Music

Bobby Rush: Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History Of Bobby Rush

An amazingly curated and lovingly rendered collection that examines the wildly entertaining music of Bobby Rush.


Bobby Rush

Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History of Bobby Rush

Label: Omnivore
US Release Date: 2015-11-27
UK Release Date: 2015-11-27
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Bobby Rush Is Now and Will Always Be a Step Ahead of Us All

Hearing Bobby Rush sing is one of the great pleasures of this life and thanks to this new four-disc/70-plus-tracks collection, you can indulge in that pleasure as often as you’d like. And if you still don’t get enough? Start from the beginning and work your way front to back again. Like many legendary figures it’s difficult to peg when our hero was born. It was in Louisiana, in November, sometime after the Great Depression had taken hold but before the United States entered the Second World War. We do know that he was born Emmett Ellis, Jr. and that his father was a preacher and that because his father was a preacher he decided to change his name. To keep the name of a good man and place the music he played in the places he played it would have doubtless brought some shame upon the elder Ellis. And so Emmett Ellis became Bobby Rush. Maybe that’s as good a place as any to mark his birth because, unlike some of his peers, Rush doesn’t seem to have struggled as hard to find his voice.

Sure, the hard, sweaty funk that permeates from “Let It All Hang Out” and “Gotta Be Funky” isn’t exactly present in Rush’s earliest singles (including “Someday”) but what is evident from the first is that this is a man who liked to have a good time, hold court from behind the mic and take the listener to somewhere else in the course of a three minute song. It’s hard not to be transfixed, transcended and transported as the master works his way through “Sock Boo Ga Loo”, “Bow-Legged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man Pt.1” or “Hey Western Union Man”. As is the case with the best music you feel like you’re part of a special club when you lend Bobby Rush your ear. These songs, it seems, were made just for you. Bobby wants you to listen. Bobby has something to say. Bobby wants you to have a good time.

It’s via “Hey Western Union Man” and several others that run across this collection’s second disc that we see Rush joining rhythm and blues with touches of other rural music, including country. Like his peer Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Rush understands that some distinctions are subtle and that as long as those distinctions all but don’t exist there’s no reason not to cross the imaginary property line. But he wasn’t above mixing up a variety of urban music either. There’s stuff here that you could claim was influenced by or in fact influenced disco. But it’s not disco. And the stuff that recalls country ain’t country either. It’s Bobby Rush music. “Talk To Your Daughter”, “A Man Can Give It (But He Can’t Take It)” or “I’m Gone” all remind us of this. And yet that music doesn’t belong to the time it came from. “I’m Gone” carries a 1992 release date but you easily feel like it could come from 1978 or even 1974. Or maybe a couple of years forward from now. What does it really matter? It’s not the era that makes this music great. It’s the man and the feelings of the man. And his humor. His soul.

Unsurprisingly, Rush began as a singles artist and so much of the early material is released in relative isolation from other songs. But there were fine albums later on and we get a taste of a few of them, including 1995’s One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show and 2000’s Hoochie Man. There’s even a sampling of previously unreleased material that’s as good as anything else you’d want to find here.

The fourth disc leans on material from the last decade, include an incredible reimaging of “Take Me To The River”, a nasty number called “Blind Snake” and the heavy “Another Murder In New Orleans”. Rush doesn’t really sound like he’s aged but he does sound like he’s gotten better, like a man who knows every nuance of his own creativity and can access it without notice. And, yeah, it’s worth saying again: He often sounds like he’s a decade or too ahead of us still.

If there’s one disappointment here it’s that there’s not much in the way of live material and based on what we do have it seems that a second box could and should be dedicated to Rush on the stage. But that’s a small quibble to have for a collection that is put together with such dedication and affection, two commodities all too rare on collections such as this.

The packaging is equally fine and an impressive booklet features tender recollections from Cary Baker, a detailed chronology from Bill Dahl and testimonials from seemingly every major figure you could imagine. Who can deny the impact that this man has had on those who’ve encountered his magical charms? Surely not anyone who takes even a casual listen to this masterfully-realized collection.

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