Celebrating the Music of Otis Rush and His Influence on British Blues – Part II

Rush had a tremendous impact on the guitarists of the burgeoning British Blues boom in the mid to late sixties and these two essays look at few of the cover versions of his recorded debut, ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’.

Part I concluded with a live recording of the song by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers featuring Peter Green.

Within weeks of Green’s departure, Mayall was back on the boards with a new lead guitarist, Mick Taylor; a rhythm guitarist, Terry Edmonds and two horn players, Chris Mercer and Rip Kant.

Edmonds’ time with the band was exceptionally brief, but Mayall brought the rest of the band into the studio in mid-July to cut an LP.

Among the dozen songs cut that day, was ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’.

John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers

John Mayall: vocal & piano /

Mick Taylor: guitar /

John McVie: bass / Keef Hartley: drums /

Chris Mercer: tenor saxophone / Rip Kant: baritone saxophone

Recorded July 12, 1967

Released on “Crusade

September 08, 1967 (Decca U.K.) / January 1968 (London U.S.)

 

I Can’t Quit You Baby (Otis Rush) (4:34)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mw96ErBpzTE

A touch of reverb on Mayall’s opening cry adds sinew and muscle to the bare bones of his voice and his piano (not organ – the added percussive element deepens the sound) escorts in the horns.

The horns, bass (McVie is well up in the mix in the opening), piano and Taylor’s overdriven guitar, including his use of a ringing, sustained note beneath at the verse’s final lines move the sound closer to Rush’s original.

Mayall’s changing of the lyrics pulls the original’s punch, but Taylor’s blistering solo, honed playing the number live in the weeks leading up to the session, marks the eighteen-year old as a worthy successor to Clapton and Green.

Taylor builds his solo as two interlocking halves; he starts off “moaning the blues”, the bass and horns rapidly forming a thunderhead; Mayall’s piano fills, flashes of lightning.

The deluge comes in the second half, with piercing cries from Taylor’s guitar drawing energy from Mayall’s right hand flourishes.

With the end of the break the rain continues to fall, but the immediate danger appears to have passed.  They wrap up the number on a satisfying note, making this, for me, the most successful version of the three reviewed so far.

It feels certain that had Green stayed with the Bluesbreakers he would have had his chance to record the number in a studio setting with the horn section.  A missed opportunity.  Five of the album’s twelve songs were numbers Green had been playing almost nightly before his departure, with one, ‘Tears in My Eyes’ dating back to the Clapton-era Bluesbreakers.

 

Early in 1968, an American blues band tried their hand at the number (perhaps having heard it on “Crusade”)?

The Dirty Blues Band

Featuring Rod “Gingerman” Piazza

Rod Piazza: vocal & harmonica /

Rick Lunetta: guitar / Pat Maloney: piano /

Gregg Anderson: bass / Dave Miter: drums /

Jimmy Forest: tenor sax / Willie Green: baritone sax / Freddie Hill: trumpet

Recorded April 23, 1968

Released on “Stone Dirt” (Bluesway U.S.) / (Stateside U.K.) 1968

 I Can’t Quit You Baby (Otis Rush) (5:40)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zetbuK618sg

I find this performance to be wildly uneven.  As with Rush’s original and Mayall’s studio recording, they employ a large number of musicians to create a dense soundscape, but as with Piazza’s vocal, the horns seem better suited to a lounge, rather than a bar, with Hill’s trumpet flutter bringing a heavy touch of “show-biz” to the proceedings.  Surprisingly, the horns also detract from, rather than enhance Lunetta’s break.

Lunetta does a lot with the short time he is given, paying tribute to Rush’s West Side sound without copying what Rush had originally done on this number.

It isn’t until the end of the song, on the brief outro, when Piazza takes the number out with a harmonica break, something not heard on any of the other versions, that the horns are put to good use.

They were obviously striving to capture a “live in studio” feel here, but Piazza’s vocal interjections and encouragements only serve to remind the listener that this is a “performance”, further removing any sense of real emotion.

 

Interestingly, the band opened their album with a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s ‘Bring It On Home’.  That song also appears on the debut LP of Led Zeppelin, along with their version of ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’.

Led Zeppelin

Robert Plant: vocal / Jimmy Page: guitar /

John Paul Jones: bass / John Bonham: drums

Recorded October 1968

Released on “Led Zeppelin” January 12, 1969 (Atlantic U.S.) / March 28, 1969 (Atlantic U.K.)

I Can’t Quit You Baby (Otis Rush) (4:45)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29PSPafL54o

Plant’s wounded cry nicely emulates Rush’s vocal attack and the band keep the number on a low boil for the first two verses, with Bonham’s drums dominating.

Page plays dancing fills between the lines, sliding up the neck and picking notes as Plant howls, but for me, it is Bonham who underscores Plant’s vocal, not Page.  It is Bonham who audibly makes the listener understand the crushing weight of obsession.

Plant’s voice takes Page’s guitar with him as he plunges over the cliff leading into the break, but rather than exploring the depths to which they’ve fallen, or the struggle to break free from the ties binding them, Page plays what he thinks someone racked by guilt and desire would sound like, rather than playing how it feels; he is playing from his head, not from his heart or better yet, from his “gut”.

I know that this is a minority opinion, but the emotional disconnect makes this one of the less successful songs on the LP for me.

Compare this version with a soundcheck recording of the song from January of 1970 that saw release on the out-take compilation “Coda” released in 1982.

Led Zeppelin

Robert Plant: vocal / Jimmy Page: guitar /

John Paul Jones: bass / John Bonham: drums

Recorded at The Royal Albert Hall, January 09, 1970

(listed as a “rehearsal” in the original liner notes)

Released on “Coda” (Swan Song 1982)

I Can’t Quit You Baby (Otis Rush) (4:18)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1MtnrjBk_0

The band keeps the lyrics and jettisons just about everything else from the Dixon / Rush original; and this only makes sense.  Led Zeppelin is not a blues band and Jimmy Page is not a blues guitarist.  They play rock.  And the way that they played created a paradigm shift in the music itself.

Adapting the song to their own style, they are far more successful in capturing the song’s essence and intent.

While I prefer Plant’s vocal on the studio version, Page’s break in this performance, especially as backed by Bonham’s thunderous blows, almost makes literal the expression “beating yourself up” which is what the song is all about after all.

 

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