JJ 01/64: In My Opinion – Jimmy Rushing

Sixty years ago the eminent Basie band singer reflected on Jimmy Yancey, Earl Hines, Hot Lips Page, Chris Barber and more. First published in Jazz Journal January 1964

Jimmy Rushing in New York, c. 1946. Photo by William P. Gottlieb

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop.

Jimmy Rushing is one of the most popular blues singers in the world today, particularly in this country where he has toured more than once. He started his musical career with Walter Page’s Blue Devils in 1927, joined Count Basie’s band in 1935 and went to New York City with Basie’s big band in 1936. Here he became one of the band’s mainstays with his wonderful style of blues singing. He was with the Count when he made his most recent tour of England.

His voice is perfectly mated with the blues and his style is sensitive and always communicating with warmth and meaning. In recent years he has even been called by experts the greatest male jazz singer alive today. – Sinclair Traill

Death Letter Blues. Jimmy Yancey. Victor X LX 3000
Well, that was one of the original blues men, Jimmy Yancey. I don’t know whether too many people remember him these days, but to anyone who really knows the blues, Jimmy’s name must be very familiar. That number there, Death Letter, I first heard back in the twenties.

I met him years ago in Chicago; he was a shy little chap who didn’t really seek fame. As far as I am concerned he was one of the very best exponents of the blues, and as a boogie pianist was unbeatable. His name will live with some, even for the fact that I still hear people playing that tune of his, Yancey Stomp. It’s still played quite a bit around the clubs.

‘Too many blues players today try to add to the blues. I think that’s wrong – it isn’t necessary. You can’t add to the blues, because if you try and augment the blues, then they become something else’

He had a very simple style, but very rich tonally. It is really what blues players today should listen to and take heed – and I mean both singing and playing. Too many blues players today try to add to the blues. I think that’s wrong – it isn’t necessary. You can’t add to the blues, because if you try and augment the blues, then they become something else. I have sung with people who try and add to the blues and it all comes to nothing, when they try and add to those basic chords. In the old days we used to call out, ‘Give us some of that old church harmony’, but we meant the blues, for spirituals and the blues with us always ran neck and neck.

As I said, I have sung with combos recently which included some young musicians, and we would be playing the blues, then suddenly I wonder to myself if I’m off key or something, ’cause somebody has tried to be clever and add something which shouldn’t be there. The old-time blues, cannot be added to, or they ain’t the blues any longer.

Piano Man. Earl Hines. HMV DLP 1132
That was one of Earl’s finest records, and one of my favourites of all time. The sound of that band carried me back to the time when Chicago was Chicago – and to me it was the greatest city for jazz in the whole of the United States. So many good musicians came from there, and it was the place which set the pace as far as jazz is concerned for a long time. At the time Earl had this wonderful band, there were also great bands led by such as Erskine Tate, Tiny Parham and others.

The night clubs, and there were a heap of great ones, they were all jumping – full of great musicians and blues singers. I remember such as Bertha Chippie Hill and a wonderful singer who has never had enough recognition, named Caroline Williams. She was great at the blues; and in fact she was a wonderful entertainer, period. This was back in 1923, before my time. I used to idolise those singers. There was another one called Jessie Derrick, who was another great blues singer. Some years later she emigrated to California. Last time I heard of her she was working in San Francisco at the Quality Four Club on 12th and Palm. Don’t think either of them recorded, which was a pity, for believe me they were the tops in blues singing. Earl, of course, made his name in Chicago, and in a way made a name for Chicago.

One of the tunes on this album, After All I’ve Been To You, I planned on recording and have recently written to the publishers about it. I remember it was a feature for Walter Fuller, who both played both trumpet and sang the number – it was a big thing for him when he was with Earl.

‘I don’t care what people say, but if you play piano long enough, however modern you try to be, you are still going to play something that originated with Earl, or Fats or James P. Same thing about Louis’

You know, I recently heard someone say in New York that Earl couldn’t play anymore. I would rather he’s said he didn’t like him, than he couldn’t play – that made me very angry and I told him to get lost. Hines was and still is a pace setter. I heard Basie talking about him only the other night – he was saying how it was that Earl was playing progressive chords and his time. It pains me when I hear musicians today saying that people like Earl, Fats Waller and James P. are obsolete. Terrible. I don’t care what people say, but if you play piano long enough, however modern you try to be, you are still going to play something that originated with Earl, or Fats or James P. Same thing about Louis. I don’t care who the trumpet player is, but sometime in his phrasing he is going to play something that Louis invented.

Done Got Wise. Big Bill Broonzy – Spirituals to Swing Vol. 2. Fontana TFL SI 88
That was one of the greatest country blues men. I think Big Bill must have written more blues than anyone else. He was a wonderful blues writer, as well as an expert guitarist and blues singer. His songs and the way he performed them took you back to the old times, when they used to sing on street corners. I remember when I was a kid, fellers used to gather together with a guitar, a jaws-harp and just sing the blues. That was in Kansas City and Oklahoma City. These street blues singers were all over the country, but they were strong around Kansas – and no one seems to realise that. Those singers and bands used to jam all night in Kansas City.

Walkin’ In A Daze. Hot Lips Page – Swing Street Vol. 4. Columbia 33SX 1521
That was my old friend Hot Lips. We found him in Texas, he was playing with a band called Sugar Lou and His Sugarfoot Stompers – I think that was late 1927 or early ’28. I was with Walter Page Blue Devils in those days and we got down to Texas and heard about this terrific young trumpeter that Sugar Lou had with him. We went to hear him and got him to leave Texas and to come to Oklahoma to join our band.

In those days he was great with those plungers and other mutes and he played more trumpet than we had ever heard – his intonation was wonderful, and for blues playing and singing, well, that was born in Lips. As far as blues playing is concerned, I put him on a par with Louis, for Hot Lips Page was one of the very best.

He was in the band when I made my very first record in 1928. I remember one night we were playing a big dance in Oklahoma and playing opposite us was Bennie Moten. I think it must have been the first time Bennie heard Lips, but when we got through playing Bennie came over and offered to hire the whole lot of us! But it was not until almost a year later that I joined Bennie.

But that was a lovely record you played me and there is someone on it who I think is one of the most under-rated musicians. I am speaking of the tenor player George Nicholas. I know him well and can never understand why he isn’t more famous. He is still around New York – does some good gigs, and records now and again. Didn’t he play well on that record? But he always plays well, period.

You’re Drivin’ Me Crazy. McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. RCA Victor RD 7561
That was the band who were subsidiary to Jean Goldkette, and who made their home in Detroit, Mich. The first time I heard them was when they played a date in Kansas City, and believe me they really upset that city, I’m telling you! Those fine arrangements by Don Redman and John Nesbit, we had never heard anything like that before.

You know, McKinney he had a band much earlier than this, in the early twenties, called the Synco Novelty Jazz Band. I went to school up in Ohio and McKinney he was born up there, where he had this Synco Novelty band. I was very surprised when I first heard the Cotton Pickers, for I didn’t know ’til then that this was the same McKinney I knew in Ohio. Claude Hopkins, he also came from the same place – he was at the university at the same time I was there.

That was a great singer there in that band, George Thomas. When he got killed in an automobile accident I was asked to join the band in his place, but I had just joined Bennie Moten. I had just come out of the East and I wanted to accumulate something before I went back there again, so I refused the job. George Thomas, incidentally, was the first person I heard sing I Want A Little Girl – he was the man who introduced me to that song and made me want to sing it. You know this band was reformed after Mac left, and I heard they are going to try and get them going again now. McKinney he still lives in Detroit, though I think he’s out of the music business.

I Want A Little Girl. Louis Armstrong. RCA Victor RCX 105
Well, that was one on me! I never knew Louis recorded I Want A Little Girl. That’s one record I must really buy me. What a jazz singer. You know, at one time I used to sing really like Pops – so like him in fact that people used to ask me why I sang that way. My only answer was because I liked to sing that way. But I finally got away from Pop’s way of singing and formed my own style. Yet you know even now if I ever get stuck when I’m singing I drop right back on Pop style – it’s the basic way of jazz singing and you can’t get away from it. He’s the boss and it’s inescapable.

Did you catch Billy Kyle in there? What a great jazz pianist he is – and a lot of people, and the critics too, they don’t know that. Pops may have bad drummers, and he hasn’t had a real good one for a long time, but it doesn’t matter too much if Billy Kyle is along there. I suppose I shall have to kind of retire from that number now. I always thought I was number two, after George Thomas, but now I must resign in honour of Pops.

‘That man Thelonious has to be one of the very best of the blues pianists living today. He can really play the blues, that man’

Mood Indigo. Thelonious Monk. London LTZ-U 15019
That man Thelonious has to be one of the very best of the blues pianists living today. He can really play the blues, that man. To be honest I never gave much thought to Thelonious as a musician until 10th May this year, when I had the pleasure of doing a series of concerts with him in Japan. He was well known over there and drew tremendous crowds wherever he played. His combo was fine – worked hard, and they all knew the blues. Saw him last at the Five Spot in New York, where he was drawing in the crowds. I used to listen to what he played when we were in Japan and I got to liking his playing very much – it is all so blues based I had to like it. In fact he surprised me very much. I just put him as a modern pianist, and I don’t go for some of them, but I was wrong, he is a fine musician.

On that Japanese tour I had George Wein with me on the piano and there is another man who people don’t realise is as good as he is. He played like Count Basie and that suited me all right. He’s a man who really loves playing and he has worked hard at the piano recently. We used to knock one another out on that tour.

When The Saints Go Marching In. Chris Barber. Columbia DB 4817
Well, I can tell you that you can take that record off! It’s not the band I object to, but I don’t like to hear that tune played like that – it is not a jazz tune. When The Saints is a hymn, and a very beautiful one, and that is the way it should be played, or sung. They have never played a jazz version of Eli-Eli, have they? So why the Saints?