Composer, songwriter, guitarist, and harmonica player Bobby Rush pioneered an original form of blues music he dubbed “folk funk,” a blending of classic blues lyrics, modern street talk, and bedroom humor mixed with an insistent, driving blues funk rhythm. Rolling Stone magazine named Rush, a tireless businessman, promoter, and entertainer, the King of the Chitlin’ Circuit following his 2003 appearance in Martin Scorsese’s blues documentary series on PBS.
The son of a preacher, Bobby Rush was born Emmit Ellis Jr. near Homer, Louisiana, on 10 November 1940. He grew up learning music and singing in his father’s church in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. In 1953 Rush moved with his older brother to Chicago, where he made a name for himself on the West Side blues scene by blending a comedic lyrical approach influenced by Louis Jordan with the driving rhythms of the “folk-funk” blues sound. In the early 1960s Rush fronted bands that included blues notables Luther Allison and Freddie King. His first single appeared on Kem Records in 1961, followed by tracks such as 1964’s “Someday” for Jerry Murray’s Jerry-O label. He continued cutting 45s throughout the 1960s on Salem, Palos, Starville, Checker, and ABC.
Rush’s first commercial hits came with “Chicken Head” and “Mary Jane,” produced in Chicago in 1971 for Galaxy Records. Rush also had success with 1973’s “Bow-Legged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man.” He rounded out the decade recording singles for Sedgrick, Jewel, Warner Brothers, and London. In 1979 Rush signed a recording contract with Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble’s Philadelphia International Records. While there, Rush recorded his first full-length album, Rush Hour, which produced the singles “I Wanna Do the Do” and “I Can’t Find My Keys.”
In the early 1980s Rush, like many of his contemporaries among Chicago’s soul artists, moved back South. Settling in Jackson, he signed on to James Bennett’s LaJam label, where his music steadily became funkier and his lyrics more bawdy. His tenure with LaJam produced five albums between 1981 and 1985. Rush moved to Waldoxy in the mid-1990s and signed with Urgent! Records, and subsequent albums included 1995’s One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, 1997’s Lovin’ a Big Fat Woman, and 2000’s Hoochie Man.
Rush was injured in an April 2001 tour bus crash that killed band member Latisha Brown. Rush recovered and in 2003 partnered with Greg Preston to form the Deep Rush label. Later that year Rush released the Live at Ground Zero DVD and CD along with the album Undercover Lover. Other recordings for Deep Rush include Folk Funk (2004), Night Fishin’ (2005), Raw (2007), Blind Snake (2009), and Show You a Good Time (2011). His Down in Louisiana (2013) and Decisions (2014) received Grammy Award nominations; Down in Louisiana also received a Blues Music Award. In 2015 Rush released Chicken Heads: A Fifty-Year History of Bobby Rush, followed by Porcupine Meat in 2016. Rush continues to tour extensively throughout the United States and to play blues and soul festivals around the world, including Mississippi, where he is a frequent and exceptionally popular performer.
- Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, eds., All Music Guide to the Blues: The Definitive Guide to the Blues (2003)
- William Cochrane, Bill Ferris, Peter Lee, and Jim O’Neal, Living Blues (January–February 1989)
- Preston Lauterbach, Living Blues (November–December 2003)
- Robert Pruter, Living Blues (January–February 1989)
- Bobby Rush website, bobbyrushbluesman.com