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Blues Legend Bobby Rush breaks down racism and reality during International Blues Challenge

by Tracy Sow, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

The world of blues convened in Memphis recently for the 36th International Blues Challenge (IBC) presented by the Blues Foundation. Musicians from around the world flooded the juke joints on Beale, competing for bragging rights.

But it was Bobby Rush – an 86-year-old living legend – who stole the show for some. And he did it with a brutally honest conversation about his career – how he navigated race and segregation to carve out his iconic ­career.

Rush, a Grammy-award winner, was the featured guest for the “Leading Your Own Career workshop, and he wasted no time getting down to some hardcore realities of the music business. At King’s Palace, before an overwhelmingly white audience, Rush explained how he chose his manager.

“I have a white manager to open doors that I cannot open for myself,” said Rush, who began his career at the height of segregation in 1951. “But I got one that was hungry enough for me to be able to send him where I needed him to go.”

Why not a big name?

“If you go with the very top manager that is no longer hungry, you can’t send him anywhere,” Rush replied.

It was quiet enough to hear a pin drop as Rush simply explained his reality.

“You have to play the politics to get ahead.”

Known for his bold on-stage performances, Rush didn’t back off from uncomfortable topics as the question and answer period opened. Some had heard stories of a Chicago performance in which Rush performed behind a curtain because white audiences wanted to hear him but not see him. One middle aged white man declared, “I am from up north, so I am not familiar with that kind of stuff.”

Rush sarcastically fired back: “Are you kidding me? That happens all over – north, south, east and west.”

Another woman asked if it mattered who preserves the blues.

“No, it does not matter who sings the blues,” he said. “But it matters that you give credit to where you got it from.”

Someone shouted the name of Stevie Ray Vaughn, a white blues guitarist, as an example.

“Yes, but Stevie Ray Vaughan credits ­Albert King,” replied Rush.

Rush’s candor was almost like church for Eddie Cotton, a 2015 IBC winner, who thanked Rush for keeping it real.

Keith Johnson, the great nephew of Muddy Waters, leads Keith Johnson and the Big Muddy Band. They were representing the Mississippi Delta Blues Society of Indianola. (Photo: Michael Pachis)

“I agree with you and have been telling artists the same thing for the last 20-plus years what you have to go through in this business,” said Cotton. “Maybe they will finally listen to the truth from you.”

Rush answered with admiration for Cotton and his music.

“Cotton, I have heard you do some things musically that should have been gold,” Rush said. “But you know what you gotta do – and that’s play the politics.”

One young white male seemed exhausted with all of the talk of race, finally asking: “Mr. Rush why do you keep emphasizing race and not just keep it on the art?”

There were audible groans before Rush calmly replied, “because I am a Black man and that is what it is for me.”

Elsewhere, at the Women in Blues event, blues diva Red Velvet shared the pain that drives blues music – first with stories and props, then with her performance.

“Red Velvet brought it home and made it real for the audience to truly experience the pain inherently in our DNA,” said local icon Ms. Zeno, the Mojo Queen. “She told the history of the blues and showed it also. In her set, she pulled out slave shackles and a whip as she sang from the depth of her soul.

“She was so powerful that she had white people crying and feeling her every emotion,” Ms. Zeno added. “Now everybody gets the blues. But not everybody can feel the blues that we lived as a people.”

But at the end of the day, the IBC is a competition with two main categories: group and solo/duo. Thursday was the opening day; semifinals were Friday with the finalists competing for top honors at a showcase event at the Orpheum on Saturday.

The Memphis Blues Society was represented in the group competition by the Beverly Davis Band, including Gary Burnside of the iconic R. L. Burnside musical family; and Memphissippi Sounds in the solo/ duo category.

Memphissippi Sounds are a duo comprised of Yella P’s harmonica and Cam Kimbrough (grandson of the legendary Junior Kimbrough) on guitar. Yella P is a Shelby County Schools music teacher who began honing his skills on Beale Street before he could legally drive a car. The duo said they were blown away to see Rush in the audience enjoying their performance.

Cotton enjoyed it too.

“Those boys are the truth!” said Cotton, who was listening nearby. “That Yella P sounds like he been playing that harmonica longer than he has been living.

“It does my heart good to see young Black men carry on the tradition of blues with such superb excellence,” he said.

Each act is evaluated by a panel of three judges. In early rounds, many of the judges are members of blues societies, enthusiasts, members of Blues Foundation and artist/industry professionals.

However, the finals are judged by an elite group of industry professionals with proven track records. In the wee hours of the morning heartbreak would come for hundreds of artists. Only eight bands and eight solo/ duo acts advanced to the finals at the Orpheum.

When the Orpheum showcase was over, Horojo Trio, representing the Ottawa Blues Society, was the first place band winner.  Hector Anchondo of the Blues Society of Omaha won 1st place in the solo/ duo category. Anchondo also won the Memphis Cigar Box Award. Whether those winners represent the best of the competition is in the ear of the beholder.

“I feel sorry that so many of the best performers were eliminated prior to this,” said Thomas “TC” Clay, a Handy Award-winner. “These judges will not get to judge the best to my idea.”

But Rush’s remarks stayed with people, perhaps not in the best way. Some viewed his talk as a blessing to hire white managers. Cotton praised Rush before adding some wisdom of his own. He used the superstar power of Beyoncé to drive home a point.

“Beyoncé could fire all of her management today and hire you,” he told me. “What would be the difference if they called you to hire her? Absolutely nothing. They would call you because they want the product, not the manager.”

It set up what may be the best advice for aspiring musicians at the end of the day.

“Quality is what sells at the end of the day,” Cotton said. “It is purely about the product.”

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