Otis Rush-The Fiery Bluesman
By Joanna Connor
Virtuosic modern blues/blues-rock guitarist
The soaring tenor voice, that velvet soul with just enough gravel that it would make you feel it down to your toes. His guitar playing hit straight to your gut–lefty magic. The bent notes emotionally piercing, echoing a cry in his soul, a lament. Otis Rush was the deep blues.
Otis was in the vanguard of the greats that came from the Deep South and brought their own individual sound to Chicago, where they honed and sharpened their skills even further. I was always captivated by Otis from the time when I first heard his Cobra label sessions. He had that simmering fire that would hold you a willing prisoner.
Mr. Rush didn’t tour much where I grew up in Massachusetts. So, I didn’t get to witness his magic live until I moved to the blues promised land- Chicago. Loved by so many influential rock and blues guitarists, yet Otis never got the fanfare that Buddy Guy and others did. The heart wrenching reason was that Otis had experienced many traumas and tragedies. His battle with mental well-being was most likely the biggest obstacle he faced in his life, along with a harsh music business, which can detour even the most brilliant artists’ careers. But despite his struggles, the Otis I knew, was always kind and gentle, a soft spoken giant of a musician.
I first got to play behind Otis Rush at Buddy Guy’s first club on the south side of Chicago – the Checkerboard Lounge. He wasn’t a frequent visitor, but he did drop by, always dapper in a three piece suit and a cowboy hat. He was a giving musician–he didn’t need to be the center of attention, but he was naturally commanding with his fierce and passionate delivery. Few musicians I have ever had the privilege to play with had his mastery and ability to reach deeply into his own pathos and deliver it to the audience and the other musicians on stage. He had an elegance, an unassuming manner, but believe me, he would slay!
It thrilled me that Otis offered a warm smile and a nod to me after I took a guitar solo or just respectfully backed him up on rhythm guitar on those heady, smoky nights at a packed and iconic Chicago blues bar.
When I formed my own band in the late 80s, my choice as a guitarist to complement me and also bring his mastery to the stage was Anthony Palmer, who as part of the cracking unit Professors Blues Review, was Otis’s touring band in the mid to later 80s. You can see Tony in a video at the Montreux Fest playing behind Otis and special guest Eric Clapton. Tony loved Otis like a father.
In the early 90s, Otis’ wife Masaki reached out to me and asked if I would like to tour her native Japan. I jumped at the chance and was asked to have a meeting at her and Otis’ high rise on Lake Shore Drive. Masaki loved Otis fiercely. She became his manager as well. A gracious, lovely , petite woman, she was also no one to mess with when it came to Otis. She was his tower of caring strength and the two of them kept Otis relevant and protected.
Rush had the air of royalty in his lovely apartment with fantastic views of Lake Michigan. I brought my son who was around five at the time and he played with Otis’ two daughters while we held our meeting.
As time went on I travelled more and more rarely playing in Chicago, so I didn’t see Otis much for a long time.
Unfortunately, Otis had a series of strokes around 2014 or so. The last time I saw him was at the 2016 Chicago Blues Fest, declared by the mayor that day that it was Otis Rush Day. He was in a wheelchair, looking frail but still elegant, still regal, still with that quiet kingly manner. He was beaming. Yes, he had taken So Many Roads and life had often dealt him a challenging hand, but he brought us all unforgettable music, all the while not being bitter, but freely offering up his gifts to the world. I am still humbled that I got to be in his orbit.
Otis Rush website