Bessie Smith Strut (M.L. King Boulevard)
• 5:15 p.m. Big James & The Chicago Playboys
• 6:45 p.m. Rusty Wright Band
• 8:15 p.m. Boukou Groove
Bessie Smith Hall
• 5:30 p.m. Nikki Hill
• 7 p.m. Andy Allo
• 8:35 p.m. Bobby Rush
What: Bobby Rush.
When: 8:35 p.m. tonight.
Where: Bessie Smith Hall, 200 E. M.L. King Blvd.
Admission: $10 tickets, $7 to Riverbend wristband owners.
June 6-14 • 21st Century Waterfront, Chattanooga, TN
After more than 50 years behind the mike and a dozen Blues Music Awards to his name, Bobby Rush has earned the right to brag a bit.
Give him the chance and he'll liken his skills as a front man to those of James Brown and describe himself as "born with the gift of entertainment and showmanship." Think the sexually outlandish songs of Clarence "Blowfly" Reid were the first examples of rap music? Think again, Rush says.
"He was the second rapper," the 73-year-old singer says, laughing during a recent phone interview. "I say that because I'm probably the first."
A Louisiana-born R&B and funk-influenced bluesman, Rush began his career playing venues in Chicago but, as a teen, he moved down to stages at juke joints on the South's so-called Chitlin' Circuit. Even during those early days, he displayed a penchant for trickery that he stills wears as a proudly as a prized mink stole.
Notorious for his pranks, Rush once earned double pay at a steady gig in the '50s by dressing in disguise as his own band's emcee, warming up the crowd before he went backstage, removed his emcee outfit, which included a fake Fu Manchu mustache, and came out to play. Eventually the club owner caught wise that "Pretty Bob" was just Rush and confronted him, but he'd been so effective at wooing the crowd, the owner let Rush keep it up.
When he recorded songs for Chicago's legendary Chess Records, Rush managed to secure an almost unheard of arrangement by retaining rights to his master recordings by saying he was under contract with a man named Emmet Ellis - Rush's birth name - who he suggested had ties to the Mafia. In reality, it was just another persona.
Dramatic flair has been Rush's bread and butter all his life. Being a performer isn't just about playing the right notes, he says, but about playing the crowd, too.
"A record only lasts as long as they play it and it's hot. A good show never cools off," Rush says. "You can't teach a man showmanship; it's something you're born with. You can't teach a man to do what I do."
With acres of braggadocio to spare, Rush is quick to tout his accomplishments, from the two dozen records he's released to his pair of Grammy nominations. But he's just as nimble in his recognition that he owes a lot to his fanbase and to point out that whatever success he's earned has been without making compromises to the music.
"I don't play the politics with trying to get people out to vote for me like I'm running for president or something," he says. "I just put the music out there and hope people like it.
"I don't record like this because I think it's what black people like, and I don't record like this because I think it's what white people like. I record what I feel is a good song and good music and hope that everyone likes it. God has blessed me to be around long enough to put my mark on the wheel, and it came back to me."
Three years ago, Rush came to the Scenic City as one of the headliners of the Bessie Smith Heritage Festival. He says he was honored by the chance to pay homage to the Chattanooga-born vocalist described by many as the Empress of the Blues. Tonight, he'll have that opportunity once more as the headliner of this year's Bessie Smith Strut.
Because of a prior engagement, Rush almost had to turn down the opportunity to play the festival, which he had been offered several times in recent years. This year, though, he finally decided that he owed it to the organizers and backed out of his other gig.
"It feels so good for me to be able to come back," Rush says. "I said, 'You've asked me so long. Let me get off my high horse.' ... I called my agent and said, 'Whatever you have set for the 9th, cancel it. Let's make it happen for Chattanooga.'"
Contact Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.