Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Interview with Bobby Rush
Or The “I Really Couldn’t Interview This Guy” Interview
by Terry Abrahamson
The setting: the lobby of The Southland Hotel. Exactly where I'd expect to meet a guy who spent last night (February 13, 2014) fronting more band members than you'd ever believe he could possibly pay, through more sets and costume changes than most performers half his age could muster the sweat for, at a Bernie Mac Foundation benefit at 87th and Cottage Grove. And now we found ourselves at The Southland Hotel in Markham, Illinois at 159th and Sacramento.
Meeting Bobby Rush here was kind of like being with a legend inside a legend inside...like the Russian nesting dolls, but bluesier. Markham had first appeared on my radar half a century ago as the site of Kingston Green: the South Suburban development of tomorrow, sold in black & white commercials a tract at a time by the Olympic hero of yesteryear, Jesse Owens. Jesse was sharp. He was earnest. He was articulate. And he was right on the money! We should’ve bought! Back then, as Jews, we could’ve been living side by side with the scourge of Hitler. And today, as a Blues fan, if I'd stayed, I'd be a stone's throw - in virtually any direction - from royalty: the widows, children and grandchildren of the gods of Chess Records.
Bobby Rush had known all the gods. Bobby the boy, knew their music; heard it thumpin' and wailin' down to Homer, Louisiana on the cracklin' signal of Nashville's KLAC. Bobby the man knew their friendship; amusement and amazement as he drenched their Mississippi Blues in enough grease, sauce and pomade to slide it out of the juke joints, through the rhythm & blues lounges, across the rock and roll stages and back again.
I came to interview Bobby Rush, who’s up for three Blues Music Awards including Artist of the Year, and I was totally unprepared. I'd dug deep into his catalogue, and thought I knew it well enough to pose poignant questions that would yield not just revealing answers but impressed, validating nods from fans and musicians - most notably Bobby Rush. But those songs gave no clue to the places he'd been, the people he'd known and the things he'd seen and done. I was lucky, though. Bobby's van - soon to be crammed with more musicians than clowns in a Volkswagen - was being loaded for a ride to Memphis and he had no time to wait for questions. With a few exceptions, and generous assists from his keyboardist, producer and longtime collaborator Paul Brown, and from Blues publicist/producer Lynn Orman Weiss, Bobby started talking. And the stories - tales I'd be damned if I was gonna compromise with anything as petty and unBluesy as fact checking - sprang forth like Markham's Jesse Owens tearin' out of those blocks at Munich.
It was Down in Louisiana....
Terry Abrahamson: How old were you when you were picking the cotton on your father’s land?
Bobby Rush: I started when I was about 6-7 years old. From sunup to sundown. There was ten of us kids and I was the kinda kid that was quick to learn, so my daddy tells me "You kinda bright. You gotta come outta school because you need to help me plant this cotton. That keeps the other kids in school. And somebody gotta do it." I understood it. Apparently, he saw in me what he didn’t see in the other children. So he told me “Well, you can survive it. You’re a smart kid. Come on with me. You go to school three months out of the year, and those kids go nine." See, I was this kid who understood. My daddy bein’ a preacher, he would take me with him to the Sunday school. And I was pretty smart. I would love the biblical study.
I remember he was preachin’ about the Lost Supper, and he was talkin’ about how the disciples didn’t understand when the Lost Supper was gonna be. He said “You go down to the fork in the road"....this is Christ talkin’ now...."go down to the fork in the road, and you’ll see a man with a jug and follow him and find some information and find out where the Lost Supper gonna be.” Another situation, he was talkin’ about how Christ was comin’ back, and he said “Now you go down to that pasture, to that open field. You'll see this horse. And one book says ‘You'll see this ass’ and one say ‘You'll see this colt. And if anybody should ask you about him, tell them I have need of him'." That ain’t much information. But now I understood my daddy. So when he said to me “I want you to get a job at the cotton gin, bring me information,” I said “Daddy, I understand. I’ll do it.” He didn’t tell me anything else. But I understood it. Biblically: where he was comin’ from. So I went down to the gin. He said “You know they gonna pay you six dollars a week.” I said “I know.” Six dollars a week! He said “But you can bring me the information, be worth way more than the money.” I said “I understand.” So, what I would do in the gin, I went into the gin and looked at the situation and went back outside, put sand in my pocket and a rag hangin’ from my pocket. And there was a bunch of White guys who was sittin’ around a table. At that time, the Black people didn’t know a thing about no Dow Jones. But these White men was talkin’ about what they gon’ sell, how much they gon’ sell it for and when they gon' sell it. “The peas we gon’ sell for two dollars a bushel. The cotton we can sell for so much a pound. And the peanuts we can sell for so much a bushel. But this we can’t sell, this we can’t sell; we gotta wait for the demand.” And I would be around the table and I would listen, and I would throw a little sand on the floor (motions throwing sand) so I had a reason to be there wiping it up and I would listen to all they said. And my daddy said “What ya hear today son?” I said “You shouldn’t sell no cotton. But you can sell the beans. But you shouldn’t sell no soybeans, ‘cause in two weeks, they goin’ up.” And my daddy would call a meeting at the church Sunday morning, like the Martin Luther King of the
neighborhood. Sunday school was at 9:30. He would call a meeting at 8:30, tell all the farmers what to sell, what not to sell. Because of my information. He would tell the Black guys “What we gonna do, we gonna dig a hole." And every other week or two, they would bury a bale of cotton, so when the cotton went up, they would sell it. You follow me? And my daddy almost got killed because they say “Where this man gettin’ all this cotton from this time a year?” ‘Cause I done told them what they had to do; they had to bury it. And they’re comin’ up with cotton in January and February when there was no cotton, and they’d dig it up and get a good price for it. You follow me? And I did that all the way up til I got through school. Where it took you 12 years to get through school, it took me 14. Because I was gettin’ the information. And my daddy got smart enough and wise enough so we wasn't pickin' cotton by the pounds. We was pickin' it by the fields.
TA: So, is this some mythology, or when you were picking the cotton for your dad, were you singing in the cotton fields?
BR: (broad, faraway smile) Yeah. Oh man, you'd be out there singin'....
TA: What were you singing?
BR: Whatever I could hear from WLAC. Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. Oh yeah, and "Hound Dog." (sings) "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog." And Louie Jordan. "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens!" That's where that comes from! (Bobby Rush's "Chicken Heads.") Chicken Heads! Not the song, but the idea about the animals. My favorite song was "Straighten Up and Fly Right." That started me to writin'. I was a little boy and I could relate to the two animals in the song - the Monkey and the Buzzard - bein' friends. And Louie Jordan like to write about those kinda thngs.
TA: So you're actually singing while you're picking the cotton?
BR: Oh yeah.
TA: Are you listening to KFFA (West Helena, Arkansas)?
BR: Yeah, Sonny's (Sonny Payne) real sick; he's been on that station like 56 years.
TA: So you're out there singing the Blues. And your father is a preacher. What's your father think of the Blues?
BR: I don't t know what he thought of the Blues, but he probably thought a lot of it because my father, who was a preacher, never told me to sing the Blues, but he never told me not to.
The Chit'lin' Circuit King
TA: So you move to (Pine Bluff) Arkansas...
BR: In 1947,
TA: And you're listening to this music, and you're thinking "I could do this."
BR: Oh yeah. I went to a place called "Jitterbug" on Third Street in Pine Bluff. I went to the store and bought me a fake moustache. You could glue it on. And the man at the Jitterbug let me in. See, you could buy em, and you stick em on, and it make you look older. See, you could get in the club when you was 18, but I wasn't even 18. I went in this club, and I had already been playin' at this other club called Drums ‘cross town. But I wanted to go in Jitterbug on Third Street; that was the top of the line. So I went into Jitterbug, got this job, He give me 25 cents, and four hamburgers. And I sell them for 25 cents. I got so good, he would pay me eight hamburgers; I'd sell seven of ‘em and eat one. At 25 cents a piece. So I'm makin' money! That was all my pay. And that was the time the Chit'lin Circuit came in. He'd say "Bobby Rush, you gon' be the king of my Chit'lin Circuit.” Now, I didn't know what he was talkin' about then, but I found out. There's a book on the Chit'lin Circuit, but let me set the record straight on the Chit'lin Circuit. I'm not the first one that played the Chit'lin Circuit, but I'm called the Chit'lin Circuit King. Because the Chit'lin Circuit was really named from chit'lins. From a hog (intestines). Because up til 1947 or '48, chit'lins wasn't sold. You could go to the slaughter pen, they would give you all the chit'lins you want. Especially if you were Black. And the Black men who owned the chit'lin joint went and got the chit'lins and cooked em and gave ‘em free to the musicians for no money. And you played for chit'lins. That's why it's called "The Chit'lin Circuit."
TA: Because that's how the musicians were paid.
BR: Exactly. Now, you might make two fifty or four dollars a night, but you got to split that with all the musicians that’s workin' with you. You makin' a dollar a night, workin' three or four days a week, makin' three or four dollar, instead of workin' in a cotton field makin' eight dollars a week, that's about all you're gonna get. My first gig in Illinois, in
’55 or ’56, in Argo, Illinois, me and Freddie King, I don’t remember the name of the club at that time, but it became The Cotton Club. I was gettin' $7 a night. And I, as the bandleader, paid the band four dollar and fifty cents. Early '50s, that's what I'm makin'. And Muddy Waters was makin' $15 a night. Fifteen dollars a night! A Superstar! I come to Chicago in 1951. Muddy Waters was there. Little Walter was there. Willie Dixon was there. In 1953 or '54, Pigmeat Markham and Moms Mabley came. In 1955, Chuck Berry came. In 1957, Etta James came. I was drivin’ a taxi, picked her up at the bus station, took her to Chess. I didn’t know her; pure coincidence. Also in 1957, the last of '56, Howlin' Wolf came. In 1957, Buddy Guy came. In 1957, John Lee Hooker came. Smokey Hogg and Lightnin' Hopkins had already been there.
Ike Turner and the Girl with the Violin Case Shoes
BR: I remember I went to Rock Island for the first time. Ike Turner and I were playin' The Habana Club. And I remember this 'cause it was me and Ike Turner. Tina wasn't there. We was buckin' heads with Little Richard. He was playin' an auditorium. He was a bigger act than we was. But we had fires settin' in this little club. I was really cocky in that area. I was about 20, 21 years old. Ike's about the same age. We both thought we was good lookin', thought we could pull every woman we saw. So I walked in the bar,
Fats Jenkins – he was the owner, and I got the gig through his nephew, Curtis Jenkins who was a friend of mine - Fats is sittin' at the bar and he says "Hey Bobby Rush! How you doin'?" And I say "Fine." I say "What time do you start?” He say "Well, we'll start in a few minutes.” I had Earl Hooker on gui-tar for me. Moose John (Walker) was on keyboard. And I went up to do my little set and came back and this lady was sittin' down with her legs crossed like this (bar stool "show a lotta leg" position). And man, she had some legs on her. And I say "How you doin', baby?" and Ike Turner say "That woman ain't gon' talk to you, 'cause I been tryin' to talk to her all night, and she won't talk to me, she ain' gon' talk to you." And that's what Ike said, 'cause Ike thought he was the King of the Pretty Guys. I thought I was too. And my drummer was named - my drummer was a big guy - "Tony," And she was talkin' to Tony and Tony would buy her a beer. You got to see Tony. Tony looked like a moose! I say to Ike "How'd he beat us out?" and Ike say "I don't know, man. This drummer got us beat out." So I go back up on the stage and Ike came to sit in with me, and at this point she been sittin' there a couple hours. And I look down and she got feet like this (spreads his hands waaay apart) and this is God's truth...the feet was so big like violin cases.
And I say to Ike: "This woman we been hittin' on, look what she's walkin' on! (laughter)" And by that time, she'd been drinkin' and you could see this (motions to his Adam's apple) "goozlin'." (disgusted "Ooo's" all around) But she was lookin' good, though. She was lookin' good. But I told Ike "Man, I been tryin' to talk to this woman all night." And Ike says "Man, that's a drag queen." You know what that is, don't ya? So we goes to the hotel that night. Three o'clock in the morning. A little old shabby hotel. I'm in my room, Tony knock on the door. (whispers) "Bobby Rush, you gotta come here. Man, you wouldn't believe it." I say "What is it, Tony? What's goin' on man?" He says "That's a man!" I say "Well, I tried to tell you, man! So what you gonna do?" He says "Well, I spent so much money.....Why don't you just come in the room with me?" And I told Ike and we just fell down and laughed about it. Whatever happened, we was gone the next day. But that was the most beautiful woman you would ever want to see. Until I saw them feet and I told Ike "Look at that:" And we walked down there and say "Hello." By that time, she just says "Goodnight."
The King Crosses Over
TA: What were the first clubs you played in Chicago?
BR: Skins, in Robbins, Illinois. The Apex in Phoenix, Illinois. That's where I stood behind a curtain.
TA: You stood behind a curtain?
BR: I had to play behind a curtain because I was Black and they had this curtain on the stage and I had to play behind it. They wanted to hear my music but they didn’t want to see me. Even here in Chicago in the 1950s. There was no Black people on Rush Street. They had signs “No colored allowed," and that was Bourbon Street – that was the club - on Rush and Walton and I was one of the first Black folks they hired. I was maybe the first and Sammy Davis Jr. was the second and Bill Cosby was the first Black MC they hired. Then I hired Redd Foxx.
TA: Did you ever play the Roberts Motel?
(Lots of laughter from Bobby and Lynn)
LYNN ORMAN WEISS: Herm is still alive.
BR: You sure? (laughing) I'm gon' kill him. I didn't know Herm was still alive. He had me, Dinah Washington. All of ‘em. Brook Benton. He let me book Dinah Washington myself.
TA: Unlike most of the guys of your generation who came up from the South, you've got more than just Chicago Blues. You've got the Louie Jordan Kansas City thing. Plus
R & B. You even landed on Kenny Gamble's Philadelphia International label for a while, alongside Billy Paul and the O'Jays. So, when you played these clubs, what were you playing?
BR: Mostly Chicago Blues, but I got a mixture of Blues and another kinda thing too. I think that's why I worked as much if not more than Muddy or Buddy. Because of my swiftness of the crossover.
TA: Did you ever play in a club, and you're playing one kind of music and the clubowner asks "What are you playing?"
BR: That come to me a few times. There was one time in Kewanee, Illinois and the clubowner says "We love you. The people love you. But what the f**k did you just play?"
A Guy Walks into a Bar with This Head…..
TA: A Blues bar from the ‘50s and ‘60s that you don’t hear much about is the Zanzibar.,,,
BR: Right: the Zanzibar. That was on Ashland and around 13th, just south of Roosevelt. They’d have nights – same night every week. Muddy would play on this night, Howlin’ Wolf on that night. Little Walter was a big deal there. But I’ll tell you a better story. See, I didn’t live but a few blocks west of there. One night, I’m comin’
home from the Zanzibar with Little Eddie. Little Eddie was a harp player who was a barber by day. He had a barber shop at Roosevelt and Kedzie.
Well, one night, Little Eddie and I walk out of the Zanzibar, up Ashland, and we’re stoppin’ in this
bar at Roosevelt and Ashland. But we’re walkin’ in and everybody else is runnin’ out, like somebody been shootin’ or something. By the time we get inside, ain’t but one man at the bar, and next to him, up on the bar, was this woman’s head.
TA: A head?
BR: Just a head. And this guy next to the head…I don’t know if she was his wife or his girlfriend…but apparently he walked in the bar, not in a hurry, not nervous, just takes the head from under his coat, puts it on the bar, and says “Gimme a drink, and give this bitch a drink!” And everybody runs out and the bartender goes berserk. But not this guy. He’s just calm. I don’t know what she did to piss him off, but she did
Vee-Jay, The DJs and Chicken Heads
BR: Calvin Carter and Vivian Carter had this record company out of Gary. Calvin, that was Vivian's brother. Calvin Carter was my best friend. That was my running buddy; my sho' 'nuff friend. In 1953, she met Jimmy (Bracken) who had Jimmy Records. And they got married and changed the name to Vee-Jay Records. Don't nobody know this but me and Chuck Berry. They got in trouble in ‘65. Calvin Carter had a business partner. His name was Leo Arsdell. Leo Arsdell was a preacher here in Chicago. He was a Jehovah's Witness preacher. He was his money banker. So he say "Bobby Rush, I need a song to cut." I say "I got a song." They say "What's the name of your song?" I say "Chick Heads." He says "Bring it by me and my partner, let us listen to it." So I bring it by. And Leo says "Whatcha got there, boy?" And I say "I got a song." I had my guitar. And I played it. 1968. He say What's the name of it? I say "Chick Heads." He said "No boy, you can't call no record like that." And I say "What I mean by it is 'Chicken Heads'." He say "Chicken Heads?” Where you from boy?" I say "Down South." He say "Oh yeah, they eat chicken heads down there, don't they boy?" Now at that time, he musta been 60, 65 years old. Wasn't an old man, but to me, he was old because he was much older than I was. He says "Oh yeah, I remember: they eat chicken heads and feet down South." He says "How's your song go?" I told him "Daddy told me on his dyin' bed: 'Give up your heart, but don't lose your head.' You came along and what did I do? I lost my heart and my head went too." Didn’t have nothin' to do with a chicken. But he bought it and he said "But we need a A and a B side. What else you got?" And I said "I got a song: ‘Mary Jane’." He said "Oh yeah, a girl like that did me wrong." I say "I'm not talkin' about a girl at all." I was talkin' about the smoke (laughing) you know? And I was talkin' about that because Muddy Waters had this song when he's thirsty give him champagne, when he wants to get high, give him reefer. If he could get away with it, why couldn't I? So we went in the studio. Tyrone Davis went in the studio with me. So Calvin Carter, Tyrone Davis and I and two or three musicians, I was takin' my guitar and showin' ‘em how to play the lines. Now what they did with this session: Betty Everett and Tyrone Davis and I had four hours. I'm payin' for the four hours. I didn't know Calvin Carter was cuttin' two other artists on my money.
TA: You're paying to rent the studio time?
BR: I'm payin' four hours studio time to cut my record and they recorded Betty Everett and Tyrone Davis: two other artists before me on my time. So when we got there, about 45 minutes was all we had. This was my money. I'm payin' for this. So I had Ralph Bass the producer from Chess and he says "Well, we got about 45 minutes." So I say "I don't have much time, let me show you how this go." So I show ‘em....(sings the groove) They couldn't catch it. And Tyrone Davis is cussin' and says "Man, you play the damn thing yourself." I say "Okay, let me show you this one more time." And I play it on my guitar, from the top to the bottom. I'm singin' and playin'. I say that's what it is. Let's do it." And Ralph Bass says "Good take." He cut it while I'm showin' him how to play it. Never cut it again. So let me tell you what happened.
We go to the disc jockey convention in Miami. So I go and rent a suite. The suite was a couple hundred dollars. A lotta money They went down with me. They had my record and a Betty Everett record. Now, Calvin Carter was in trouble with the record companies. And a lady come with me, says "Let's go rent this suite for the disc jockeys." So I'm tryin' to invite promoters and record company executives to make me a record deal. James Brown is there, and he's down the hall and I go visit him and I tell him what I'm doing. And he was a business man. And he says "Bobby Rush, I ain't got time right now, but I'll head on there and give it a listen.” So, I'm in this room, sittin' back there in the corner with the light off, and I'm sittin' there and I'm kinda dozin off and Calvin Carter and Leo came in with these White guys from Fantasy Records. So when they come in, they put the record on....it's a Betty Everett record. And they said "We like that!" And then they say "But where's that Bobby Rush guy at?" And Calvin says "He's at James Brown's room, I'll go get him." So when he left, the two White guys say (moanin' and groanin') "We don't like this sh*t." Talkin' about the Betty Everett record. And a minute later, Calvin comes back in and they smile and say "Hey, Calvin! We really like this, but we gonna let you know." See when they're talkin' to themselves, they're sayin' "We don't like it." But when Calvin comes in, they sayin' "We think you got somethin' there, Calvin. But what about that.....(snaps his fingers several times as though trying to summon the name)...that little longhaired guy...that so and so...." And Calvin turned the light on, and there I was sittin' in the corner. And they pick up this record and it says Bobby Rush on it and Calvin didn't want them to hear it because it wasn't done; it didn't have the mix on it. But they put it on and they say "Wow! What kinda sh*t is that!" They was all over this record. And I walk over and they made a deal right this minute, gave me fifty five thousand dollars! For that record. Right then. On the spot! And guess what I got? Five hundred! Totally!!
“Chicken Heads!” Follow me? That was a Gold Record! Vee-Jay Records. But they released it on Fantasy. Fantasy had the record. The biggest thing they had. Follow me?
See, Calvin didn't believe in me. He used my money and all my recording expectations,
cutting Betty Everett on my money, and wouldn't put my record on there.
TA: So where'd the fifty five thousand go?
BR: To him. And I didn't get but five hundred dollars of that. Went to VeeJay or whoever it went to. But you know, all them peoples’ dead and gone.
Bobby Rush and Paul Brown Come Together
BR: Now, I have grown in crossover to a White audience. I have come to know them as well as a BB or a Buddy Guy. But, by the same token, there's Black Blues guys who don't know nothin' about this over here. You know what I'm talkin' about? They don't know nothin' about how to soothe this Black audience. They don't know nothin' about what I did last night. I can soothe an audience. They don't know nothin'
about that. So I got to be careful, you know, that I don't get out of line. That's a hard task: if I want to do an all-White audience, well that's another story altogether.
PAUL BROWN: I mean I don't even know of anybody else who can do that. And to me, that's somethin' I treasure. How he can do that. And that's so important to me to not stay in the lines, in that, to keep that goin'.
BR: Now think about yourself. You wasn't hired to do that, and yet, you can get with Roy Rogers, you can play with Ann Peebles. Look at that!
PB: Well, I'm twisted.
BR: That's a hard task. You do the same thing I do. You play with the White guys, and then you go play with Roy Rogers and Ann Peebles and Shirley Brown. But everybody can't do it. I'll tell you what you do: take one of my guys and put em over there and see what happens.
PB: I'll tell you, a good example of that is that I just got off of one show with you and the day after that, I went down to Florida to play with Jimi Jamison and Survivor. 80's Rock!
BR: So why not take advantage of this in the studio?
PB: I know. Yeah. Just throw it in the mix and see what happens. But with integrity, though.
BR: We sit down, we do a song (sings) Don't cry baby.....That ain't got nothin' to do with Black Folks per se. When I do some song, it ain't got nothin' to do with White folks. Like we did "Down in Louisiana" (the Grammy-nominated album cut in 2013). When we did the song, I told Paul..for the first 90 days, I didn't send anything to one Black radio station. And you know what happened? They asked me and they said "How come you didn't send us this record?"
PB: Isn't that somethin'? So many Black southern soul radio stations freaked out. I didn't see that comin'.
BR: See, that's 'cause we got the groove and we stayed with the story.
PB: It's so beautiful and it's so rare.
BR: 'Cause when you got a story, you don't need nothin' to cover it up.
LOW: Tell us about Rock this House.
BR: Albert King and I had this instrumental, this opening number. We'd say
"We're gonna rock this house." That's what we used to call this song. It was a song like that a band has every night,. You know how you do some instrumental? But I had words for it. After Paul came up with such a good line, he took the lyrics out of it. That was like a good line.
PB It's like when we did “Come Together”....we did “Come Together” on this four song vinyl ep a couple of weeks ago. Bobby said to me "Paul, the verses are hard."
BR: Let me tell you something about that. Paul called me and he said he wants to do two originals and two cover songs.I said what songs? He said he wants to do one Otis Redding song. So, I'm thinkin' about the Otis Redding song and he said "Well, a Beatles song would be good." I say "What song?" He said “Come Together.” Now you got to understand: as big as the Beatles is, and as big as the song was, who's gonna cover a song like this? You'd be the craziest man in the world try to cover this. So I was drivin', learned the song. And I had the song down, 'cause I'm listenin' to it all the way from Memphis (to Nashville). So, I'm gonna take this in one shot. Then I'm askin' myself "What can I do? I got it!" So, in the studio, I walk in, I say "Don't worry, I got it. And I did the harmonica thing. And that was the story (lyrics). And that's what happened, It's hard to do a Beatles song. You gotta face the fact. How you gonna cover "Superstition?" by Stevie Wonder. You tell me who's gonna cover it. A big old fool. Unless he take it all the way down like a Ramsey Lewis would do it. I do the George Benson on it. Now that's slick. But you can't do it in their line. The song is too big and the artist is too big.
PB: Then in the end, in the vamp, what he did was he starts doin' "Come together! Come together." It was awesome, man.
BR: It was respect to the music, respect to the Beatles, I didn't try to sing it.
PB: It's different.
BR: It's different.
PB: And he owned it. He really owned it.
As soon as he played the first verse, that was it.
BR: And I played along with it so you could sing along with it with the lines.
TA: What did you relate to in that song?
BR: The song itself. The way they was singin' it. I had learnt the song. I learnt the song just like I was singin' it.
PB: It's one take straight through.
BR: That's what we did. There's no overdubs. Nothin'. You either know it or you don't.
PB: That's it! You learn it, you cut it right there.
BR: Wasn't no rehearsal, no nothin'.
PB: (laughing) Damn! It was classic!
BR: I rehearsed it drivin'.
PB: Yeah, everybody kinda did their homework and when we came in...and we had three horns! Three horns!
BR: Nashville. Two weeks ago.
PB: It was the same place they held all the Motown Records release parties.
BR: I want to do that. Do you know the story of that?
Nashville tells Berry Gordy "Reach Out, I'll Be There."
BR: See, back in the day, you know Luther Allison? I cut the first record he ever had
with Motown. I took him to Motown. I produced it. I didn't know Berry Gordy well til after he got established. But after he got established, he used to come to Nashville and I didn't know where he was comin' to. After Paul told me about it, then I know the history of it. There was a guy called Murray: Edward Murray from Arcola, Mississippi, He was a friend of mine, and he was a good friend of Berry Gordy. And he used to try to get Berry Gordy credit lines. At that time, Black people couldn't get credit lines to press records. You can count the people who get credit lines even now!
Thank God I have a record company and I have a credit line, so I can press my records and pay him later. Berry Gordy didn't have no credit line. They wouldn't give it to Motown. The only one to give Berry Gordy a credit line was in Nashville, Tennessee.
PB: And we were playin' up above where they pressed the records at.
Up above the plant, the plant where they pressed the records, they had a little hotel room, what was known as The Motown Suite, Because of the segregation, the Blacks would stay in there and they had a big party room and a kitchen and everything. That was for the Motown parties and that's where we recorded: in that room....that very room!
TA: What year was it that Berry Gordy was going down to get the credit line? like the 60s?
BR: '59 to about '70.
TA: '70? That late?
BR: Yes, because in the mid '60's, people thought you could get records pressed anywhere. But the deal was you could get pressed if you had the cash.
TA: So all the Motown records were being pressed in Nashville?
BR: Now I didn't know this til Paul called me. See, I'm just findin' out the reason why myself. I thought it was a business situation where you're gettin' a rate that was livable. See, I'm pressin' there because I'm savin' two or three pennies on the price. Berry Gordy was there 'cause he couldn't get no credit line, See, when you're pressin' a million-selling record, then you need a hundred thousand on this one, a hundred thousand on that one, even if you ain't payin' but fifty cents apiece for em, that's a lotta money when you can't get a credit line. And Murray was the guy who set this up. He got Motown in there. However that connection was, I don't know.
TA: How did you two get connected?
BR: Fifteen, 18 years ago?
BR: I believe when I really got into Paul he was at a Blues awards. Let me tell you: for 20 years, I went to the Blues awards - back to when it was the (WC) Handy Awards. And for part of the time, I was the only Blues man in my category who was there. I paid some dues for all of us to be where we are now. I paid some dues, I kissed some butt. I was there when nobody was there but me. You know that. Not a Bobby Bland, not a Buddy Guy, wasn’t nobody but Bobby Rush. I was payin’ my thousand dollars a year as a membership to get in the door to see what they was doin’. And I did that. Now its all of a sudden “We gonna do this.” And I was there for 20 years and nobody knows that I stayed and wouldn’t go no place. Day in, day out. I had an ad in that book for a thousand dollars a year for 20 years. The last couple, I produced my way into the book. There wasn’t nobody there. I literally went by Bobby Bland’s house. He didn’t want to come. Nobody wanted to come. They wouldn’t come. I stood there. I’ll tell it on the Bible. I stood there. And some of the time, I looked like a fool standing there. For 20-something years. Nobody but me. Standing there, payin’ to the door. Thinkin’ “Next time be better.” But this particular night, there was a bondsman called Harper. He’s a bondsman in Memphis, Tennessee.
PB: Yeah, it’s funny. We were about to hit the stage with Ann Peebles and someone comes up to me and says “What’s your last name?” and I told her Brown. And she says “You better go someplace and hide. The cops are here lookin’ for you.” I had some outstanding warrants from my ex-wife. She picked up that I was gonna be there. So they hid me behind the stage until they called me up on stage and so I get up on stage and I got my hat on, and I never play with my hat on because it covers my hair, you know, and so I’m sittin’ there playin’ and I’m lookin’ around and I look behind me and there’s this wall of cops waitin’ for me and I knew when I got offstage where I was goin’ and my hat came off I just put it out of my mind and I’m playin’ like crazy and just as I get off the stage, they just ushered me right off and oh man, I was gone!
BR: And that’s the night I really got into him. He played like there wasn’t nothin’ goin’ on.
PB: It was the Pop Tunes 15th anniversary. Pop Tunes, the Memphis record store.
BR: Yeah, that’s what it was.
PB: When I saw those cops, it was like “Man!”
TA: So you were in the show too?
BR: I was a speaker. Like a host. Like a guest MC. Myself and Dr. John and Ruth Brown. So I knew they was lookin’ for him, and Harper was in the audience and I ask him does he know about Paul Brown. I said "Find him and get him out." And I got into him that night.
TA: So you bailed him out?
PB: Actually, it was Larry Dodson from the BarKays. Here’s what happened: it was so funny when I got to the jail, I was like this big celebrity and they let me take off my platform shoes and use somebody's sneakers and Larry Dodson called the jail and made sure I was treated okay, and I’ll never forget that. But see, I saw Bobby early on, man, like ’91.
BR: Yeah, that’s when I really got into him. I thought “Here’s a guy that I would love to have in my band."
And somewhere between Pigmeat Markham and Markham, Illinois, Paul Brown joined the Bobby Rush “Freddie King/Ike Turner/James Brown/Etta James/Dr.John/ Big Foot Drag Queen Cotton Fields to Chit'lin Circuit to Miami Hotel Room Caravan,” and played a big old B-3 funky and greasy and smoky enough to get Producer credit on “Down in Louisiana” at this year's Grammy Awards. And as Bobby Rush reaches into his pocket for one more handful of sand, he’ll tell you himself they ain't done.
Terry Abrahamson won a Grammy by writing songs for Muddy Waters. He helped launch George Thorogood’s career and created John Lee Hooker’s first radio commercial, which are just a few of his accomplishments. Terry also is a playwright and author of the photography book, In The Belly of The Blues – Chicago to Boston to L.A. 1969 to 1983 -- A Memoir.