One of Richard Shurman’s fondest memories of blues legend Otis Rush is from the 2003 Chicago Blues Festival when Rush closed out the festival’s second day amid a downpour, with a performance of his song “Rainy Night in Georgia.”
“It was raining the proverbial cats and dogs, and everybody was gone except for hardcore fans of Otis,” said Shurman, who has been on the Chicago Blues Festival advisory committee for 30 years.
“He came out for the last song of his set and out of nowhere performs ‘Rainy Night in Georgia.’ The song ended with him chanting ‘It’s raining all over the world’ with the audience in this pouring rain. It was an incredibly poetic moment.”
Thirteen years later, the 33rd annual Chicago Blues Festival, running June 10-12 in Grant Park) will tribute Rush with a performance that honors the Chicago legend’s impact on and contributions to the blues genre. The free blues music festival will open with a celebration of Chicago’s Alligator Records’ 45th anniversary, feature live music from local and out-of-town blues musicians and then close with the tribute to Rush.
“Otis Rush remains my main inspiration and my standard for what great blues is supposed to sound like,” Shurman said. “He taught me a lot about music and life, so I’m happy to be able to help say thanks and honor him, but I could never repay him for all that he’s done for me.”
Rush moved from Mississippi to Chicago as a teenager in 1948. Performing in blues clubs on the city’s South and West Sides, Rush pioneered what is now known as the “West Side Sound” of Chicago blues, a more modern and R&B-influenced approach to Chicago blues. He suffered a stroke in 2004, which has since prevented him from performing, but his impact on generations of blues music has been large. Each of the artists contributing to the festival’s closing tribute to Rush have either played with the blues legend during their career or been heavily influenced by his music.
The Sun-Times was invited last month to an exclusive rehearsal jam session for the tribute concert at Delmark Records on North Rockwell Street.
Lurrie Bell, who is playing guitar in the tribute, said he has known Rush for almost 30 years, so he is honored to pay tribute to his dear friend at the festival. He said Rush has strongly influenced his music since his father, blues musician Carey Bell, introduced him to Rush.
“Otis Rush is a good friend of mine. He means a hell of a lot to blues fans, especially blues guitar players because they don’t come around like Otis. He is a legendary, real true traditional blues artist,” Bell said.
Bell, who will also close the festival’s Pepsi Front Porch stage at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, said he has attended almost every festival since its inception in 1984.
“The Chicago Blues Festival doesn’t come around until once a year, and when it comes around that one time in the year, my heart just goes out to it,” Bell said. “I’ve always got to get down there. I have a lot of memories at the festival being around Johnny Winter, Willie Dixon and my dad, and those memories will never leave my mind.”
Blues vocalist Mike Ledbetter first performed at the festival in 2011, performing with the Nick Moss Band. It was his first professional gig as a blues musician. The 31-year-old Ledbetter has never met Rush but admitted he is heavily influenced by his music.
“To be involved with this project is one of the biggest honors and most beautiful things that’s happened in my life,” Ledbetter said. “Otis Rush is my biggest influence when it comes to blues music. Vocally, instrumentally, everything — he’s been my No. 1 influence.” Ledbetter is also set to perform June 10 with the Kilborn Alley Blues Band at 2 p.m. on the Windy City Blues Society Street Stage.
Shurman said the three-day festival will feature performances across five primary stages throughout Grant Park and has consistently attracted more than 500,000 blues fans — a testament to the staying power of the blues genre while its general popularity has declined. Although some may claim that blues music is a dying art, Shurman says the genre’s strong history and influence on modern music is what preserves it.
“Blues music has got a lot of perseverance, drive and tradition to it, so I’m sure there’s always going to be a place for blues,” Shurman said. “I’m sure it will always continue to be an honored tradition in some ways, but it’s going to also continue to change to reflect everything that’s happening around it.”
The Chicago Blues Festival will be held June 10–12 at Grant Park. Admission is free and the full lineup can be viewed online at ChicagoBluesFestival.us.