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Otis Rush, blues singer and guitarist with intensely emotional style, dies at 83

Blues legend Otis Rush at the 33rd annual Chicago Blues Festival on June 12, 2016 in Chicago, Ill. His death Saturday at age 84 was announced on his website by his wife, Masaki Rush. (Karen I. Hirsch/Zuma Press/TNS)

Otis Rush, a blues singer and guitarist whose soaring voice, emotionally charged riffs and searing live performances made him a major influence on 1960s rockers and one of his genre’s most acclaimed musicians, died Saturday. He was 83.

The cause was complications of a stroke he had suffered in 2003, according to his wife, Masaki Rush, who announced the death on Rush’s website but did not say where he died.

A self-taught, southpaw guitarist who played a right-handed model upside down, Rush developed a quavering guitar sound and a throaty baritone voice that frequently burst into falsetto. Fusing rhythm-and-blues and the country blues of the Mississippi Delta, he exerted a profound influence on an entire generation of musicians.

Among his chief acolytes were the British guitarists Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, who recorded a cover of Rush’s 1956 song “I Can’t Quit You Baby” for Led Zepplin’s debut album. Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan named his rhythm section after the bluesman’s 1958 song “Double Trouble,” in which Rush chronicled the economic anxieties of African Americans on Chicago’s South and West Sides:

“I lay awake at nights,

“False love, just so troubled

“It’s hard to keep a job

“Laid off and having double trouble

“Hey hey, yeah, they say you can make it if you try

“Yes, some of this generation is millionaires

“It’s hard for me to keep decent clothes to wear”

Although his career spanned six decades and numerous recordings, Rush’s reputation rests largelyon the records he made between 1956 and 1958 for Cobra Records, a short-lived, shoestring operation run by a TV repairman in Chicago.

His memorable recordings for the label included “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” (1958), a hypnotic rumba that shifts into a shuffle during the guitar break. He wrote the song while traveling to the studio for a recording date with Ike Turner’s band the Kings of Rhythm. The song’s minor-keyed tonality inspired saxophonist Junior Walker’s early Motown hit “Cleo’s Mood,” while its rhythms were echoed in Fleetwood Mac’s song “Black Magic Woman,” later covered by Carlos Santana.

Rush said he was inspired to form his first band in 1955 by another Chicago bluesman, Muddy Waters. But he owed his vocal phrasing to gospel-inflected artists such as Ray Charles, Little Willie John and B.B. King, favoring a doomy quality that once led guitarist Jimmy Johnson to declare that “even if he be playing in a major key, he sang minor.”

His sound proved crucial to the development of West Side blues, so named for the Chicago clubs frequented by Rush and other like-minded performers. (The style’s name was something of a misnomer; Rush played throughout the city and lived for a while on the South Side.)

Unlike fellow Chicago singer-guitarist Buddy Guy, a consummate showman, Rush did not dance around, play guitar behind his back or walk through the crowd with a long guitar cord. He preferred to let his music speak for itself.

“When he is inspired, he bends and twists each note in a phrase so delicate that his instrument seems to be forming actual words,” New York Times music critic Robert Palmer wrote in 1982. “It is the quality and feeling of his guitar playing,” he added, “the fine points of the way he uses the language, that let the listener know how he is feeling and what he is thinking about on a particular night.”

Rush’s sound was driven in large part by his unorthodox playing style, which enabled him to generate “swooping, slithery bends and time-warping vibrato,” as guitar teacher Dave Rubin once wrote. He could imitate a slide guitarist without a slide, and the fluid, vocal quality of his fretwork helped him turn hits by singers Aretha Franklin (“Baby I Love You”) and Tina Turner (“I Think Its Gonna Work Out Fine”) into compelling guitar instrumentals.

After Cobra went out of business in 1959, Rush joined the larger Chess label, where he recorded another blues standard, “So Many Roads.” However, he grew frustrated as the label did more to promote his blues rivals, Guy and Little Milton. He later signed with the Houston-based label Duke, which released just one single by Rush.

While many of Rush’s recordings were celebrated, he endured a succession of bad record deals, bad breaks and some of his own bad decisions. “Right Place, Wrong Time,” regarded as one of his finest studio recordings, was recorded for the major label Capitol in 1971. But the album sat in the company vaults for five years, only to finally see release on a much smaller independent label.

Rush could be both difficult and demanding about his music. He once walked out on a session when he felt that his amplifier didn’t sound right – and then never finished the session. Without Rush’s involvement, Alligator Records, an independent blues label, reedited and resequenced an album that he had previously recorded for a Swedish label, leading to a long-standing feud with Alligator that played out in the pages of Living Blues magazine.

Rush stopped recording in the late 1970s, only to return with live albums that featured performances such as a 1986 concert in Montreux, Switzerland, where he played alongside Clapton and guitarist Luther Allison.

His last studio recording, “Any Place I’m Going” (1998), which he produced with former Hi Records arranger Willie Mitchell, won a Grammy for best traditional blues album. But it also showcased Rush’s versatility, featuring covers of soul classics by Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Lloyd Price. The title song, a Rush original, saw the bluesman incorporating reggae rhythms.

The sixth of seven children, he was born April 29, 1935, on a farm near Philadelphia, Mississippi, according to producer Dick Shurman, a family friend. (His birth year is often given as 1934.) His parents were sharecroppers, and Otis often had to forgo school when the farm’s overseer summoned him and his siblings to work the fields.

He was 10 when he started playing guitar, borrowing the instrument from his uncle in secret. In the late 1940s, he moved to Chicago and worked in the stockyards before forming his first band with guitarist “Poor” Bob Woodfork.

A detailed list of survivors was not immediately available.

“I love a good-sounding guitar because that’s my work,” Rush once said. “That’s my pride. I get paid for it and I have to be very careful with it. I must respect it because you don’t get this every day. It’s a gift.”

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