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

Otis Rush was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi on April 29, 1934.  He moved with his family to Chicago at the age of fourteen and got his break twelve years later when Willie Dixon (who had left Chess Records to work for the newly founded Cobra Records) signed him to the label.

The label’s maiden release was also Rush’s recorded debut; released in August of 1956, the record was a smash, spending six weeks on the charts, peaking at Number Six.  The single was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1994.

Otis Rush

Otis Rush: vocal & guitar /

Wayne Bennett: guitar / Walter Horton: harmonica /

Willie Dixon: bass / Al Duncan: drums /

Red Holloway: tenor saxophone / Lafayette Leake: piano

Recorded July 11, 1956, Boulevard Studio, Chicago, IL

Released, A-side Cobra single, August 1956

I Can’t Quite You Baby (3:07)

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

This track was released in England on the 1965 Sue Records compilation “We Sing The Blues!” but it was Rush’s re-recording of the tune nine years after the original, on “Chicago / The Blues / Today! Vol. 2” released in England on the Fontana label in 1966, that most of the British bands used as their template.

The Otis Rush Blues Band

Otis Rush: vocal & guitar /

Luther Tucker: rhythm guitar /

Roger Jones: bass / Willie Lion: drums /

Robert “Sax” Crowder: alto saxophone

Recorded December 28 / 29, 1965, Chicago

Released, “Chicago / The Blues / Today! Vol. 2” (Vanguard, U.S. / Fontana, U.K. 1966)

I Can’t Quit You Baby (3:18)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cd-BUnPfzqw

The original recording plays as an (almost) unbroken soliloquy; the anguished wail that opens the song stuns you into silence and forces you to listen.  Rush’s gale force vocal seems to roil the accompaniment, the saxophone and harmonica merge and blur; Rush and Bennett sometimes alternate leads, and at other times play around or over one another; beneath it all, the piano is ever present, mimicking the flow of tears.

The second version is more conventionally structured; Rush’s bellowing of the opening line is done a cappella; when the band rushes in behind him, as if to fill the vacuum, it becomes apparent that the tempo has been slightly increased.  Also notable is the increased amount of guitar playing between the verses.

This culminates in a guitar break of just over minute, all the time that Rush needed to assemble a mini tour de force.

 

After seeing Savoy Brown’s Blues Band at Kilroy’s, a room above the Nag’s Head Tavern in Battersea that Harry Simmonds booked to showcase his brother’s band, Mike Vernon arranged to record them for his mail-order Purdah label.  Four songs were cut with this short-lived line-up of the band, and (in my opinion), the two best were picked for release.

Savoy Brown’s Blues Band

Bruce Portius: vocal / Kim Simmonds: guitar /

Ray Chappell: bass / Leo Manning: drums /

Bob Hall: piano / John O’Leary: harmonica

Recorded August 1966, Wessex Sound Studio, London

Released, B-side Purdah singleI Tried’ 1966

Can’t Quit You Baby (3:35)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfvFTNZ7los

Although there are those who feel that the grit in Portius’ vocal is too obviously the sand of a Caribbean beach, I feel that he does an admirable job with this number.

Without a second guitarist and saxophone player, the soundscape is less cluttered than on the Rush sides and Vernon provides ample room for each of the instrumentalists.

Most impressive is that no one feels the need to grab the spotlight, everyone plays in service to the song.  Chappell’s bass anchors the number, his melancholy tolling throwing the Hall’s piano and O’Leary’s harmonica lines into sharp relief.

Hall (England’s answer to Otis Spann) is all over the number, but never in the way.  O’Leary moaning harp provides the through line

Simmonds’ guitar is used sparingly, and while he cannot match the intensity of Rush’s ringing tones (or Clapton’s on his cover of Rush’s ‘All Your Love (I Miss Loving)’ on the “Blues Breakers” LP, released a month earlier) he puts his own spin on Rush’s style of stinging fills and sudden chords bursting like fireworks in a night sky.

 

Rush raised his profile in England with his appearance with the American Folk Blues Festival tour in October of 1966.  Around the same time, Peter Green’s recorded debut with the Bluesbreakers, a cover of Rush’s ‘So Many Roads, So Many Trains’ was released.

Mayall (and Green) were leading proponents of Rush’s music.  Green would perform or record six Otis Rush numbers (that we have recordings of) from 1966 through 1970, most with the Bluesbreakers.

John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers

John Mayall: vocal & organ /

Peter Green: guitar /

John McVie: bass / Mick Fleetwood: drums

Recorded, live at Klook’s Kleek April 28, 1967

Released, “John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers Live In 1967” (Forty Below Records 2015)

I Can’t Quit You Baby ()

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBKegPqU5iI

Mayall was at a distinct disadvantage in his attempt to duplicate the original’s dark churn and power; he was working with a four-piece band with a decidedly pedestrian drummer and his limited vocal range turns Rush’s lion’s roar to a sheepish bleat.

Restrained by the tempo that Mayall sets, reinforced by Fleetwood’s lock-step drumming, Green’s guitar work during and between the first two verses conjures B.B. King more than it does Rush.

It is only during the break that he is able to breath and open up.  There is a Rush-like edginess to the vibrato that Green employs on the break, nicely capturing the conflicting emotions pulling at the singer.

Green brings the relatively brief break (under two minutes) with a ringing, sustained note that is pure Rush.

Mayall closes out the number the way that it began, with a whimper, not a shout.

 

Nine days before Tom Huissen captured this performance on tape, Mayall and the band had cut a stunning version of Rush’s ‘Double Trouble’ using a similarly softer approach, but where that performance’s tamped down emotion served to build the pressure, this live recording allows finds the safety valve open, and there is no danger of an explosion.

‘Double Trouble’ became a staple of their live set; a highlight of the show, nearly doubling the length of the studio recording.

The comparatively straight forward performance of this number would seem to indicate that this was one of their earliest (if not the first) attempt at the number.

We don’t know if Mayall returned to it while Green was still in the band, (Green would be gone by June) but knowing a good thing when he heard it, Mayall would cut it in the studio with a larger ensemble just a few months later.

 

In Part Two, we’ll review Mayall’s studio version, with Mick Taylor replacing Green on guitar and what is probably the best known, and most radical reworking of the number by Led Zeppelin.

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