Q&A with legendary bluesman Bobby Rush, his stratospheric energy level is bigger and badder and bolder than ever

"Trueness. I want to speak the truth about how I feel about whatever it is and hope people accept me for who I am and what I do. People don’t have to love me, but respect what I do. People can say “I don’t like Bobby Rush, but damn he’s good.” That’s fine by me. Also to be able to keep the groove going so I can tell my story on top of the groove I create."

Bobby Rush: Sitting on the Blues Throne

Bobby Rush... GRAMMY winning blues legend, Blues Hall of Famer, 12x Blues Music Award winner, B.B. King Entertainer of the Year, and makes a cameo in the Netflix Original ‘Dolemite Is My Name’ Starring Eddie Murphy. After decades of tearing up the chitlin’ circuit on a nightly basis with his sweaty, no-holds-barred funkfests, Bobby has thoroughly broken through to the mainstream. He won a long-overdue 2017 Grammy for his spectacular album Porcupine Meat and consistently tours the globe as a headliner. What’s more, Bobby’s newest album Sitting on Top of the Blues on his own Deep Rush imprint (distributed by Thirty Tigers) promises to further spread the news that this revered legend, well past 80 years of age even if his stratospheric energy level belies the calendar, is bigger and badder and bolder than ever. In December 2019 – January 2020, the album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album and for a Blues Music Award for Best Soul Blues Album. 

(Bobby Rush / Photo © by Bill Steber)

Bobby’s performance itinerary has encompassed some of the biggest music festivals around the world, from Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis to Byron Bay Bluesfest in Australia, countless European engagements, the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, and closer to home, Bonaroo and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Rush was the first bluesman to perform at the Great Wall of China, attracting an audience of more than 40,000 and earning him the title of “China's Ambassador of the Blues.” Even as streaming and shifting technological trends transform the recording industry, Sitting on Top of the Blues is certain to extend his winning streak. “Records ain’t selling like they used to, but nevertheless you have to keep going to the grinding mill to get corn ground,” says the Blues Hall of Famer. “You can’t make a hit record. You do the best you can and hope it’ll be a hit.” Make no mistake: Bobby’s once again at his very best on Sitting on Top of the Blues.

Special Thanks: Bobby Rush & Jeff DeLia (72 Music Management)

(Photos © by Bill Steber & Kim Welsh / All rights reserved)

When you improvise, you know where you’re going. It’s a matter of taking certain paths and certain directions?

Yeah, I believe, I always know where I’m going. I don’t always know the end result, but I know where I’m going.

Do you ever get the feeling that music majors, and particularly people who are going into jazz, are being cranked out much like business majors? That they are not really able to express themselves as jazz musicians?

Yes, that’s true. Not only as jazz musicians, but as musicians. Some time I record a song I want to say some things, I have to have two meanings of the song, to get it over. It’s always like that.

What about somebody who is really gifted and puts together a band and just gets upset to the point of quitting because of the business aspects-the agents and the clubs?

That’s 90% of people who start in this business. When you hear of people who make it, it’s only 1%. The other 99% of the people you never hear about, because they are discouraged about what it’s not, not what it is.

"Oh lot of guys. I listen to a lot of peoples from Country Western down to R&B and Jazz, trying to find out what I’m doing wrong. I listen to Elton John, B.B. King, the peoples now with me, Prince, Keb’ Mo’, Bonnie Raitt, whole lot of things now that I never listened to." (Bobby Rush / Photo © by Bill Steber)

How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

What people want to hear, what they accept is another thing. I can tell them the truth coming from me, but I have to sugarcoat it as a black man telling the truth. It’s hard to look at a mans face and say “hey, you got an ugly child.” That’s hard to do.

What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

There’s no difference. On one point you are talking about how you love your spiritual thing like God or Jesus. If it’s a Saturday night, how you love your woman, your man, etc. On Saturday night you say “Hey Baby” and Sunday night you say “Hey God or Hey Jesus”. In otherwords the same thing that make you laugh is the same thing that make you cry.

There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

I try to give people what they want if it’s in the vein of what I’m doing and if it doesn’t destroy me as a person. I don’t want to sell out.

Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Yeah, back in 1951-53 or so, there were people with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Pinetop Perkins the keyboard player. Bo Diddley. All these guys I loved to be in the studio with these guys. Just a few years ago I found that same love and satisfaction in New Orleans cutting my album Porcupine Meat.

How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

I think what we have to do is depend on radio, TV, newspapers, blogs and any other form of advertisement to talk about the blues and jazz. If they say it’s good, then the public will follow suit.

"That’s 90% of people who start in this business. When you hear of people who make it, it’s only 1%. The other 99% of the people you never hear about, because they are discouraged about what it’s not, not what it is." (Bobby Rush / Photo © by Kim Welsh)

And lastly, being a teacher, do you find it difficult to write music yourself?

No, I don’t find it difficult to write music myself. I find it difficult to display it. What you say, needs to be said in a funny way so you can laugh about it. Most things you talk about, someone taking your woman or losing your man, it’s a sad thing. Just like a race, if you win the race, whoever you win over, is someone who lost. You can win a race without someone losing. Someone will feel bad one way or the other, I just hope it won’t be me.

How important is it to you to have an original approach?

Always. Original approach gives you an identify so you’re your own self. If you sound like someone else, you’ll only be known for that. If you sound like yourself, whenever you open your mouth people will know who you are.

Can you comment on the bridge between being a musician and being a composer?

Yeah I think the composer has the upper hand. If you’re not a composer, you can always survive by covering songs and making money from the bandstand. I like to be the composer to make money even when I’m not on the bandstand. When you’re a composer, you don’t have to be on the bandstand to make a living.

Do you have an idea of what it is you’re trying to say or get across? Is it an idea or is it just something that we feel?

I always have two things. I try to have something to get across, but I have to do it in a way you’ll understand it. That’s a feeling first. You have to have a groove, so you can listen to what I have to say. Now I want to tell you what I have to tell you verbally. It’s the groove first then what I want to say to you lyrically second. That’s because I’m a storyteller.

What do you see for your extended future?

I see my future being very bright because more people are educated to what I am and what I do. People believe I can write, perform, sustain being a Grammy winner, I wasn’t no joke or it was an accident, I think they think I’m a real legit artist now. I think the door is wide open if I can just the health and strength to keep doing what I’m doing.

"Yeah I think the composer has the upper hand. If you’re not a composer, you can always survive by covering songs and making money from the bandstand. I like to be the composer to make money even when I’m not on the bandstand. When you’re a composer, you don’t have to be on the bandstand to make a living.(Bobby Rush / Photo © by Kim Welsh)

You know what you have going on? You have life? If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Change the ways people consume recordings … we have the download and streaming, all of that’s good, but it takes away record sales. I just wish we could sell more records to keep the business strong.

Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

Oh lot of guys. I listen to a lot of peoples from Country Western down to R&B and Jazz, trying to find out what I’m doing wrong. I listen to Elton John, B.B. King, the peoples now with me, Prince, Keb’ Mo’, Bonnie Raitt, whole lot of things now that I never listened to.

What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

Trueness. I want to speak the truth about how I feel about whatever it is and hope people accept me for who I am and what I do. People don’t have to love me, but respect what I do. People can say “I don’t like Bobby Rush, but damn he’s good.” That’s fine by me. Also to be able to keep the groove going so I can tell my story on top of the groove I create.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

If I went back in time I would be like a Muddy Waters. If I could go forward, I’d come back alive as Prince.

I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

How can I cross over to a white audience and yet not cross out my black audience (being a black man)?

Bobby Rush - Home

(Bobby Rush / Photo © by Bill Steber)

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