A dynamic singer, songwriter, and harmonica player from Claiborne Parish, Rush mixes funk, soul, and blues music and won Grammy Awards in his eighties.
A seemingly ageless performer, Bobby Rush was a mainstay on the African American Chitlin’ Circuit for nearly a half-century. He belatedly reached the mainstream in the 2000s, propelled by his acclaimed late-career albums and a high-profile appearance in Martin Scorsese’s 2003 PBS documentary series The Blues.
Born Emmett Ellis Jr. on November 10, 1936, to Emmett and Mattie Ellis, Rush and his nine siblings grew up near the town of Homer in Claiborne Parish. He adopted the stage name Bobby Rush in deference to his father, a Baptist preacher and sharecropper. “Daddy’s shadow was large,” Rush explains in his autobiography. “And the places I would hang out in were places where a man of God’s name should not be heard, talked about, or, God forbid, seen.”
Nonetheless, Emmett Ellis Sr.’s harmonica playing imprinted deeply on Rush during his early childhood. At six years old Rush built a one-string instrument, commonly known as a diddly bow, from materials he found on the farm. Primitive though the instrument was, Rush reveled in the resonating sound of its single string. Rush obtained his first guitar at eleven years old. Despite how difficult the battered, inexpensive instrument was to play, Rush pursued its secrets relentlessly. He also learned harmonica licks from his father.
In 1948 the Ellis family moved to Sherrill, Arkansas, a small town near Pine Bluff. The underage Rush soon began sneaking into the local juke joints and nightclubs. He performed with slide guitarist and singer Elmore James and learned how to engage audiences during brief but instructive touring with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. “The Foots,” Rush writes in his autobiography, “could sing and play their instruments with the best of them, the dancing was as tight as a drum, and the comedy was too funny.” For Black audiences, he adds, entertainment in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels’ “high tent represented a holy place where I could perform and learn from the best my people offered.”
Rush also took every opportunity to attend and study the performances of Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Rufus Thomas, Little Walter Jacobs, and other blues and rhythm and blues artists who performed in the Pine Bluff area. Like musicians throughout the South, the young Rush loved listening to singer-harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson II’s King Biscuit Time radio broadcasts from Helena, Arkansas. In his autobiography, Rush credits Williamson with teaching him almost everything he needed to know about blues and songwriting.
In 1953 Rush moved to Chicago, one of America’s blues capitals. He performed in the Chicago area with sidemen who included future stars Freddie King and Luther Allison. Rush did not make his recording debut until 1964 via the small Jerry-O label. In 1971 his single “Chicken Heads” became his first hit on Billboard magazine’s rhythm-and-blues chart. Following years of releasing singles on various labels, Philadelphia International Records issued his album debut, 1979’s Rush Hour.
Rush moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1983 to be closer to his family and the Black southern audiences that had supported him for decades. In 2000, thirty-six years after Rush’s recording debut, his Hoochie Man album earned the first of his six Grammy nominations. In 2017 his twenty-fifth album, Porcupine Meat, recorded in New Orleans with producer Scott Billington and New Orleans musicians, won the then eighty-year-old artist his first Grammy award. Rush repeated the feat in 2021, winning a second Grammy in the best traditional blues album category for Rawer Than Raw.
In 2019 Rush portrayed himself in a scene-stealing cameo in My Name is Dolemite, a biopic about comedian Rudy Ray Moore starring Eddie Murphy. In 2021 Rush published his frank and entertaining autobiography, I Ain’t Studdin’ You: My American Blues Story.