Warp + Weft: Otis Rush – ‘Essential Collection: The Classic Cobra Recordings 1956-1958’

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Love that suit.

Otis Rush
Essential Collection: The Classic Cobra Recordings 1956-1958
Varese Sarabande
Produced by Willie Dixon

It’s impossible to deny Otis Rush’s rightful place within the DNA of rock and roll and modern blues. Led Zeppelin covered “I Can’t Quit You Baby” (Rush’s first single for Chicago’s Cobra Records) to stunning effect on their first album, stripping it bare and then refashioning it into an over-the-top slice of rock melodrama. John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers’ rendition of Rush’s best-known song, “All Your Love,” was one of the tracks that cemented Eric Clapton’s godlike status early in his career. Even if you want to crap on Clapton generally, it’s hard to deny his vicious guitar work on the track—keeping in mind it’s an almost note for note recreation of Rush’s original. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s backing band, Double Trouble, took their name from one of Rush’s best songs.

And yes, we could talk all day about Rush’s guitar work (he was a lefty who played a right-handed guitar upside down like Albert King and Jimi Hendrix), or his place in history as a part of the West Side Soul sound alongside Magic Sam and Robert Nighthawk, but what I’d like to do is focus back on his actual recordings. Not as historical artifacts or as how-to lessons for aspiring blues guitar virtuosos, but as living, breathing songs that remain every bit as immediate today as they were when they were pressed onto wax back in the ’50s.

The Classic Cobra Recordings opens with “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” and its fuzzy, mono warmth is immediately all around you. It’s a sound that would seem a lot more dated if there weren’t so many bands shooting for the same kind of lo-fi wash right now. Recent records by Grizzly Bear, Sunset Rubdown, and others have all dialed back the kind of gloss that even the most amateur of home recording setups can achieve in favor of grit and dirt. It’s hard to call it a bona fide movement, since so much of the mainstream is still dead set on achieving crystal clarity with high-end stereo systems and high resolution CDs, but it seems that with the mp3 as the dominant format—and websites like MySpace as the dominant distributors of music—there’s been a renewed and perhaps nostalgic interest in quick and dirty recording techniques that used to be a necessity.

Take recording in mono, for instance. It involves an entirely different kind of mindset than making a record in stereo. Instruments grow and recede in different ways, and as they rise up and then disappear, you can’t track them all the way from silence to full voice. On “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” the horn section swells in places, only to be overtaken by Rush’s voice, which is brushed aside by his guitar, which blends directly into the lightly tinkling piano that provides near constant color throughout the song. The drums are reduced to kick (which thumps right along with the bass) and snare, with only a hint of distant ride providing a steady pulse.

The net effect is a track that breathes organically, a quality which is sorely lacking from the bulk of modern blues recordings. The sound hits you all at once, much more akin to the live experience of music, and it seems as if the sweat, grime, and smoke of the Chicago clubs where these songs were born has been pressed directly into the fabric of the recordings. You can smell the spilled and stale beer and see the fake wood paneling and neon lights.

Lyrically, “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is a harrowing tale of dependence and self-denial, a particularly intense strain of slow blues, but firmly a blues. “Sit Down Baby” is a far different animal, a jump blues that frames its verses with an instrumental turnaround. It starts with a common blues image (“The lil’ red rooster told the lil’ brown hen / You ain’t laid an egg / since I don’t know when”) but ends with a surprisingly topical verse: “The CIO told the U.S. Steel / ‘We don’t have to go for no / dirty deal.'” That’d be the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which merged with the American Federation of Labor to form the AFL-CIO in 1955. Prior to that time, though, it was known as a radical union organization that was open to African-Americans. So yes, you just heard a blues singer conflate a nursery rhyme about roosters and chickens with the struggle for fair labor practices. Point that out the next time someone says blues is either mopey or just about having a good time.

This leads us to the most perplexing track on the disc, “Violent Love.” This Willie Dixon original (which was covered by Oingo Boingo—seriously, look it up) would seem like a completely innocuous love song, were it not for the fact that every verse ends with the declaration, “I want to make violent love to you.” The first parts of the verses certainly betray no ill intent (“I want to kiss you every night / I want to squeeze and hold you tight” and “I want to make a little whoopee, too / and I want to have some fun with you”) and Rush’s tone is perfectly sunny, possessing none of the desperation that so often manifests itself in his performances. Perhaps this is a case where historical perspective makes odd that which seemed perfectly normal at the time. Maybe we’ll experience a similar cognitive dissonance over “… Baby One More Time” somewhere down the line. Or maybe we do right now.

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Otis Rush, circa 1969

As interesting as the digressions from straight blues territory into more pop areas are, the real treasures here are the tracks that emphasize Rush’s biting guitar and bone-chilling howl, like “My Love Will Never Die.” Certain clues (sound quality, the fact that “I Can’t Quit You Baby” was Rush’s first single for Cobra) suggest that this compilation is at least in an approximation of chronological order, and if that’s the case, it seems like the emphasis gradually shifted from the lighter sound of the early tracks to the darker and heavier sound of the later tracks. There’s a common myth that Muddy Waters came straight up from the Delta, exchanged his acoustic for an electric, and had an immediate hit with “I Can’t Be Satisfied” because it was simply a more aggressive sounding version of the Delta blues.

Couldn’t be further from the truth. Waters cut two tracks with his working band (“Gypsy Woman” and “Little Anna Mae”) that got shelved and only then cut “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home” with just Willie Dixon on bass. The point is, blues at the time wasn’t some country bumpkin that got a kick in the pants from Waters: Full bands were working the Chicago clubs and that’s what the labels were trying to sell the public—cleaned up versions of what they heard in the bars. But what sold were the stripped down versions of the songs that strongly recalled the vibe of the music a lot of the Chicago transplants had left behind in the South.

And so while the easy stroll of “She’s a Good ‘Un” proves an ideal platform for showcasing Rush’s stinging and swinging guitar tone, the sequencing of this compilation makes pretty much everything else feel like prelude when it comes to the one-two punch of “Checking on My Baby” and “Double Trouble.” Here, Rush dramatically comes into his own.

“Checking on My Baby” is almost glacially slow and equally sloppy, dropping great chunks of debris in its wake as it rolls from the speakers. Rush’s lead, Ike Turner’s single-note guitar line, and a punchy tenor sax all vie for attention through the intro, but when Rush steps to the mic, there’s no mistaking who’s in charge. “Everyday,” he sings, stretching the word into an entire line, riding up and down its curves like it’s the only thing he’s got left to rely on before pulling it up into a ghostly falsetto. “I look for sunshine / though it rains / Every time I check on my baby / She checkin’ on another man.” It’s a tale of heartbreak and betrayal as old as love itself, but it’s Rush’s chilling vocal performance that gives it unbearable weight. He crawls back up to that falsetto again and again, echoing the ghostly wail of Mississippi’s Skip James. Like Waters’ evocation of an electrified back porch on “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” Rush calls forth James’ eerie keen and sets it deep inside a wall of modern sound.

“Double Trouble” is perhaps less urgent, despite its brisker pace, but Rush has traded his personal heartbreak in for something broader. His guitar playing is finer, more reserved, but as the horns breathe softly in the background, his pleas are no less fiery. “I lay awake at night / I fall so low, I’m just so troubled / It’s hard to keep a job / Laid off in double trouble / But hey hey, they say you can make it if you try / Some of this generation is millionaires / It’s hard for me to keep decent clothes to wear.” His guitar work is antsy and uneasy, Rush worrying the tremolo arm on his Stratocaster. The isolation and desperation in the song is palpable, the protagonist not just a victim of bad luck or a bad woman, but also of racism and class divides.

Playing the blues was never about technical facility. If you look at the titans of the electric era of the genre—Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Albert King, B.B. King, Otis Rush—you’ll see that their legacies can’t be reduced to a guitar tone, or a signature lick, even though those things are easy enough to ape. They built identities through their songs, their instrumental prowess, their vocals, their performances, and their records, even if they had little control of their recorded works.

It’s easy to look at blues today and decry it for what it is—a co-opted music being kept alive largely by well-to-do middle-aged white guys. But it’s not so hard to go back to albums like Rush’s Complete Cobra Recordings and appreciate these durable songs of regret and longing not as museum pieces, but as thick and vibrant slabs of swagger and fire.

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