little more user friendly for beginners but is harder to find in stores (or online). Both are great records and demand to be heard.
It is hard to explain how or why this special connection has developed between Otis Rush’s music and me or at what point it developed. I just know it’s there. I feel it every time I listen to him. I can even feel it in my dreams.