The multifaceted Jimmy Rushing (1899-1972) was perhaps one of the more underrated singers of the 20th century. He performed equally well with blues, jazz, or popular material. Whitney Balliett, the then jazz critic for The New Yorker, wrote of Rushing that “His supple, rich voice and his elegant accent have the curious effect of making the typical roughhouse blues lyric seem like a song by Noël Coward.” Critic Nat Hentoff felt that Rushing was a seminal influence in the development of post–World War II popular black music.
Ralph Ellison opined that it was “when Jimmy’s voice began to soar with the spirit of the blues that the dancers – and the musicians – achieve that feeling of communion which was the true meaning of the public jazz dance” and to ballads, he brought … “a sincerity and a feeling for dramatizing the lyrics in the musical phrase which charged the banal lines with the mysterious potentiality of meaning which haunts the blues. In contrast with Rushing’s reputation, he seldom comes across as a blues ‘shouter’.” According to Gary Giddins, “Rushing brought operatic fervor to the blues.”
Yet despite all the accolades, to the many people who know of Rushing, he is thought of as the short, squat singer with the large, rather gravelly voice who sang the blues with the Count Basie Orchestra, way back in the 1930s and 40s. Ironically, Rushing once stated that “blues (singing) were really my personal hobby.” Only when Count Basie would hear Rushing play and sing the blues for his own pleasure did he ask him to sing them with the Basie Orchestra.
Rushing’s almost 50-year career can be neatly divided into two periods. The first was his “boy singer” career in both large and small bands led by others, which started in 1925 with a group led by Basie bassist to be, Walter Page, which in 1927 morphed into Page’s Blue Devils, with Bill Basie joining up in 1928.
In 1929, both Rushing and Basie joined Benny Moten’s group. In 1935, following Moten’s death, Basie took over leadership, and the Count Basie Orchestra was born. For the next 15 years Rushing honed his reputation as the preeminent big band blues singer, backed up by the best riffin’ and shoutin’ big band a singer of Rushing’s style could have hoped for. When Rushing left Basie around 1950, he and Basie had spent 22 years together. Basie once said of his relationship with Rushing: “In all the time he was with the band, Jimmy Rushing has been what I might call my right arm, there were times in the early days of the band that I’d have given it all up but for Jimmy’s urging me to stick with it.”
Following his brief retirement, he began his solo career where he spent the next 20 years touring the world guesting with big bands, working jazz festivals and night clubs, and recording prolifically for labels, both large and small. For a singer whose supposed métier and reputation was formed as a blues shouter, his musical stylistic inclinations were broad in scope and his ability to give sophisticated and emotionally satisfying performances across jazz, blues, and popular styles was unquestioned.
Between 1955 and 1971 Rushing made 13 solo studio albums; 3 for Vanguard, 5 for Columbia, 2 for ABC Bluesway, 1 for Modern Jazz Records, 1 for Colpix, and 1 for RCA. He also contributed to 5 other albums, 3 on Columbia; one was entitled Cat Meets Chick, where he shared the vocals with Ada Moore; one other was the Sound of Jazz soundtrack album which was produced at Columbia’s 30th St. studio the day after the classic live television presentation of the jazz episode of the Seven Lively Arts series. He finally got a chance to sing with the Ellington band on the 1959 Columbia album, Jazz Party.
Rushing also guested with his former employer on the 1957 Basie Live at Newport album where he sang three songs, backed by the Basie band.
His other guest appearance was on Modern Jazz Records, on an excellent album entitled Blues and Things which was nominally an Earl Hines Trio date with Rushing guesting on four cuts.
Rushing’s recording career spanned a period of rapid change in music. When Rushing began his solo career, big bands were dying, bebop was upon us and hard bop was stirring. At the time of his first recordings for Vanguard in 1955, it was the birth of rock ‘n roll with Elvis, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis beginning their recording careers. The 60s brought the British invasion and the morphing of rhythm and blues into soul music. The late 60s ushered in the psychedelic era. In the midst of all these changes, few recording artists from earlier eras managed to steer the course and continue on without compromising their own core identities, especially any artists who started their careers in the 1920s as Rushing had. His ability to maintain his integrity through this maelstrom of changing tastes and yet retain recording contracts and produce first-rate records was rather amazing. In the Rushing discography, we don’t find Jimmy Does the Beatles or Rushing Meets Janis Joplin (though that pairing would have been VERY interesting). Even another member of the illustrious 1899 birthday club, Duke Ellington (the “club” also included Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, Alfred Hitchcock, and Earnest Hemingway) did an album of popular tunes of the day, entitled Ellington ‘66, which included the Beatles song, I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
We often use the word “timeless” to describe works of art and literature that retain great value over a period of time and have appeal to the aesthetics of multiple generations. Rushing’s work, though not offering great mass-market appeal (but then again, jazz never did), has endured.
Few artists have ever received a Grammy nomination at the age of 72 in their 46th year as an artist, as Rushing did in 1971. Yet many critics seem to be, if not exactly unfair to Rushing’s work, rather tepid in their reviews. It is somewhat reminiscent of the views that critics had of Monk in the mid to late 60s – when many felt that he was just repeating himself and going through the motions. As if somehow it was necessary to now and again scale a new mountain to prove relevance. So, let’s just throw away that bottle of 1961 Bordeaux because it just sits there in the bottle…never seems to change.
But imagine the critical response aimed at Monk if he had made a dramatic change in his music; one as dramatic as the one Miles Davis laid on the critics with Bitches Brew. The point being that Monk and Rushing were caught in an aesthetic “straight jacket.” Sacrificing your core identity chasing trends is bad but to use Lester Young’s term, being a “repeater pencil” is no better.
In his book, How to Listen to Jazz, Ted Goia takes the jazz critiquing profession to task and asks the question: “Who are these expert listeners, empowered to translate strange and wonderful sounds into a verbal description, assign a score or grade… and then move on to the next song?” This question could very clearly be directed at the critics’ appraisal of Rushing’s extremely eclectic body of work from when he left Basie in 1950 until his death in 1972. If a critic’s cup of tea is Rushing the blues shouter, then a review of Rushing’s final album, the Grammy-nominated vocal performance on, The You and Me that Used to Be, with only one blues offering, may have 1 star deducted simply for Rushing’s audacity. If you were assigned to review Rushing’s Columbia album with Dave Brubeck you might deduct 1 star simply because you suspect that the “ying and yang” of Brubeck and Rushing could never produce good jazz.
The message here is that Rushing’s work from 1950 to 1971 when he crisscrossed the world as a jazz nomad has rarely been given its due, in part because Rushing dared to break out of the mold of the blues-shouting, big band boy singer and instead, simply sang the older songs that moved him.
Gene Ammons’ 1956 album, the oxymoronic entitled, The Happy Blues, could easily be the title of any anthology of Rushing’s post-1950 blues efforts. In Rushing’s hands, the term blues was certainly more of a statement of a musical genre than an actual description of his performances within that genre.
Rushing rarely seemed to occupy the blues he sang about; that the subject matter was not really happening to him. Instead, he was really describing some other poor soul who he was reassuring: “don’t worry pal, everything will work out just fine.” Make no mistake, Rushing was never detached from his blues material, he just never let it drag HIM down. After all, this attitude of optimism against all odds, is really the essence of the blues.
As outstanding a blues singer as Rushing was, the structure and inherent harmonic limitations of the blues format itself probably served as somewhat of a musical straight jacket for him. The freedom of expression that Rushing found in the 32 bar AABA popular song format can easily be discerned through listening to any of his albums where both blues and a popular song structure are programmed back-to-back. A good example of that can be found on Basie at Newport. On side 2 of the original album issue, we hear the blues pastiche, Original Blues, followed by the exuberant Evening.
First and foremost, Rushing was a storyteller. Sometimes the story would be told in a 12-bar blues and other times in a 32 bar AABA popular song structure. Oftentimes his voice would impart a blues feel to the popular format and conversely, his demeanor and phrasing might obscure the feel of a 12-bar blues and make you not realize you were listening to one. In a musical world where many of the best vocal as well as instrumental jazz artists were much more comfortable in one format or the other, Rushing’s stumpy legs straddled both worlds.
Rushing’s recorded output during his solo career began with two albums in 1955-1956 for Vanguard. The backing band was essentially a gathering of Basie alumni, spanning the entire tenure of Rushing’s time with Basie. The musicians included Walter Page, Jo Jones, Buddy Tate, Emmit Berry, Vic Dickenson, and Freddie Green, with John Hammond producing. This configuration provided Rushing with a comfortable and familiar environment as he began his solo recording career. The songs included old chestnuts such as Evenin’, Sent for You Yesterday, Every Day and Goin’ to Chicago. The programming was slanted towards the blues. This not only provided a safe start for Rushing but also protected Vanguard’s financial interests by tapping into Rushing’s established fan base of potential record buyers.
Overall, these were very good performances by all involved, even classic, with a freshness to the performances. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that in all the years Rushing recorded with Basie, the technology was rather primitive. Up until 1949 when the technology to record onto magnetic tape was perfected, all recordings were direct to acetates. The recording quality of this early technology was highly variable, at its worst with limited dynamic range and noisy media. Therefore, the nuances of Rushing’s complex voice such as timbre, tonality, and gradients of volume changes, which were so essential to Rushing’s art, were oftentimes not clearly presented in recordings from the 1930s and 40s. By 1955 Vanguard had a reputation for high-quality audio recordings, so Rushing’s powerful voice sounded like a real voice projected into a 3-dimensional space.
By 1956 Rushing had established himself as a solo artist and the powerhouse record company Columbia signed him to a contract. He stayed with Columbia until 1961, producing six albums.
1956- Cat Meets Chick – A story in Jazz (with Ada Moore)
1957- The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing Esq.
1958- Jimmy Rushing and the Big Brass
1959- Rushing Lullabies
1960- The Dave Brubeck Quartet Featuring Jimmy Rushing
1961- Jimmy Rushing and the Smith Girls – Bessie, Clara, Mamie, Trixie
During his post Basie recording career, Columbia was the only label that provided Rushing the opportunity to show his musicals chops across a wide variety of musical styles. There was still Jimmy the blues shouter but we also hear the playful Jimmy (Tricks Ain’t Walkin’ from the “Smith Girls” Album), Jimmy the big band singer, Jimmy the popular song interpreter, and Jimmy the jazz singer.
Many of the Columbia albums also provided a thematic basis, as opposed to a collection of unrelated songs. With the exception of the Smith Girls album which is evenly split between blues and non-blues offerings, the other albums are programmed with rarely more than one blues per side, with some sides devoid of blues.
Many of the Columbia albums feature Rushing singing material he might have sung with Basie but had never previously recorded. The Jazz Odyssey album contains only one previously recorded song. The Big Brass and The Jazz Odyssey albums also feature a Basie alumni band under the direction of Buck Clayton.
The Brubeck-Rushing album may be more noteworthy for the unlikely pairing of Paul Desmond with Rushing, than for the pairing of Rushing with Brubeck. But regardless, the pairing of Brubeck’s group and Rushing’s vocals seem to have defied the musical odds and come together to produce an enjoyable album, with Brubeck providing sympathetic backing for Rushing.
Of the 6 Columbia albums, The Big Brass album seems to combine the individual strengths of the other albums in the series: diverse repertoire – two blues and ten popular songs; a well-programed mix of ballads, mid and upbeat tempos, arranged by Jimmy Mundy, Buck Clayton, and Nat Pierce; sympathetic backing (again, mostly Basie alumni) and strong performances from Rushing.
These Columbia albums are very significant to Rushing’s post Basie discography in that they collectively serve to redefine him in a manner that was impossible during his time with Basie due to the commercial expectations that both the live audiences and record-buying public had toward seeing and hearing Rushing, the blues shouter.
As mentioned, the three Vanguard albums which preceded the Columbia albums, were very good but were more an extension of the Basie years and therefore broke little new ground and the two albums which Rushing made for ABC/Bluesway in 1965-66, following the Columbia albums, were likewise of high quality, but stylistically were updates of the Vanguard albums. Only the Columbia albums showcased Rushing as he had always seen himself, as a ballad singer and a singer of standards.
As the 1960s turned into the 1970s and Rushing entered his 8th decade, it turns out that he had one more album left in him. The album was made for RCA and was entitled The You and Me that Used to Be and won for the 72-year-old Rushing, the Downbeat Record of the Year Award as well as a Grammy nomination for best jazz performance by a soloist. It is considered by many to be his best album and was completed less than a year before his passing on June 8, 1972.
The record came about while Rushing was working weekend gigs at the Half Note in Greenwich Village with a backing band of the Al Cohn-Zoot Sims group featuring Dave Frishberg on piano. RCA producer Don Schlitten proposed the album and Schlitten, Frishberg and Rushing worked out the playlist. Mel Lewis, Milt Hinton and Ray Nance and Budd Johnson came on board. The concept was to emulate the format that Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson put together for the classic 1930’s/40’s Columbia recordings. The album was comprised of ballads and standards and one blues – Fine and Mellow, probably Rushing’s salute to Holiday, his former bandmate in 1937 with Basie.
If you listen very closely to the album you will hear Rushing, at times, emulating the perfect diction of many of the period singers of the 20s and early 30s, who originally sang these songs. On 1923’s Linger Awhile you will hear him purposely over-enunciate and “roll” his R’s on the word “Linger.” He does the same thing on the final three words of 1931’s I Surrender Dear – “I surrrrender dear,” lending a note of authenticity (and humor) to the session. Truly a master vocalist at work.
The album and Rushing’s recording career ends on a poignant note with Sammy Cahn’s Thanks a Million, which is about one lover thanking the other for their enduring love and support and could easily be construed as Rushing thanking his fellow musicians and fan base for making his dreams as a musician come true, during his amazing almost 50-year career.
“You made a million dreams come true and so I’m saying – Thanks a million to you.”
© Steve H. Siegel copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission
(This article first appeared on the blog “Jazz Profiles” on October 26, 2020)