Los Angeles, Magic Sam and Otis Rush - Giants of the Blues, Jerry Rosen

Posted on 10/01/2009 by Monica Yasher

I have to admit it; my favorite blues CDs were recorded before 1970. Most of the best blues band CDs were recorded between 1950 and 1970. The Cobra recordings, the Chess catalog and anything recorded by the three Kings, stand out at the pinnacle of recorded blues. However, I want to concentrate on two CDs that do not fall into this group. Magic Sam moved north to Chicago in the early 50’s and recorded a few sides before he was drafted. He went AWOL, spent some time behind bars, and then started tearing up the Chicago club scene in the early 60’s. Regardless of the quality of his early recordings, everything he did is inspirational and needs to be heard. Sam has influenced every important blues guitarist (and thousands of unimportant ones, like yours truly) from the 60’s to the present. I highly recommend Magic Sam Live one side was recorded (unprofessionally, on a tape recorder) in Chicago nightclubs during the early 60’s and the other side was recorded at the 69 Ann Arbor Blues festival. It is amazing to hear the material he recorded in the early 60’s and realize this was before Clapton, Bloomfield If I had to recommend one electric blues CD, it would be Sam’s West Side Soul, which was recorded by Delmark in the late 60’s. This is a studio CD, but it captures, brilliantly, the essence of Chicago blues. Sam was at the top of his game for this session and his supporting players were the best. Aside from his outstanding gospel tinged vocals and his excellent guitar work, Sam conveyed a total joy for playing the music. The music moved him to another plane and he had the ability to take the listener with him. For my money, his version of “I Need You So Bad” is one of the best recorded blues shuffles in history.  It is a laid back, yet propulsive tune in which he expertly uses space to make his point.  Too many blues guitarists think that the more notes you play, the better.  But just the opposite is true.  It is the space between the notes and the vocals that creates the tension that gives blues its power.  His singing and soloing on this tune is nothing short of spectacular and every time I listen to it, I marvel at the natural brilliance of Sam’s playing.  Another classic song on the CD is his cover of “I Found a New Love.”  When he sings, “Well, I found a new love, I won’t have to cry no more,” you believe him.  Sam and Rush were absolute masters of minor key blues and this tune his a classic example.

Sam’s version of  “Sweet Home Chicago,” a song that has been covered to death, set the standard for this tune and his playing on his version has had an enormous influence on generations of blues guitarists.  Again, it is his mastery of space, mixed with lyrical riffs and his tremolo vocals that elevate this standard to heights that have not been reached since.  Every song on “West Side Soul” is a gem and if you don’t own this CD, I urge you to get on Amazon and buy it today.  Sadly, Sam died in 1969 and so this was his last CD.  Fortunately, a number of years ago, Universal released a series of DVDs called “The American Folk Blues Recordings.”  There is actually some footage of Magic Sam on one of these discs.  While I recommend buying the entire collection, if you can’t afford it, just go to You Tube and watch the live footage of Sam.  It starts with an interview he did, for German television, while on a bus in Europe.  Then it cuts to his performance.  I won’t try to describe it, but it is priceless.

Otis Rush is one of the true musical geniuses of the past hundred years.  Not only has he been an amazing guitarist and truly gifted vocalist, but he has also written some of the greatest, most influential songs.  Rush’s “All the Loving, I Miss Loving,” which was covered by Clapton and Mayall, on their famous “Beano” Bluesbreaker album, is perhaps the most significant electric blues song of the 20th century.  Clapton and Mayall’s CD is considered to be the one that truly brought blues to the American masses and catapulted Clapton to God-like status.  But, the tune is 100% due to Rush and it is a travesty that he didn’t get more credit.  Rush also penned the classic “Double Trouble,” which, in two words, sums up what the blues is all about.  So many blues tunes are just of the variety – “my baby left me, now what am I going to do” – and while this certainly gives everyone the blues, from time to time, there is also economic blues.  In “Double Trouble” Rush sings  “some of this generation is millionaires, I ain’t got decent clothes to wear.”  People tend to forget that blues was a musical way of dealing with hard time.  The blues were not generic for Rush; he lived the blues every day of his life.  In his haunting “So Many Roads, so Many Trains to Ride,” Rush sings “ I was standing at my window, when I heard the whistle blow, I was standing at my window, when I heard that whistle blow, well it sounded like a Straight Line, but it was  B & O.”  When you listen to the song, you can literally picture Rush looking, forlorn, out at the train yard.  Folks, this is what elevates art to a level beyond what the average artist can accomplish.  There is a lot of Otis Rush on You Tube.  Check it out.

However, my purpose in this post is to write about Rush’s Right Place, Wrong Time CD,  which contains the excellent blues tune he wrote with the same name.   This CD was released in 1970, before Dr. John recorded a song with this very title.  Did Dr. John steal the title from Rush?  That is anybody’s guess, but he sure made a hell of a lot more money off it than Rush made from his tune.  The Rush CD features excellent musicians, tight arrangements and Rush at his very best.  There is little doubt that this CD is Otis Rush’s best, post 60’s work.  His playing on it is full of drive and passion.  His guitar work is both stinging and tortured.  His version of the Ike Turner tune “Tore Up” puts him at the very top of his (or anyone else’s) game.  There is no guitarist alive today who could touch Rush’s playing on this tune.  His instrumental cover of “I Wonder Why,” is basically a lesson on how to play blues with restraint and nuance.  His version of “A Rainy Night in Georgia” is as good as any that has been recorded.  Rush shows he is master of slow blues on “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Three Times a Fool.”   This CD was supposed to give Rush a second chance at a bigger time career, but, alas, it wasn’t to be.  The CD was basically shelved by Capital Records.  Fortunately, the great indie label High Tone released it years later and can be bought on Amazon. 

In many ways, Sam and Rush are tragic figures in the blues.  Sam died of a bad heart at the age of 32, just as he was on verge of achieving wider success.  He had recently stolen the show at the Ann Arbor blues festival and had toured Europe and the west coast.  Soon after these successes, he died in bed, holding his guitar.  Rush is still alive, but he has never achieved anywhere near the fame and fortune he deserves.  Rush’s work has been covered by some of the most successful rock/blues artists and he has been an inspiration to Clapton and many others.  Rush is a musical genius and it is a travesty that he has gone unnoticed to all but the knowledgeable blues fans.  Fortunately, there are many You Tube videos featuring Rush, some of which capture him near his best.  The one Rush video that stands out above all  others, is also from the American Folk Blues series.  It features Rush singing his biggest hit “I Can’t Quit You” (written for him by Willie Dixon).  He holds the opening vocal note for, what seems like an entire minute, and it is riveting.  This is how blues, real blues (not the contemporary version with mind numbing soloing and mediocre vocals) was meant to be played.  I hope that young people, who are getting into blues, go back to Rush and/or Sam (or, of course, any of the greats from the 50’s and 60’s) and learn how to do it right.  As Isaac Newton said  “If I have seen father than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.”  One neds to learn from the masters.

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