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Bobby Rush

With over six decades in the music industry, racking up awards and playing alongside greats like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Etta James, and Howlin’ Wolf, Grammy Award winning blues legend Bobby Rush has no plans to slow down.

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Emmett Ellis Jr. was born on November 10, 1933, to Emmett and Mattie Ellis in Homer, Louisiana. Ellis grew up on his family’s farm in a house without electricity and indoor plumbing. On the farm, he cared for mules and chickens and picked cotton. 

Ellis’ father was a minister who played the guitar and harmonica. Influenced by his father, Ellis built his first guitar on the side of the family’s house out of broom wire, nails, bottles, and bricks. He also experimented with creating music by playing a broom-and-wire diddly bow and tapping out beats on a sugar-cane syrup bucket. 

In 1947, his family moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas where he first began pursuing a music career. In his teens, Ellis wore a fake mustache to play with a band at local juke joints. He quickly became friends with blues artists Elmore James, Johnny “Big Moose” Walker, and Boyd Gilmore. They eventually formed a band centered around Ellis’ singing, guitar, and harmonica skills. His band, Bobby Rush and the Four Jivers, consisted of Gilmore, Walker, Pinetop Perkins, and Robert Plunkett. During this time, Ellis chose the stage name Bobby Rush out of respect for his minister father, who shared the same name. 

In the 1950s, Rush settled in Chicago after touring the juke joints and clubs across Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. He befriended Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Albert King. Little Walter got him a job at a club called Skins where they played behind a curtain for a white audience. The two also began working for blues musician and songwriter Jimmy Reed. Soon after, Rush began performing on a circuit with Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed.

In 1971, he wrote and released  "Chicken Heads" with Galaxy Records. It became his breakout record, reaching number 34 on the Billboard R&B chart. "Chicken Heads" became Rush's first certified gold record. In 2006, it re-entered the Billboard chart, 30 years after its release, after being featured in the film Black Snake Moan starring Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, and Justin Timberlake. In 1979, Rush released Rush Hour, his first album, with Philadelphia International. “I Wanna Do the Do,” a song on the album, climbed to number 75 on the Billboard charts.

In 1981 and 1991, Rush released two gold-certified records, Sue and I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya, respectively. In 2001, he received a Grammy nomination in the blues category for his album Hoochie Momma. In 2003, Rush appeared in The Road to Memphis, part of the documentary series The Blues, produced by Martin Scorsese. Soon after, Rolling Stone magazine crowned him “King of the Chitlin’ Circuit” “because of his 50 years of relentless touring and colorful live shows.” 

 In 2006, he was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame. In 2007, he released his twenty-second album Raw, and won the Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year award at the Blues Music Awards. In 2007, he became the first blues artist to perform in China, earning him the title “International Dean of the Blues.” He also performed the largest concert on the Great Wall of China, earning him the title of Friendship Ambassador to the Great Wall of China. 

In 2014, Rush's album Down in Louisiana was Grammy-nominated for "Best Blues Album", and won a Blues Music Award in the 'Soul Blues Album of the Year' category. Rush was also nominated in two other categories. In July 2014, Rush performed with Dan Aykroyd on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. In 2014, he also appeared in the 2014 documentary Take Me To The River about soul music alongside Mavis Staples and Terrence Howard. In 2015, he appeared in the documentary film I Am The Blues. In 2016, his album Porcupine Meat was released. In 2017, the album won a Grammy award. In 2019, he appeared as himself performing “I Ain’t Studdin’ You” in the Eddie Murphy Netflix film Dolemite Is My Name. Rush wrote and recorded the entire soundtrack and owns the master tapes. 

In 2021, Rush released his autobiography, I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya: My American Blues Story. That year, he also received an honorary doctorate from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. In 2024, he was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album for All My Love for You. In 2024, Rush won his third Grammy award. 

On November 30, 2018, The Pine Bluff community gathered at the Pine Bluff Convention Center to honor Rush as the Delta Rhythm and Bayous Alliance designating three blocks of downtown Pine Bluff's Third Avenue as "Bobby Rush Way." When interviewed, the Alliance’s founder Jimmy Cunningham stated, "We want to highlight the folks who began their careers in Pine Bluff, and Bobby Rush is one of those as well as one of the last living Blues legends. It seems only fitting to rename Third Avenue for him since that's where Bobby began his professional career, earning his first dollar as a blues man in Jitterbugs." 

Rush has also built an international fanbase, touring in most major markets around the world, including Sydney, Australia; Paris, France; Tokyo, Japan; Shanghai, China; Johannesburg, South Africa; Berlin, Germany; Rome, Italy; Barcelona, Spain; Lucerne, Switzerland; New York, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Memphis, Tennessee; Los Angeles, California; to Jackson, Mississippi. Rush has performed for troops in Iraq and supported projects for prisoners and at-risk youth. 

Rush has received six Grammy nominations, won three Grammys, received 56 Blues Music Awards nominations, and won sixteen of those nominations. Rush is currently co-writing a Broadway musical called Slippin’ Through The Cracks with playwright Stephen Lloyd Helper, who co-wrote the 7x Tony-nominated musical Smokey Joe’s Café celebrating the songs of Lieber and Stoller. 

Rush is a prominent advocate of the blues tradition. When asked about the blues, Rush stated, “It’s the root of all music. It's the mother of all music. If you don’t like the blues, you probably don’t like your mama.”

At 90 years old, Rush has no plans to slow down. He says, “I’m still in decent health, and my mind is pretty keen, and the most blessed thing is that I still have people around me who love what I do. And even if you don’t like me. You’re still going to say, “I don’t like Bobby Rush, but, damn, he’s good.”


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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