Otis Rush, Influential Blues Singer and Guitarist, Is Dead at 83
Sept. 29, 2018
Otis Rush and his band performed at Pepper’s Lounge in Chicago in December 1963.Ray Flerlage/Cache Agency
Otis Rush, a powerful blues singer and innovative guitarist who had a profound influence not just on his fellow bluesmen but also on rock guitarists like Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, died on Saturday. He was 83.
His wife, Masaki Rush, announced the death on Mr. Rush’s website, saying that the cause was complications of a stroke he had in 2003. She did not say where he died.
A richly emotive singer and a guitarist of great skill and imagination, Mr. Rush was in the vanguard of a small circle of late-1950s innovators, including Buddy Guy and Magic Sam, whose music, steeped in R&B, heralded a new era for Chicago blues.
While Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, his predecessors from the city’s South Side, popularized an amplified update of the bare-bones sound of the Mississippi Delta, Mr. Rush’s modernized variant — which came to be called the West Side sound because of its prevalence in nightclubs in that part of town — was at once more lyrical and more rhythmically complex.
“The sound was a radical departure from the down-home records that dominated the market at the time,” the producer Neil Slaven, contrasting Chicago’s West Side sound with its South Side counterpart, observed in the notes to a compilation of Mr. Rush’s 1950s recordings for the independent Cobra label.
Mr. Rush’s output for Cobra showcased his lacerating, vibrato-laden electric guitar lines and his gritty, gospel-inspired vocals — throaty mid-register groaning, thrilling leaps of falsetto. Holding sway beyond Chicago, his adopted hometown, this early body of work served as a rich repository of material for the blues-rock bands of the 1960s.
The British group John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, which featured Mr. Clapton on lead guitar, included a version of Mr. Rush’s slow-burning 1958 shuffle, “All Your Love (I Miss Loving),” on its 1966 album, “Blues Breakers.” Led Zeppelin reimagined Mr. Rush’s grinding 1956 hit, “I Can’t Quit You, Baby,” on its debut album, “Led Zeppelin”; the Rolling Stones updated the same song in 2016 on their album “Blue and Lonesome.”
The Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan named his band after Mr. Rush’s minor-key tour de force “Double Trouble.” Virtuoso rock guitarists including Johnny Winter and Duane Allman have also cited Mr. Rush as an influence.
Mr. Rush’s guitar technique owed a debt to the discursive single-string voicings of jazz players like Kenny Burrell and jazz-inspired bluesmen like T-Bone Walker and B. B. King. But it was also attributable to the fact that Mr. Rush played his instrument left-handed and upside down. Curling the little finger of his pick hand around the bottom E string of his guitar enabled him to bend and extend notes, to dazzling emotional effect.
“When you play lefty, you’re pulling that vibrato down to the floor,” Mr. Rush told Vintage Guitar magazine in 1998, referring to the tremolo arm, or whammy bar, of an electric guitar. “That makes things a lot easier in terms of pressure and control.
“Pulling down makes more sense, to me anyway,” he added, “and I can work it stronger and get it to sustain better.”
Mr. Rush after receiving a Grammy Award in Los Angeles in 1999 for best traditional blues album, for “Any Place I’m Going.”Sam Mircovich/Reuters
The critic Robert Palmer, in his book “Deep Blues” (1981), wrote rapturously of Mr. Rush’s musicianship. “His guitar playing hit heights I didn’t think any musician was capable of: notes bent and twisted so delicately and immaculately,” he wrote, “they seemed to form actual words, phrases that cascaded up the neck, hung suspended over the rhythm and fell suddenly, bunching at the bottom in anguished paroxysms.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1968, the guitarist Michael Bloomfield said that white blues bands hoping to prove themselves in the 1960s “had to be as good as Otis Rush.”
In 2015 Rolling Stone ranked Mr. Rush 53rd on its list of “100 Greatest Guitarists.”
He was born on April 29, 1935, in Philadelphia, Miss., one of seven children of O. C. and Julia (Boyd) Rush. Reared by his sharecropping mother, Otis and his brothers and sisters were often kept out of school to work in the fields to make ends meet. Otis dabbled on the harmonica before he began teaching himself the rudiments of the guitar at age 8.
He moved to Chicago in 1949 after visiting one of his sisters there and seeing the likes of Muddy Waters and Little Walter perform in the city’s South Side clubs. He found work in the local steel mills and stockyards and as a truck driver, and began taking guitar lessons from a local musician, Reggie Boyd.
Mr. Rush first appeared in public in 1953, performing unaccompanied and billed as Little Otis. Three years later he was leading a trio at Chicago’s celebrated 708 Club, where he impressed the bluesman Willie Dixon, then working as a talent scout for the West Side businessman Eli Toscano. Mr. Toscano signed Mr. Rush to his newly founded Cobra label in 1956.
A series of commercial and financial setbacks followed. Several record deals unraveled, including the one with Cobra, which went bankrupt in the late 1950s, a casualty of Mr. Toscano’s mounting gambling debts.
In what would prove to be a streak of unusually bad luck, Mr. Rush’s subsequent recordings, for respected blues labels like Chess and Delmark, were often unreleased or delayed. Most notable was “Right Place, Wrong Time,” an album postponed five years before its release in 1976 on the tiny Bullfrog label.
Ultimately acknowledged by fans and critics as a classic, the album might have brought Mr. Rush greater acclaim had it enjoyed the promotional backing of its original, more powerful label, Capitol Records.
Exacerbating misfortunes like this was Mr. Rush’s reputation as a moody and erratic live performer who could enthrall audiences one night but seem lackluster and aloof the next. Some of his recordings were uneven as well, marred by lesser material and slapdash production — a far cry from his peak work for Cobra and Chess.
Weary and disillusioned, Mr. Rush retired from performing in the late 1970s. He staged a comeback in the ’80s and, though he recorded only sporadically after that, he did win a Grammy Award, for best traditional blues album, for “Any Place I’m Going” in 1999. That same year he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. He did not make another studio album but continued to tour until he had a debilitating stroke in 2003.
Mr. Rush and Masaki Rush had two daughters, Lena and Sophia, as well as several grandchildren. He also had two sons and two daughters from an earlier marriage. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Though unquestionably a progenitor of an important strain of Chicago blues, Mr. Rush, in an online interview, denied having had any part in coining the term “West Side sound” to describe his music.
“The public came up with this, not me,” he said. “You know, they had the West Side, South Side and North Side. They started naming it Chicago blues. I don’t know: Chicago blues, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York. Who cares? It’s blues, you know?”