In 'I Ain't Studdin' Ya,' Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reflects On Over 7 Decades Of Making Music
Editor’s note: This segment was rebroadcast on March 9, 2022. Find that audio here.
American blues musician Bobby Rush took inspiration for the name of his memoir — “I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya” — after one of his hundreds of song titles.
The Grammy-winning musician shares stories about his life dating all the way back to the Jim Crow era. Rush has written over 400 songs and won his first Grammy at 83 years old for his album “Porcupine Meat.”
In the book, one of his earliest memories he recounts is when he created a guitar from a broom with a wire in his mother’s house.
“I put a brick at the top [of the broom] and a ball at the bottom, so that was the blues man,” Rush says. “That’s where I started from.”
Rush made his career through large venues between Chicago and the Mississippi Delta — now known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. He says he wanted to emigrate from the southern states due to the racial tensions at the time.
He first wanted to start his career in Chicago but only had enough money to travel to Memphis, Tennessee, where he started to play with B.B. King on Beale Street, he says. After making $2 to $3 a day in the band, Rush says he traveled to East St. Louis before settling in Chicago where he met Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
“So now I’m king of the Chitlin’ Circuit and I am not ashamed of it. I am who I am,” he says. “And I love what I’m doing and I display my soul into what I do.”
Despite having a successful career, it took Rush a long time before he achieved his first hit song — “Chicken Heads.” He says the record was first cut in 1968 but it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the song reached No. 1.
“I didn’t have contact,” Rush says. “It takes a lot of politics — it wasn’t who you know, it’s who knows you.
Even though he was close with music legends such as Muddy Waters and B.B King, Rush says they weren’t doing anything to help advance his career. They were interested in talking about women, parties and drugs, he says.
Now at age 87, Rush’s motivation to write this book wasn’t to gain popularity.
“I want to write the book because I want people to know if I can make it, you can too,” he says.
Rush faced many challenges throughout his lifetime. He nearly died in a gas explosion and a bus crash. He was also sent to prison on a drug charge.
“That was hard for me to keep going but every valley that I had, something or somebody came along to lift me out of my valleys,” he says.
And he experienced many personal tragedies as well: Rush says he was the only surviving member of his family after he endured the loss of his three sister-in-laws, his two daughters, his wife and his son. He eventually remarried and had another son who is now chief of police in Jackson, Mississippi.
“I picked my pieces up and licked my wounds,” Rush says. “I went on to do business as a blues singer and just keep singing and doing what I was doing because God with his work, I want to be obedient to what he sent me to do.”
While other people were cutting records and making music, Rush hustled to make money working at a hot dog stand and a barbecue joint. White people who owned record companies wanted him to be someone he wasn’t, he says.
“I didn’t want to be their N-word,” Rush says. “If I’m going to be the N-word, I’m going to be it for myself. I’m not going to kiss their butts on their terms.”
Throughout his career, Rush experienced many forms of racism. He says he was never signed to a record label because he was a Black man who can read and write.
“I haven’t been always popular because I kind of went against the grain,” he says. “I’m free because I did it my way.”
Before COVID-19 hit, Rush says he played 200 shows a year for the last 50 years. He says he had to work harder than other big bands to make the same amount of money a year to keep the band alive and food on the table.
“I did what I had to do and I am still doing it,” he says. “And I’m so glad to be back.”
Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Camila Beiner adapted it for the web.
Book Excerpt: ‘I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya’
By Bobby Rush
Mud, Walter, and Jimmy
After Big Joe Turner, the next person I saw at the Big Rec was Jimmy Reed. His performance had a profound effect on me. I had never heard a group that had Jimmy Reed’s band’s feel. There was a mysterious chemistry between the drummer, bassist, and guitarist. They were playing behind the beat—almost dragging—but it was still tight as a tick and hypnotizing. Ya couldn’t help but fall under the spell of that feel. A few years later, in 1957, you’d hear that vibe on one of his signature songs, “Honest I Do.”
But it cost me only 75 cents to change my life. ’Cause that was the ticket price to see Muddy Waters at the Big Rec. Little Walter was in his band. Muddy, with that moon face and twisted mouth, sang from the Rec stage like he was trying to tell me something. Raising his eyebrows high and low while he sang, he really let his band shine. Often he’d look at one of his musicians and say, “Play that thing, boy.”
With Little Walter blowin’ that harp right behind him, he gave praise up a lot. Like most young musicians, you learn by watching others. I soaked up every one of Muddy’s musicians that night. Going back and forth with my eyeballs, I was a sponge. And I would do a lot of soppin’ first time I saw Muddy Waters.
After seeing some greats perform at the Big Rec, my dreams felt possible. Because there they were, standing right in front of me. The greats came down to earth. What remained in outer space was recording and songwriting. I wanted to know more. And in my case, that was the basics. I started to listen to music, more like a doctor examining a patient. I checked out the lyrics. I learned what sets the verse apart from the hook, word-wise. I was figuring out what made great guitar riffs and the power of repetition that created a bass line. Still, I just kept putting my pennies together, working little jobs, and booking little gigs. From gig to gig I went, just trying to survive. This sounds crazy, but I didn’t know what I was doing—but somehow I knew what I was doing.
This was 1952, right before the dam burst with what would be the birth of rock ’n’ roll. But don’t get it twisted. As Ike Turner and a hundred other Negro musicians would soon say to me: that rock ’n’ roll is nothin’ but R&B.
Excerpted from I AIN’T STUDDIN’ YA: My American Blues Story by Bobby Rush, with Herb Powell. Copyright © 2021. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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