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OTIS RUSH TURNS 70

© DOWNBEAT (September 2005)
Otis Rush
The Legendary Otis Rush and his upside down hollowbody guitar.

Brightly colored balloons would ordinarily seem out of place at a blues club, but the birthday tribute to the influential guitarist Otis Rush was not a typical night.

Rush celebrated by turning 70 on May 11 at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago. Since he was recovering from a minor stroke, the musician was unable to perform himself, but watched the proceedings surrounded by admirers on the side of the stage. He clearly enjoyed seeing a legion of friends talk about how his style shaped their own. Even the city's leadership got into the act as Barry Dolins of the Mayor's Office of Special Events read Mayor Richard Daley's official proclamation.

Since Rush began recording more than 50 years ago, everyone had a wealth of stories to tell as they took turns performing in front of the guitarist's band. Many of his admirers were quietly humble like Lurrie Bell, who simply said, "Thank you Otis, for what you taught me," before transforming Sam Cooke's "Somebody Have Mercy" from soul to electric blues. Billy Boy Arnold remembered the time when Rush was "the sharpest man in the barbershop" before tearing into his friend's "Three Times A Fool."

Alongside these warm spoken tributes, other musicians primarily demonstrated their takes on Rush's distinctive guitar technique. Playing left-handed, Rush made surprising dips into a minor key and distortion back when he was in his early twenties. That style was mainly evoked during twin-guitar duets during the birthday tribute. Eddy Clearwater and Carlos Johnson delivered a version of Rush's 1956 hit, "I Can't Quit You Baby," that was worthy of its author's cheers. The exuberance flowed into a slow-burning groove from the father-and-son team of Lonnie Brooks and Ronnie Baker Brooks.

Other performers recalled the shared spirit between Rush and his colleagues from long ago. The esteemed veteran Jody Williams connected Rush with T-Bone Walker and the early days of what became rock ‘n' roll through his "T-Bone Shuffle."

Buddy Guy made a brief appearance to sing a slow "Happy Birthday" before talking about the encouragement that Rush first gave him after he followed the guitarist's path up here from down South. Those days in Chicago's West Side blues scene were also conjured up through Guy's glowing smile and profane -but funny- spoken homage.

Aaron Cohen

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