It's hard to argue with Otis Rush when he says he's fortunate. He was born to a poor single mother, in a poor county, in a poor state. He spent most of his childhood working in and around the fields of Philadelphia, Mississippi, often being pulled from his grammar-school classes by local white men who suddenly found themselves in need of a farmhand.
So the idea of becoming one of his generation's most important and influential blues guitarists - a key progenitor of the fiery and soulful Chicago West Side sound that emerged in the mid-1950s - must have seemed about as possible as a Delta summer without humidity.
That's probably why Rush could never picture himself as a recording artist. In the rural South of the 1930s and '40s, where sharecropping, lynchings and Jim Crow were the rules and not the exceptions, it was hard to be a dreamer. "I mostly just picked up the guitar for myself," the 66-year-old Rush says from his sweet Chicago home. "Around Mississippi, ain't nothin' but trees and a few peoples there. It's lonely. So I'd just pick up the guitar for myself."
Like so many other African-Americans of his generation, Rush felt a better life beckoning. And after visiting his sister in Chicago ("in about 1949 or 1950," he recalls), he decided to stay a while. His decision, no doubt, was influenced by the blues legends his sister took him to see: Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Jimmie Rodgers, to name a few.
Before age 20, Rush was playing his own local gigs, and by the mid-1950s was a regular at the 708 Club. There he met noted songwriter Willie Dixon, who introduced him to Eli Toscano of Cobra Records. Rush soon joined the budding label and thereafter assembled a stunning catalog of evocative blues, including a reworked version of Dixon's "I Can't Quit You, Baby" along with originals like "All Your Love (I Miss Loving)" and "Double Trouble." With an aggressive, attacking playing style highlighted by piercing, stinging runs of single notes, Rush was not only defining his own sound, but that of an entire generation as well. Talents like Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and Freddie King soon followed, and all came from a similar mold.
Rush would later record for Chess Records and more than a half-dozen other labels during a career that's notable not just for its originality and influence (read: Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor and Stevie Ray Vaughan), but also its trials and tribulations: Rush has struggled to peacefully co-exist with the business aspects of the music industry, at one point going more than 15 years between studio albums. And by his own admission, he spent many a day battling the bottle. But his name and reputation remain intact, and his 1998 effort for House of Blues, Anyplace I'm Going, is regarded as one of his best-and it even earned a Grammy.
"I thank God," Rush says softly. "I drop my head, my hands over my eyes It's a blessing. I look back at my mother. She raised seven children. She scrubbed them floors on her knees tryin' to get a little money here and there, and that tore me up. So I'm blessed, I'm grateful, and I'm gonna keep on tryin.'"
Guitar.com: What do you remember most about growing up in Mississippi?
Otis Rush: It was tough, man. It was a struggle to go to school, even no longer than I went. To eat, to live was hard. We were sharecroppers. That's when you don't own your own place but you want to make some kind of living, you know, so you had to go to the white man's place and sharecrop with him and work his land. He'd furnish your tools or whatever you need, and at the end of the year, out of the crop, he'd get half of it. And all of the costs and the wear and tear, I gotta pay that outta my half. I just get what's left. You'd have very little left, sometimes not enough
Guitar.com: You first learned to play on your brother's acoustic. Did he teach you anything?
Rush: I learned to play by myself. Nobody helped me. Nobody teached me. That's why I play left-handed. If somebody would have been there to teach me how to play the right way, I would have had my strings strung up the right way. But nobody was there, so I learned a note here and a note there, and here I am, still trying to learn.
Guitar.com: You must have found religion when you arrived in Chicago and started seeing people like Muddy Waters in person.
Rush: Each time I went, I could hear 'em from outside before I walked in the club. And I was always like, 'That's a record playin'!' But I'd walk in and see 'em playin' on stage, and man, I just froze right there.
Guitar.com: Although you'd learned about the guitar in Mississippi, did these club shows provide more inspiration?
Rush: Man, after one of those first shows, I went home a bought me a little, cheap guitar called a Kay. That amplifier was so light, you'd play a note and it would almost jump off the floor and dance. I'd start practicing, and I just went from there. I started tryin' to make those sounds that they was makin'. I was up on the third floor [of his sister's apartment] of 3101 Wentworth in Chicago, South Side. The neighbors wanted to call the police on me, mad at me for making that noise. I was like, 'Man, I'm tryin' to learn how to play this guitar like Muddy Waters!'
Guitar.com: You've crossed paths with so many guitar legends. How did they affect your playing abilities?
Rush: You learn from listening to any guitar player. If you're interested in learning about music, you just pick up things from each one. And from that, you put it into your style. But you don't forget those particular notes, so you make up your own song. We all play like each other in a sense. If we all had to play our own music, there wouldn't be too many musicians. [laughs]
Guitar.com: After a lifetime of this, what comes next?
Rush: I'm gonna keep recording and gigging, and keep tryin' to learn how to play my guitar and sing. You never learn it all. There's always something to learn. I don't care if you're the greatest, there's always something to learn on that instrument. You know what I mean?
Fender Strats and Gibson ES-335s are a staple of Otis Rushs collection. He even owns a pair of 355s to boot. And as of late, he's been tinkering with a Japanese-made Flying V, which, he says, "I'm crazy about." But for Rush, it's never really been about rigs, but music-in particular, including a lot of practice.