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Flash and Fire

There's more to Bobby Rush than blues and booty. But booty's just fine.



On his DVD, Live at Ground Zero Blues Club (MVD, 2007), Bobby Rush looks like a televangelist and maybe a pimp—and he has the flash and fire of both. His sequined shirt flickers in the lights. His dark, wavy hair glistens with activator. His face, alternately intense and bright, drips with sweat.

Behind him, the Bobby Rush Band is stoic (except for the keyboard player, a token white guy who looks like a cross between The Muppet Show's Dr. Teeth and the guy from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra), laying down fat, funky grooves. He's flanked by four young women whose tight, revealing dresses cling to their ample behinds. They bump, grind and twerk as Rush prowls the stage, occasionally stopping to knock his knees together—or sing directly to one of the dancers' backsides.

When Rush sings, he's preaching the good word of blues and big booties. You wanna jump up and shout amens and hallelujahs because he knows your sorrows, he knows your joys. And, you know, booty.

So, in 2011, when I found out that Bobby Rush would headline a Mississippi blues showcase during South by Southwest—and it was on the top floor of my hotel—I was stoked. But when I got to the show, and settled into a great seat on the second row, I noticed no band had set up. And when Rush took the stage, which was actually a dance floor, he was alone. His hair wasn't shiny. There wasn't even a tenderoni backline.

Didn't matter. All alone with only his music and stories, Rush communed with the crowd for the duration of his lean, 40-minute set. At the end, he thanked one wheelchair-bound member of the audience for attending: his friend, Mr. Pinetop Perkins. "That was the last time I saw him," says Rush, reached while awaiting his turn at the ophthalmologist's office. The 97-year-old blues legend told Rush at the end of his set: "I love you, little brother." Within 48 hours, Perkins was gone.

Rush, now 82, is a legend, himself, with a long career that has taken him from his birthplace of Homer, La., through Pine Bluff, Ark., and Chicago, Ill., before he finally settled in Jackson, Miss., a bona fide king of the Chitlin' Circuit. He was a peer of not just Perkins, but also Elmore James, Muddy Waters and virtually every other noteworthy bluesman. But he carved his own niche with his funky soul-blues, in which he often gets down and dirty.

"Being independent, it didn't put me in the light, like a B.B. King or a Buddy Guy, or what have you," Rush tells City Weekly. "I got a little bit of the short end of the stick, but nevertheless, when you're independent, you look for those kinds of things [to set you apart]. Because I don't have the big corporation, the big managers and the big record labels to put me out there and do things for me. But I survived tough times. And here I am, done what I've done, and I'm still doin' it."

The four-disc box set Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History of Bobby Rush (Omnivore) chronicles five decades of Rush's career, with material from more than 20 labels. It shows that there's more to Rush than the humorous, libido-driven songs like the title track and "I Wanna Do the Do." He does a tender cover of Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind" and actually keeps it country instead of funkin' it up. And in "She Put the Whammy on Me," Rush juxtaposes straight-up blues lyrics with a whompin' groove worthy of Funkadelic. But some of the most enjoyable tracks are the ones where Rush goes blue.

The thing about that, though, is that Rush's raunch is sincere, and stylish. On "Night Fishin'" he lets you read into the lyrics: "I'm goin' night fishin'/ that's when the catfish love to bite." When he's singing to that badonk on "Crazy 'Bout You," crowing, "I looove this woman," he's expressing his affection for said woman as well as how much he'd like to wax that ass. Other times, a seemingly dirty reference, isn't. Like on "Tough Titty," where Rush catches his woman with his best friend and says, "That's a tough titty, y'all/ and can't nothin' suck it but a lion." That's just blues music—empathetic, honest and fun.

"That's what the music is all about," Rush says. "You know, when you're entertainin'—when you're singin', that's one thing. And havin' a show is another thing. And I try to have a show, I try to make it fun, because there's too many things, before the show and after the show, that you can worry about and have bad days about. But I try to make you forget about some of those."

As for the dirty stuff? "There's nothin' wrong with that. Everybody like that, man." CW