By Art Tipaldi
Art Tipaldi is currently the Editor of Blues Music Magazine, which was founded in Bradenton, and has been a sponsor and advisor of the Bradenton Blues Festival since it began. He’s been writing about the Blues nationally since 1993, and in 2002, published a book called Children of the Blues, which profiles 49 current blues musicians. As a high school English teacher, Art pioneered a course that combined African-American literature and the blues and taught it for 15 years. Though retired, he still continues to conduct classroom workshops for students. One such workshop has been for the Bradenton Blues Festival Blues in Schools program.
As I travel to festivals around the country and world, I can honestly say that what began with modest expectations in 2011, the Bradenton Blues Festival has skyrocketed into one of the premier Blues Festivals in the U.S. From its birth, the Bradenton Blues Festival Weekend has been committed to celebrating America’s unique art form, the Blues. So, it makes perfect sense that the Bradenton Blues Festival would honor Black History Month with the release of its 10th Anniversary line-up.
Each year, the Festival presents a diverse line-up of musicians from older, established artists to younger ones carrying the torch into the new millennium. And this Festival is always looking for ways to expand.
This year’s line-up is a highlight reel of outstanding talent. Friday kicks off with Cece Teneal and Soul Kamotion followed by soul legend and Bradenton favorite Johnny Rawls and acoustic award-winner Doug MacLeod, who will also teach in the Bradenton Blues Festival’s Blues In Schools program.
Saturday continues the party with vocalist Terrie Odabi opening the day followed by Jimmy Carpenter, James Armstrong, and Canadian multi-award winner, Dawn Tyler Watson. The evening’s fireworks continue with the explosive guitar stylings of Bernard Allison followed by 87-year-young Bobby Rush and his one-of-a-kind Revue.
For those unfamiliar with him, Bobby Rush is THE elder statesman of the Blues. Rush, who will celebrate his 88th birthday in Bradenton, started recording almost 70 years ago. From the hundreds and hundreds of recordings he’s made, Bobby was finally recognized by the recording industry with a 2017 Grammy Award and since 2013, five recent nominations including his current 2019 and 2020 releases. And in 2021, Bobby was just nominated with a Blues Music Award for Album of the Year. Proof that one only gets better with age!
Case in point, in February 2020 before the pandemic, I was lucky enough to get to see the Tribute to B.B. King in Port Chester, NY. Though the capacity crowd came to hear Buddy Guy, Ann Wilson, Robert Cray, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, and Susan Tedeschi, the more than 1,500 left with overwhelming appreciation for the night’s oldest performer, Bobby Rush. The very light smattering of applause when Rush was introduced told me that few in the capacity crowd were aware of him. Rush performed his own “Chicken Heads” and his hilariously bawdy “Garbage Man,” on which he rapped the tale and accompanied himself on harmonica. That smattering applause turned into a standing ovation.
That’s Bobby Rush, a groove-slinging musician who traverses musical styles with a broad, contagious smile. Wherever he’s performed around the world, the reaction is the same. In 1999, I saw him entertain at a Blues Foundation Hall of Fame event in the Kennedy Center in D.C. Though unsure of his Chitlin’ Circuit-styled show, by his finale, the audience was patting his shoulders, shaking his hands, and hugging this very inclusive artist.
Years ago, Bobby told me, “I think people want to be entertained and within a few minutes, people are gonna say that Bobby Rush is about entertainment. You can be taught to play a guitar, you can be taught to blow a harp, but you can’t be taught to be an entertainer, you’ve got to be born to do what I do. People like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and B.B. King were all born entertainers. There’s a whole lot of musicians, there’s only a few entertainers.”
From an early age, Bobby knew that he was meant to lead. “I wanted to be the boss. At that time a sideman was getting $13, the bandleader got $21. That was an incentive. It gave you the clout to deal with club owners in a management situation. I probably was the worst player, but I owned all the instruments, I owned a station wagon, and I had the good credit.”
Throughout the decades, he continues to entertain his legions of fans old and new with his showmanship. Bobby is a veteran performer who made his name by traveling the Chitlin’ Circuit, the assortment of Black clubs and theaters around the nation, in its many venues in every place from Chicago, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, and Memphis.
Until the new millennium, much of his entertaining has been centered on performing almost exclusively on the Chitlin’ Circuit in haunts like the Jitter Bugs, Nappies, the Havana Club, Club Paradise, or the Special Occasion Lounge. One such club was The Palms of Bradenton, on East Street near the tracks. Bobby played at The Palms which was THE storied venue in Bradenton from the ‘50s to the late ‘70s, hosting Black artists like James Brown, B.B. King, Etta James, the Temptations, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder.
Bobby still continues to play those essential venues whenever he can. Bobby continues, “I don’t want to cross out the ghetto, the Chitlin’ Circuit, because those are the roots and foundation. That’s where I come from. I praise God because he let me be big enough so I can help these little juke joints that gave all of us the shot we needed. To pay them back, I still try and play more of them. These were the people who made all of us. I’ve got to keep them alive and in business.”
Though he still continues to be a major force on the Chitlin’ Circuit, since 2000, Bobby has also brought his show into primarily mainstream White clubs and festivals with great success. Making the music color blind is the message behind the man. “I just want people to throw this Black and White issue away. Let’s make good music that’s for everybody because the music don’t have no color.”
Yet Bobby also remembers a time when the music had color. Whether it was no rooms at the inn or no gas for his bus or no food at roadside restaurants or even being told to perform behind a curtain so a tavern audience wouldn’t see his face, he learned early about the Jim Crow problems that faced a Black man playing clubs in the South.
But those experiences never swayed Bobby from reaching out to his community or fans. From his Jackson, Mississippi home, he has hosted a jail ministry, fed disadvantaged children, and been involved with local church efforts to offer aid during Hurricane Katrina and other recent disasters. Whenever there is a need, local government’s first call is to Bobby Rush.
Thus, the man who holds up gigantic panties and coyly asks, “Has anybody seen my woman?” also regularly attends a bible study class. The man who crows, “I ain’t hen pecked, just pecked by the right hen,” runs a prison ministry and uses his tour bus to transport rural African-American voters in Jackson, Mississippi, to the polls every November. “I’m pretty tied in with groups helpin’ out black kids who have never been voting. We’re about problem solving in the community.”
His efforts have not gone unnoticed. In addition to his numerous civic awards, Rush was awarded the Blues Foundation’s first ever B.B. King Humanitarian Award in 1998 for his unselfish community service, service that has never stopped. In 2003, he was featured in Martin Scorsese’s Year of the Blues film The Road To Memphis on PBS. Since then, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006, has been honored with a Mississippi Trail Marker in 2008, featured in the film, I Am The Blues in 2017, and recently held his own playing himself in Eddie Murphy’s Rudy Ray Moore biopic, Dolemite Is My Name.
Throughout his life, Bobby always says that at his core he is a Black man singing the Blues. And that he’s appreciative of Blues fans around the world who’ve accepted what he does. “If it wasn’t for the White Blues lovers and the Blues society people, I don’t know what the Blues would be today. In my biblical readings, I’ve learned that you have to remember history in order to know where you’re going.”
That history Bobby Rush understands is the unique power of the Blues. Because the Blues is uniquely American, countries around the world crave to hear this African-American art form. So much so that Bobby has toured the world. In 2007 he was the first Blues artist to perform in China, which bestowed the title, “International Dean of the Blues” on him. After performing at China’s Great Wall, he was named its Friendship Ambassador.
Just what makes the Blues so unique to America? Many Blues scholars point to Middle Passage as the Blues’ seminal birthplace. Once here and sold, Africans used the music and song in their memories to comfort. The Blues in America rose from the harsh, unrelenting conditions Africans found themselves in as slaves.
Before Africans were taken from their land, each country and region produced a rich musical and oral tradition. Music was a participatory activity celebrating every tribe or family’s events. The African griot tradition is a major part of the African traditions and African-American Blues. Griots were primarily the musical storytellers designed to be the oral carriers of the culture of each village. As such, they were the historians and entertainers of each village. The importance of oral expression within the African-American culture traces back to griots.
While working as slaves, Africans found they had two places where they could use these musical traditions freely, the fields where they worked and the churches where they prayed. The field hollers and work songs they invented were designed to lighten the load of the task. They were also a means of telling stories, passing along news, and releasing frustrations.
After the slaves were freed, life was still hard in the South. During this time of Reconstruction, the vast majority of Blacks lived in the South, where they faced increasing social, political, economic oppression, and racial discrimination.
In response to these conditions, the early Blues gave voice to Black aspirations and experiences. Using the eloquence of oral expression, Blues musicians were the informal chroniclers of an African-American history that was never written in American history books. Whether a specific Blues spoke strictly in personal terms or covered larger social issues, the music had an immediate relationship to Black life.
It was early in the 20th century that W.C. Handy, a classically trained musician, published a song called “The Memphis Blues” in 1912 and later “The St. Louis Blues” in 1914 that the various sources became a standardized form that could be identified as “the Blues.” So whenever a singer or musician sang in that three line, 12 bar, I-IV-V chord progression, audiences could say, “That’s the Blues.” Once identified, record labels like Vocalion, Columbia, Okeh, Paramount, and others could market music called “the Blues” to the African-American population.
The African-American playwright August Wilson defines the Blues in these terms. “The Blues are important because they contain the cultural responses of Blacks in America to the situation they find themselves in. You get the ideas and attitudes of the people as part of the oral tradition. The music provides you an emotional reference for the information. You sing because that’s a way of understanding life.”
B.B. King offers a similar definition. “Blues is life. It’s about emotion and passion; it covers all the basic feelings, pain, happiness, fear, courage, desire, and confusion told in simple stories. We Blues singers tell stories about things we like, things we dislike, things we wish, and things we wish would not be.”
Today, Bobby Rush embodies the essence of the Blues, and the Bradenton Blues Festival Weekend is proud to share this Blues Ambassador with its legions of fans.