Thursday, October 18, 2012

Otis Rush's "The Cobra"

For my two cents, the eight singles that Otis Rush cut for Eli Toscano's Cobra label between 1956 and 1958 are among the most essential of Chicago blues recordings -- right up there with Muddy and Wolf's classic sides, Little Walter's Hate To See You Go, and Junior Well's Hoodoo Man Blues. I've owned these sides twice before: on UK Flyright vinyl ca. '80 (on the basis of an ecstatic Village Voice rave by St. Lester) and Paula CD a decade later. Now there's a vinyl-resurgence 180 gram reish on Italian Doxy. Hooray!

Along with Magic Sam and Buddy Guy, Rush was one of a triumverate of younger Southern-born singer-guitarists that ruled the West Side in the late '50s and early '60s. Their sound was characterized by fluid, B.B. King-influenced single-string lines; powerful, gospel-inflected vocals; and minor-key chord progressions. If Muddy sang like a Mississippi field hand, Wolf like a force of nature, and Walter and Junior like street corner wise guys, the West Side guitarists sang with the fiery emotionalism of Holiness preachers, the kind that grunt between lines of their sermons.

If it wasn't as doomy and apocalyptic as the Delta variant it briefly superseded, their music had the sound of a Saturday night rent party, albeit one with an undercurrent of urgency that could explode into violence at any moment. All three men made good records -- Sam for Cobra, then Delmark; Guy, a little later, for Chess and Vanguard -- and had songwriting input from Willie Dixon, but Rush's were just a cut above the others.

The primitive but tightly focused studio sound on his Cobra recordings thrusts every note from his guitar into brilliant relief. You can almost hear the tremolo springs on his Strat creaking as he squeezes the strings. Besides employing the standard array of bends, hammers and pull-offs, Rush raked and muted his strings and arpeggiated chords.

More to the point, Dixon seemed to save some of his most novel songwriting flourishes for Rush's sessions. One wonders, for example, whether the juxtaposition of the title/subject matter and corny '30s Tin Pan Alley chord progression of "Violent Love" was intentionally incongruous. And on "I Want You To Love Me," a gospel chord progression is implied, but never played.

"My Love Will Never Die" could serve as a template for the West Side style, with Rush's guitar echoing his falsetto cry of "Please!" "Double Trouble" boasts Ike Turner on second guitar, and the immortal line, "Some of this generation is millionair-es." "All Your Love" and "I Can't Quit You" are familiar to rockers from cover versions by Eric Clapton (on John Mayall's Bluesbreakers LP) and Jimmy Page (on Led Zeppelin I), but these versions slay their Brit imitators'.

In these sad days and times, when the sound of urban blues has been reduced in the public mind to the soundtrack for beer commercials (and not cool ones like the ones Albert King did for Miller back in the Fillmore era, either), these records still cut like a razor. You can't find a sound more real.


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