Bobby Rush On Fighting Cancer, His Music, Buddy Guy and More

"I’m still enthused, and I’m still learning. I’m really enjoying what I do and having fun with it."

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Photo by Michael A. Jozwiak

Bobby Rush has been an entertainer for over sixty years. He’s befriended and/or worked with the best talents the the music world has to offer including Muddy Waters, Pinetop Perkins, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Elmore James, Freddie King, and many more.

Over the course of his career he has received 17 Blues Music Awards, and been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006. He became the first blues artist to perform in China in 2007, and since has been referred to as the “International Dean of the Blues.” Rush won his first Grammy Award at the age of 83 in February 2017 for Best Traditional Blues Album for his album, Porcupine Meat.

He is also one for giving back in many different ways. For instance, he served as de facto guide to director Daniel Cross as he filmed I Am The Blues. Without Rush, Cross may not have had the response and access that he was able to enjoy with a multitude of artists in the film.

These days, along with Buddy Guy and many others, Rush is very active with PCa Blues, an organization that helps brings awareness of and raises funds for combating Prostate Cancer.

We were fortunate to catch up with the good-natured Bobby Rush recently, and as usual, he said what was on his mind. He also still has his famously wicked sense of humor.

Barry Kerzner for ABS:

I’m guessing you are pretty happy about the Grammy news for the remix of your “Funk O’ De Funk” by SMLE?

Bobby Rush:

We blessed for that man! It’s a good song! Really fun!

Last year you won the Grammy for category Best Traditional Blues Album, for Porcupine Meat.

Yes, that’s right. Not only did I win it, but the category I won, I mean the talent around me. I felt so good about it, especially when you win in a category where the people are so great. They’re much better than me — It’s like a prize fighter that knocks the champ out. It makes you feel so good because you’re in good company. It’s just a blessing.

Yes, you had some stiff competition last year too.

That’s what I’m talking about! It’s not like being in a snail race.

I know you were happy for winning though.

I’m happy about it. It put me in another frame of mind, and it lifted my spirits. It gave me something to live for and something to look forward to.

You do what, two hundred shows a year?

Yeah, two hundred. A little bit better. Around 210. Something like that. For the last, past sixty years… That’s a lot! I’m hoping to keep working hard, but I’m hoping to work harder and maybe get me a little more time off and still make money. I’m not tired yet, and I haven’t gotten too old yet, I hope, you know?

You’re one of those that if you had to stop being on the road, you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself.

You’re right, you’re right! I don’t even wanna stop thinking if I wouldn’t be on the road.

You obviously enjoy it, or you wouldn’t do it.

You can’t do a thing you don’t enjoy. You know, you gotta make a living. Somebody told me years ago ‘You not gonna make money making music.’ It’s not about the money; it’s about the love of the music.

People have told me ‘If you love what you are doing, you’ll never work a day in your life.’

That’s right. That’s so true. My hardest work is getting to the work; one place to another.

Do you remember working with Daniel Cross on the I am The Blues film?

Yeah… Yes! One of the most beautiful guys you ever saw in your life. It was like hanging out with my little brother.

In the film you said, “Nobody calls me Bobby Rush. My name is Emmet Ellis. I changed my name to Bobby Rush, and I said ‘Oh, that sounds good because it sounds like one syllable.’ Nobody call me Bobby. Nobody call me Rush. Everybody call me Bobby Rush.” I thought that was great!

Yep. One syllable. It’s like, ‘Bobby Rush.’

As far as that film went, it was great seeing you spend time with those people.

I’m glad I did that because now you see WHY I did it. Now you understand because a lot of those people I did the movie with are no longer with us anymore. A lot of people we were talking about, these folks are 80 years old; better to be able to do these kind of things, and pass the torch down to the younger people. You can read about it but you not gonna live about it.

Like losing Robert Bilbo Walker. He’d been sick, and everyone knew this was coming, but even so, it still hit all of us pretty hard.

I was over there, and someone called me. I was doing an interview on the radio, and we talked about it on the air. I understand he’d been sick for a while, one of the oldest men around; he’s been with us a long time.

He was quite the lovable character. When you start talking about being a handful…

Oh yeah!

That was him.

Yeah; He was an eyeful and a handful.

He sure played some righteous music though. Everybody loved it.

I called him ‘BoBo.’

Hard to believe he’s gone… It hasn’t sunk in.

It makes you feel really humble to be around with guys I knew: Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and all the guys. I talk about age not to talk about age, but to be around long enough to know these men and to talk about them. It’s a great thing to still be around and enjoy life, and talk about it in the morning. That’s all that matters to me.

Let’s talk for a bit about PCa Blues and the work that you are doing with them. You have an event coming up on the 16th of December in Atlanta.

Atlanta, Georgia. This is my third one. I did the first one with Buddy Guy, in Memphis. This one, I don’t think Buddy Guy will be on this one. We just want to make people aware. A lot of people suffer with this. I think it’s one out of every eight have it and don’t know they have it. We want them to go and have a checkup, and don’t be afraid of the knowledge you learn from it. Go out and have it done because the earlier you catch it, the better chance you have of curing it.

Well there are a lot of people don’t want to get prostate exams or colon exams, and there are issues around it.

But, it’s something that needs to be done! I’m just warning people to go and get it done. You can prolong your life and time, and it’s better for the people around you. If you don’t want to go for yourself, go for the people who love you; go for your family. I guaranty it makes a difference in your life.

If you are hesitant to go for the physical exam, you can at least go and have a PSA blood test.

I advise everyone to go out and get yourself checked out. If you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for the people you love. Do it for your family, your friends, and the people around you that you make a difference within their life.

Buddy lost his brother Phil to that…

And I did too. A brother and a son.

So sorry to hear that.

Other relatives too. It’s just a terrible disease. So go, get your checkups early, don’t be afraid. There’s just something about it. We’re hoping that as people who have been through it, we can educate people. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I’m involved. Go do something while you can.

I know you’re excited to be doing it again with Buddy in January.

Yeah man! This something that’s one of the greatest things that ever happened. Last year I went up there on the last day and surprised him, and the public loved it so well. He came back to life; he was like a teenager when I walked on stage. We had so much fun; we decided to do it again. So when he opens the show in January, on the 4th, a Thursday night, it will be the first time we’ve been together on stage with both our bands in 45 years. You won’t get this in life… You better come on and get this!

Anytime that you two get together you’re like two little kids stealing cookies out the jar on Christmas morning!

We’re like two little rabbits that like to play in a briar patch man! We both from Louisiana, both of us getting older, and I won’t use that word ‘old’ cause he don’t want to hear that but we both getting older. We’re just enjoying life, just having fun man. Get onstage and tease each other, play with each other, talk a little trash. Whatever we feel like doing, we do it. It’s not a planned thing; we just have some fun with it. Whatever we do is gonna be right.

When your family moved to Chicago, after you got settled in, some of the people you befriended and started working with included Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Etta James, and a whole lot more.

Let me tell you how things were. I left way before Buddy Guy left: 1947. 1951 I was in Chicago, and I moved up there because of Muddy Waters and Little Walter. Later on, I knew B.B. King, 1951, 1952, and I met Jimmy Reed. He was at Vee-Jay Records at that time. Then John Lee Hooker came, and Bo Diddley came, in 1954. Willie Dixon was already there. And people like that… Oh man.

I met them all time; Freddie King, Elmore James, and all these guys played with me. Luther Allison, Fred Below, and I mean, so many guys. Pinetop Perkins was playing with me before he went to Muddy. Johnny Littlejohn. Buddy Guy came in 1957.

I was never a sideman. I came up an artist from 16 years old. I never was a sideman to no one.

A lot of those folks couldn’t record under their own names because they were under contract.

I did the same thing with Southside Movement with “I’ve Been Watching You” because I couldn’t use my name. Because of my contract, I couldn’t use my name.

You’ve enjoyed a long career; you’ve been blessed. You’ve earned Blues Music Awards (BMAs), Grammy nominations and won a Grammy Award. You’ve been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

I’ve been up for blues awards, I think thirty-one times. I’ve been up for Grammys, and I’ve won one time. I’m still enthused, and I’m still learning. I’m really enjoying what I do and having fun with it. Now, I wanna make some money at it. When I was young, it was lots of fun, and it’s still lots of fun, but you wanna make a living at it.

All the accomplishments that you have, is there anything left that you want to do that you have not accomplished yet?

I want to get popular and make enough money to give back to people like Sickle-Cell Anemia and Cancer Society. I want to do more of that. Those are the main things I want to do.

Our reader Sergio Wrey wants to know “What you would tell the youth that wish to follow in the footsteps of  bluesman such as yourself?” What advice would you give them?

Learn all you can, about what you doing. Look in the mirror and be fair with yourself, if you have it, or you don’t. If you’re hot or you’re cold. Lukewarm won’t work – you got to be good at what you do. That’s what I aspire to do: Be good at what I do. You don’t have to like me. You can say ‘I don’t like old Bobby Rush, but damn he’s good!’ Be good at what you do.

Are you working on a new album? A live album maybe?

I did the live album already. I’m doing a recorded album; I’m in the midst of it now. Hopefully, by the next three or four weeks, I’ll have it done. I’ll spend some time in the studio next week and the week after that. Hopefully, by mid-February, I’ll have it finished, at least so I could talk about it.

So the fans have something coming.

Oh yeah! I’m on fire. If you think the last CD was bad, watch the next one. As my mother used to say when she’s cooking, she put her foot in it; I’m putting my foot in this one. Because for one, I don’t have anything to lose. I’m just giving it all I got, all my writing, all of where I’m coming from. It may not be brand new to me, but it’ll be brand new to the people, been in my head and I’m gonna write about it.

Is there anything that you would like to tell our readers?

I’d like to just tell the readers that I thank them for being my friends and fans through the years. I have crossed over to white audiences, but I haven’t forgotten I must do all I can while I can because when there come a time when I can not do, I won’t regret what I did not do. Because, I have crossed over to the white audience, but I never crossed out my black audience. So, it’s not a black and white issue with me; it’s about the music and the love of it.

Let me say to you before we leave, thank you for what you have done in this business. Thank you for what you have done, what you plan to do because what you say about me, people perceive me to be.

I enjoy what I do, and for me, it’s great that I can get out what you performers want to say, and also keep bringing the blues to new people. That’s my thing; that’s what I want to do. So, thank you for helping me do that.

Well thank you so much, and I appreciate you for what you do and what you’ve done. Keep writing and keep the good work up because without people like you, nobody would know what we are doing. So, thank you again.

Thanks again for taking time with us.

Thanks. A pleasure and we hope everybody listen to us and readers come out and keep going to have themselves checked out because the cancer thing is all over, not just the men, I want everybody to go get checked out because we are talking about men now [with PCa Blue and their Prostate Cancer awareness message], but we are concerned about people as a whole.

Bobby Rush

PCa Blue

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