Up Close and Personal with the Legendary Bobby Rush
N-Da-Kno on Southern Soul with “Jazzii A.”
First, let me start out by saying how honored I am to be able to have such an interview with one of our Pioneers that have paved the way for the Young Guns, All the Princesses and Divas, the Up and Coming, and the Emerging Artists that will be our Future for the Blues.
This interview was prompted because of my troubled spirit for the way this genre known as the ‘Chittlin Circuit’ is ignored, stepped on, and treated by fellow artists. As an industry personnel myself, I sit and watch how Promoters continue to book the same artists over and over again (but when asked “Why?” they respond, “Cause they (new artists) can’t put any asses in the seats”).
Well! My thinking on that is ‘Well, if no one ever put them on a ticket as an opening act with established artists, how do you expect them to fill the seats in the venue?’ What’s going to happen when we continue to lose our Pioneers? Will there be no more Blues Show? Will the Promoters put themselves out of business? Will the Promoters try to reinvent the wheel by trying to put on a show with all new artists that no one has ever seen and expect the arenas, venues, clubs and festivals grounds to be full or will there be no more Blues Shows? Will they get mad and talk about the White Promoters, the White Blues Artists that are doing Soul Blues Music? Will they talk about how they are taking the music away from its heritage? Will they continue to talk about how bad the economy is and that no one wants to come out to see a good show? Why are there so few African-Americans (Black) Blues Artists nominated and winners at the Blues Awards? How do Caucasian Blues Artists WIN in the category of Southern Soul Blues when there are no Caucasians Blues Artists doing Southern Soul Music? How and Why is the Music business just as political as the Gubernatorial and the Presidential Race?
Photo: Hans Ekestang
Well!!!!! Here are some of my questions and the answers by one of the Greats that have lived through Racism, Economic Depression, Politics and the Industry Bulls%$t. – Bobby Rush.
Jazzii – Since you have been in the business you are considered as one of our pioneers a legend in the business, and we do appreciate you. There are so many that looks up to you and acknowledge the facts that you have helped paved the way for the young ones and the new ones that are coming alone today.
Rush – Well, if you are talking about looking up to me that’s because I’m a tall man and some of them are a little shorter then I am – that’s the other side of the picture! But never the less… I’ve been around for a long time but it hasn’t been an easy task but it’s been a Blessing to be around long enough to have my ups and downs. My ups are Glory but my downs are a lesson. I learned so much from my downs, in order when I do have my ups; I know how to display my downs.
Jazzii – Speaking of downs… the industry today, the economy is kind of bad and some are saying it has an impact on the industry today, what’s your take on that?
Rush – Well, it’s got an impact on the industry today but music has changed. Not only do it have an impact because of the money is lacking and people have less money than earlier, but you have another avenue. We have more Blues lovers today then we had before. The thing about it is you have more places to go and more people coming to the Blues. So in any given situation it is less people. In other words if I’m in Memphis, TN tonight and you have five Blues bands you may have 200 people each one of them. That’s not many people, but if you had one man in town all 1000 of them could come to see that one guy. Many years ago we didn’t have that many blues singers so the competition wasn’t that great.
Jazzii – Ok.
Rush – Now we have two things – (1) The competition is greater (2) The Econo is bad. The entertainers want more money because the hotels cost more money; the bands cost more, the gas cost more. Everything cost more and ahhh… it inflates to the promoter. So what it whines up doing is putting the promoters out of business. When the promoters are out of business, guess what? The entertainers are out of business, also. So it hurts both sides of the fence. You have to find a way to down size.
Jazzii – So! Since you have been in the business and you’ve been in the business awhile – Have you seen the industry in as bad or worse shape than it is today?
Rush – Yes, I have seen it just as bad two other times, in the early 50’s- it was bad. You had more gigs, but you weren’t making any money then, and then in the Disco days the mid 60’s to ‘75 it was bad again. Now, it’s back down and this makes my third time of seeing it in my life time. I can see it’s really bad now on people than it was before. That don’t count for Bobby Rush as a whole because I am a legend and I can get some work. I didn’t say a lot of work but I can get some work. But what hurts in any situation and I’m not so concerned about Bobby Rush, I’m more concerned about the young people coming into the Blues or into the business to be an entertainer. The first record they’ve ever recorded, how are they gonna make it? And what are they gonna make it on? When I started $3.00 - $4.00 a day was all we got, that wasn’t much money but the cost of living wasn’t that high. Now you have guys making a $100.00 and the cost of living is $200.00, so they are in real trouble, because they are a $100.00 in debt before they even get paid.
Jazzii – You have sustained the other two times now going into the third, in being able to sustain all these many years that you have been in the business. I understand now 55 years. What advice would you lend or offer to the young ones coming up today to try and make it just to the next two – three years?
Rush – Well, you have to learn how to do it like the big corporations- that’s down size in order to survive! Where you may have ten guys in the band you have to go with four or five; maybe even three guys or do tracks. I know it’s bad but that’s the way you have to survive. Now it bad for the musicians but it’s also bad for the artist. If you, as the artist, put yourself out there on a limb and try to make the money and don’t make enough to pay the guys… then what you have is a bunch of guys mad at you because they can’t get their money. Now you still don’t have a band. In other words… nothing from nothing leaves nothing. So it’s bad on one hand, but you have to be a business man or woman to make sure you down size like Sears and the other corporations do. I’ve found out one thing… if you keep it ma and pops you can sustain and make a living at it. If you are a corporation you can make money (also) but all in between are losers. You are too big for one and not big enough for another. So we have to find a way to get it, overcome it and make it happen. The economy has an affect on all genres; not just the blues. What I’ve noticed… it is so bad that the R&B guys are coming over to the Blues, going to smaller bands or going to Gospel. (So) we either have to sing the Blues with our heads down or go to church and pray. So which one are you doing? Truly when you hear the music, Jazzii… there is no difference. All the music is sounding alike, you put Jesus in one and Baby in the other one.
Jazzii – Speaking of Tracks and Down Sizing, what is your feeling on artists doing TV Tracks today versus using a live band?
Rush – I feel bad. I feel real bad, ‘cause when you use tracks you knock the musicians out of work. But if the money is not there for the promoters to pay you and you use the band, you can’t pay the guys or you can’t pay them what you’ve promised them so they are mad. So either way it’s bad, bad for you, bad for the musicians, bad for the promoters and for the fans. It’s all about inflation. In the early ‘50’a when I started with Muddy Waters and Mr. BB King and others, they will tell you it wasn’t any money in it back in those days. We weren’t making any money and now it’s back to the same thing again- no money. Because the money you need you can’t get it, if a man need a $1,000.00 and he can’t get but $800.00 he’s in trouble, if he needs a $1,000,000.00 and don’t have but $900,000.00 he’s in trouble, if you need $1.00 and don’t have but 50 cent you are still in trouble, so we all are in trouble. We have to find away to knit this together to make ends meet until something blow over and the economy gets better again.
Jazzii – I understand that being in the business it’s kind of political.
Rush – Kind of?
Jazzii - Ok, ok well… it’s political.
Rush – It’s Political.
Photo: Lars-Erik Örthlund
Jazzii – I would like to ask, bringing in some of the politics today, now that they have captured and killed Bin Laden… do you feel that the industry will take a turn for the better or do you think we are in for a long or longer recession and we are nowhere near a recovery?
Rush – I’m not sure if what happen to Bin Laden will have anything to do with the recession. But I think that the Bin Laden situation will make the public believe or believe in the President to see some of the things he said he would do. And I believe he will do them. In those kinds of situations… if he does that it will put some money back in society and it will trickle down to the musicians to my stand point. I also believe that it’s a short window when people get hurt or get killed, people mourn for a moment or when people die they mourn for a moment… after that they kind of forget about it. Why? Because time brings about a change. I believe in just as short as a minute, people will forget about the good that President Obama has done and that’s a bad situation. I’m not talking about what’s on paper and you can always refer back to it by evidence. But I’m talking about what people will remember, that’s is just a window with a short span, then they will slump back into another situation or look for something else because they don’t want to get critical and it fall back. Now if it last one year or one day or one moment that’s hope, but I don’t think it will last long.
Jazzii – With Technology and the resources that the young artists have today… a home studio on just about every block… do you think that an artist coming up today or wanting to get started in the business today… should create, do their own thing or should they do like the artists in the past have done… seek others to release, promote and publish their music?
Rush – I think it’s a double combination. I think an artist should do what they are doing now and create. Today you have more guys who are creating. What makes it good is we have a way to create. What makes it bad is that you have so many creating, that you have overpopulation. A one-eyed man is hell in a blind house, if you know what I mean. See it’s so many artists, so many good artists…that the world is full of entertainers, full of studios… ‘til after awhile you have all of these guys recording with the home recorders and no outlets. You have (100,000) records coming out a year, but how many records will you hear on the air? If the charts are made up of the top 100 records how many records can you add per week? The average record goes on rotation for six to eight weeks. If you do the math you will see just how many records can be added per week and how many records never get heard or airplay.
Jazzii – With the different labels that they are putting on the Blues genre today like: Funk Blues, Folk Blues, Northern Blues, Southern Blues, Soul Blues, Southern Soul Blues and a course, Rhythm & Blues… Do you feel that we will be recognized or have a chance of being recognized in the different categories of the Blues by the National Recording Academy?
Rush – I think they will try to find some category but deep down inside its only one category. You are either warm or you’re hot, you’re good or you’re bad; however you do the music, you can turn it upside down or frying rice… you can have rice with chicken, turkey or whatever you want to cook with it, but when you are done it’s still rice. So I will say when you get through with all of these sessions most of them, at least 90% of everything you hear at festivals, clubs,… the outlets in the park… all of them have something to do with the Blues. Because the Blues is the root of all music. What so many of the artists are trying to do is find a way to not be attached to the Blues. We as a race as a whole… don’t want to be called Blues singers because we think that the Blues is something less than other music/genre… that’s what we have been taught. If the media and the writers would talk about how good it is and how wonderful it is then we would be more proud of doing it. What has happened is the writers have said ‘this isn’t cool to do’ so we don’t want to be a part of it any more… so we now call ourselves ‘Southern Soul Bluesmen’ or ‘R&B Blues’. We want to call ourselves everything else besides just ‘Blues’. It’s not the public or the artists that don’t think it’s going nowhere; it’s the writers that are writing about it.
Jazzii – Speaking of writers, a writer like myself, how can I or what can I do to help change or turn the mindset around?
Rush – I think that what you are doing now, and you have to do it gradually…. I mean you have to do it a little bit at a time because if you write to dominate about it …and to be truthful about it I think you can be true and yet not step on anyone’s toes and ease your writing into where people will know where you are coming from and they will check you out and find out that you are writing about the real deal. I think you will be the greatest person to open people’s eyes up to what’s really going on like ‘the real guy stand up’. But I think if you come out and say with the real blues – it’s not but one real blues guy and that’s B.B. King, then you will have a little guy sitting across town saying whether he’s black or white. Well! What about me? See then you have stepped on his toes. But you write about the realness of the Blues and who does it and where it comes from and ‘let the best man win’. Take “The Thrill Is Gone”. BB King wasn’t the only one that did that, but you have to understand where “The Thrill Is Gone” came from. Most of the time it came from a black race and if you write about that then sometimes that may not set well with your readers, because not all of your readers are Black.
Jazzii – How do you feel about Program Directors and Music Directors wanting an artist to send his whole CD versus the single he or they are pushing?
Rush – Well! I think it’s bad and again I think it’s good. If the PD or DJ wants to pick the song and he picks it because he thinks the song is the best song; that’s one thing. But if you have a DJ picking songs because he or she don’t want you telling them what song to play that’s another. You have some DJs with the attitude of ‘Who do he think he is to come in here and tell me what song I’m going to play? This is my house’. There are some DJs that after you have established a relationship with them and you have proven yourself as knowing which one of your songs will hit… then they tend to cut you more room or slack. Young artists can’t come in doing that most of the time. They have to prove themselves and get a track record going.
For example, I have a CD here with ten songs on it. I feel “Sue” is the one to hit and if it does, then I win. But if it doesn’t, then you will hear them say ‘I told you that wasn’t the song’, but hey, sometimes you miss. I remember James Bennett brought me a song called “Tutu”. I told him I didn’t want it, he carried it over to Malaco and they gave it to Denise LaSalle and it was a BIG HIT, I mean a ‘Big… hit for her’. Then another writer took two songs to my brother that lives out in California and told him to give them to me it was “Bump and Grind” and “Down Home Blues” I said ‘Nooooooooo… I don’t want it! Give it to Z.Z. Hill’ – I didn’t hear the song and they went on to be hits. Now that don’t mean I said ‘Later on.’ Oh… I wished I had of done them. ‘No’ was my decision and I had to live by it.
Jazzii – But if you send in your whole CD you will wind up with one radio station in South Carolina playing one song and the radio station in Memphis, TN playing another. How will you be able to get your songs to chart?
Rush – You can’t. That’s the point I’m getting to. It is so hard especially for a new artist because they don’t want a young ‘up and coming’ artist to tell them what to play. Now for me I’ve released a single and sent it to the DJs ‘Why? (Because) I’d rather have ten DJs playing that one song then to have ten DJs playing ten different songs’. ‘Why? (Because) there is strength in numbers and besides it will give me ‘life’ with my CD.
Jazzii – I want to talk to you a little bit about the Blues Awards. In the past, most of the winners have been from the Caucasian race and most of the African-Americans who’ve won have been pioneers like yourself and the late Koko Taylor. What is it that we can do to bring… or what can you suggest that some of the younger artists today do, in order for us to have their music noticed? That they are a part of this ceremony since its given quote, unquote for the Blues?
Rush – I think that the younger guys should be more involved. They have to take time out of their busy schedules and do like I do. Come out and be a part of it. Not that it’s alright but you have to make yourself known and visible amongst the people that are giving the awards… the sponsors of the awards because if you don’t do that you won’t be in the counting. You want to be in the meeting- before the meeting… because we as a whole can’t do some of the things that some of the Caucasian artists do. Why? (Because) they have White managers, White money, White representatives and sponsors to allow them to do the things that are needed like coming out to these events and things. It costs and takes money to do these types of things. Then you have some of the guys who are politically involved themselves with the awards ‘til they just tie it all in together. They are always there to lend a hand; help financially to bring artists here for two days and put money in their artist’s hand to make sure they have what they need. You see, no one pays anyone to come to the awards. So if the guy can’t afford to come here, he doesn’t get to be a part (of the awards). Most of the white artists have a way of making some money i.e. sponsorship. And the other thing is most of your black artists have to be careful; including myself of the text of our stories. You can’t write about licking, sticking and backing it up in every song because they don’t feel like it’s appropriate.
Jazzii – How is it that the academy can add the sub-category of Southern Soul with the list of Blues and when it comes down to picking a winner – none of the young artists are nominated and the winner is White? Now correct me if I’m wrong… but to my knowledge there are no white artists calling their music ‘Southern Soul’, so why (are they winning)?
Rush – First of all, they know we, as black artists are not watching them and our music. So they are able to get away with a lot of things. If enough of us watch what they do and are being about our music and about our people… then that would not happen. We need to be aware of what’s going on and with our people. I remember when Johnnie Taylor had the #1 song “Good Love” but I can tell you it was never in any category or nowhere in the Blues Awards as a nominee or a winner. I don’t know if Johnnie Taylor ever had a record to go down in those awards. So count it out. I know for sure “Down Home Blues” didn’t get there. It’s the ‘Blues Societies’ that put you where you want to be and 90% of the Blues Societies’ members are made up of white members or fans. If you don’t have that crossover audience then you’re never gonna make it to billboard or get where you want to go. You MUST have that crossover audience and radio station because the black radio stations alone can’t get you there. It’s the POLITICS you must PLAY and HAVE.
Jazzii – Thank you, Mr. Rush for this interview and on behalf of the Jefferson Blues Magazine, we want to wish you a Happy Birthday for your 78th birthday on November 10th – We wish you well and many more to come.
Written by: Jazzii Anderson – Columnist. Photos by Hans Ekestang and Lars-Erik Örthlund