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    Posted: 03 Oct 2018 at 7:17am

Otis Rush obituary

Singer and guitarist who by the 90s was called ‘the greatest living bluesman’ 

Talent unrewarded, hopes frustrated – familiar tropes of the blues life, but few musicians struggled against them as long as the singer and guitarist Otis Rush, who has died aged 84. Though early recordings such as All Your Love (I Miss Loving) and I Can’t Quit You Baby impressed Eric Clapton, John Mayall and Jimmy Page, by the 1990s journalists were calling Rush “the greatest living bluesman”, but in the interim his progress was repeatedly logjammed by unsupportive record deals.

In the late 50s and early 60s he was one of Chicago’s brightest rising stars, tagged with Magic Sam and Buddy Guy as a creator of the spiky new West Side sound, but after his first record label, Cobra, went out of business he was signed by Chess, which did little for him, and Duke, which did less. “I started lagging with recordings,” he said later, “and it seemed like all I was meeting up with was crooks.”

Yet in the opinion of his friend and regular rhythm guitarist Mighty Joe Young, “Otis was the hottest thing in Chicago then. With the right company, he could have been a real big artist.”

He was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where his mother, Julia, raised seven children with little help from their fathers. One of his brothers had a guitar and the left-handed Otis simply turned it over so that the bass strings were at the bottom of the fretboard, learned to play that way and never changed.

Around 1948-49 he moved to Chicago, from where one of his sisters had been writing home about the blues scene. He worked on his guitar-playing, performed in clubs and, by the mid-50s had enough of a reputation for Willie Dixon, Chicago’s leading A&R man, to sign him to a label he was helping to launch. I Can’t Quit You Baby, his 1956 debut for Cobra, was astonishing, full of suspense, passionately sung, with a brief but petrifying guitar solo.

Over the next two years he followed it with tracks such as My Love Will Never Die, Groaning the Blues and Double Trouble, a broadside of social dissatisfaction: “Some of this generation is millionaires, but I ain’t got decent clothes to wear.” (Stevie Ray Vaughan would borrow the title for his band.) These early sides – for which he said he was never paid – possessed a screaming modern intensity that sharply distinguished him from older bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

In 1965, evading his Duke contract, he recorded for Sam Charters’ project Chicago/The Blues/Today!, which presented him to the new white audience for blues. He won a place on the 1966 American Folk Blues festival, touring Europe, and several years of bookings at the Ann Arbor Blues festival in Michigan.

An album for Atlantic, Mourning in the Morning, was judged disappointing, but in 1971 a major label, Capitol, finally noticed him. The resulting LP was excellent but its title, Right Place, Wrong Time, was all too accurate, and it remained unreleased until a small label acquired it in 1976. Around that time Rush accrued two Downbeat awards as an artist “deserving wider recognition”. Some irony there, since at that point he had been making music for two decades.

“What do you do in your spare time?” asked Living Blues magazine at the close of a long interview in 1976.

“Worry about my damn hard times and bills.”

As well he might. Club work in Chicago was disappearing for everyone. Rush toured Europe several times, and became popular in Japan, but his performances were sometimes uneasy. His disenchantment with the record business increased after an album made in Sweden in the 70s was picked up by Alligator in 1991 and radically remixed without his participation or, he claimed, approval.

He was at last drawn back into the studio in 1994 to make Ain’t Enough Comin’ In, produced by John Porter and intelligently conceived to introduce him to a new generation of fans. Promotional touring brought him back to the UK for the first time in years.

In 1998, in another long Living Blues interview with Jas Obrecht, he sounded more at ease, confident of his status and proud of his latest album, Any Place I’m Going (1998), which continued his rehabilitation and won him a Grammy. In 1999 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

“Been some powerful stuff happened to me,” he had commented to Obrecht. There was more to come. In 2003, a stroke robbed him of his wonderfully flexible voice and guitar-playing and he became a wheelchair user. For his admirers, the rest was silence.

He is survived by his wife, Masaki, and their daughters, Lena and Sophie, and by two sons and two daughters from a previous marriage.

Otis Rush, blues musician, born 29 April 1934; died 29 September 2018 

from www.theguardian.com

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