By Victoria Erickson
“If you don’t like the blues, you don’t like your mama,” says Grammy-winning bluesman Bobby Rush. “Blues are the foundation — the roots of music.” And Rush should know. He lived and worked in Chicago during the height of the Chicago blues scene. He’s performed with Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Singing the blues since the late ’40s, Rush is turning 84 in November with 274 records to his name and an average of over 200 shows per year for the past 60 years.
Rush is currently touring with Take Me to The River Live, a soul and rhythm & blues review, that hits the Lincoln Center stage October 26. A featured performer, Rush will be taking the stage along with Grammy award-winning R&B and soul legends William Bell and Charlie Musselwhite.
“It’s history,” remarks Rush about the live show. “Once this is gone, it’s gone. You won’t see this anymore.”
The performance isn’t just a showcase of living blues legends, at its core, the show is about mentoring across generations and collaborating across musical genres. In addition to featuring the Hi Rhythm Section and alumni from the STAX Music Academy, the show also highlights hip-hop artists Frayser Boy and Al Kapone. That’s why being involved with this project is so important to Rush. “Someone needs to carry this music on when I’m dead and gone,” says Rush.
Take Me to The River began as a documentary film that set out to tell the story of American soul music, specifically reflecting on the heydays of Memphis soul. The award-winning film, which is currently available to stream on Netflix, details the recording of the Take Me to The River album. The recording brought together iconic Memphis and Mississippi Delta musicians and today’s best talent from the region for a vintage-blues-meets-hip-hop collaboration. Artists like Terrance Howard, Snoop Dog, Frayser Boy and 8Ball were featured alongside blues greats Bobby Rush, Otis Clay and Mavis Staples.
Rush has been intimately involved with this project since the film was released in 2014 and says “Since we started, there have been 7 or 8 artists that have passed away. We need to pass the torch before none of us are left.”
The opportunity to work with this younger generation of artists has been a blessing, says Rush. “They are so respectful. These young rappers like Frayser Boy, Al Kapone and Snoop Dog, they know my music better than me. They grew up listening to our music. Their mamas and grandmamas played our records over and over. People like Snoop enjoyed what we did. They know they are where they are, because of us.”
Now he doesn’t always agree with the lyrics and topics these young artists rap about, and he doesn’t care for the way they wear their pants so low. But he does believe in working together because he says, “We lift the head level up and the pants will come with.”
According to Rush, being on tour and traveling with these younger artists has been easy. “I’m so used to it. It’s not hard. It’s gravy for me,” quips Rush. This comes from a man, mind you, who starts his morning routine by running 3 miles every day.
But perhaps part of the reason why touring for him today is so easy is because of how remarkably different it is compared to when he started back in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Back then, in the era before the civil rights movement, “They used to make us play behind the curtain so folks didn’t see our faces,” says Rush. “When we performed, there was no place to stay, no place to eat, no place to drink, no hotel.”
“But,” remarks Rush, “the more things change the more they stay the same.” For him back then, it was about bringing blues music to white audiences. “They liked it like we liked it… they just didn’t know it yet. That’s the thing about music; it’s the link between us all. It’s the Band-Aid for all the troubles in the world.”
For Rush, this Take Me to The River collaboration between generations and genres has truly been a blessing. As he sees it, music is a gift and one to be shared. Rush excitedly declares, “Music is one of the only things that bonds folks regardless of race, religion, politics, gender or age. It unites us.”
This historical, once-in-a-lifetime evening of Memphis soul music comes to the Lincoln Center stage October 26 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $15 and are available at LCtix.com.
Get a taste of Take Me to the River here: