Music

He Ain't Studdin' Us: Bobby Rush Discusses New Memoir

Bobby Rush has lived a long and storied life which he describes in his new memoir, I Ain't Studdin' Ya: My American Blues Story.
Bobby Rush has lived a long and storied life which he describes in his new memoir, I Ain't Studdin' Ya: My American Blues Story. Photo By Bill Steber

Bobby Rush is the last of his tribesmen. Rush and his good friend Buddy Guy may be the final living links to the original bluesmen and neither artist shows signs of slowing down.

This year alone Rush took home his second Grammy for his fantastic 2020 album Rawer Than Raw and released his memoir I Ain’t Studdin' Ya: My American Blues Story. This past June he performed in Houston for the Juneteenth celebration at the Miller Outdoor Theatre and put on a performance that was equivalent to taking a master class on showmanship.

On that hot June night, Rush never stopped moving and singing, giving the audience his brand of blues and R&B complete with amazing harmonica solos, sexy dancing and of course, racy jokes.

By the time Miller turned on the house lights, Rush was still singing and jumped off stage to greet his fans who represented a wide range of ages and backgrounds but all had one thing in common, big smiles on their faces. It was clear that night that Rush is a man who loves what he does, a feeling confirmed in his memoir.

“At 87 years old, I have 397 records. There's not another blues singer ever lived that have that many records. I'm the oldest blues singer that’s living in the world, not just this category but in the world,” says Rush who also rightfully prides himself on owning the masters of his songs and maintaining his status as an independent artist making him in his own words “ a dangerous product.”

In I Ain’t Studdin' Ya, Rush recalls with great detail his lifelong journey in the music business beginning with his father pulling out an old harmonica from his overalls pocket where a young Rush instantly got hooked on the blues.

“Everything about the book is true but a few things. I said I wouldn't sleep with a fat woman no more, I lied about that,” he laughs.

Rush wrote the book along with Herb Powell, author of My Life With Earth, Wind and Fire, after the two were introduced by a mutual friend who suggested to Powell that he write about Rush's life. 

“It just fell in line,” he says of the friendship and writing process. “He fell in love with me and I fell in love with him. I like his writing and his ability to write things indirectly and directly.”

I Ain't Studding' Ya begins in Carquit, Louisiana where Rush was born Emmitt Ellis Jr. He later changing his name out of respect for his father who was a pastor. As a young boy in Louisiana, Rush and his family worked themselves to the bone as sharecroppers picking cotton and cutting sugarcane.

The family relocated to Pine Bluff, Arkansas a move that proved beneficial not only financially but also culturally as Rush explains in his memoir how the Black community there was thriving with businesses and most importantly, juke joints.

It was during his time with the famous Rabbit Foot Minstrels that Rush absorbed all the tricks of the trade in entertainment and really learned how to draw people in like a magnet further strengthening his natural talent.

“You can look at me and tell that I've been here a long time. I’ve been on the stage 70 years,” he says, clarifying that if someone hasn’t seen him live, they don’t know him at all.

When Rush relocated to Chicago as a young man, he really got a first class education in the blues from the likes of Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Albert King.  It's clear through his writing that is forever grateful and appreciative of these friendships and the guidance they provided to him as a performer.

He delves into the ups and downs of the music business and his life, including his very personal tragedy of losing three of his children to sickle cell anemia. Rush confronts the racism he and his family experienced head on and takes readers back in time to the world of segregation and later integration, a word he admits he didn’t even know the meaning of initially.

It’s shocking to a modern mindset to read that he was turned away from Chess Records simply for being a Black man who knew how to read. Rush knows that way of thinking was unfortunately a product of the times he was in, but sadly the same kind of racism continues to pollute society even today.

“I got to let you know, everything that's changed really ain’t changed. It remains the same,” he says solemnly.

"I got to let you know, everything that's changed really ain’t changed. It remains the same."

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“They did give us a day saying Juneteenth day, but yet they want to take my votes away from me to vote. How black that can be? So now you can understand why I have been on the front line because I know some things politically and spiritually because I’m a blues singer. I’m a biblical spirit, that means I don't know what I should know, but I'm smart enough to know I don't know anything.”

The theme of cheating runs throughout his book. Rush describes cheating death not once, but four times with him being shot as a young man, surviving his BBQ restaurant exploding, a serious tour van accident and most recently COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic.

Rush doesn’t shy away from telling stories about his peers in the music industry that cheated him or even from confessing his own sins, including submitting to temptations of the “flesh” as he says. He also describes the deep pain he felt when his first wife cheated on him.

“I had to think about it because I was telling off on myself and a lot of people. A lot of people in this business that I looked up to but then that lied to me and a lot of other musicians and they wasn't all white people. I'm going to get some slack for this book.

“I don't know how many times but I sure been cheated and I talk about it for conviction because it's a blessing to be able to come out of that. Don't sit down and cry for me, it's a blessing to be able to get up and get out of there. If you think I went through something hard, just think about you and myself and other people around since this pandemic began.

“You don't have to feel sorry for me, just put yourself in my shoes and treat me like you wish to be treated. You don't have to feel sorry for me cause I'm a Black man. I’m proud to be Black. I’m proud to be a Black man who plays the blues and I want the world to know that I'm proud to do what I do as a blues man and proud to be who I am, I’m not ashamed of it.

With an insider’s perspective on the evolution of the blues, R&B and rock and roll, Rush describes how "rock and roll" was nothing more than whitewashed R&B made to capture white audiences.

It was his time on the Chitlin' Circuit which made him the “King of the Chitlin' Circuit” and Rush describes with great detail and pride how the circuit celebrated blackness and created an environment for Black artists and attendees to just be themselves.

Rush’s determination and hard work is admirable and evident in his life story. Though his contemporaries included household names like Muddy Waters and Elmore James, he himself wasn’t always so well known.
He describes how his 1971 hit “Chicken Heads” pushed him further into the mainstream and right on target with the Southern blues, soul and funk movement of the time while never losing his naughty, country boy sense of humor.
I Ain’t Studding' Ya takes readers right up to 2019 when Rush was featured in Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name, a film about the career of Rudy Ray Moore who Rush had performed with on the Chitlin' Circuit.

Of course, Rush’s story wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging his deep friendship with his compatriot in the blues, Buddy Guy who he says he speaks with frequently and at length most recently appearing on Guy’s radio show.

“I wrote this book and I wrote this book for two or three reasons. The main reason I wrote it is because I know that some Black people in my shoes have seen harder times than I ever saw. My doubts have been not as low as theirs have been but I'm saying all the battles that I've been in, if I make it out of these battles that I've been in, you can make it too. That’s all I’m trying to say.”

Just as Rush did not want to get off the historic stage of the Miller back in June, he’s clearly not ready to leave his career behind. He is still currently performing, though he admits he is being cautious about booking too many shows due to the rise in COVID cases.

“I just love what I'm doing. I love people and people enthuse me and I'm still inspired about a lot of the things that I'm doing in this business. I’m a blessed man to be enthused because a man and a woman can live a long time without food but you can't live long without hope, I still have hope.”

I Ain't Studdin' Ya: My American Blues Story
By Bobby Rush and Herb Powell
306 pp.
$29
Hachette Books
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Gladys Fuentes is a first generation Houstonian whose obsession with music began with being glued to KLDE oldies on the radio as a young girl. She is a freelance music writer for the Houston Press, contributing articles since early 2017.
Contact: Gladys Fuentes