BOBBY RUSH with HONEYBOY EDWARDS at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas West), Sunday (December 16). $28.50 advance, $32.50 door. 416-531-6604. Rating: NNNNN
Among the top entertainers on the chitlin circuit, soul shouter Bobby Rush is well known throughout the southern states for rocking rural roadhouses backed by a horn-honking orchestra and hip-shaking hotties, in an act complete with comedy routines and requisite costume changes.
Yet with his two latest acoustic-oriented recordings, 2004's Folk Funk (Deep Rush) and the even more stripped-down Raw (Deep Rush) released in June, the flashy showman has made a complete about-face. He's now pursuing a rootsier concept closer to the pre-war sound of his 92-year-old tour mate, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, one of the last living Delta bluesmen with a direct link to Robert Johnson.
According to Rush, the sharp stylistic turn away from the salacious R&B for which he's best known didn't arise from a need to show off his fingerpicking and harp-blowing skills. Oh no, it was actually part of a larger plan to benefit others.
"The reason I'm going back to what I was doing back in the early 50s isn't because Bobby Rush needed a change of pace," explains the man who refers to himself in the third person as a single three-syllable name. "It was simple economics.
"When I tour with my whole group and my dancers, it costs so much money for promoters to book me - I'm in the price range of B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray - that it's not usually possible to play smaller venues. By touring solo and accompanying myself on guitar, I'm really doing a favour to the bookers of smaller clubs. They may not be able to afford the bigger marquee acts, but they can still have a Bobby Rush play their venue."
It's just that sort of business savvy and entreprenurial chutzpah that's kept Rush in the game for some 50-plus years, leading bands, arranging tours and recording and releasing records independently.
Back in his Chicago days in the 50s, it wasn't uncommon for Rush to book himself at three clubs on the same night, station different backing bands at each and race from joint to joint alternating sets.
Then he'd put on a disguise and adopt an alias to emcee his own shows and collect a second fee. Well, third fee actually - that hoarse-sounding character that booked the gig for Rush was likely Rush himself acting as manager, too.
Rush may play the "loose deuce" when it suits his needs, but the Lousiana preacher's son is one of the sharpest operators on the scene.
He recalls in vivid detail the time in the early 50s that he got slide guitar great Elmore James to play in his band - for free - by hooking him up with the wife of a club owner whom Rush knew would be out of town on certain days of the week.
"I'm not proud of some of the things I've done," he says with a chuckle, "but that's the blues."
Now in his 70s, Rush has no regrets about past folly and takes pride in the fact that he's been one of the very few artists to remain active independently throughout his colourful career.
"I could never get with a major label. We'd both be after the same thing - making money off of Bobby Rush's recordings. Eventually you learn that all a big label can offer you is a fine car, some drugs or alcohol and maybe some women. I'm married, I've got a car and I haven't had a drink since 1956 - what can they do for Bobby Rush? Nothing."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Bobby Rush recalls how seeing a Cab Calloway performance in New York during the early 50's led to an important chitlin' circuit innovation
Evidently the numerous claims that Bobby Rush was born in 1940 are incorrect
MOTEL LOVERS Southern Soul From The Chitlin' Circuit (Trikont) Rating: NNNN
Unless you happen to make regular trips to roadhouses in Mississippi, the more risqué work of top-selling contemporary R&B artists like Bobby Rush, Big Cynthia, Bill Coday, Peggy Scott-Adams, Willie Clayton and others probably won't be familiar. Adult-themed joints that rarely trifle with clever innuendo like Denise LaSalle's Long Dong Silver, Barbara Carr's Down Low Brother and Floyd Taylor's Hit It Right are a little too real for commercial radio -- but not for Germany's Trikont label.
The recent Motel Lovers collecton compiles the aforementioned salacious sizzlers along with Mr. David's Better When You Steal It, funk great Lee Fields's I'll Go To Jail and Marvin Sease's title track in an entertaining document of Southern culture on the double-dirty down low. Unfortunately Jimmy Lewis's super-funky No Chicken Wings and Ollie Nightingale's classic I'll Drink Your Bathwater, Baby are missed, but it's still a solid introduction to a misunderstood subgenre.